The long-term negative impact of slavery on economic development in Brazil

by Andrea Papadia (London School of Economics)

Jean Baptiste Debret (1826). From “The Atlantic Slave Trade and Slave Life in the Americas: A Visual Record”,


Slavery has been at the centre of many heated debates in the social sciences, yet there are few systematic studies relating slavery to economic outcomes in receiving countries. Moreover, most existing work on Brazil – which was the largest slave importer during the African slave trade and the last country to abolish the practice – has failed to identify any clear legacies of this institution.

This research overcomes this impasse by highlighting a distinctly negative impact of slavery on economic development in Brazil. More precisely, it illustrates that in the municipalities of the states of Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, where slave labour was more prevalent in the nineteenth century, fiscal development was lower in the early twentieth century, long after slavery was abolished.

The identification of this negative effect is tied to separating the true effect of slavery on fiscal development from the fact that the huge expansion of coffee production that Brazil underwent from the 1830s attracted large numbers of slaves to booming regions. In fact, the research shows that:

  • A naïve analysis of the data would suggest that for relatively low levels, more slavery in the nineteenth century was associated with higher successive fiscal development.
  • For population shares of slaves above 30-35%, more slavery was clearly associated with lower fiscal development.
  • Taking account of the impact of the coffee boom on both the demand for slave labour and development, slavery was unambiguously associated with worse developmental outcomes later on.
  • Comparing two hypothetical municipalities – equal in all respects except for their reliance on slave labour – one with 30% of slaves among its citizens would have had revenues 70% lower compared with one with 20%.
  • These results persist even when taking account of a wide variety of other factors that could explain difference in fiscal development across municipalities.

Fiscal development is widely considered as an essential building block in the creation of modern states able to foster economic growth by providing public goods and protecting the rule of law. While the historical process of fiscal development on the European continent is relatively well understood, in other parts of the world the study of the evolution of fiscal institutions is still in its early stages.

There are many reasons why a high incidence of slavery would hamper fiscal development and the provision of public goods:

  • First, a higher incidence of slaves in the population will translate into lower political representation for the masses, even in only partially democratic regimes such as nineteenth and early twentieth century Brazil.
  • Second, the provision of key public goods, such as education, will be less salient in areas that rely heavily on slave labour. These areas will also be less keen to attract workers from other areas of the country and abroad, thus making the provision of public services to their citizens less important.
  • Finally, slavery might make resource sharing though taxation more difficult due to increased ethnic, geographical and class cleavages in the population.

The history of Brazil, which was characterised by large-scale use of slave labour from the sixteenth century until the nineteenth century, provides an idea testing ground to investigate how this clearly extractive institution affected the developmental path of countries and their subdivisions.

The research shows that by accounting for confounding effects due to Brazil’s coffee boom, the pernicious effects of slavery on a key factor for economic growth – fiscal development – can be strongly identified.

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