‘Mere gatherers of roots’: David Attenborough’s colonial perspectives

Words: Jack Guise

In 2017, seventeen million people in the UK tuned in to watch Blue Planet. Breathtaking natural beauty, rare animal life, and the ever-advancing threat of climate change have influenced our understanding of the world we live in – so much so that ‘the Attenborough effect’ has become shorthand for the environmentalist activism spurred by the iconic documentaries. 

David Attenborough’s films today have such vast political influence that it’s become imperative to look at the work that came before. People born in the 1970s and after know his work for its focus on wildlife and nature – but his early documentaries, produced in the 1950s and 60s, leave a different memory.  

From the end of World War II to the mid-1960s, Britain lost most of its imperial power. The country was left grasping a handful of symbolic territories like Hong Kong and the Falkland Islands, and British national identity, formerly centred around superpower status, struggled to find an anchor point. Attenborough’s early work was very much a product of this time, playing on ideas of racial otherness and exoticism to teach a simplistic version of history. Quest Under Capricorn: The First Australians (1963), which covered the Aboriginal inhabitants of Australia’s northern territories, is the best example. 

(It’s worth noting before we go further that this story isn’t an attempt to discredit Attenborough or to push back against his work raising awareness about the natural world. Instead, it aims to demonstrate the pervasiveness of the national colonial mindset which provided the backdrop for ‘scientific’ documentary-making and other forms of media in the mid-20th century.)

In Quest Under Capricorn – written and produced by Attenborough – heavy emphasis was placed on the belief that the Gunavidji people were trapped in a ‘prehistoric’ time. In his narration, Attenborough states that before the arrival of the ‘white man’ and ‘modernity’, the Gunavidji Aborigines were ‘mere gatherers of roots’. Sitting in front of a traditional home and a group of people, he says: 

‘Scientists say, in fact, that the Australian Aborigine is the most ancient branch of mankind still surviving in the world. They are still living at a cultural level of that which was followed by prehistoric man in Europe for over a million years before he devised agriculture. […] Yet psychologists say the Australian Aborigine is a highly gifted and intelligent person. They say that in any group of them you find as many bright, intelligent people and as many stupid people as you would find in a similar group from almost any other race. […] Why, if these people are so intelligent, should they remain so primitive?’

The rise of rationalism and mass industrialisation in the 19th century closely intertwined Western European identity with universalist ideas of progress and modernity. The continual acquisition of scientific and technological knowledge, and their accompanying economic gains, to this day remain a fundamental marker of human success in the West. Scientific theories developed at the height of British imperialism, like Darwin’s theory of natural selection, led to events of ‘progress’ and markers of modernity being categorised into hierarchies. As a result, the theory of racial difference rose to prominence as an explanation for the lifestyles of different civilisations, with some categorised as ‘more developed’ – and therefore better – than others.

By using European prehistoric culture as a reference point, Quest Under Capricorn normalises the belief that the Aboriginal people are ‘primitive’. White people are framed as superior thanks to their circumstantial use of certain agricultural technologies. This approach selectively ignores the fact that the northern territories of Australia are unsuitable for crops, and that the tribe had developed a rich communal culture over hundreds of years. 

The programme reflected contemporary ideas of colonialism as a force for positive, ‘civilising’ change. The episode later shows the ongoing construction of a government welfare station with a school, houses, and a medical centre, while the narrative voice implies that their development is an act of benevolence by the Australian government. Aboriginal men are said to be ‘learning [trades] quickly’, implying the necessity of their assimilation into the culture of their colonisers.

The continual use of benevolent language masks major abuses. Gunavidji families, for example, were denied food if the men refused to give up their way of life and work on government stations. 

The film demonstrates how ‘objective’, ‘factual’ work from the period was part of a much broader cultural anxiety about the fall of Empire that sought to reconstitute historical ideas of Western superiority.

It would be naive to say that the tone of this documentary is a result of Attenborough’s personal, conscious beliefs. Instead, the film demonstrates how ‘objective’, ‘factual’ work from the period was part of a much broader cultural anxiety about the fall of Empire that sought to reconstitute historical ideas of Western superiority. The narratives of these documentaries were factual versions of the triumphalist imperial propaganda that made up much of Britain’s cultural output at the time: films like Khartoum (1966) and Burn! (1969) showed British forces in Sudan and on a Caribbean island, respectively, rescuing Indigenous people and supporting slave revolts. 

Attenborough focused on ‘exotic’ practices in his People of Paradise (1960) series, placing emphasis on rituals that deviated from British norms over any form of native lived experience – one example being the ‘cargo cults’ that emerged in Tana in the wake of Indigenous people’s interactions with white settlers. One episode centres the local people who believe in ‘John Frum’ – a tall, white, North American god, who brings an abundance of consumer goods in return for worship. Believers mimic Western capitalism by constructing non-functioning bamboo radio towers, bamboo assault rifles, and drilling oil boreholes to nowhere. 

Rather than considering the international forces that played into the creation of these beliefs – or acknowledging that Western capitalist practice often engages a similar, albeit less explicit, impulse – Attenborough passes off the worship as ‘pathetically childish’ and ‘sinister’.

Attenborough is hailed as a radical now, but his early work was still subject to contemporary ideological hegemony. Like today, mid-century documentaries were discursive tools, working both to educate and to shift mindsets. Above all, what these documentaries teach us now is that public attitudes towards colonialism and its legacy have been formed based on misrepresentations and incorrect teaching. Attenborough’s early films can still be put to good use, if looked at as historical artefacts in their own right, helping today to remedy the mindsets they once sought to instil. 

learn more

  • TV SHOW: Quest Under Capricorn (1963, Dir: David Attenborough)
  • TV SHOW: The People of Paradise (1960, Dir: David Attenborough)
  • ARTICLE: ‘Other/Otherness’ – Jean-Francois Staszak in International Encyclopaedia of Human Geography (2008)

Jack Guise is a MA history student at the University of Nottingham with a focus on visual and economic history.