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Raising revenue in the British empire, 1870–1940: how ‘extractive’ were colonial taxes?*

  • Ewout Frankema (a1)

Colonial tax systems have shaped state–economy relationships in the formative stages of many present-day nation-states. This article surveys the variety in colonial tax systems across thirty-four dominions, colonies, and protectorates during the heyday of British imperialism (1870–1940), focusing on a comparison of colonial tax levels. The results are assessed on the basis of different views in the literature regarding the function and impact of colonial fiscal regimes: are there clear differences between ‘settler’ and ‘non-settler’ colonies? I show that there is little evidence for the view that ‘excessive taxation’ has been a crucial characteristic of ‘extractive institutions’ in non-settler colonies because local conditions (geographic or institutional) often prevented the establishment of revenue-maximizing tax machineries. This nuances the ‘extractive institutions’ hypothesis and calls for a decomposition of the term ‘extractive institutions’ as such.

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1 For convenience, the encompassing term ‘colony’ will be used hereafter to refer to all types of British dependencies. The more precise terms – such as ‘dominions’, ‘crown colonies’, or ‘protectorates’ – are adopted only when relevant.

2 Maria A. Irigoin and Regina Grafe, ‘Bargaining for absolutism: a Spanish path to nation-state and empire building’, Hispanic American Historical Review, 88, 2, 2008, pp. 173–4; eaedem, ‘The Spanish empire and its legacy: fiscal redistribution and political conflict in colonial and post-colonial Spanish America’, Journal of Global History, 1, 2, 2006, pp. 241–67. Grafe and Irigoin locate this ‘meta-narrative’, among others, in the work of Douglass C. North, ‘Institutions and economic growth: an historical introduction’, World Development, 17, 9, 1989, pp. 1319–32; Stanley L. Engerman and Kenneth L. Sokoloff, ‘History lessons: institutions, factor endowments, and paths of development in the New World’, Journal of Economic Perspectives, 14, 3, 2000, pp. 217–32; and Daron Acemoglu, Simon Johnson, and James A. Robinson, ‘The colonial origins of comparative development: an empirical investigation’, American Economic Review, 91, 5, 2001, pp. 1369–1401.

3 For a reply to their work, see Carlos Marichal, ‘Rethinking negotiation and coercion in an imperial state’, Hispanic American Historical Review, 88, 2, 2008, pp. 211–18; and William R. Summerhill, ‘Fiscal bargains, political institutions, and economic performance’, Hispanic American Historical Review, 88, 2, 2008, pp. 219–33.

4 See for example the discussion of the Anglo-Egyptian transfers to the Sudan by Crawford Young, The African colonial state in comparative perspective, New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1994, p. 125.

5 Davis, Lance E. and Huttenback, Robert A., Mammon and the pursuit of empire: the economics of British imperialism, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988, pp. 129–36. See also Patrick K. O’Brien, ‘The costs and benefits of British imperialism, 1846–1914’, Past & Present, 120, 1988, pp. 163–200; and Patrick K. O’Brien and Leandro Prados de la Escosura, ‘The costs and benefits for Europeans from their empires overseas’, Revista de Historia Economica, 16, 1, 1998, pp. 29–89.

6 The neglect of the expenditure side is one of the arguments raised against the cost-benefit analysis as conducted by Davis and Huttenback: see Avner Offer, ‘The British empire, 1870–1914: a waste of money?’, Economic History Review, 46, 2, 1993, pp. 215–38. In another paper, I make an explicit attempt to connect the revenue and expenditure sides of colonial budgets: see Ewout H. P. Frankema, ‘Toiling for prisons or hospitals? A comparative study of colonial taxation and public spending in British Africa’, unpublished paper for ‘European Social Science History Conference’, Ghent, 13–16 April 2010, pp. 1–2.

7 Acemoglu, Johnson, and Robinson, ‘Colonial origins’, p. 1375.

8 Ibid., pp. 1373–5.

9 Young, African colonial state, pp. 38–9 and 124–33; Mamdani, Mahmood, Citizen and subject: contemporary Africa and the legacy of late colonialism, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1996, pp. 54–9.

10 Mamdani, Citizen and subject, p. 56.

11 Young, African colonial state, p. 101. Acemoglu, Johnson, and Robinson further illustrate their argument with references to examples of excessive taxation in Tunisia, Northern Rhodesia, and the Belgian Congo: ‘Colonial origins’, p. 1375.

