Transatlantic Slavery and Abolition: a Pan-European Affair

By Felix Brahm (German Historical Institute London) and Eve Rosenhaft (University of Liverpool)

Slavery Hinterland. Transatlantic Slavery and Continental Europe, 1680–1850 is published by Boydell Press for the Economic History Society’s series ‘People, Markets, Goods: Economies and Societies in History’. SAVE 25% when you order direct from the publisher -offer ends on the 28th June 2018. See below for details.


coverThe history of transatlantic slavery is one of the most active and fruitful fields of international historical research, and an important lesson of the latest work on maritime countries like Britain and France is that there the profits of slavery and indeed abolition ‘trickled down’ to very wide sections of the population and to places well away from the principal slave-trading ports. Recently historians have started to look beyond the familiar Atlantic axis and to apply the same paradigm to the European hinterlands of the triangular trade. That is, they have sought its traces and impacts in territories that were not directly involved (or were relatively minor participants) in the traffic in Africans: the German-speaking countries, Scandinavia, Italy and Central Europe. And they are finding that the slave trade, the plantation economies that it fed, the consequences of its abolition, and not least the questions of moral and political principle that it threw up, were very much a part of the texture of society right across Europe.

In material terms, it is clear that the manufacture of trade goods – the wares with which Europeans paid African traders for the enslaved men, women and children whom they then shipped to the Americas – was an important element of many regional economies. Firearms, iron bars and ironware travelled from Denmark and the Baltic to Western Europe’s slaving ports. Glass beads were exported from Bohemia (the Czech lands), and the higher quality Venetian products attracted Liverpool merchants to set up branch offices in Italy to secure their supply. The Swiss family firm Burckhardt/Bourcard began by supplying cotton cloth for the slave trade and importing slave-produced luxury goods and moved into equipping its own slaving ships. Textile plants in the Wupper Valley in Western Germany and the hand looms of Eastern Prussia provided linens of varying quality for use on the slave plantations, though because they were shipped through English and Dutch ports their German origins have often been obscured. And the trading networks established in the context of the slave economy supported German exporting projects even after the trade was abolished, as German firms continued to trade into territories – Brazil and the Caribbean – where slavery persisted until the late 19th century.

Germans in particular were keen observers of the Atlantic slave economy, and they had their own perspective on international debates about the trade and its abolition. At the beginnings of the trade, the rulers of Brandenburg Prussia had some hopes of buying into it, establishing a slave fort on the Gold Coast between 1682 and 1720. One of the key documents of this episode is the diary of a ship’s barber, Johann Peter Oettinger, who sailed on slaving expeditions. He chose to make no comment about the brutalities that he witnessed and recorded. Characteristically, though, when the diaries were published for German readers 200 years later, they were given a moralising spin; by the 1880s, Germany was at the forefront of the Scramble for Africa, justifying colonisation in the name of suppressing the internal slave trade. Before that, and once the German states were no longer involved in the slave trade, German-speaking scientists and administrators placed themselves in the service of those states that were: Ernst Schimmelmann, whose family had one foot in Hamburg and one in Copenhagen, was a plantation owner and manager of the Swedish state slaving company, but also responsible for the abolition of the Danish slave trade in 1792. And initiatives for the post-abolition exploitation of tropical territories relied on the work of German scientists in service to the Danish state like the botanist Julius von Rohr.

Scholarly attention to the German case is also bringing the Atlantic plantation economies into dialogue with the practices of unfree labour that existed in Central Europe at the same time. Analysis of the conditions of linen production on eastern Prussia’s aristocratic estates indicates that their low production costs helped to keep down the costs of production on slave plantations. And when Germans confronted the moral and legal challenges to slavery that were crystallising into a political movement in Britain and France by the 1790s, they could not escape the implications of abolitionist arguments for the future of their own ‘peculiar institutions’ of serfdom and personal service. This was true of Theresa Huber, the author and journalist who stands for two generations of Germans who engaged in transnational abolitionist networks, and who was equally sharp in her critique of serfdom. And it was true of Prussian administrators who, when challenged by enslaved Africans on German soil to enforce the notion that ‘there are no slaves in Prussia’, could not help asking themselves what that might mean for the process towards reform of feudal institutions.

