Williams Collection 1: Uganda 1959

This film is held by the British Empire & Commonwealth Museum (ID: 2006/069/001).


3 x Edited films. 'Local leave': record of holiday journey through East Africa. Map shows journey: from Uganda through Kenya, and back to Uganda via Tanganyika. Train Journey - Kampala - Nairobi - Mombasa. Fort Jesus. Zanzibar: Scenes in town. Coastal scenes. Dar Es Salaam: harbour scenes, coast. Train journey through Tanganyika. Mwanza. Boat back to Kampala. 'Western Province': journey through western province. Safari shots. Butterflies killed on car radiator grill. 'Here and There': Mr. Williams preparing map for camera, as seen in 'Local Leave'. Various scenes. Upcountry (Murcheson Falls). Local women with water containers on their heads. Golf. Royal visit (Queen mother?) African women dressing their hair. Spectacular flowers, chameleon, birthday cake, home improvements.

Production / Donor Details: Ellis and Greta Williams worked for the Government in Uganda from 1949 to independence; Mr. Williams worked at the Treasury, Mrs. Williams as an official stenographer.



1959 is often regarded as a decisive year in the British decolonisation of its tropical African colonies, the watershed moment at which the Empire began to crumble with great speed. Ghana was already two years old as an independent nation, the Sudan had been abandoned in 1956, and across what remained of British Africa, the Empire was entering the stages that immediately prefaced its dissolution. In the West, Nigeria was on the very threshold of independence, while in the Central African territories, nationalist independence movements were gaining in confidence and increasingly coming into open conflict with the colonial authorities, resulting in the imprisonment of both Dr Hastings Banda (Nyasaland) and Kenneth Kaunda (Northern Rhodesia) during the first six months of the year.

East Africa too was in a febrile condition. In Kenya, Jomo Kenyatta was still detained, the Mau Mau Emergency was still not officially over despite the effective suppression of the forest fighters, and atrocities in the Hola camp were brought to light, leading to the eventual closing of the network of detention camps that had operated during the Emergency. In Tanganyika, the Governor, Sir Richard Turnbull, had started to argue for a drastic acceleration of the country’s planned move toward self-determination, after TANU successes in the February elections had pushed him to concede to an African majority in the Council of Ministers. (Turnbull played this hand cleverly, encouraging Government confidence in Julius Nyerere whilst simultaneously predicting a ‘chillingly apocalyptic’ scenario of uprisings if greater concessions were not granted quickly; it should however be noted that this was a late conversion, and even in December 1958 Turnbull still appeared to be committed to continued British presence until at least 1964; Hyam, 2006, 276; Pratt, 1976, 49-50.) In Uganda, the colonial authorities faced a different problem, as the Kingdom of Buganda continued to agitate for an independent status separate from the rest of the Protectorate by repeatedly attempting to stymie reforms and public votes that were intended to lay the groundwork for a unified Ugandan state (Ibingira, 1982, 290-1 and passim). 

The critical turning point is often identified as the appointment, in October 1959, of Iain Macleod as Secretary of State to the Colonies. It was Macleod who saw that the situation required bold action and immediately increased the official tempo of change in Africa. Goldsworthy has noted that even before Macleod’s appointment, Conservative policy on Empire had changed beyond recognition since the beginning of the decade (1971, 315-6 and passim); Hyam has argued that Macmillan’s confidence in his view that decolonisation was necessary and inevitable received a fillip from his successful re-election in 1959, noting that after this date the Empire ‘unravelled instantly and without remission’ (Hyam op.cit., 244). Macleod was the prime metropolitan agent and facilitator of this unravelling.

Pressure of events had led not only to a far greater acceptance of the necessity of dissolving the Empire, but to a drastic re-evaluation of the old ‘gradualist’ view that sought to thoroughly prepare the political and social ground before independence – the so-called ‘Gold Coast’ model, whereby independence would be achieved ‘in accordance with a schedule painstakingly devised and argued about over a period of several years’ (Goldsworthy, op.cit., 361). Driven in part by fear of having another Mau Mau to contend with, Macleod’s guiding view was that the risks of moving slowly on independence for African countries were far greater than those of moving quickly. In a much quoted 1964 Spectator editorial, he would describe his policy (and Imperial limitations) with candour:

It has been said that after I became Colonial Secretary there was a deliberate speeding up of the movement towards independence. I agree. There was. And in my view any other policy would have lead to terrible bloodshed in Africa…

Were the countries fully ready for independence? Of course not… (quoted in Goldsworthy, ibid., 363)

Indeed, it was this latter criterion that was crucially jettisoned, and Macleod oversaw the requirements for independence reduced to a bare, pragmatic minimum: ‘All that mattered was that an indigenous political élite, with some degree of local support, should exist and be willing to take over’ (ibid., 361).

