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Published online by Cambridge University Press:  22 September 2014

Ewout Frankema
Wageningen University/Utrecht University
Marlous van Waijenburg
Northwestern University


The historical and social science literature is divided about the importance of metropolitan blueprints of colonial rule for the development of colonial states. We exploit historical records of colonial state finances to explore the importance of metropolitan identity on the comparative development of fiscal institutions in British and French Africa. Taxes constituted the financial backbone of the colonial state and were vital to the state building efforts of colonial governments. A quantitative comparative perspective shows that pragmatic responses to varying local conditions can easily be mistaken for specific metropolitan blueprints of colonial governance and that under comparable local circumstances the French and British operated in remarkably similar ways.

Economics and Governance
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2014 

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We are grateful to Daron Acemoglu, Julius Agbor, Ralph Austen, Gareth Austin, Rachel Jean Baptiste, Jeremy Baskes, Catherine Boone, Anne Booth, Stephen Broadberry, Morten Jerven, Leigh Gardner, Jonathan Glassman, Regina Grafe, Joseph Inikori, Patrick Manning, Joel Mokyr, Alexander Moradi, Claudia Rei, Yannay Spitzer, Hendrik Spruyt, Helen Tilley, and three anonymous referees of the JAH. We are grateful for the financial support of the Program of African Studies and the Buffett Center for International Comparative Studies at Northwestern University, the Economic History Association, the European Research Council under the European Community's Seventh Framework Programme (ERC Grant Agreement no. 313114) as part of the project ‘Is Poverty Destiny? A New Empirical Foundation for Long-Term African Welfare Analysis’ and the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research for the project ‘Is Poverty Destiny? Exploring Long Term Changes in African Living Standards in Global Perspective’ (NWO VIDI Grant no. 016.124.307). Authors’ email: and


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21 Herbst, States, 94.

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32 The 1920 benchmark may suffer from potentially distorting effects since the immediate post-First World War era was plagued by high inflation and may have artificially inflated fiscal revenues, without a (fully) equalizing change in the cost-structure of the government. Therefore, the 1920 benchmark should be interpreted with care.

33 Both in British and French Africa, colonies were in principle on their own when it came to their state finances. With the exception of providing a military umbrella under the imperial army, British and French taxpayers were not supposed to pay for empire. The French Ministry of the Colonies budget (Ministère des Colonies) relied on metropolitan taxes and its funds were used for military expenses only. This was not very different from the British system, where metropolitan taxpayers supported the expensive British navy, while African colonies cofinanced standing armies in the region.

34 Conklin, A Mission.

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36 Note that our GPR per capita figures solely consists of ‘ordinary’ revenue (in other words, regular posts of income) and that extraordinary revenue elements have been excluded.

37 Patrick Manning, for example, estimates that between 1905 and the onset of the First World War, the federation absorbed more than half of Dahomey's GNP through such redistributive payments. See Manning, P., Slavery, Colonialism, and Economic Growth in Dahomey, 1640–1960 (Cambridge, 1982)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

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40 We chose the year 1925 here to illustrate our findings because it was the first year for which all of our observations are present. As can be derived from the regressions, the stylized fact we set out to illustrate does not differ significantly when selecting another year.

41 A simple OLS and pooled OLS regression reveals that those differences are statistically significant while controlling for other geographical variables. Readers interested in these results are invited to contact the authors.

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45 Evidently, this number, which has been derived from the colonial statistical yearbooks, is only a lower bound estimate of how much chiefs could possibly (legally or illegally) earn through their position. See Zwanenberg, R. Van and King, A., An Economic History of Kenya and Uganda, 1800–1970 (London, 1975)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Gardner, ‘Decentralization’.

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47 In 1851, a hut tax had been imposed in the Gold Coast, but it was abandoned in 1861 because it was unsuccessful in terms of the revenue it yielded and custom duties soon proved to be a far better alternative.

48 There was a difference between the fiscal strategies in Northern and Southern Nigeria. As pointed out by Bush and Maltby in ‘Taxation in West Africa’, the Southern part, which was ‘far more prosperous and economically active’, had no direct taxes until after the First World War. Even when an income tax was imposed in the 1920s, incomes under £30 per year were exempted from this tax. Taking contemporary wage rates into account, which fluctuated between 12 and 17 pence per day in the 1920s, the annual income of an unskilled urban laborer would not exceed £22 per year, assuming a 6-day workweek. It was not until 1937 that the lower income exception was abolished, and that the native income tax thus became applicable to all inhabitants of Southern Nigeria.