These issues have only begun to receive greater attention – more studies are needed to gain a clearer understanding of the various links through which continental Europe was connected to the Transatlantic slave business and its abolition.


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To contact the authors:
Felix Brahm (;
Eve Rosenhaft (


poster “Keep out malaria mosquitoes repair your torn screens”. U.S. Public Health Service, 1941–45

While malaria historically claimed millions of African lives, it did not hold back the continent’s economic development. That is one of the findings of new research by Emilio Depetris-Chauvin (Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile) and David Weil (Brown University), published in the Economic Journal.

Their study uses data on the prevalence of the gene that causes sickle cell disease to estimate death rates from malaria for the period before the Second World War. They find that in parts of Africa with high malaria transmission, one in ten children died from malaria or sickle cell disease before reaching adulthood – a death rate more than twice the current burden of malaria in these regions.


According to the World Health Organization, the malaria mortality rate declined by 29% between 2010 and 2015. This was a major public health accomplishment, although with 429,000 annual deaths, the disease remains a terrible scourge.

Countries where malaria is endemic are also, on average, very poor. This correlation has led economists to speculate about whether malaria is a driver of poverty. But addressing that issue is difficult because of a lack of data. Poverty in the tropics has long historical roots, and while there are good data on malaria prevalence in the period since the Second World War, there is no World Malaria Report for 1900, 1800 or 1700.

Biologists only came to understand the nature of malaria in the late nineteenth century. Even today, trained medical personnel have trouble distinguishing between malaria and other diseases without the use of microscopy or diagnostic tests. Accounts from travellers and other historical records provide some evidence of the impact of malaria going back millennia, but these are hardly sufficient to draw firm conclusions. Akyeampong (2006), Mabogunje and Richards (1985)

This study addresses the lack of information on malaria’s impact historically by using genetic data. In the worst afflicted areas, malaria left an imprint on the human genome that can be read today.

Specifically, the researchers look at the prevalence of the gene that causes sickle cell disease. Carrying one copy of this gene provided individuals with a significant level of protection against malaria, but people who carried two copies of the gene died before reaching reproductive age.

Thus, the degree of selective pressure exerted by malaria determined the equilibrium prevalence of the gene in the population. By measuring the prevalence of the gene in modern populations, it is possible to back out estimates of the severity of malaria historically.

In areas of high malaria transmission, 20% of the population carries the sickle cell trait. The researchers’ estimate is that this implies that historically 10-11% of children died from malaria or sickle cell disease before reaching adulthood. Such a death rate is more than twice the current burden of malaria in these regions.

Comparing the most affected areas with those least affected, malaria may have been responsible for a ten percentage point difference in the probability of surviving to adulthood. In areas of high malaria transmission, the researchers’ estimate that life expectancy at birth was reduced by approximately five years.

Having established the magnitude of malaria’s mortality burden, the researchers then turn to its economic effects. Surprisingly, they find little reason to believe that malaria held back development. A simple life cycle model suggests that the disease was not very important, primarily because the vast majority of deaths that it caused were among the very young, in whom society had invested few resources.

This model-based finding is corroborated by the findings of a statistical examination. Within Africa, areas with higher malaria burden, as evidenced by the prevalence of the sickle cell trait, do not show lower levels of economic development or population density in the colonial era data examined in this study.


To contact the authors:  David Weil,

Social Mobility among Christian Africans: Evidence from Anglican Marriage Registers in Uganda (1895-2011)

Felix Meier zu Selhausen (University of Sussex)
Marco H. D. Van Leeuwen (Utrecht University)
Jacob L. Weisdorf (University of Southern Denmark, CAGE, CEPR)

The arrival of Christian missionaries and the receptivity of African societies to formal education prompted a genuine schooling revolution during the colonial era. The bulk of primary education in the British colonies was provided by mission schools (Frankema 2012), and their historical distribution had a long-run effect on African development (e.g. Nunn 2010). To those with access, formal education under colonial rule provided new venues of political influence and opportunities for social mobility. However, did mission schooling benefit a broad layer of the African population, or did it merely strengthen the power of pre-colonial elites? This paper addresses this question by investigating social mobility of Christian converts in colonial Uganda.

