A Camera Actress in the Wilds of Togoland

The White Goddess of the Wangora

There was a curious sub-genre of silent films which combined exploration with drama. The enthusiasm that there was at the time for exploration films from Africa, South America, Australasia etc, led a number of these ‘explorer’s to make dramatic films, often with ‘native’ performers, which sought to sugar the pill of discovery and anthropology with human interest for the general cinema audience.

Frank Hurley, peerless cinematographer of the Douglas Mawson and Ernest Shackleton expeditions to Antarctica, in the 1920s made dramatised films of life in the Southern seas, The Hound of the Deep aka Pearl of the South Seas (1926) and The Jungle Woman (1926), set in New Guinea. British director M.A. Wetherell made Livingstone (1923) in Africa and Robinson Crusoe (1927) in Tobago. Geofrey Barkas made Palaver (1926) in Nigeria. And of course the Americans Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Shoedsack made Chang (1927) in Siam and Robert Flaherty made Moana (1925) in Samoa. All were curious mixes of idealism and colonialism, documentary and drama.

One of the earliest such examples must be The White Goddess of the Wangora (Die weiße Göttin der Wangora). This was made in Togo in 1913/14 by the German explorer and sometime big game hunter Major Hans Schomburgk, and starred his future wife, Meg Gehrts. The reason for this post is that her book on the experience of making this film, along with other dramas and a number of documentaries, is available from the Internet Archive. It has the grand title, A Camera Actress in the Wilds of Togoland (1915).

The White Goddess of the Wangora

Schomburgk, famed for having discovered and captured the pygmy hippopotamus, had made an earlier filming trip to Liberia and Togo, where his negative stock was ruined and the cameraman let him down. A little wiser the second time around, he returned with the intention of making a series of dramas and documentaries of life in Togo, with a white actress in tow to act as the main draw for Western audiences. Obviously he hoped for profits which would offset the expense of the expedition. The White Goddess of Wangora told of a white child washed up on the shore of Togoland, and brought up by the local peoples as a kind of goddess. Years pass. A white hunter (Schomburgk) is captured by the tribe and sentenced to be put to death, but she has fallen in love with him. They escape, an exciting chase ensues, they get away, they live happily ever after.

The book is fascinating in detail, patronising towards the ‘savages’ they work with, but also filled with sympathetic observations, particularly on the drudgery experienced by the Togo women. It also tells us much about the indignities and privations the filmmakers suffered. Four dramatic films were produced in all: The White Goddess of the Wangora, Odd Man Out, The Outlaw of the Sudu Mountains and The Heroes of Paratau. They also made travel and industrial films. All, so far as I am aware, are now lost. It is an observant text, with plenty of interest if you can steer around the period attitudes, and it is well illustrated.

You can find a list of film credits for Hans Schomburgk on the excellent German film encyclopedia www.filmportal.de and, unexpectedly, on Stanford University’s Infolab.

The British cameraman who went with them was James S. Hodgson, who went on to enjoy a long and notable career in newsreels, eventually ending up working for The March of Time in the 1930s. You can read his biography on the British Universities Newsreel Database.

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