Land distribution and Inequality in a Black Settler Colony: The Case of Sierra Leone, 1792–1831

by Stefania Galli and Klas Rönnbäck (University of Gothenburg)

The full article from this blog is published on the European Review of Economic History and is available as open source at this link

Governor_John_Thomas's_house_in_Sierra_Leone,_mid-17th_century,_artist's_recreation
“Houses at Sierra-Leone”, Wesleyan Juvenile Offering: A Miscellany of Missionary Information for Young Persons, volume X, May 1853, pp. 55–57, illustration on p. 55. Available on Wikimedia

Land distribution has been identified as a key contributor to economic inequality in pre-industrial societies. Historical evidence on the link between land distribution and inequality for the African continent is scant, unlike the large body of research available for Europe and the Americas. Our article examines inequality in land ownership in Sierra Leone during the early nineteenth century. Our contribution is  unique because it studies land inequality at a particularly early stage for African economic history.

In 1787 the Sierra Leone colony was born, the first British colony to be founded after the American War of Independence. The colony had some peculiar features. Although populated by settlers, they were not of European origin, as in most settler colonies founded at the time. Rather, Sierra Leone came to be populated by people of African descent — a mix of former and liberated slaves from America, Europe and Africa. Furthermore, Sierra Leone had deeply egalitarian foundations, which rendered it more similar to a utopian society, than to other colonies founded on the African continent in subsequent  decades. The founders of the colony intended egalitarian land distribution for all settlers, aiming to create a black yeoman settler society.

In our study, we rely on a new dataset constructed from multiple different sources pertaining to the early years of Sierra Leone, which provide evidence on household  land distribution for three benchmark years: 1792, 1800 and 1831. The first two benchmarks refer to a time when demographic pressure in the Colony was limited, while the last benchmark represents a period of  rapidly increasing  demographic pressure due to the inflow of ‘liberated slaves’ from captured slave ships landed at Freetown.

Our findings show that, in its early days, the colony was characterized by highly egalitarian land distribution, possibly the most equal distribution calculated to date. All households possessed some land, in a distribution determined to a large extent by household size. Not only were there no landless households in 1792 and 1800, but land was normally distributed around the mean. Based on these results, we conclude that the ideological foundations of the colony were manifested in egalitarian distribution of land.

Such ideological convictions were, however, hard to maintain in the long run due to mounting demographic pressure and limited government funding. Land inequality thus increased substantially by the last benchmark year (Figure 1). In 1831, land distribution was positively skewed, with a substantial proportion of households in the sample being landless or owning plots much smaller than the median, while a few households held very large plots. We argue that these findings are consistent with an institutional shift in redistributive policy, which enabled inequality to grow rapidly. In the early days, all settlers received a set amount of land. However, by 1831, land could be appropriated freely by the settlers, enabling households to appropriate land according to their ability, but also according to their wish to participate in agricultural production. Specifically, households in more fertile regions appear to have specialized in agricultural production, whereas households in regions unsuitable to agriculture increasingly came to focus upon other economic activities.

Picture 1new
Figure 1. Land distribution in Sierra Leone, 1792, 1800 and 1831. Source: as per article

Our results have two implications for the debate on the origin of inequality. First, Sierra Leone shows how idealist motives had important consequences for inequality. This is of key importance for wider discussions on the extent to which politics generates tangible changes in society. Second, our results show how difficult it was to effect idealism when confronted by  mounting material challenges.

 

To contact the authors:

Stefania Galli (stefania.galli@gu.se)

Twitter: https://twitter.com/galli_stef