Johan Fourie's blog

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European colonisation: good or bad?

with 4 comments

James Robinson at the World Economic History Congress 2012, Stellenbosch University. Photo by Reinhardt Germishuijs.

A major theme of the current World Economic History Congress (follow #wehc2012 on twitter) is the colonial impact of European settlement. James Robinson, in his plenary on Monday (here are the slides), argues that “there is a clear case for colonialism retarding development”, especially in “colonies which corresponded to a pre-colonial polity: there was the essentials of order and public goods provision which could have been the basis for development, colonialism stopped the existing dynamics of centralization and severed links of accountability (indirect rule) and in many cases created or intensified conflicts.” According to Robinson, “colonies of large scale white settlement: mass immizerization associated with land expropriation, creation of huge inequalities, institutionalized racism. These colonies were more successful on average during colonialism, but had worse problems to deal with afterwards (Zimbabwe).”

This position is somewhat surprising, given that this is the same Robinson of the now famous Acemoglu, Johnson and Robinson paper, which argues that settler institutions were conducive for economic development in contrast to the extractive institutions set up in areas where Europeans could not settle. Also, Easterly and Levine have a new paper which shows empirically that the more Europeans that settled, and the earlier they did so, the better for those countries today: “The results are consistent with the view that the proportion of Europeans during the early stages of colonization exerted an enduring, positive impact on economic development.”

So was colonisation good or bad? I guess it depends on who you ask. Ask the masses of native inhabitants who died because of settler diseases (or the settlers who died of native diseases), and they would be pretty sceptical about the benefits of colonisation. Ask the slaves and the indentured labourers who struggled to survive just above subsistence (although there is also heterogenous experiences here), and they would also be pretty pessimistic about the benefits. But the descendants of settlers, slaves and natives that now live in countries where European immigration was greater have attained higher living standards than regions where European settlement was low. Is it better to live in South Africa or the Congo? Ask the Congolese, Somali and Zimbabwean immigrants (settlers? refugees?) that arrive in South Africa every day.

But perhaps we are asking the wrong question. As I’ve argued before, showing that more white people is correlated with higher levels of income today explains very little about the mechanisms that cause this growth. If we want to learn from the histories of colonisation, we need to understand its causal mechanisms – property rights, human capital, trade, democracy, language, religion or culture, and its dynamic interactions with each other over time. Only by understanding these mechanisms can the experiences of colonisation have positive consequences for future generations.


Written by Johan Fourie

July 10, 2012 at 18:30

4 Responses

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  1. I don’t think that the question is whether it is bad or good, the question is to what extent it was bad. Congo, and Zimbabwe are both old colonies! There is a difference between colonialism and trade & intellectual exchange. Colonialism was dehumanizing and unethical, Winston Churchill summarizes the pro colonialism thoughts: “I do not agree that the dog in a manger has the final right to the manger even though he may have lain there for a very long time. I do not admit that right. I do not admit for instance, that a great wrong has been done to the Red Indians of America or the black people of Australia. I do not admit that a wrong has been done to these people by the fact that a stronger race, a higher-grade race, a more worldly wise race to put it that way, has come in and taken their place” We hopefully know today, that there is no higher-grade race, the question is are we going to fake blindness or see history for what it really is.


    January 3, 2014 at 08:50

    • You are most probably correct, oumsofiane, that, in general, Africans suffered because of colonisation. It’s just that not all did: in Ghana, railroads offered farmers access to new markets, allowing them to increase their incomes and living standards. And in many parts of Africa, education instituted by the colonial authorities allowed Africans the opportunity to attain new skills and perspectives on a rapidly changing world. It is difficult to disentangle these gains from the many losses we know also materialised. We show be careful not to paint all and everywhere with the same brush.

      Johan Fourie

      January 4, 2014 at 04:29

  2. I do not think that the colonism is good. First of all if it is good why it is phased out with time as the civilization progresses. Secondly, even that the colonism brings some economic developments, no indigenous people like the colonism anyway. The answer is very obvious, one wants to live independently in poverty than under strict domination, particularly imposed by foreingners.

    Thanh Tri

    December 19, 2012 at 11:49

  3. […] oor die impak van kolonialisme in Afrika. Hier is al bietjie kommentaar deur Prof Krugell (NWU) en Johan Fourie (US), maar ons belowe solank 'n behoorlike “post” oor ekonomiese geskiedenis. […]

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