It was this reduced requirement that would guide future decolonisation in Africa. A year before his landmark speech in South Africa, Macmillan’s famous ‘wind of change’ was already blowing with some force, and the Colonial Office under Macleod had well understood not only the economic and geopolitical imperatives to begin the wind-down of the African Empire, but more importantly that imperial power in British Africa was at grave risk of shattering if it did not quickly bend. 



The 16-reel Williams collection covers the period 1956-1962. Many reels cover the Williams’ life in East Africa, but there are also films showing visits to South Africa, Basutoland, Brunei and Hong Kong, and several reels shot in Europe. Greta and Ellis Williams had been based in Uganda since 1949; Mr Williams worked for the Treasury, and Mrs Williams was an appointed Government stenographer: she worked first in the Secretariat on the production of Hansard, then later in the office of the Establishment Secretary.

The films are in general carefully shot and several are edited with care in order to preserve the sense of the journeys they record; dated title cards introduce many sequences, allowing locations and events to be identified with some accuracy in many cases. An unpublished memoir by Greta Williams is held in the accession materials at the British Empire and Commonwealth Museum, and this document also contains detail concerning many of the people and places shown in the collection.

The first item on reel 1 of the collection records a 1959 round trip of East Africa made during the couple’s second tour of Uganda, when on a period of local leave. The official pretext, according to Mrs Williams’ memoir, was the need for Mr Williams to inspect ivory stores at Mombasa and Zanzibar; the journey, which is illustrated by means of a hand-drawn map in the film, took them on the Uganda Railway from Kampala to Nairobi and on to Mombasa, then to Zanzibar, before returning to the mainland by air and taking the train from Dar es Salaam to Mwanza.

The film is personal, a private record of an evidently enjoyable journey (Mrs Williams describes it in her memoir as ‘the best safari we had’); both the Williams appear regularly before the camera, and are quite at ease. There is footage of both landscapes and locations, the bustle of travel and the stillness of hotels, the narrow and busy streets of Zanzibar town and the expanses of the East African bush. Perhaps the chief effect of the film is to give a sense of the scale and apparent effectiveness of the European infrastructure that had been constructed in East Africa, and other films in the collection also convey this impression: from heavy goods trains carrying new cars across the savannah (reel 5) to the clean-swept, macadamised roads and modern buildings of Jinja (reel 4), the colonial world glimpsed in these films seems a tidy and functional approximation of European life, transplanted and thriving. The home footage of the Williams’ house in Kampala that is present throughout the Ugandan reels dovetails neatly here: the garden, as in so many colonial home movies, is the main location filmed, and it is immaculately kept. African house staff also feature, and the relationship between them and the Williams seems close and congenial (a fact largely confirmed by Mrs Williams’ written account). It seems a quiet and pleasant life, one lived close enough to new cities, and well serviced by modern transport and friendly home-helps; the films present a powerful image of security and contentment. Mr Williams gardens and does DIY with the children of their household employees playing at his feet and following behind him as he works, and the couple drive alone through miles of bush in their Mercedes to attend weddings in distant outposts and view big game.

This, then, is the end of Empire in East Africa. Filmed during the precipitous gallop toward independence, after the fury and fear of Mau Mau, these films do not picture panic and collapse. Rather than capturing some sort of final convulsion, the films produce an impression of withdrawn quietude, a business-as-usual introversion and absentness which is most clearly signified by the many scenes of glasses being raised in shady hotel bars, the silent conversations across the camera between a married couple, and the long, still shots of beautiful garden flowers in full bloom. Perhaps more than anything else, these seem to be the final images that the colonial rulers of half the globe sought to take back with them as their dominions finally waned: a funeral bouquet for an expiring world, scented and luxurious, made up of flowers that could never be grown at home.

Francis Gooding 


Works Cited

Pratt, Cranford The Critical Phase in Tanzania 1945-1968: Nyerere and the emergence of a socialist strategy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1976)

Ibingira, Grace S. ‘The Impact of Ethnic Demands on British Decolonization in Africa: the Example of Uganda’ in Gifford and Louis eds. 1982: 283-304

Gifford, Prosser and Louis, Wm. Roger The Transfer of Power in Africa: Decolonization 1940-1960 (New Haven: Yale University Press 1982)

Goldsworthy, David Colonial Issues in British Politics 1945-1960 (Oxford: Oxford University Press 1971)

Hyam, Ronald Britain’s Declining Empire: The Road to Decolonisation, 1918-1968 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006)





  • Williams Collection 1: Uganda 1959 (Archive)
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