The existing literature has conveyed two opposing arguments, based mainly on qualitative sources. On the one hand, scholars have stressed that British colonial officials discouraged post-primary education of the general African population, fearing that such education would nurture anti-colonial sentiments. As a result, the benefits of mission schooling are purported to have been restricted to sons of traditional chiefs and newly empowered elites, who aligned themselves with the British administration and took up the lion’s share of urban skilled occupations (Hanson 2003, Reid 2017). Such dynamics perpetuated the power of chiefs into the post-colonial era and contributed to a legacy of ‘decentralized despotism’ (Mamdani 1996). Despite such dynamics, however, other studies have argued that mission schools became ‘colonial Africa’s chief generator of social mobility and stratification’, acting as a stepping stone to urban middle-class careers for a new generation of Africans (Iliffe 2007, p. 229).

This article explores intergenerational social mobility and colonial elite formation using the occupational titles of African grooms and their fathers who married in the prestigious Anglican Namirembe Cathedral in Kampala or in several rural parishes in Western Uganda between 1895 and 2011. The fact that sampled grooms celebrated an Anglican church marriage meant they were born to parents who, by their choice of religion and compliance with the by-laws of the Anglican Church, had positioned their offspring in a social network that afforded them a wide range of educational and occupational opportunities (Peterson 2016). This unique sample allows us to explore the impact of missionary schooling on the social mobility of converts between generations and uncover implications for colonial elite formation.

Social mobility in Kampala

To measure social mobility, we have grouped each occupation of 14,167 sampled Anglican father-son pairs into a hierarchical scheme of 6 social classes based on skill levels using HISCLASS (Van Leeuwen and Maas 2011). As shown in Figure 1, we find that the occupational mobility of sampled grooms expanded dramatically during the colonial era. By the onset of British rule (1890-99), Buganda society was comparatively immobile with three out of four sons remaining in the social class of their fathers. But by the 1910s, this had reversed to 3 in 4 sons moving to a different class. Careers in the colonial administration (chiefs, clerks) and the Anglican mission (teachers, priests) functioned as key steps on the ladder to upward mobility.

Figure 1: Social mobility among Anglican grooms in Kampala, 1895-2011


What was the social background of those reaching the highest occupational classes? Table 1 zooms in on grooms’ social-class destination relative to their social origin during the colonial era. It shows that the African converts, benefiting from new occupational opportunities opening-up during the colonial period, were able to take large steps up the social ladder regardless of their social origin. A remarkable 45% of sons from farming family backgrounds (class IV) moved into white-collar work, which indicates that the colonial labour market was generally surprisingly conducive to social mobility among Anglican converts.

Table 1: Outflow mobility rates in Kampala, 1895-1962


Colonial elite formation: Decentralized despotism?

Did chiefs and their sons benefit disproportionally from occupational diversification under colonialism? Under indirect British rule, many traditional Baganda chiefs converted to Anglicanism and became colonial officials, employed to extract taxes and profits from cash-cropping farmers. This put them in a supreme position for consolidating their pre-colonial societal power. Despite such advantages, our microdata suggests that the privileged position of pre-colonial elites was not sustained over the colonial period Figure 2 shows the probabilities of sons of chiefs (class I) versus farmers and lower-class labourers (class IV-VI) of entering an elite position (class I). At the beginning of the colonial era, sons of chiefs were significantly more likely to reach the top of the social ladder. However, a remarkably fluid colonial labour market, based on meritocratic principles, gradually eroded their economic and political advantages. Towards the end of the colonial era, traditional claims to status no longer conferred automatic advantages upon the sons of chiefs, who lost their high social-status monopoly to a new Christian-educated and commercially orientated class of Ugandans of farming backgrounds (Hanson 2003).

