This film is held by the BFI (ID: 11048).


The production of sugar cane in the West Indies, contrasting old and new methods.

Over a map of Barbados, a West Indian voiceover outlines a history of the island - 'Barbados is the only island which has always remained British since its settlement in the name of King James' - and explains that 'today the sugar industry is the most important in Barbados'. Contemporary shots of the sea and beach are followed by footage of workers in the cane fields - supervised by a couple of European men on horses. The workers load the cane branches onto bullock carts, as the voiceover explains that they 'have been grinding cane the same way for two centuries'. The carts approach the windmill. Workers operate the windmill by hand, while others transport the cane on their heads into the mill. The cane is processed and crushed, with the internal mechanics shown. A brick dates the mill to 1743 as the commentator states that 'they must have been strongly built to have lasted all these years'. The film then highlights the modern developments - 'we young people feel that machines and new ways of working are a great improvement and we are helping to bring them all over Barbados' - and shows a goods train transporting the cane, which is then collected and moved by a crane. After further shots of the machinery, the film concludes with images of the beach and of sailing boats.



In 1933, the Empire Marketing Board sent Basil Wright – who had been John Grierson’s first recruit to the EMB Film Unit – to the West Indies. Paul Rotha claimed that Wright’s ‘mission was to make the first of a series of films for specialised use under the general title of The Eyes of Science’, which were ‘to be made mainly at the Imperial College of Tropical Agriculture in Trinidad’ and would cover subjects such as ‘Panama disease in bananas [and] Witchbroom disease in Cacao’. Rotha notes that what appeared instead were two short films – Cargo from Jamaica and Windmill in Barbados – that Wright shot, edited and directed ‘on the side’ (Rotha, 1973, 60). Along with these two films was Liner Cruising South, a silent film made for Ocean Liner, and footage shot during his brief visit to British Guiana, which in all probability featured in the 1933 GPO film British Guiana.

Basil Wright wrote about his ‘very rushed tour of the West Indies and British Guiana’ in Cinema Quarterly in the summer of 1933. He wrote in particular of the difficulties of shooting in the middle of the day – ‘the shadows are pitch black and kill all detail’ – and emphasised his reliance on reflectors, particularly ‘when negro types had to be shot’ (Cinema Quarterly, Summer 1933, 227). Wright also offered a brief insight into his trip in his 1974 book The Long View. ‘As late as 1933 I was shooting without access to sound’, he stated, ‘not that this meant we were not interested. Certainly when I went on a film-making tour to the West Indies in 1933 I had in mind various possibilities for soundtracks to be added to what I was shooting and was acutely aware of the Russian manifesto’ (Wright, 1974, 114). Indeed, Windmill in Barbados – unlike the silent Cargo from Jamaica – utilises the recently acquired sound equipment at the GPO studio in Blackheath. In particular, the film offers the first example of Alberto Cavalcanti’s work in England – as ‘sound supervisor’ – with Basil Wright claiming that ‘his ideas about sound were so liberating that they would liberate in you about a thousand other ideas’ (Sight and Sound, Autumn 1975, 207).

However, when Sight and Sound reviewed the film in 1933, it was listed as ‘silent’, with the sound subsequently added. Sight and Sound’s review praised Wright for bringing ‘a sense of poetic imagery to bear upon the inevitable tragedy of the old and new’ and noted the ‘undercurrent of sympathy for the negro worker, the sons of slaves, revealed in a sudden flash from the native labourers to half caste employer, grown rich on cheap labour and aping European customs and clothes’. The review concluded that ‘the picture is an object lesson in lyrical approach and marks down Wright as a camera-poet without equal in this country’ (Sight and Sound, Autumn 1933, 103). Rachael Low further praised Wright, in retrospect, for ‘making a small jewel of a film out of a commission to popularise Empire food products’ and recognised the film, as Paul Rotha also did, as a ‘forerunner of The Song of Ceylon’, which Wright filmed later in 1933 and released during 1934 (Low, 1979, 61).

Windmill in Barbados was released commercially as one of six films assembled within the ‘Weather Forecast’ series, which was distributed in 1934 by Associated Talking Pictures (Swann, 1989, 71). While there is no evidence of these films receiving widespread theatrical exhibition, John Mackenzie noted how Empire Marketing Board films were also often screened continuously at railway stations, as well as by its four mobile cinema vans. In particular the films could be hired from the Empire Film Library – Sir Harry Lindsay, the Director of the Imperial Institute claimed the library reached an audience of five million in 1936 – while Windmill in Barbados was also popular with film societies (The Times, 20 August 1936, 10). For example, it played with Cargo from Jamaica at the Oxford University Film Society in May 1934 (Cinema Quarterly, Summer 1934, 255).

