This film is held by the BFI (ID: 17519).


A film depicting the Caribbean islands - West Indies, British Guiana and British Honduras - and highlighting the traditional customs and songs, before showing the modern developments and welfare services available.

The film opens with a map as a local voiceover explains that 'this is my country, the West Indian islands, British Guiana and British Honduras'. Footage from a cricket match at the Kensington Oval, Bridgetown from February 1949 between Barbados and Trinidad is followed by shots of boys playing cricket on the beach, as the calypso singers sing 'cricket in the West Indies, we love it'. After street scenes showing locals playing the drums and depicting local housing, the film cuts to a contrasting shot of 'Tower Isle' and now shows a modern European complex with a European woman posing for a photograph in her swimming costume. Europeans relax by the pool as a calypso band plays, before further local scenes showing 'Calypso Ville' club, street carnival dancing and a racetrack. A British-sounding voiceover then outlines the history of the islands. He explains that 'our memorials still commemorate the British sailors who founded colonies', while there are shots of windmills, colonial houses - '160 years ago the British abolished slavery and brought freedom to all' - and the courthouse in the old capital of Jamaica. Ancient civilisations are next shown - the Mayan Indians of British Honduras, Carib Indians, and Amerindians of British Guiana - with their traditional customs.

The 'large and influential' Hindu community in British Guiana and Trinidad feature next, before some of the local industries are shown. First, the sugar industry, and then the spices, nutmeg and mace from British Guiana. This is followed by scenes from the banana and tobacco industries in Jamaica and then the various methods of mining gold in British Guiana. After shots of Kingston, showing the town and local market, the film outlines the welfare developments provided by the British. This includes improvements to local housing, roads and in education with 'The movable school for rural education'. This is followed by shots from a government health centre in Morvant, Trinidad and Tobago and then scenes depicting the development of schools. A new school in Grenada is used as an example, before scenes from the new University College in Jamaica and teacher training at Erdiston House in Barbados. The film concludes with a succession of shots representing the island - music, dancing, trees and beaches - while the commentator explains that 'we are taking in all that the older cultures can offer us and at the same time keeping in sight our own tradition of song, dance, laughter'.



An article in the Daily Gleaner in January 1949 explained that ‘The Crown Film Unit is sending a camera crew to the West Indies in January. It will operate there for six months during which time it budgets to make eight pictures’. The article further noted that the ‘main film will be a three-reeler, which will picture the present social and economic problems of the West Indies. Seven films will be produced specially for schoolchildren. Subjects are Sugar Island, Banana Island, Spice Island, a West Indian school child, life on a small island, jungle life in British Guiana and a two-reel travelogue’ (Daily Gleaner, 11 January 1949, 4).

A subsequent report in the Daily Gleaner in June 1949 explained the work completed by the unit – which included ‘filming the industries, occupations and way of life of the inhabitants’ of British Guiana, the ‘sugar operations in Barbados’ and footage in Trinidad ‘from carnival time onward’ – and the areas still to visit, which included trips to Jamaica and British Honduras. The article also noted that although the unit had lost some of its equipment in a fire in Trinidad, its films were unaffected, with the filmed footage ‘now being processed in London’ (The Daily Gleaner, 17 June 1949, 8).

While the Crown Film Unit were filming in the West Indies, the Central Office of Information also sent Hugh Newham and Peter Anderson on an ‘extensive tour’ of the islands, which would last from April until July (Daily Gleaner, 15 June 1949, 12). The official government report for Trinidad and Tobago confirmed that ‘during the year the colony was fortunate in being visited by the Crown Film Unit and a photographer and feature writer attached to the Central Office of Information’ (‘Annual Report on Trinidad’, 1949, 156). The report for British Guiana added that ‘the Central Office of Information during the year sent two units to British Guiana as part of their Caribbean coverage’, with the Crown Unit said to make ‘documentary films on educational and general topics’, referred to elsewhere as ‘valuable film-making material depicting socio-economic conditions’ (‘Annual Report on British Guiana’, 1949, 7). Later in the year William Sellers, the head of the Colonial Film Unit, would also visit the islands to discuss the establishment of local film units.

Major C. E. Wakeham, the Regional Information Officer in the West Indies, explained that the completed Crown films should ensure that ‘the public of Britain, the Empire, and I hope other countries, will see on the screen life as it is lived in the British Caribbean – the light and the shade, the good and the bad, the problems and the measures being taken to tackle them’. Wakeham also hoped that ‘British school children’ would see how their West Indian counterparts live (The Daily Gleaner, 17 June 1949, 8). Caribbean was exhibited at the Edinburgh festival in 1951, but for the most part was exhibited non-theatrically and distributed throughout England by the Central Film Library. It also played in Nigeria in 1952 as part of research into rural audiences there, with the report analysing audience reactions for five screenings, shown with additional local commentary in Hausa, Ibo or Birom (Morton-Williams, 1952, 145-150).