Figure 2: Conditional probability of sons of chiefs and farmers in class I, Kampala

Figure 2

To access the abstract:

To contact the first author:
Twitter: @FelixMzS1


Frankema, E. (2012). ‘The origins of formal education in sub-Saharan Africa: was British rule more benign?’ European Review of Economic History 16(4): 335-55.

Hanson, E. (2003). Landed Obligation: The Practice of Power in Buganda. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Mamdani, M. (1996). Citizen and Subject: Contemporary Africa and the Legacy of Late Colonialism. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Meier zu Selhausen, F., van Leeuwen, Marco H.D. and Weisdorf, J. (2018). ‘Social mobility among Christian Africans: Evidence from Anglican marriage registers in Uganda, 1895-2011. Economic History Review, forthcoming.

Nunn, N. (2010). Religious Conversion in Coloinal Africa. American Economic Review: Papers and Proceedings 100 (2) :147-52.

Peterson, D. (2016). ‘The Politics of Transcendence in Colonial Uganda’. Past and Present 230(1): 197-225.

Reid, R. J. (2017). A History of Modern Uganda. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Van Leeuwen, M.H.D. and Maas, I. (2011). HISCLASS – A Historical International Social Class Scheme. Leuven: Leuven University Press.

from VOX – The return of regional inequality: Europe from 1900 to today

by Joan Rosés (LES) and Nikolaus Wolf (Humboldt University)


Gender, ethnicity, and unequal opportunity in colonial Uganda: European influences, African realities, and the pitfalls of parish register data

by Michiel de Haas and Wourt Frankema (University of Wageningen)

The full article is published by The Economic History Review and it is available here


The Renaissance of African economic history in the past decade (see Austin and Broadberry 2014)  has opened up a vast body of qualitative and quantitative source materials.  Most of these materials were originally produced by European missionaries, merchants, travellers, or colonial officials, and thus reflect the biases (explicit or unspoken) of people who were alien to the societies to which their writings and statistics pertain. Moreover, many of the analytical concepts and empirical methods used by scholars to study these materials today, were originally designed for the study of European economic history. To prevent what Gareth Austin has described as ‘conceptual Eurocentrism’ in narratives of long-term African development, it is imperative to scrutinize and debate the applicability of concepts such as national income, real wages, human capital, social mobility, crime, or gender inequality in an African historical context.

In our article, we engage with a recent study by Meier zu Selhausen and Weisdorf to show how selection biases in, and Eurocentric interpretations of, parish registers have provoked an overly optimistic account of European influences on the educational and occupational opportunities of African men and women in Kampala, Uganda. We re-evaluate the link between colonial rule and gendered educational and occupational opportunities in Uganda along several lines. Here, we address two key points: 1) sample selection biases in African parish register data and 2) the flawed  juxtaposition of ‘African tradition’ and ‘European modernity’ to understand educational and occupational change during the colonial period.

Firstly, the use of parish registers by Meier zu Selhausen and Weisdorf illustrates clearly how data biases particular to the African context can result in doubtful conclusions. Parish registers have been widely used in European economic and demographic history, and are typically seen as fairly representative. However, the parish registers extracted from Kampala’s Anglican Namirembe Cathedral exhibit a strong bias towards the upper social classes: elites converted earlier, only the wealthiest and most well-connected African Christians opted for a ring marriage, and this particular Cathedral emerged as the elite church of early colonial Uganda.

To substantiate this issue quantitatively, we re-chart literacy and numeracy trends using microdata from the 1991 population census, made available by IPUMS. As Figure 1 shows, a representative selection of men and women from birth cohorts in the census data accumulated literacy and numeracy much slower than the population of brides and grooms in Namirembe Cathedral. While the Namirembe grooms achieve practically full literacy from the 1890s birth cohort onwards, and brides from the 1900s onwards, a random sample of Kampala-born men achieved similar rates only for cohorts born from the 1940s onwards, and women from the 1960s. That is: half a century later! Notably, Uganda’s female literacy take-off happened around independence, and the gap between men and women remained large throughout the colonial period.