By 1933 the impact of the Great Depression was felt throughout the West Indies. Sugar prices reached an all-time low, by 1934 falling to a fifth of its 1923 price, and wages dropped accordingly. Unemployment increased, while the cost of living soared amongst a rapidly increasing population. After jobless workers protested in Trinidad in 1933, there followed a series of riots and labour disturbances throughout 1934 and 1935. Similar events occurred in Barbados during 1937, and Mary Chamberlain argues that the Barbados riots ‘were the culmination of a century of frustration, and a watershed marking the transition from the struggle for emancipation to one for independence’ (Schwarz, 2003, 176). 



As a film originally produced for the Empire Marketing Board, Windmill in Barbados can be seen, on the one hand, as a promotion of imperial trade and as an endorsement of the work of the British in the Caribbean. It provides a commentary that initially emphasises the island’s loyalty to the Empire – ‘Barbados is the only island which has remained British since its settlement in the name of King James’ – and ostensibly promotes the modern developments implemented by the British: ‘We young people feel that machines and new ways of working are a great improvement and we are helping to bring them all over Barbados’. Finally, the film presents a narrative of British primacy and of British ‘development’ within the Caribbean, most notably in its clear contrast between the traditional local methods – grinding cane the ‘same way for two centuries’, working the windmill and skinning the ‘molasses just as in the olden days’ – and the modern European methods, represented by the factories, the trains transporting the goods and the crane collecting the cane.

However, the film can also be read as a critique of British imperialism. Ralph Bond, the political activist, co-founder of the London Workers’ Film Society and a member of the GPO Film Unit which was the direct successor of the EMB’s, offered such a reading of Basil Wright’s Cargo from Jamaica in the last issue of Close-Up in 1933. Bond suggested that the film highlighted the ‘whole meaning of rationalisation and the unemployment it brings’ (Stollery, 2000, 176). Similarly by presenting a clear contrast, through the editing, between man and machinery, Windmill in Barbados alludes to the impact of machinery on jobs in Barbados. Furthermore, in offering an often-romantic image of traditional life – the windmill ‘must have been strongly built to have lasted all these years’ – the film illustrates the potential loss of a traditional national identity. Other images – for example the shots of locals working the cane fields, supervised by European men on horses – can also be interpreted as a comment on labour practices and the exploitation of cheap labour, as the Sight and Sound review suggested. Wright acknowledged that the dockside scenes in Cargo from Jamaica were filmed to show ‘the toil and sweat involved in this particular work – and indeed, the exploitation’ (Stollery, 2000, 178).

Martin Stollery recognises the multiple possible readings of these films, but implies that these radical readings were less evident in Windmill to Barbados. He suggests that ‘it is significant’ that Windmill in Barbados rather than Cargo from Jamaica was the one film from Wright’s West Indian trip distributed commercially. Stollery speculates that ‘this suggests Grierson was aware that Cargo was potentially amenable to radical interpretation’ as ‘even the faint possibility that an EMB production might be perceived as critical of imperialism was something which Grierson, as head of an official institution, had to handle with extreme care’ (Stollery, 2000, 177).

Finally, Windmill in Barbados is significant for its use of sound. First, the film uses local music and background, conversational sounds, which lend authenticity to the film. Secondly, the film’s use of a West Indian commentator, regardless of the sentiments expressed, would once again appear to encourage the predominantly British audience to identify and empathise with the locals depicted on screen.

Tom Rice (September 2008)


Works Cited

Cinema Quarterly, Summer 1934, 255.

Johnson, Howard, ‘The British Caribbean from Demobilization to Constitutional Decolinization’, in Judith Brown and Wm. Roger Louis eds., The Oxford History of the British Empire Volume IV: The Twentieth Century (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999).

Low, Rachael, The History of British Film, 1929 - 1939: Documentary and Educational Films of the 1930's (New York and London: Bowker, 1979).

Rotha, Paul, Documentary Diary: An Informal History of the British Documentary Film 1928-1939 (New York: Hill and Wang, 1973).

Schwartz, Bill, West Indian Intellectuals in Britain (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2003).

‘Windmill in Barbados’, Sight and Sound, Autumn 1933, 103.

Stollery, Martin, Alternative Empires: European Modernist Cinemas and Cultures of Imperialism (Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 2000).

Sussex, Elizabeth, ‘Cavalcanti in England’, Sight and Sound, Autumn 1975.

Swann, Paul, The British Documentary Film Movement, 1926-1946 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989).

‘Films Of The Empire An Ever-Growing Demand’, The Times, 20 August 1936, 10.

Wright, Basil, ‘Shooting in the Tropics’, Cinema Quarterly, Summer 1933, 227.

Wright, Basil, The Long View (London: Secker and Warburg, 1974).




Technical Data

Running Time:
9 minutes
Film Gauge (Format):
35mm Film

Production Credits

Sound Recording
Production Company
Empire Marketing Board Film Unit





Production Organisations