Cotterell Collection: Life on the Lupa Goldfield, 1920s-1940s

This film is held by the British Empire & Commonwealth Museum (ID: 2003/109/001).


Made in 1941, the film is a mixture of amateur actors recreating the early history of the goldfields (1920s) and documentary footage of the geography and wildlife of the area, with extensive sequences of a range of levels of gold mining from panning (wet and dry) to mechanical means. A 'script' held by the BECM gives clues to the plot and identifies the actors – in order of appearance, these are: George Layton, Mary Dicey, Bill Cummins, Sandy Kerr, Charley Wood, Mrs Menzies, Jock McFie, Jock Fisher, Jock Henderson, 'Patterson', Jock Sutherland, George Cresswell, Mr. Goodrich, Bill Martinaglia, Sir Mark Aitchinson Young (Governor-General of Tanganyika 1938-41), Mrs. Parks.

Production / Donor Details: The donor, Mr Cotterell, worked on theLupa Goldfield in the early 1950s as an official of the Tanganyika Mines Dept. The donated film was produced in the 1940s by 'a group of amateurs who wished to preserve a record of this little known gold rush'.



Unlike other British colonial possessions in Africa, notably South Africa and Northern Rhodesia, the mineral wealth of Tanganyika was relatively modest. Under the Germans, who had been in possession of the country until 1919, a small amount of alluvial gold mining had taken place at Sekenke and Musoma; during the war a gold currency had been minted, but no major effort at extraction had been attempted. In the immediate post-war period, with Tanganyika having passed to Britain as a mandated territory, a little gold was mined at Musoma, but no prospecting was permitted to take place. However, an Ordinance passed in 1921 allowed mineral prospecting throughout the territory, and a subsequent 1923 Order-in-Council (issued after gold had been discovered in Lupa) made all open land publicly owned. This effectively reinstated a German Imperial Decree of 1895 that had bluntly declared ‘all land in German East Africa shall be regarded as unowned’ (Lange, 2008, 9; Gold In East Africa, 1935, 4; Roberts, 1986, 555-6).

Alluvial gold was found in the Lupa district, near Lake Rukwa, in 1922. It seems, from a newspaper clipping shown in ‘Life on the Lupa Goldfield’, to have been discovered by a prospector called William Cummins. The discovery prompted a minor gold rush to the area, and by the late 1920s this and other discoveries meant Tanganyika was beginning to attract the interest of mining companies and investors. A long article on the country by the director of the official Geological Survey, detailing aspects of the history, geography and geology of the country, appeared in The Mining Magazine in 1928 (this was later reprinted as a single volume; Teale 1928). The rush prompted further legislation in 1929 stating that any prospecting by companies was to be done in partnership with Government; Lange suggests this was to curtail the formation of ‘a class of poor whites’, as ‘hundreds of Europeans from neighbouring countries had flocked to the gold rich areas’ (Lange)

Despite the slowdown caused by the depression and by several dry years that hampered the extraction of alluvial gold, many hundreds of whites nevertheless continued to flood into the gold-producing areas during the early 1930s. The pickings were in fact rather slim, but new immigrants were not dissuaded. Roberts quotes a Government mine inspector recalling the early 1930s influx to the Lupa goldfield – ‘They came by bicycle, on foot, riding on donkeys, or anything on four wheels which could be induced to move. I was stationed there and saw them come… In most cases the Lupa meant little, if anything, more than bare subsistence, but it kept the wolf from the door until better times came’ (Roberts).

Accordingly, the 1930s saw the intensification of Tanganyikan gold production. Approximately 10,000 Africans were employed at the Lupa goldmines in 1933, and the numbers increased, peaking in the mid-1930s at around 17,000. Though the last five years of the decade saw gold account for 14% of Tanganyika’s exports, the actual amounts were fairly small, and are put in sharp perspective when set against the quantities being produced in South Africa at the same time – between 1930-39, 3,129 tons of gold were produced on the Rand, while in Tanganyika the decade only yielded just over 16 tons; the figure for the entire 1920s was a mere 1.2 tons (Roberts, 548).

