Powell-Cotton, P.H.G. (1866-1940), Diana (1908-1986), Antoinette (1913-1997)*

Major P.H.G. (‘Percy’)  Powell-Cotton

P.H.G. Powell-Cotton was a hunter and explorer who went on a series of self-funded expeditions between 1889 and 1939, almost annually apart from an brief interlude around the time of the First World War. For the first ten years, he travelled mainly to north India, but thereafter almost exclusively to Africa.

Although Powell-Cotton had no formal training as either an ethnographer or film-maker, he acquired an early 16mm Bell & Howell Filmo 70 camera in the early 1920s and started shooting ethnographic footage during the course of his expeditions, which at that time were mostly to West Africa (Cameroons, Nigeria). Then, in 1932-33, he went on an expedition to Southern Sudan and shot a substantial amount of material there which was later amalgamated into an edited film, Some Tribes of the Southern Sudan.

The following year, Powell-Cotton returned to the Horn of Africa, this time to Italian Somaliland. On this expedition, he was accompanied by his daughter Diana, and with her, shot a series of short films about both Somali and Arab crafts and subsistence activities, which are described here.

In 1936,  in collaboration with his wife Hannah (1881-1964), he made a short five-minute film about pot-making on a wheel in Morocco, and finally, in 1938-39, on his last expedition, he made a ten-minute film about pot-making in what was then the colony of Tanganyika and today is Tanzania.

Meanwhile, in 1936-37, Diana Powell-Cotton went on an expedition to Angola accompanied by her younger sister Antoinette (‘Tony’). They took with them a 16mm spring-wound Ciné-Kodak camera. Like their father, neither Diana nor Tony had any formal training as ethnographers or film-makers, though Diana had studied at the Royal College of Art and Antoinette had worked as a volunteer in the Pitt-Rivers Museum in Oxford.

Working together, the sisters shot a number of films among the Tchokwe, the Nganguela and the Owambo-Kuanyama. These mostly concern crafts and subsistence activities, though there is also a substantial film about the efendula initiation ceremony among the Kuanyama. Further details about this work are available here.

After the Second World War, Diana returned to Africa, where she made a general ethnographic film about the Kumam of the Teso region of Uganda, described here. She also made a more general film about everyday life and crafts in Uganda in collaboration with her younger brother Christopher (1918-2006), who was then a colonial administrator in the country. This is described here.

Diana and Christopher went on to make a number of further films in East Africa, but these were zoological and geographical rather than ethnographic.

Text : Nicklin 1981. See also the website of the Powell-Cotton Museum at the family home, Quex Park, at Birchington, west of Margate in the county of Kent, southeast England.


© 2018 Paul Henley