The UK's Colonial Film Catalogue, a database of more than 6000 films


'African Urbanism' discusses the UK's Colonial Film Catalogue, a database*  of more than 6000 films, which provides a window into British colonial period (Over 350 of the most important films in the catalogue are presented with extensive critical notes written by the academic research team.): “…these videos find their value in providing a fantastic trip through time into life in these places — showing people as they were (or, rather, how the government/companies would like you to see them), and life at the time (again, likely how we're supposed to see them).” 

Shot from the short film, Three Roads to Tomorrow (1958), a British Petroleum-sponsored video/commercial that depicts the experiential path three men from Nigeria take to get arrive at their present studies at the University of Ibadan, one of the country’s foremost universities. Warning: Sort of feels like British empire propaganda. 

Given my ongoing interest in Nigeria and its history, I was excited to watch one of a few fictional films on the website. The focus of one such film, Three Roads to Tomorrow, focuses on how British Petroleum (BP),  one of the major oil companies in the country at the time, promotes development through oil sector business.

As described on the website, the film’s synopsis:

“Three Nigerian students from different corners of Nigeria come to Ibadan University. While they sit talking in a dance club, the film traves back each of their journeys to the university. Scenes from their homes gives a new impression of an old country, and we come to understand how the modern network of communications – all dependent on oil and petrol – has opened up what was not so long ago inaccessible territory.”

To me, this description, in its simplicity, is debatable (as we know, it’s the oil economy in Nigeria has lead to unequal regional development, exploitation of the country’s natural resources, and in the areas such as the Niger Delta, a very debatable positive impact on community development, livelihoods, health, and their local economy). But the glimpse into Nigerian life at the time, and among the country’s three major ethnic groups (Igbo, Hausa, Yoruba) provides an interesting anthropological look into Nigerian history.

The website has a collection of films from across the Americas, Africa, Asia and Australia, and dating back as far as 1895. From Ghana (then the Gold Coast) to Nigeria, British Guyana, India, and the Sudan, perhaps these videos are most valuable for providing an eye into the colonial mentality of the British empire.

*The Colonial Film project united universities (Birkbeck and University College London) and archives (British Film Institute, Imperial War Museum and the British Empire and Commonwealth Museum) to create a new catalogue of films relating to the British Empire. The ambition of this website ( is to allow both colonizers and colonized to understand better the truths of Empire.