Subverting the standard view of the Cape economy: Robert Ross’s cliometric contribution and the work it inspired
In the late 1980s Robert Ross and co-author Pieter van Duin reversed the widely accepted view of the Cape economy as a ‘social and economic backwater’ of widespread subsistence farming and overall poverty, scattered with small islands of relatively affluent farmers. Exploring the rich quantitative records kept by Dutch East India Company officials, they argued that the Cape had been more dynamic and progressive than earlier historians had assumed and that the market for Cape agricultural produce had been ‘much larger, more dynamic and quicker growing’ than previously thought, so that ‘a very considerable rate of agricultural growth’ had been possible. While their work was not immediately recognised, research conducted over the last decade using new archival sources and econometric techniques have largely confirmed their empirical observations. Yet, despite these rapid advances in our understanding of the Cape economy, the image that the early Cape Colony was a ‘sleepy colonial backwater whose unpromising landscape was seemingly devoid of any economic potential’ persists.
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