There is ample reason to believe that similar (and/or potentially other) biases will be found among parish register samples in other African settings. Certainly, our study establishes that such registers, while a promising new source of microdata, should be interpreted with utmost caution.


Literacy rates and literacy gaps, per birth cohort

Secondly, we show that the dichotomy between African tradition and European modernity is flawed on both sides. The diffusion of Christianity and education in Buganda were not a testament to modernizing influences of Europeans, but rather the consequence of the initiative of the indigenous population of Buganda. Local elites pragmatically sought out political coalitions with European missionaries to further their own ends. Moreover, without the Africanization of the mission the diffusion of literacy and schooling would never have attained significant scale. Thus, the widely accepted idea that the uneven diffusion of missionary education can be explained by European supply factors rather than African demand (see a foundational paper by Nathan Nunn and a large body of subsequent studies) is not supported by the Ugandan case.

At the same time, the modernizing influence of Europeans was limited. Demand for African skilled labour in the colonial economy – which was predicated on rural cash crop production – was very limited, and its distribution was highly uneven, along lines of gender, race, ethnicity and location. Uganda’s economy remained overwhelmingly rural (colonial Kampala never harbored more than 1.5 per cent of Uganda’s population), and the skilled labour market was dominated by Asian and European expatriate minorities.

European influences also hardly benefited gender emancipation in Uganda. We revisit the seminal work of Ester Boserup and note, contrary to Meier zu Selhausen and Weisdorf, that she gives primacy to economic rather than cultural explanations for female labour market marginalization, and is skeptical about the emancipatory impact of European influences in Africa. In line with Boserup’s views, missionaries and colonial officials in Uganda often coalesced with indigenous patriarchal interests to domesticize women – a legacy that Ugandan women and society at large struggle with up until today.


To contact the authors:



Five hundred years of French economic stagnation: from Philippe Le Bel to the Revolution, 1280-1789

by Leonardo Ridolfi (IMT School for Advanced Studies Lucca)

In 2008, output per capita in France amounted to around $22,000 dollars per year. After the Second World War, in 1950, annual average income per capita reached $5,000 dollars, while in 1820, at the beginning of the first official national statistics, GDP per capita averaged $1,100 (Maddison, 2010). Nevertheless, precise knowledge of economic growth in France stops when we get back as far as 1820; before this date, the quantitative reconstruction of economic development is shrouded in mystery.

That mystery lies in the difficulty of uncovering sufficient resource material, devising adequate measures of economic performance in the past, and ultimately interpreting the complexity of the dynamics involved. These dynamics stretch far beyond just the mere economic sphere and concern the way a society is itself organised and structured. Nevertheless, several questions spring to mind.

What was the level of material living standards between the thirteenth and the late eighteenth century, from the early stages of state formation to the French Revolution? How did per capita incomes evolve over time? And were French workers richer or poorer than their European counterparts during the pre-industrial period?

This research provides answers to these questions by estimating the first long-run series of output per capita for France from 1280 to 1789.

The study reveals one important conclusion: the dominant pattern was stagnation in levels of output per capita. For the first time indeed, these estimates document quantitatively and in the aggregate what was previously known only qualitatively or for some regions by the classic works of French historiography (Goubert, 1960; Le Roy Ladurie, 1966): the French economy was an inherently stagnating growthless system, a ‘société immobile’, which at the beginning of the eighteenth century was not much different than five centuries earlier.

At the time of the death of King Philip the Fair in 1314, France was a leading economy in Europe and output per capita averaged $900 per year. Almost five centuries later, this threshold was largely unchanged, but the France of King Louis XVI now belonged to the group of the least developed countries in Western Europe. In the 1780s, per capita income was slightly above $1,000, about half the level registered in England and the Low Countries.

Nevertheless, stagnation was not the same as stability. The French economy was highly volatile and experienced multiple peaks and troughs. In addition, these results reject the argument that there was no long-run improvement in living standards before the Industrial Revolution, demonstrating that GDP per capita rose more than 30% between the 1280s and the 1780s.

Yet most of the rise was explained by a single episode of economic growth that took place prior to the Black Death between the 1280s and the 1340s and which shifted the trajectory of growth onto a higher path.

