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Published online by Cambridge University Press:  12 June 2015

University of Groningen
Lund University


The historical role of European farming in Southern and Central Africa has received a great deal of attention among scholars over the years. A striking consensus exists in the Scholarly literature, namely that the success or failure of European farming in Southern Africa was to a large extent dependent upon the colonizers' access to and control over cheap labour, which they in turn could only access through strong support of the colonial state. Yet, these propositions have so far not been systematically and empirically tested. This article is a first attempt to do that by analysing the ‘wage-burden’ European settler farmers faced. The wage-burden is identified by measuring wage shares (total amount paid in the form of wages as a share of total profits) on European farms in colonial Africa. Based on archival documents, we construct time-series for value of output, transportation costs, investments in agriculture, and wages paid for the European tobacco and tea sector in colonial Malawi. Our results contradict both previous research on settler colonialism in Africa and the historiography of Nyasaland. Our estimates show that settler farming did not collapse in the 1930s as commonly assumed. On the contrary, the value of production on both tobacco and tea farms increased significantly. And so did the settler farmers' capacity to capture the profits, which was manifested in a declining wage share over time. In contrast with previous research, we argue that the declining wage share cannot be explained by domestic colonial policies but rather through changes in regional migration patterns, and global commodity markets. Migration patterns had a significant impact on the supply of farm labour and global commodity markets influenced value of production. Market forces rather than colonial policies shaped the development trajectory of settler farming in Nyasaland.

New Economic Histories
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2015 

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Earlier versions of this article have been presented as the Swedish Economic History Meeting in Lund, 4–5 October 2013 and at the eighth Economic History Workshop in Lund, 6–7 December 2013. We are grateful for the comments received from participants at the two meetings. We are also thankful for the comments received from two anonymous reviewers. The article is part of the project ‘Tracing the Institutional Roots of Economic Development’ led by Professor Christer Gunnarsson and generously funded by the Swedish Research Council. All remaining errors are ours. Authors' email:;


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20 By 1937, it was calculated that about 178,000 African households in Nyasaland were dependent on cash crops as their major source of income, which accounted for about 30 per cent of the African population, and is about the same amount as the number of households that depended on wage labouring on the European farms. See MNA, Malawi Population Census 1966, National Statistical Office, Government of Malawi, Public Records, PRO CO 525/182/44176, Nyasaland Protectorate Annual Report on Native Affairs, 1937.

21 Palmer, ‘White farmers', 230.

22 MNA, Annual Report Department of Agriculture, 1925–41, miscellaneous.

23 See MNA Annual Report Department of Agriculture (various years). In 1940, the district commissioner in Thyolo district in Shire Highlands argued that constant labour shortages held back production of both tea and tobacco on European farms. MNA NSE 1/1/1, Correspondence between District Commissioner Thyolo District and Provincial Commissioner Southern Province, 17 Apr. 1940.

24 Chirwa, ‘“The Garden of Eden”’, 279.

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26 Quoted in Palmer, R., ‘Working conditions and worker responses on Nyasaland tea estates, 1930–1953’, The Journal of African History, 27:1 (1986), 105–26CrossRefGoogle Scholar, 109.

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28 Chirwa, ‘“The Garden of Eden”’, 273.

29 Baker, ‘Tax collection’, 52.

30 MNA S1/411C733, Circular 15, Production of Native Economic Crops, 1934.

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33 Whenever maximum and minimum wages were recorded, we have used a lognormal distribution, which places more weight on the lower values, to correct for overestimation.

34 Chirwa, ‘“The Garden of Eden”’; Palmer, ‘White farmers'; Green, ‘Land concentration’.

35 Early on, the colonial authorities blamed the European planters for taking advantage of their control over land to access labour. This was made possible since there were no registered boundaries for existing villages, which enabled European farmers to go beyond their rights and force ‘free’ peasants to pay labour rent. This was against the intention of the authorities. There is no data on how common the practice was, but it was obviously taken seriously by the authorities and even caused a riot in the Shire Highlands in 1915. B. Pachai, ‘Land policies in Malawi’, 681–98, esp. 684 and 687. The colonial authorities even took the matter to court in 1903. The colonial authorities alleged that a European farming company in the Shire Highlands had entered into illegal land deals and had negotiated labour-tenancy arrangements, which ignored the terms of the non-disturbance clause. The judge ruled in favour of the colonial administration: Palmer, ‘Working conditions', 107.

36 M. Vaughan and G. H. R. Chipande, ‘Women in the estate sector of Malawi: the tea and tobacco industries', Working Paper No. 42, Rural Employment Policy Research Programme, 12, 1986.

37 Chirwa, ‘“The Garden of Eden”’, 529; Green, ‘Land concentration’.

38 Palmer, ‘Working conditions', 108.

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41 I. Phimister, An Economic and Social History; Mosley, Settler Economies.

42 Mosley, Settler Economies, 172–82.

43 MNA, Annual Report Department of Agriculture, 1938, miscellaneous.

44 Palmer, ‘White farmers' and ‘Tea industry’; Vaughan and Chipande, ‘Women in the estate sector’. Chirwa, ‘“The Garden of Eden”’; Palmer, ‘Tea Industry’, 230. See also MNA, Annual Report Department of Agriculture, 1938, miscellaneous.

