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Colonial taxation and government spending in British Africa, 1880-1940: Maximizing revenue or minimizing effort?


  • Frankema, Ewout


Colonial state institutions are widely cited as a root cause of sub-Saharan African underdevelopment, but the opinions differ on the channels of causation. Were African colonial states ruled by near absolutist governments who strived to maximize revenue extraction in order to strengthen their grip on native African societies? Or did European powers build 'states without substance', governed with minimal resources and effort, failing to invest in basic public goods? This paper develops an analytical framework for comparing colonial tax and spending patterns and applies it to eight British African colonies (1880-1940). We show that colonial fiscal systems did not adhere to a uniform logic, that minimalism prevailed in West Africa, extractive features were more pronounced in East Africa, and that Mauritius revealed characteristics of a developmental state already before 1940.

Suggested Citation

  • Frankema, Ewout, 2011. "Colonial taxation and government spending in British Africa, 1880-1940: Maximizing revenue or minimizing effort?," Explorations in Economic History, Elsevier, vol. 48(1), pages 136-149, January.
  • Handle: RePEc:eee:exehis:v:48:y:2011:i:1:p:136-149

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    References listed on IDEAS

    1. Moradi, Alexander, 2009. "Towards an Objective Account of Nutrition and Health in Colonial Kenya: A Study of Stature in African Army Recruits and Civilians, 1880–1980," The Journal of Economic History, Cambridge University Press, vol. 69(03), pages 719-754, September.
    2. Richens, Peter, 2009. "The economic legacies of the ‘thin white line’: indirect rule and the comparative development of sub-Saharan Africa," Economic History Working Papers 27879, London School of Economics and Political Science, Department of Economic History.
    3. Edward L. Glaeser & Rafael La Porta & Florencio Lopez-de-Silanes & Andrei Shleifer, 2004. "Do Institutions Cause Growth?," Journal of Economic Growth, Springer, vol. 9(3), pages 271-303, September.
    4. Daron Acemoglu & Simon Johnson & James A. Robinson, 2001. "The Colonial Origins of Comparative Development: An Empirical Investigation," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 91(5), pages 1369-1401, December.
    5. Jamal, Vali, 1978. "Taxation and Inequality in Uganda, 1900–1964," The Journal of Economic History, Cambridge University Press, vol. 38(02), pages 418-438, June.
    6. repec:spo:wpmain:info:hdl:2441/7o52iohb7k6srk09na41pc24o is not listed on IDEAS
    7. Frankema, Ewout, 2010. "Raising revenue in the British empire, 1870–1940: how ‘extractive’ were colonial taxes?," Journal of Global History, Cambridge University Press, vol. 5(03), pages 447-477, November.
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    Cited by:

    1. repec:eee:exehis:v:64:y:2017:i:c:p:1-20 is not listed on IDEAS
    2. Jerven, Morten & Austin, Gareth & Green, Erik & Uche, Chibuike & Frankema, Ewout & Fourie, Johan & Inikori, Joseph & Moradi, Alexander & Hillbom, Ellen, 2012. "Moving Forward in African Economic History. Bridging the Gap Between Methods and Sources," Lund Papers in Economic History 124, Lund University, Department of Economic History.
    3. repec:ucg:wpaper:0054 is not listed on IDEAS
    4. Ewout Frankema & Jeffrey Williamson & Pieter Woltjer, 2015. "An Economic Rationale for the African Scramble: The Commercial Transition and the Commodity Price Boom of 1845-1885," NBER Working Papers 21213, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    5. Ewout Frankema & Marlous van Waijenburg, 2011. "African Real Wages in Asian Perspective, 1880-1940," Working Papers 0002, Utrecht University, Centre for Global Economic History.
    6. Belinda Archibong, 2016. "Historical origins of persistent inequality in Nigeria," WIDER Working Paper Series 161, World Institute for Development Economic Research (UNU-WIDER).


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