the VOYAGE OF THE ASHANTI : a naval incident

This film is held by the BFI (ID: 12460) and Imperial War Museum (ID: ADM 3).


Story of the maiden voyage of HMS Ashanti, a Tribal Class destroyer, to visit the Gold Coast to "show herself to the tribesmen of the country."

Brief introductory history of the Ashanti kingdom, now an enlightened British protectorate, where no white man may own land, ruled directly through local chiefs under the Asantehene, Prempeh II. During outward voyage, scenes of gunnery practice (4.7 inch and pom-pom), smoke made, and first views on film of the new 1939 Tropical Rig, the new No 10. The shipyards at Takoradi and a party is transported by special train to Kumasi ("a modern town, with electric light and telephone") to be presented with a gold shield and silver ship's bell. Officers and the Assistant District Commissioner visit the Asantehene. Shots of local shops and market. A Durbar is held in honour of the ship, with the band and troops of the Gold Coast Regiment, and some fine shots of the chiefs with huge ceremonial umbrellas and war drums - "a bizarre site, almost magnificent." Sir Arnold Hodson, Governor, in full dress 'blues', makes a speech. Back at Takoradi, the local children and the chiefs are shown over the ship ("nothing was stolen"). Ashanti sails for Gibraltar.


Remarks: straightforward presentation with some good sequences, but a condescending, jocular commentary typical of the period.



HMS Ashanti was launched in November 1937 and commissioned in December 1938. The Times announced in February 1939 that the ship intended to visit the Gold Coast to ‘enable the chiefs and people of the Ashanti to see something of their name-ship in the Royal Navy, the first to be called Ashanti’. The ship visited Sierra Leone from 22-24 February, before staying at Takoradi harbour in the Gold Coast from 27 February to 6 March (The Times, 1 February 1939, 8).

The filmed record of this journey, The Voyage of the Ashanti, was described by Kinematograph Weekly as a ‘thoroughly interesting, topical and patriotic short’. The review noted the ‘true and authentic atmosphere’ and commented on the ship’s visit to the ‘West African port, where she is inspected by the natives’ (KW, 3 August 1939, 17). Today’s Cinema described the film as a ‘good programme filler with [a] patriotic angle for better-class halls’ (Today’s Cinema, 27 July 1939, 8).

The film was distributed by Associated British Picture Corporation (ABPC) and, as Today’s Cinema suggested, was seemingly intended for theatrical release. In July 1939 ABPC sent the film to be exhibited in the British Pavilion at the New York World’s Fair. Nicholas Cull, writing on the fair, stated that American audiences were ‘interested in films on subjects as divergent as the Royal Navy and sheepdogs’. He further noted the large audiences viewing these films, which were shown continuously in seven screenings from eleven in the morning to nine at night ‘with a daily admission of 2000 people’ (Cull, 1997, 346).



As with previous films made with Admiralty co-operation, such as Britain’s Birthright (1924), The Voyage of the Ashanti uses the framework of a goodwill trip to encourage naval recruitment, highlight British supremacy, and demonstrate the continued work of, and support for, the British imperial power. This message takes on particular resonance as the film was released in England in the summer of 1939, barely a month before Britain declared war on Germany.

The film positions the viewer on board the ship – ‘we’re doing about 20 knots’ – and evidently serves partly as a recruiting film, as the voiceover states ‘Join the Navy and see the world in style’, and ‘Few can tell them [stories] better than those who joined the Navy’.

The ship itself though serves to highlight continued British strength, as teachers, children and chiefs visit the ship and, according to the commentary, ‘pass along in dumb amazement’. In stressing British strength, the film emphasises the differences between the British and the Africans. The British are aligned with modern development – ‘in the shops native and modern articles contrast strangely’ – while ethnographic sequences at the Durbar depict local traditions. There are not only cultural differences between the British and the Africans, but, as the earlier ‘dumb amazement’ suggested, a mutual incomprehension here.The Africans view the sailors with ‘great curiosity’ while the appearance of a chief is described as a ‘bizarre sight’.

The differences and cultural assumptions are used to generate comedy. For example, the British commentator adopts an African accent as he asks ‘what are you all looking at man?’ over the image of a local man staring at the camera. However, in offering a traditional representation of a largely ‘undeveloped’ Africa – the local market has an ‘indescribable odour’ – the film also promotes the need for continued British assistance within Africa. The historical influence of the British is prioritised at the film’s opening – ‘in 1833 the British abolished slavery’ – while the film outlines the British policy of indirect rule and the co-operation between the chiefs and the ‘local British authorities’.

The Voyage of the Ashanti highlights differences between the British and Africans, but it ultimately proclaims a message of imperial unity. On two occasions, the commentary claims – again speaking on behalf of the Africans – that the ‘natives’ are ‘enormously proud’ of the ship. When the locals visit the ship, the commentator notes that nothing was put under lock and key and ‘nothing was stolen’, in an attempt to highlight the mutual partnership between these two disparate groups.

This imperial pride and loyalty takes on particular significance in the context of a potential war. The film shows the Gold Coast regimental band performing beneath the British flag, while the commentary later notes that ‘the men of the Gold Coast regiment are among the finest native troops in the world’. Furthermore, when the governor of the Gold Coast, Sir Alan Hudson, sits down to meet the local chiefs, the commentator asserts that ‘Never again will the Ashanti war drums beat against the British’. The film promotes a united imperial force, and certainly the film’s conclusion – in which the previously jocular commentary talks of responding to whatever may happen in the future – recognises the fresh problems and responses facing both the navy and the British Empire. 

Tom Rice (May 2008)


Works Cited

Cull, Nicholas J., ‘Overture to an Alliance: British Propaganda at the New York World's Fair, 1939-1940’, The Journal of British Studies, Vol. 36, no. 3, (July 1997), 325-354.

‘British Naval Short for World’s Fair’, Kinematograph Weekly, 13 July 1939, 13.

‘The Voyage of the “Ashanti”’, Kinematograph Weekly, 3 August 1939, 17.

‘The Voyage of the Ashanti’, Monthly Film Bulletin, 6:61/72 (1939), 177.

‘Ashantis and their Name-Ship’, The Times, 1 February 1939, 8.

‘The Voyage of the Ashanti’, Today’s Cinema, 27 July 1939, 8.



  • the VOYAGE OF THE ASHANTI : a naval incident

Technical Data

Running Time:
11 minutes
Film Gauge (Format):
1094 ft

Production Credits

Production Countries:
commentary spoken
Summer, Geoffrey
commentary written
Gaye, Howard
Dulay, Arthur
Elton, S R
Production company
Admiralty (in cooperation with)
Production company
Associated British Picture Corporation (ABPC)
production supervisor
Hunt, John (Commander, RN [Rtd])