45 Palmer, ‘Tea Industry’, 230. See also, MNA, Annual Report Department of Agriculture, 1938, miscellaneous.

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47 Cited in Palmer, ‘Tea industry’, 220.

48 In 1933, the Amsterdam Tea Association initiated an International Tea Agreement with the aim of avoiding further price slumps by introducing a global quota system for tea production, Palmer ‘White farmers', 221, 223.

49 Palmer, ‘White farmers', 235; Vaughan and Chipande, ‘Women in the estate sector’, 4.

50 Palmer, ‘White farmers'.

51 Palmer, ‘Tea industry’. See also, Chirwa, ‘“The Garden of Eden”’; Green, ‘Land concentration’.

52 Palmer, ‘White farmers', 219.

53 Palmer, ‘White farmers'.

54 The picture after 1952 is distorted as we could not find information on tea prices after that year. Instead we used the average price for tea for the 1940s to calculate the total value of tea produced in (and exported from) Nyasaland. This most likely caused the sharp drop in the value of tea exports in 1953 (as prices in 1950–2 were very high). Moreover, the increasing trend from 1953 onwards is now only driven by the increase in quantity exported, as the price we used to calculate value remained constant.

55 Chirwa, ‘“The Garden of Eden”’, 527–9; Kettlewell, ‘Agricultural change’, 265.

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57 Cited in Kuczynski, R. R., Demographic survey of the British Colonial Empire, Vol. II (Oxford, 1949)Google Scholar, 550.

58 See, for example, Read, M., ‘Migrant labour in Africa and its effects on tribal life’, International Labour Review, 45:6 (1942), 605–31Google Scholar; Vail, L., ‘The making of an imperial slum: Nyasaland and its railways, 1895–1935’, The Journal of African History, 16:1 (1975), 89112CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Vail, L., ‘The State and the creation of colonial Malawi's agricultural economy’, in Rotberg, R. (ed.), Imperialism, Colonialism and Hunger: East and Central Africa (Toronto, 1983)Google Scholar.

59 Green, E., Peasant Production and Limits to Labour: Thyolo and Mzimba Districts in Malawi, mid-1930s to late-1970s (Stockholm, 2005)Google Scholar, chs. 2, 4, and 5.

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61 Kuczynski, ‘Demographic survey’, 550, 567.

62 In 1903, the colonial authorities even took a European farming company in the Shire Highlands to court alleging that the company illegally entered land deals and had negotiated labour-tenancy arrangements which ignored the terms of the non-disturbance clause. The judge ruled in favour of the colonial administration. He noted that the plantation owner's main concern was not to extract land rent but to assure sufficient supplies of labour. The colonial authorities reacted by setting up a Land Commission whose findings confirmed the judge's conclusions. The commission found that the estate owners did nothing to provide their African inhabitants with sufficient land and that labour tenancy was subject to all sorts of abuses: Green, ‘Land concentration’, 239–40. The settlers, on the other hand, complained about their lack of control over tenants as they complained to the colonial authorities that the tenants tended to spend more time in their own gardens during the critical planting season. Chirwa, ‘“The Garden of Eden”’, 530.

63 Green, ‘Peasant production’, 99ff.

64 Palmer, ‘Working conditions', 106.

65 Quoted in Chirwa, ‘Immigrant labor’, 541.

66 Chirwa, ‘“The Garden of Eden”’, 529.

67 The authorities were aware of the crucial role the immigrants played as farm labourers (see above), but had already in the early colonial period forbidden organized recruiting after a scandal involving mistreatment of immigrant labour by two recruiters. See Chirwa, ‘Immigrant labor’.

68 Quoted in Chirwa, ‘Immigrant labor’, 525.

69 Quoted in Chirwa, ‘Immigrant labor’, 525.

70 Kuczynski, ‘Demographic survey’, 545.

71 Ibid. 548–9.

72 Chirwa, ‘Immigrant labor’, 546.

73 Kuczynksi, ‘Demographic survey’, 553, 580.

74 Palmer, ‘Tea industry’, 233. The incentives for the African population to migrate were strong. In 1946, it was calculated that a mineworker in South Africa could earn between £3 and £5 per month, which could be compared with the minimum wage in Nyasaland that was 35 shillings. MNA NNM 1/10/10, Memorandum on land tenure in Mzimba, prepared by J. H. Ingman, Secretary of Nyasaland Land Commission.

75 Green, ‘A lasting story’.

76 Chirwa, ‘“The Garden of Eden”’, 271–2. Chirwa unfortunately does not specify land sizes or labour input, nor does he provide any references to those estimates. However, his calculations are partly supported by findings from Thyolo district. See Green, E., ‘Diversification or de-agrarianization? income diversification, labour and processes of agrarian change in southern and northern Malawi, mid-1930 to mid-1950s’, Agricultural History, 82:2 (2008), 164–92CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed.

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78 D. Jacks, ‘From boom to bust: a typology of real commodity prices in the long run’, NBER Working Paper No. 18874, 48, 2013.

79 For more details see Appendix 1.