Another film shown to the Nigerian audiences was El Dorado, a film of British Guiana produced through independent financing by John Alderson and Reg Hughes. Basil Wright compared El Doradowith Caribbeanin a 1952 Sight and Sound article. Wright praised the filmmakers’ work on El Dorado – ‘they had a sense of adventure; they felt, rather than merely observed; and they really wanted to put that extraordinary country on the screen’ – while strongly criticising the ‘inadequate results’ within Caribbean. Dismissing Caribbean as ‘a perfect example of using a clever sound-track to cover (partially) a great deal of unsympathetic shooting’, Wright suggested that its failings reveal broader problems within contemporary British documentary (Sight and Sound, Jan-March 1952, 129). It is worth noting, though, that many years later the film’s editor reported that John Grierson, executive producer for Crown, ‘encouraged us in the editing to avoid the didactic where possible and be more impressionist – to catch the flavour of the islands…’ (Russell, 2007, 244).

Today’s Cinema praised the ‘imaginative use of authentic calypso rhythms, expressive camera-work and sensitive editing’ that it suggested would appeal to ‘better-class audiences’ (Today’s Cinema, 14 March 1951, 13), while Monthly Film Bulletin acknowledged and praised the traditional elements within the film’s form; ‘the film’s approach is orthodox, but the material – excellently photographed – has been well put together’ (MFB, 1952, 83). However, Basil Wright emphasised a need for ‘new and livelier eyes and ideas’. ‘We must look outwards’, he urged, ‘to the vast territories of the colonial empire … surely we can find – in Africa and elsewhere – that sense of mission (I use the word advisedly) which has in the past underlain the best documentaries’. Wright concluded that ‘we need, therefore, more divine discontent amongst the youngsters; enough at any rate to ensure that the sponsorship bastions are stormed and the self-complacency of the technician put where it belongs’ (Sight and Sound, Jan-March 1952, 129).



In his criticisms of Caribbean, Basil Wright outlined what he perceived as a lack of originality within the filmmaking, which prioritised the technical over the poetic, and which ‘observed’ rather than ‘felt’. Certainly, the film is largely traditional in both its form, and its representation of the Caribbean, while it also endorses an established colonial narrative.

From the outset Caribbean represents the West Indies as ‘a sunny land, a happy land’, offering established signifiers of West Indian life to a British audience, including cricket, boys climbing trees, steel drum bands and, in particular, the calypso. Later, there are images of modern West Indian development – credited to British investment and expertise – in the form of modern housing, schools and the University College in Jamaica, at which a racial mix of students are shown learning, but the film concludes again with familiar shots of local music, dancing and beaches. Similarly, a traditional history of the islands is offered, in which the British are liberators – ‘160 years ago the British abolished slavery and brought freedom to all’ – while the film follows a well established colonial rhetoric, particularly in its narrative of British development.

In emphasising this development, the film contrasts local life with the European existence and privileges the British viewer in noting the lack of ‘development’ amongst the older civilisations (for the Amerinidians ‘the amusements are those of a simple people’). The film does promote a mix of cultures living together under British rule – ‘today these British subjects still live in much the same way’ – and highlights the retained identities of these cultures (for example the Hindus visit a temple). Yet, the British offer scientific advances. A European man with glasses brings ‘scientific methods’, while in British Guiana the European machinery worker provides ‘methodical mining’ in contrast to the old methods of the locals. Furthermore, education ensures that the locals ‘add scientific methods to their instinctive knowledge of everyday problems’. The importance of British investment is also shown, but this is presented as a gradual, ongoing process – ‘slowly the standard of living is going up’. The film does promote West Indian self-development, showing for example local teachers and nurses, but again this is shown under British supervision.

Caribbean contains a huge amount of material from across the region, filmed over six months, and attempts to highlight its authenticity as a reflection of local West Indian life, particularly through the soundtrack. Yet, while the film initially appears to use a local West Indian voice – Ernest Eytle, the writer and cricket commentator from British Guiana is credited – a clipped British voice appears to provide all but the first few lines of commentary. The ‘authentic calypso rhythms’ may provide local flavour, but they also define the area in familiar terms as a land of music and dance. Ultimately then in its narrative, ideology and representation of the area, this COI production follows established British governmental attitudes towards the area.

Tom Rice (September 2008)


Works Cited

Colonial Office, ‘Annual Report on Trinidad and Tobago’ (1949).

Colonial Office, ‘Annual Report on the Social and Economic Progress of the People of British Guiana’ (1949).

‘Crown Unit to Film in West Indies’, Daily Gleaner, 11 January 1949, 4.

‘Script writer, Photographer Seek Information for the Colonial Office’, Daily Gleaner, 15 June 1949, 12.

‘Projecting the West Indies: Information on Britain and the World’, Daily Gleaner, 17 June 1949, 8.

‘Caribbean’, Monthly Film Bulletin 19:2, 1952, 83.

Morton-Williams, P., Cinema in Rural Nigeria: A Field Study of the Impact of Fundamental-Education Films on Rural Audiences in Nigeria (Lagos: Federal Information Services, 1952).

Russell, Patrick, 100 British Documentaries (London: BFI, 2007).

‘Caribbean’, Today’s Cinema, 14 March 1951, 13.

Wright, Basil, ‘The Sulky Fire’, Sight and Sound (Jan/March 1952).




Technical Data

Running Time:
25 minutes
Film Gauge (Format):
35mm Film
2248 ft

Production Credits

Production Countries:
Great Britain
Central Office of Information
Colonial Office
EYTLE, Ernest
CHASTON, William
Production Company
Crown Film Unit