12 Gareth Austin, ‘The “reversal of fortune” thesis and the compression of history: perspectives from African and comparative economic history’, Journal of International Development, 20, 2008, pp. 996–1027; Frederick Cooper uses the term ‘gatekeeper states’ to stress the limited capacity of colonial governments to administer the hinterlands: see Africa since 1940: the past of the present, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002, pp. 156–90. For a discussion of the political and technical difficulties in making ends meet in British India, see Davis and Huttenback, Mammon, pp. 198–206.

13 Austin, ‘“Reversal of fortune’ thesis’, p. 1017–19.

14 For the Dutch, French, and British colonies in Southeast Asia, such constraints are discussed by Anne Booth, ‘Night watchman, extractive, or developmental states? Some evidence from late colonial south-east Asia’, Economic History Review, 60, 2, 2007, pp. 241–66.

15 Herbst, Jeffrey, States and power in Africa: comparative lessons in authority and control, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000, pp. 113–26. This is not to say that pre-colonial tax systems were unsophisticated: see, for instance, the account of the Sokoto Caliphate tax regime in Nigeria by J. S. Hogendorn and Paul E. Lovejoy, ‘The reform of slavery in early colonial northern Nigeria’, in Suzanne Miers and Richard Roberts, eds., The end of slavery in Africa, Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1988, pp. 391–414.

16 Herbst, States and power, p. 116.

17 Matthew K. Lange, ‘British colonial legacies and political development’, World Development, 32, 6, 2004, pp. 905–22.

18 Part of the analysis presented in this section builds upon joint work with Jan Pieter Smits: see Ewout Frankema and Jan Pieter Smits, ‘Over de rol van cultuur en sociale cohesie in de economische geschiedenis’, Tijdschrift voor Sociale en Economische Geschiedenis, 5, 2, 2008, pp. 93–116.

19 Does this signal that the Mauritian growth record has much deeper historical roots than the development literature acknowledges? Elsewhere I argue it does, see Frankema, ‘Toiling for prisons’, p. 27. See also Arvind Subramanian and Devesh Roy, ‘Who can explain the Mauritian miracle? Meade, Romer, Sachs, or Rodrik?’, in: Rodrik, D., ed., In search of prosperity. Analytic narratives on economic growth, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2003, pp. 205–43.

20 Using a British price index does not necessarily reflect the development of local prices in different areas throughout the empire, but it is arguably one of the best alternative measures when detailed local price information is unavailable. Further below the GPR data will be adjusted for colony specific daily wage rates, which does capture some of the cross-colony differences in price development.

21 It can be argued that railway revenues or postal revenues were part of fiscal revenue, as colonial governments often exerted a monopoly on this type of public service. However, the bulk of these revenues were used to compensate for current expenses and investments. Including these revenues would therefore greatly inflate fiscal receipts and bias the comparison more than excluding these revenues.

22 See for instance Peter H. Lindert, Growing public: social spending and economic growth since the eighteenth century, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004, pp. 171–92.

23 See for instance Maarten Prak and Jan Luiten van Zanden, ‘Towards an economic interpretation of citizenship: the Dutch Republic between medieval communes and modern nation-states’, European Review of Economic History, 2, 10, 2006, p. 130.

24 In South Africa and Southern Rhodesia, the skill premiums were significantly higher than in other colonies, because ethnic discrimination determined much of the wage gap. Skill premiums in Australia, Canada, and New Zealand were significantly lower than in the non-settler colonies. This is partly related to the fact that unskilled labour was relatively scarce, but also because minimum wage prescriptions put a floor under the wages of the less qualified workers.

25 It should be noted that the average number of required working days thus obtained is useful for comparative purposes, but should be increased by the proportion of the economically inactive population when we want to have a more exact estimate of the workings days forgone in order to fulfil tax obligation. But this distinction does not primarily concern us here.

26 Acemoglu, Johnson, and Robinson, ‘Colonial origins’, p. 1375.

27 Kuczynski, Robert R., Demographic survey of the British colonial empire, vol. I: West Africa, London: Oxford University Press, 1948; idem, Demographic survey of the British colonial empire, vol. II: East Africa, London: Oxford University Press, 1949.

28 From Gold Coast colony, Report on the Northern Territories 1911, p. 12, Accra, 1912, cited in Kuczynski, Demographic survey: West Africa, pp. 398–9.

29 Report on the census of the Gold Coast colony for the year 1891, London, 1892, pp. 37–8, cited in Kuczynski, Demographic survey: West Africa, p. 391.

30 Kuczynski, Demographic survey: West Africa, p. 592.

31 Sender, John and Smith, Sheila, The development of capitalism in Africa, London: Methuen, 1986.

32 See for instance Dean E. Neu, ‘“Discovering” indigenous peoples: accounting and the machinery of empire’, Accounting Historians Journal, 26, 1, 1999, pp. 53–82.