Alluvial gold extraction at Lupa was labour-intensive, and poorly supervised by the Government. The Department of Labour had been dissolved in 1931, and there was not a district officer in the area until 1933; no medical officer was posted until 1935. The gold rush had taken place in ‘a remote, arid and sparsely populated area, and it was not easily susceptible to regulation,’ and by the mid-1930s conditions for African labourers, many of them migrants from neighbouring countries and many of them teenagers, had become very poor: ‘Wages were often unpaid, diet was inadequate, housing and water supplies were unsanitary, and venereal disease was on the increase’ (Roberts, 558). Tanganyika was a mandated territory, and the British had been charged with a duty of care for the native people; as a result, the situation in Lupa eventually attracted the notice of the Permanent Mandates Commission, and the Government was pressed to make improvements. However, despite an increase in the official presence toward the latter half of the decade, Roberts reports that cases of malnutrition and scurvy among African mineworkers were still being reported in 1939 (Roberts).

‘Life on the Lupa Goldfield’ is an extraordinary document. Clearly made with a viewing audience in mind – and presumably one familiar with much of the story, given the obscurity of some episodes – it is essentially a piece of amateur dramatics, though one with a very porous border which allows in footage which functions as documentary evidence (e.g. scenes of actual contemporary gold panning, which are intended to function as representations of historical gold panning, and a visit of the Governor to the area). Most importantly, it seems to be that rare thing, a piece of genuine folk-history, manufactured and devised for the purpose of community-based recollections of local historical events. Sequences are shot in black and white, but most of the film is in colour. A ‘script’ held in the archive indicates that many if not all the characters play themselves, and identifies them by name.  



The film is essentially a reconstruction of the discovery and early years of the Lupa goldfields. The narrative is set up carefully through a ‘narrator’, whom we meet on a dirt road at the very start of the film, and who tells the story of the goldfields to a young woman over a drink in the present-day Lupa Club. All these elements, which frame the story, are shot in black and white; the main story itself is shot in colour. Occasional intertitles identify dates and places, and signal events – for instance, Cummins’ discovery of gold – are illustrated by means of still shots of contemporary newspaper clippings.

The acting is rather hammy in places, and some of the scenes (e.g. the prospectors’ drinking party) veer into slapstick territory; however, the general intent is clearly serious, and wishes to capture not merely the outline of the facts but also record what are presumably true events. Some of these are so minor and obscure that they are surely based in local oral history. Such scenes include a sequence in which chickens eat some gold tailings and are then fed cod liver oil, before a servant sweeps the dust to retrieve the gold from their droppings; or the humorous sequence which shows every prospector taking a bottle of whisky from a passing crate and replacing it with an IOU until it reaches its destination empty. Others seem to record rather more important features of history of the gold field - for instance, the scene in which we see a man apparently designing a centrifugal separator for the recovery of gold from dry alluvial soil, which is succeeded by documentary footage of such a separator in action.

The film is thus a document of considerable importance, as it is a quite sophisticated attempt to record a little known local history in a partly fictionalised cinematic form, which contains references to events on several scales of significance, and also includes important documentary footage from the Lupa goldfields. It also very probably shows several of the most significant early figures of the Tanganyikan gold rush. Also of import is the fact that its cinematographic form recapitulates the relations between European settler and African in Lupa, and indeed elsewhere in Africa. For while the story is played out by Europeans, the numerous Africans who feature in the film are either extras who barely trouble the camera, or of purely documentary interest. The familiar trope of Africa as a backdrop for European history-making is thus replayed here in several registers – structurally, as the film hopes to record that history-making for the posterity of the same settler community it also depicts; visually, through the manner in which Africans are filmed and featured (i.e. as documentary element or extra, as opposed to the Europeans, who are actors, both literally and figuratively); and in more obvious narrative terms. However, ‘Life on the Lupa Goldfield’ is unusual, for the film is in some ways less a piece of historical depiction than a clear, unmediated echo of the history it depicts, one which emanates directly from the original source. It is not a description of life in the goldfields – it is an artefact derived from this life.

Francis Gooding (April 2010) 


Works Cited

Cotterell Collection accession files, BECM.

Gold In East Africa [booklet, no author given] (London: Chisholm, Hanke & Co., 1935)

Lange, Siri Land Tenure and Mining In Tanzania (Bergen: Chr. Michelson Institute, 2008)

Roberts, A. D. ‘The Gold Boom of the 1930s in Eastern Africa’ African Affairs, vol. 85, no. 341 (October, 1986).

Teale, E. O. Tanganyika Territory: Its Geology and Mineral Resources (London: Mining Publications Ltd, 1928)



  • Cotterell Collection: Life on the Lupa Goldfield, 1920s-1940s (Archive)
Series Title:
Cotterell Collection

Technical Data

Running Time:
40 minutes 40 secs
Film Gauge (Format):
VHS 16mm

Production Credits

Production Details
See synopsis