Photographs of a South African Native Labour Corps 'War Dance'

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A selection of official photographs taken by Ernest Brooks of a sports day in France. Men of the South African Native Labour Corps are seen performing a 'Zulu war dance', watched by officers and men of the British and South African armies.


On 24 June 1917, a sports day was held on a beach in Dannes, France. Watched by hundreds of white British and South African soldiers, and some white nurses, black men of the South African Native Labour Corps performed a war dance. Amongst the crowds at the sports day was prolific war photographer, Lieutenant Ernest Brooks, whose photographs of the event, including the war dance, became part of the Ministry of Information Official Collection, now held by the Imperial War Museum. Forbidden from fighting as combatants in the war, permitted only to serve as labourers, the black men of the SANLC were allowed to showcase a physical, combative masculinity for the on looking audience.

Rather than an authentic Zulu practice, the Zulu war dance was a British colonial construction, that may have originated form the traditional preliminaries of Zulu impis going into battle. Zulu war dances, much like the Maori haka, are characterised as a celebration of martial physicality, drawing in the idea of the dancer as warrior, revealing their strong and combative masculinity through the movements of the dance. Not all men in the SANLC were from Zulu tribes so the dance was not representative of black South African culture as a whole. Though the authenticity of the event captured as a Zulu war dance or another form of tribal performance is unclear, the classification of the practice as a war dance, and its associated meanings adds to the constructed image of the SANLC in the British imagination. Its inclusion as the main feature captured in photographs of the sports day indicates a conflation between the practice and the character and behaviour of the SANLC as ‘exotic’ and ‘other’ to a public audience more familiar with this presentation of ‘African natives’ in picture postcards, films, exhibitions or juvenile journals.