33 See Bush, Barbara, Imperialism, race and resistance: Africa and Britain, 1919–1945, London: Routledge, 1999, p. 64; Barbara Bush and Josephine Maltby, ‘Taxation in West Africa; transforming the colonial subject into the “governable person”’, Critical Perspectives on Accounting, 15, 2004, pp. 5–34.

34 It appears rather bold to express urban unskilled wages in the vast area of British India in a single number, but we found a close fit with the estimates of van Leeuwen, who constructed an average wage on the basis of a large sample of Indian cities drawn from the annual Prices and wages in India series published by the British colonial government. For the details, see Bas van Leeuwen, ‘Human capital and economic growth in India, Indonesia and Japan: a quantitative analysis, 1890–2000’, PhD thesis, Utrecht University, 2007, pp. 237–42.

35 Ewout Frankema and Marlous van Waijenburg, ‘Real wages in British Africa, 1880–1940’, unpublished paper for LSE African Economic History Workshop, London, 28 April 2010.

36 Sue Bowden, Blessing Chiripanhura, and Paul Mosley, ‘Measuring and explaining poverty in six African countries: a long-period approach’, Journal of International Development, 20, 8, 2008, pp. 1049–79.

37 Austin, Gareth, Labour, land, and capital in Ghana: from slavery to free labour in Asante, 1807–1956, Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press, 2005, p. 39.

38 Gareth Austin, ‘Labour and land in Ghana, 1874–1939: a shifting ratio and an institutional revolution’, Australian Economic History Review, 47, 1, 2007, pp. 95–120; MartinSuzan, M. Suzan, M., Palm oil and protest: an economic history of the NGWA region, south-eastern Nigeria, 1800–1980, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988; Anthony G. Hopkins, An economic history of West Africa, London: Longman, 1973, pp. 189–91.

39 For the impact of factor endowments on African economic development, see Gareth Austin, ‘Resources, techniques, and strategies south of the Sahara: revising the factor endowments perspective on African economic development history’, Economic History Review, 61, 3, 2008, pp. 587–624.

40 See specifically for Ghana, Austin, Labour, ch. 14, pp. 253–77; idem, ‘“Reversal of fortune’ thesis’, p. 1018–20.

41 For a detailed account of the revolt against colonial taxes lead by Igbo women, see Martin, Palm oil, ch. 9, pp. 106–18. See also Bush, Imperialism, p. 64.

42 Crowder, Michael, Colonial West Africa: collected essays, Totowa, NJ: Frank Cass and Company Ltd., 1978, pp. 61–103. See also Ewout Frankema, ‘The colonial roots of land inequality: geography, factor endowments, or institutions?’, Economic History Review, 63, 2, 2010, pp. 418–51.

43 Cartwright, John R., Politics in Sierra Leone, 1947–67, Toronto and Buffalo, NY: University of Toronto Press, 1970, pp. 30–2; Martin Kilson, Political change in a West African state: a study of the modernization process in Sierra Leone, Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1966, pp. 28–32.

44 For example, the official native head tax rate in Kenya in 1938 was 12 shillings, but most of the native tribes paid a reduced rate: the Meru and Tharaka paid 8 shillings, the Duruma from the Digo district paid 6 shillings, and the Turkana 3 shillings. The Masai were the only listed tribe paying the official rate. See Blue book of the colony and protectorate of Kenya, 1938, Nairobi, 1939, section 1, pp. 82–3.

45 In AJR’s sample, Sierra Leone is the country with the highest settler mortality rates: Acemoglu, Johnson, and Robinson, ‘Colonial origins’, p. 1398.

46 Alexander J. Hanna, The story of the Rhodesias and Nyasaland, pp. 225–7.

* This article is the product of a research project on the ‘Colonial origins of inequality: a comparative analysis of fiscal regimes in Asia, Africa and the New World’ funded by the Dutch Science Foundation (NWO). Their financial support is gratefully acknowledged, as are the valuable comments of Gareth Austin, Peter Lindert, Regina Grafe, Maarten Prak, and two anonymous referees on previous drafts of this article. I would also like to thank the participants of the Economic & Social History seminar, Utrecht University (14 May 2009), the session on ‘the historical roots of poverty and well-being in African countries’ at the 3rd European Conference on African Studies (ECAS) in Leipzig (4–7 June 2009), and the session on ‘the historical roots of poverty and well-being’ at the World Economic History Congress 2009 in Utrecht (3–7 August 2009). The usual disclaimer applies.

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