Overall, these estimates suggest that the evolution of the French economy can be suitably interpreted as an intermediate case between the successful example of England and the Low Countries and the declining patterns of Italy and Spain. Being neither a southern country nor a northern one, the growth experience of France seems to reflect this geographical heterogeneity.



Goubert, Pierre (1960) École pratique des hautes etudes, Laboratoire cartographique, Beauvais et le Beauvaisis de 1600 à 1730: contribution a l’histoire sociale de la France du 17e siècle, Sevpen.

Ladurie, Emmanuel Le Roy (1966) Les paysans de Languedoc Vol. 1. Mouton.

Maddison, Angus (2010) Historical Statistics of the World Economy: 1-2008 AD, Paris.

When political interests block new infrastructures: evidence from party connections in the age of Britain’s first transport revolution

New research shows how party politics and connections slowed the diffusion of much-needed improvements in river navigation in Britain during the early eighteenth century. The study by Dan Bogart (University of California Irvine), which is forthcoming in the Economic Journal, reveals that modern concerns about powerful interests coalescing to block infrastructure projects that will benefit the wider economy are nothing new.

Islington Tunnel in the early 19th century. Source: <;


The famous economist Adam Smith noted in The Wealth of Nations that landowners close to London petitioned Parliament against the extension of transport improvements because it threatened their rents. Was Smith right: do ‘downstream’ interests use their political connections to block ‘upstream’ transport improvements? The new research addresses this question in the context of river navigation, which before the development of canals and railways, was a key part of Britain’s early transport system.

A river navigation act established a company with rights to levy tolls and purchase land necessary for improvements in navigation. Through their statutory powers, navigation companies played a key role in the extension of inland waterways. Improved navigation lowered transport costs since freight rates by inland waterway were approximately one-third of the freight rates by road.

In light of their economic importance, it is significant that the diffusion of navigation acts was slow. It took nearly 50 years to extend navigation on most rivers in Britain. One immediate reason is that projects were proposed several times in Parliament as bills before being approved, and some were never approved.

In general, bills proposing infrastructure projects had high failure rates in Parliament. Opposition from interest groups was the most direct reason. Interest groups would appeal to their MP for assistance, and as this research shows, it was significant whether their MP was connected to the majority political party.

The Whig and Tory parties were in intense competition between 1690 and 1741, with the majority party in the House of Commons switching seven times. The two parties differed in their policy positions and their supporters. The Tories were favoured by small to medium-sized landowners, and the Whigs by merchants, financiers and large landowners.

This study is one of first to test empirically whether Britain’s early parties contributed to different development policies and whether they targeted supporters. The research uses new town-level economic, political and geographical data to investigate how party connections and interest groups worked in this important historical period.

The results show that the characteristics of river navigation supporters and opponents in neighbouring areas had a large effect on their diffusion. For example, more towns with roads in upstream areas (generally supporters) increased the likelihood of a town’s river bill succeeding in Parliament and more towns with harbours downstream (generally opponents) reduced the likelihood of the bill succeeding. Such factors were as important as project feasibility, measured by elevation changes.

Another important factor was the strength of majority party representation in neighbouring political constituencies. Having more downstream MPs in the majority party (a measure of opposition connections) reduced the likelihood of a town’s bill succeeding in Parliament and getting blocked from navigation acts. The identity of the majority party was also relevant. Whig majorities increased the probability of river acts being adopted.

These findings confirm the forces highlighted by Adam Smith and show that the institutional environment in Britain was not always favourable to rapid adoption of infrastructure. Interest groups were powerful and could block projects that went against their interest. The Whig and Tory parties contributed to the blocking power or bias from interest groups, although the Whigs appear to have been more pro-development.

More generally, this case focuses attention on the distributional effects of infrastructure and efforts to block projects. Political connections matter and can have important economic consequences.

‘Party Connections, Interest Groups, and the Slow Diffusion of Infrastructure: Evidence from Britain’s First Transport Revolution’ by Dan Bogart is forthcoming in the Economic Journal.