49 Our conclusions for British and French Africa are in line with several other recent studies observing similar patterns within British Africa. For examples, see Frankema, ‘Colonial taxation’; Gardner, Taxing Colonial Africa, 24–5; and Mkandawire, ‘On tax efforts’.

50 That is Uganda, Kenya, and Nyasaland. In the fiscal year 1909–10, c. 26 per cent of the total fiscal budget of the Kenyan government was supplied by a metropolitan grant. The British East Africa Protectorate, Blue Book (Nairobi, 1909–10). For a broader discussion of British efforts to build self-sufficient states in Africa, see Gardner, Taxing Colonial Africa, 17–30.

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52 It should be noted that the temporal trend we observe of a decreasing reliance on direct taxes should not be extrapolated to the post-Second World War period, as the colonial tax systems underwent a series of reforms during the early postwar and postcolonial eras, and income taxes and graduated poll taxes started to play a greater role in this period. We have not included the post-Second World War era into our analysis, as space constraints do not allow for an encompassing discussion of these reforms. Additionally, there is an analytical reason for this exclusion, as the widespread and systematic existence of colonial development subsidies structurally changed the conditions of fiscal capacity building.

53 Quote taken from Conklin, A Mission, 144.

54 Despite there maybe being something counterintuitive about our argument of identifying local agency from such a general level, our framework highlights a trend that can only be distilled at the macrolevel.

55 Note that some tax rates were applied multiple times, so that this captures only the total number of different tax rates in circulation rather than the number of districts or subgroups that had their own tax rates. The former offers a better reflection of the ‘fine-grained’ nature of the direct tax system.

56 Such rapid tax increases occasionally met great resistance. In Dahomey in 1923, for example, a tax revolt broke out in the city of Porto Novo, after the French had raised the going tax rates by more than 500 per cent for men, 300 per cent for women, and 100 per cent for children to adjust for the postwar inflation. Conklin, A Mission, 161.

57 This underlines again that, where possible, colonial governments were happy to shape their fiscal institutions on the basis of existing tax structure, and both the British and the French did so in North Africa. Young, The African Colonial State, 124–5.

58 To transform the French tax rates from an individual to a household base, we have made the assumption that an average household existed of a father, a mother, and three to four children – of which one would have been older than ten years and not yet started a family of his or her own. Although there was obviously greater variation in terms of family composition, these assumptions correspond well with demographic survey reports and should thus, on an aggregate level, be a fairly good approximation. Considering tax rates were slightly lower for women and children in the French African colonies, we multiply or divide not by a factor of four (a father, mother, and two children), but by three.

59 It is highly likely that in areas that relied more on the implied revenue from forced labor, the colonial perception of Africans needing to be ‘disciplined’ into becoming productive workers was more strongly articulated. This implies that, ultimately, local material conditions also co-shaped philosophies of colonial state building. We believe this would be an important avenue for further research. For important studies on philosophies of state building, see Young, The African Colonial State; and Conklin, A Mission.

60 Fall, B., Le travail forcé en Afrique-Occidentale française, 1900–1946 (Paris, 1993)Google Scholar; Fall, B., Social History in French West Africa: Forced Labor, Labor Market, Women and Politics (Calcutta, 2002)Google Scholar; Ash, C. B., ‘Forced labor in colonial West Africa’, History Compass, 4:3 (2006), 402–6CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Okia, O., Communal Labor in Colonial Kenya: The Legitimization of Coercion, 1912–1930 (New York, 2012)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

61 The option to buy-out one's labor obligations was expanded to larger groups in the course of the colonial period, and especially in the 1920s. Yet, the additional state income generated from these ‘buy-outs’ (rachat des prestations), suggests that the number of people doing so was negligible. The buy-out rate was in most places roughly the equivalent of the going unskilled native wage rate.

62 Akurang-Parry, K. O., ‘Colonial forced labor policies for road-building in Southern Ghana and international anti-forced labor pressures, 1900–1940’, African Economic History, 28 (2000), 125CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

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68 Important exceptions to this rule were the British campaign against Sokoto in northern Nigeria between 1900 and 1903 and the Niger delta, which was still being subdued in the early 1900s when most of Uganda and Kenya were already under British control.

69 For Côte d'Ivoire, however, the net drain increasingly became a serious source of discontent. In the late 1950s, the Ivorian government broke with the federal rules of collecting and transferring customs duties and became the first country to introduce VAT to raise the local state budget.

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