Secrets of Empire

Advert for Secrets of Nature, in The Bioscope, 10 September 1930. From the British Newspaper Archive.

The Secrets of Nature films were produced at moment in British history – the interwar period – that can be interpreted as both the height, and the beginning of the ‘end’ of the British empire. As Andrew Thompson argues in Imperial Britain: The empire in British politics, c. 1880-1932,

the inter-war years witnessed a deeper cultural penetration of imperial ideals. Post-war propaganda for the British Empire was bolstered by new institutions (like the Empire Marketing Board) and new media (radio, film) and it is in the 1920s that the apogee of mass phenomena of empire shopping weeks, empire advertising, empire exhibitions, and Empire Day celebrations is to be found.

Andrew Thompson, Imperial Britain, p. 184.

In this blog post, I want to highlight some of the ways in which the Secrets films both reflected, and helped to create, the imperial moment of the interwar years. It would be impossible to cover all aspects of the Secrets and their relationship to the British empire in one post, so the points I will make here are very much a summary, and I hope to expand on them later. The aim of this post is to show how the Secrets are inextricable from the history of interwar imperialism. The first part examines natural history’s entanglement with empire. The second looks at British Instructional Films, the Secrets producers, and their attitudes towards empire. The third selects a few Secrets films which were overtly imperial in their content, and the fourth discusses how the Secrets were distributed across British colonies and dominions.

1. Natural History, science and empire

“The Giant Arum from Sumatra… Now in Flower At Kew Gardens”. The Sphere, 7 August 1926. From the British Newspaper Archive.

For centuries, natural history, and its associated sciences including botany and zoology, were inextricably linked to imperialist expansion, control and domination. This history has been documented in detail by historians of science and environmental historians, who have shown, for instance, how ‘exploration’ was used as a justification for imperial expansion and co-ordinated resource extraction, or the role played by the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, which was at the centre of a global network of botanic gardens and played no small part in asserting British power around the world. As Richard Drayton explains in his book Nature’s Government:

The research of local plants and their uses was part of reconnaisance and conquest from the sixteenth century. New economies then arose on the basis of the discovery of the raw materials for food, medicines, dyes and perfumes. Others depended on the importation and cultivation of favoured species. New cultures of ornament and order were equally consequences of new learning. Beyond this practical impact, the sciences, with their promise of insight into, and control over, nature, lent potent ideological help.

Richard Drayton, Nature’s Government (2000), p. xv.

This connection between imperialism and natural knowledge, remained strong into the twentieth century. As Helen Tilley observes in Africa as a Living Laboratory:

Africa’s environments were fundamental to the colonial project for one reason: resources could be extracted or utilized to yield revenue for the colonial state, which was essential to the maintenance of the empire.

Helen Tilley, Africa as a Living Laboratory (2011), p. 123.

The Secrets, therefore, built on a long tradition that viewed natural history, and scientific knowledge more broadly, as synonymous with British imperial predominance. This was especially palpable in popular representations of natural history: in natural history museums, children’s story books, and zoos, the British public viewed scientific knowledge through a deeply imperial lens.

2. Producers

Mary Field filming at the London Zoo.

The link between the Secrets series and imperialism becomes even clearer when we look at some of its principal producers. H. Bruce Woolfe, who established the series in 1919, was an ardent imperialist, who moreover saw in the empire an opportunity for his films to reach a global audience and market. Bruce Woolfe began his work with British Instructional Films (BIF) making a series of battle re-enactment films after the First World War, and he was a serial committee member who had close ties to the British establishment, including the Colonial Office. In the 1920s, Bruce Woolfe produced educational films which celebrated links across the empire, including a series entitled Empire. BIF also had links with the Empire Marketing Board, a body which was established in the 1920s to promote intra-imperial trade, and which commisioned BIF to produce the film One Family. You can read more about British Instructional Films’ links to the empire by reading this entry on the Colonial Film website.

Mary Field, who directed the Secrets films, was also enthusiastic about British imperialism. As well as directing multiple films which celebrated the British empire, in 1937 she made a complex proposal for a BBC Television ‘Empire Day’ broadcast. Both Field and Bruce Woolfe saw film as a tool which could be used to ‘educate’ the public about the virtues of empire, and much of their film work might be better described as imperial propaganda. In the 1930s, moreover Field directed a series of geography films for Gaumont-British Instructional named Secrets of India, shot on location in India. Priya Jaikumar, in her recent book, Where Histories Reside: India as Filmed Space, draws the following conclusion from the links between the two series:

There are ominous aspects to creating these reciprocal echoes between the natural and human worlds, because it puts into relief some stark differences. The manner in which BIF’s nature films transition from creature to product highlights a key omission of geographical films, which never name the conditions under which products are extracted from laboring entities.

Priya Jaikumar, Where Histories Reside (2018), p. 55.

Also worth mentioning here is Julian Huxley, the biologist and populariser who expressed his enthusiasm for the Secrets and collaborated closely with Gaumont-British Instructional’s educational films. One of the characteristics of interwar British science was the mainstream acceptance of eugenics, which was based on racist and Social Darwinist ideas that natural history sometimes helped to popularise. As part of the GBI educational films, and with the help of J.V. Durden and H.R. Hewer, Huxley presented the film Heredity in Man (1937), a film sponsored by the Eugenics Society. The team also produced an accompanying film, Heredity in Animals (1937). Eugenicist ideas helped to prop up the ideology of empire, and were used to justify the control and subjugation of colonial populations. They remind us of how films about animal reproduction, or ‘survival of the fittest’, could carry more sinister undertones.

3. Imperialism in Secrets films

But how did empire find its way into nature films? There are three principal ways that are worth highlighting here. Zoo films invariably resulted in discussions of empire, where the stories of individual animals were described as characteristic of the places where they, or their precursors in the zoo, had been captured. Round the Empire at the Zoo (1926), for instance, used the zoo as an opportunity to ‘travel’ to different parts of the British empire. Equally explicit were films that promoted British scientific solutions in different parts of the empire. War in the Trees (1931), for instance, showed how the destruction caused by a parasite that bored holes in Australian timber was be solved by scientists at Oxford’s Imperial Forestry Institute.

In other cases, the connection is more subtle. When we consider the Secrets within the broader machinery of British imperial propaganda, it becomes clear how, in many cases, natural history films came to embody a version of British science that was especially attractive to the imperialist narrative. For instance, the films were displayed at events like the Imperial Conference in 1930, and commentators frequently commented on their potential to portray a positive image of Britain to the rest of the world, with the documentary filmmaker John Grierson remarking that they were ‘staking a claim for England better than any’. Thus, a film like The Life of a Plant (1926), which showed the growth and development of a nasturtium flower, might not have been overtly imperialist in content, but the contexts in which it was shown – including at the Imperial Agricultural Conference in 1927, and as part of an ‘experiment’ conducted Julian Huxley to test the response of East African schoolchildren to cinema – make it clear how natural history films had uses that were closely linked to British imperial interests.

Watch War in the Trees (1931)

4. Distribution

As the above points have made clear, the Secrets were treated by imperial enthusiasts as cultural exports that could be shown to audiences spread across the British colonies and dominions. British Instructional Films, and later Gaumont-British Instructional, envisioned the British empire as the ideal market for their films, and aimed to distribute them far and wide. Recently, I have been working on a Secrets of Nature map that highlights the places where the Secrets were filmed and where they were shown, and over the past couple of days I have begun to fill in some of the ‘imperial’ locations were Secrets were displayed, although there’s still plenty more to add. So far, I have added screenings which I know took place in South Africa, Tanzania, Australia and India. You can view the map, which is constantly being updated, by clicking below:

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