Globalisation and Economic Development: A Lesson from History

by Luigi Pascali (Pompeu Fabra University)

History teaches us that globalisation does not automatically translate into economic development.

How does globalisation affect development? This question has a long tradition in economics and has been much debated both in the academia and in policy circles. Neoclassical theories tell us that reducing trade barriers across countries should provide net benefits to individual economies by making markets more efficient and stimulating competition. Testing these theories, however, turns out to be difficult: rich countries are generally also those that trade the most, but is it trade that makes them rich, or do they trade more because they are rich to start with?

The ideal way to answer to these questions would be through an experiment, in which we randomly divide all the countries of the world into two groups and then we reduce trade costs for one group, while keeping trade costs constant for the other group. The difference in the observed GDP growth in the following years between the two set of countries would eventually provide us with an estimate of the impact of trade integration on development.

It turns out that history can provide us with such an experiment. The invention of the steamship in the late 19th century greatly reduced trade costs for some countries but not for others; whether a country was able to reduce its trade costs as a result of this innovation was the result of its geography, rather than economic forces. In a recent paper (Pascali, forthcoming), this natural experiment is used to assess the causal impact of trade on development.

The Experiment

Before the steamship, sea routes were shaped by winds. As an example, consider Figure 1, which illustrates a series of journeys made by British sailing ships in the 19th century, between England, the Cape of Good Hope and Java, and Figure 2, which depicts the prevailing sea-surface winds in the world.  Winds tend to follow a clockwise pattern in the North Atlantic; consequently, sailing ships would sail westward from Western Europe, after travelling south to 30 N latitude and reaching the ‘trade winds’, thus arriving in the Caribbean, rather than travelling straight to North America. The result is that trade systems historically tended to follow a triangular pattern between Europe, Africa, the West Indies and the United States. Furthermore, because in the South Atlantic winds tend to blow counterclockwise, sailing ships would not sail directly southward to the Cape of Good Hope; rather, they would first sail southwest toward Brazil and then move east to the Cape of Good Hope at 30 S latitude.

Figure 1. 15 journeys made by British ships between 1800 and 1860

fig 1

Notes: These journeys were randomly selected from the CLIWOC dataset among all voyages between England and Java comprised in the dataset. 


Figure 2. Prevailing winds in May (between 2000 and 2002)

fig 2

Note: direction of wind defined by the direction of the arrow and speed by the length of the arrow. 


The invention and subsequent development of the steamship was a watershed event in maritime transport and was the major driver of the first wave of trade globalisation (1870-1913), an increase in international trade that was unprecedented in human history. For the first time, vessels were not at the mercy of the winds, and trade routes became independent of wind patterns.

The steam engine, however, reduced shipping times in a disproportionate manner across trade routes, depending on the type of winds that vessels used to face throughout their journeys. In some routes, shipping times were cut by more than half, while in some others the change was minimal.

These asymmetric changes in shipping times (and related trade costs) across countries are used as a natural experiment, to explore the effect of international trade on economic development.


Exploiting the random variation in trade costs, generated by the transition from sail to steam, this research documents that the consequences of the first wave of trade globalisation on development were not necessarily positive. On a sample of 36 countries, the average impact, in the short run, was a reduction in per-capita GDP, population density and urbanisation rates.

This average negative impact, however, masks large differences across different groups of countries.

Firstly, the initial wave of trade globalisation turned out to be particularly detrimental in countries that were already less economically developed to start with and it was probably the major reason behind the Great Divergence, the economic divergence observed between the richest countries and the rest of the world, in the second-half of the nineteenth century.

Secondly, trade turned out to be very beneficial for countries that were characterised by strong constraints on executive power, a distinct feature of the institutional environment that has been demonstrated to favour private investment.

Why should we expect institutions to be crucial to benefiting from trade? A common argument is that a country with ‘good’ institutions will suffer less from the hold-up under-investment problem in those industries that intensively rely on relationship-specific assets. In this sense, good institutions are a crucial source of comparative advantage in non-agricultural sectors, in which the hold-up problem is more binding. These results confirm this theoretical prediction: a reduction in trade costs increased the share of exports in non-agricultural products, and the share of the population living in large cities, only in those countries characterised by stronger constraints on the executive power.


How did the rise in international trade affect economic development? This research addressed this question using novel trade data and an historical experiment of history. It finds that 1) the adoption of the steamship had a major impact on patterns of international trade worldwide, 2) only a small number of countries, characterised by more inclusive institutions, benefited from trade integration, and 3) globalisation was the major driver of the Great Divergence.

Policymakers who are willing to learn from history are advised to consider that a reduction in trade barriers across countries does not automatically produce (at least in the short-run) large positive effects on economic development and can increase inequality across nations.


This article is based on research presented in the following paper: “The Wind of Change: Maritime Technology, Trade and Economic Development”, The American Economic Review, forthcoming. The associated working paper is available on the CAGE website

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.

British engineering skills in the age of steam

by Harry Kitsikopoulos (academic director, Unbound Prometheus)

Wiki Commons. The side-lever Engine, 1849 ca.


Engineering skills in Britain improved during the eighteenth century but progress was not linear. My research uses a novel approach to quantifying the trends from the first appearance of the technology of steam power (1706) through to the last quarter of the century (the Watt era), using a large amount of data on fuel consumption rates.

Britain was a very unlikely candidate for the invention of steam engines, as I argue in my 2016 book, Innovation and Technological Diffusion: An Economic History of the Early Steam Engines. It was French and Italians who first rediscovered, translated and published the ancient texts of Hero of Alexandria on steam power; they also discovered the existence of vacuum in nature, the main principle of a steam engine’s working mechanism.

But Britain had two advantages: first, a divorce-obsessed king who detached the island from the Catholic dogma and its alliance with the Cartesian epistemological paradigm, both denying the existence of vacuum in nature. The same king also brought a seismic institutional transformation by passing monastic properties under the ownership of lay landlords, a class far more keen on solving the water drainage problem plaguing the mining industry in its drive to exploit mineral wealth.

Britain was also fortunate in another respect: it was relatively backward in terms of mining technology! That proved to be a good thing. While mining districts in Germany and Liège used a technology that resolved the drainage problem, Britain failed to imitate them, hence forcing itself to seek alternative solutions, thereby leading to the invention of the steam engine.

Grand inventions earn glorious references in school textbooks, but it is the diffusion of a technology that contributes to economic growth, a process that relies on the development of relevant human capital.

The records reveal that there were not much more than a dozen engineers who were active in erecting engines during the period 1706-75, including Thomas Newcomen, the obscure ironmonger from Devon who came up with the first working model. The figure increased to at least 60 during the last quarter of the century through the action of the invisible hand: the initial scarcity of such skills raised wages, which, in turn, acted as stimuli transferring talent from related engineering occupations.

My new study traces the production and marketing strategies of this group, which ranged from the narrow horizons of certain figures concentrating on the erection of engines in one locality, a single model, or focusing on one industry all the way to the global outlook of the Boulton and Watt firm.

The last question I pose is perhaps the most interesting: did British engineers get better during the eighteenth century in managing these engines?

Measuring skill is not a straightforward affair. Two well-respected experts at the time came up with tables that specified what the ideal fuel rates ought to have been for engines of different hp. When plotted in a graph these two variables depict a curve of ideal rates.

My analysis uses two distinct datasets with 111 fuel rate observations recorded in working engines – one for the older Newcomen model and another for the newer Watt engines. These actual fuel rates were plotted as bullet points around the respective ‘ideal’ curves. A progressively narrower distance between the curves and the bullet points would indicate higher efficiency and improved engineering skills.

The results reveal that for the first 25 years following the appearance of both models, there was no consistent trend: the bullet points alternated coming closer and moving away from the ideal curves. But the data also reveal that these initial patterns gave way to trends revealing consistent progress.

In an era of practical tinkerers lacking a formal educational system when it comes to this particular skill, British engineers did get better through a classic process of ‘learning-by-doing’, But this only happened after an initial stage of adjustment, of getting used to models with different working mechanisms.