Taxation and the stagnation of cotton exports in Brazil, 1800 – 1860

by Thales Zamberlan Pereira (Getúlio Vargas Foundation, São Paulo School of Economics)

Port of Pernambuco. Emil Bauch, 1852. Brasiliana Iconográfica.

Brazil supplied 40 per cent of cotton imports in Liverpool during the last decade of the eighteenth century (Krichtal 2013). By the first half of the nineteenth century, however, cotton exports stagnated, and Brazil became the only major international cotton producer that decreased its exports to European countries. The reason for decline in production, despite increasing international demand during the 19th century, is not generally agreed on. Scholars have attributed the decline to high transport costs, competition from sugar and coffee plantations for slaves, Dutch disease from the increase in coffee exports, among others (Leff 1972; Stein 1979; Canabrava 2011). There is disagreement in part because previous research largely relies on data after 1850, which was after the decline of cotton plantations in Brazil.

In a new paper, I argue that cotton profitability was restricted by the fiscal policy implemented by the Portuguese (and, later, Brazilian) government after 1808. To make this argue I first show new patterns on the timing of the decline of Brazilian cotton. Specifically, using new data of cotton productivity for the 1800-1860 period, this research shows that Brazil’s stagnation began in the first decades of the nineteenth century.

The decline therefore cannot be explained by a number of factors. It took place before the United States managed to increase its productivity in cotton production and became the world export leader (Olmstead and Rhode 2008). Cotton regions in Brazil did not have a labour supply problem nor suffered from a Dutch disease phenomenon during the early nineteenth century (Pereira 2018). The new evidence also suggests that external factors, such as declining international prices or maritime transport costs, were not responsible for the stagnation of cotton exports in Brazil. As any other commodity at the time, falls in international prices would have to be offset by increases in productivity. In fact, Figure 1 shows that Brazilian cotton prices were competitive in Liverpool. From the staples presented in the Figure, the standard cotton from the provinces of Pernambuco and Maranhão had higher quality than from New Orleans and Georgia (and, hence, achieved higher prices), but “Maranhão saw-ginned”, which achieved similar prices, used the same seeds as the ones in US plantations.

Figure 1: Cotton prices in Liverpool 1825 – 1850
Source: Liverpool Mercury and The Times newspapers

So, what caused the stagnation of cotton exports in Brazil? I argue that the fiscal policy implemented by the Portuguese government after 1808 restricted cotton profitability. High export taxes, whose funds were transferred to Rio de Janeiro, explain the ‘profitability paradox’ that British consuls in Brazil reported at the time. They remarked that even in periods with high prices and foreign demand, Brazilian planters had limited profitability. Favourable market conditions after the Napoleonic wars allowed production in Brazil to continue growing at least until the early 1830s.

Figure 2 shows that when international prices started to decline after 1835, cotton was no longer a profitable crop in many Brazilian regions. This was especially pronounced for regions where plantations were far from the coast, which had to pay higher transport costs in addition to the export tax. To support that the tax burden decreased profitability, I calculate an “optimal tax rate”, which maximized government revenues, and the “effective tax rate”, which was the amount that exporters paid. Figure 2 illustrates that, while the tax rate by law was low, the effective tax rate for cotton producers was significantly greater than the optimal tax rate after 1835.

Figure 2 – Rate of cotton export tariffs, 1809-1850.

Facing lower prices, cotton producers in Brazil could have shifted production to varieties of cotton produced in the United States, which had higher productivity and were in increasing demand in British markets. As presented in Figure 1, some regions in Brazil tried to follow this route (with saw-ginned cotton in Maranhão), but this type of production was not profitable with an export tax that reached 20 percent. Brazil, therefore, was stuck in the market for long-staple cotton, for which demand remained relatively stable during the nineteenth century. Regions that could not produce long-staple cotton practically abandoned production.

Not only do the results provide insight to the cotton decline, but the paper contributes to a better understanding of the roots of regional inequality in Brazil and the political economy of taxation. Cotton production before 1850 was concentrated in the northeast region, which continues to lag in economic conditions to this day. As I argue in the paper, the export taxes implemented after 1808 largely targeted commodities from the northeast. Production of commodities from southeast regions, such as coffee, paid lower tax rates. Parliamentary debates at the time show cotton producers in the Northeast did demand tax reform. Their demands, however, were not met quickly enough to prevent Brazilian cotton plantations from being priced-out from the international market.

To contact the author:


Canabrava, Alice P. 2011. O Desenvolvimento Da Cultura Do Algodão Na Província de São Paulo, 1861-1875. São Paulo: EDUSP.

Krichtal, Alexey. 2013. “Liverpool and the Raw Cotton Trade: A Study of the Port and Its Merchant Community, 1770-1815.” Victoria University of Wellington.

Leff, Nathaniel H. 1972. “Economic Development and Regional Inequality: Origins of the Brazilian Case.” The Quarterly Journal of Economics 86 (2): 243–62.

Olmstead, Alan L., and Paul W. Rhode. 2008. “Biological Innovation and Productivity Growth in the Antebellum Cotton Economy.” The Journal of Economic History 68 (04): 1123–1171.

Pereira, Thales A. Zamberlan. 2018. “Poor Man’s Crop? Slavery in Cotton Regions in Brazil (1800-1850).” Estudos Econômicos (São Paulo) 48 (4).

Stein, Stanley J. 1979. Origens e evolução da indústria têxtil no Brasil: 1850-1950. Rio de Janeiro: Editora Campus.

Trade in the Shadow of Power: Japanese Industrial Exports in the Interwar years

By Alejandro Ayuso Díaz and Antonio Tena Junguito (Carlos III University of Madrid)

The history of international trade provides numerous examples of trade in the ‘shadow of power’ (Findlay and O´Rourke 2007). Here we argue that Japanese empire power was as important as factor endowments, preferences, and technology, to the expansion of trade during the interwar years. Following Gardfield et al 2010, the shadow of power that we discuss is based on the use or threat of violence or conquest which depend on the military capabilities of states.

Figure 1:Japan and World Manufacturing Export Performance. Source: Japan and World comparative manufacture exports in volume (1953=100) from UN Historical Trade Statistics.

Japan was a latecomer to 20th-century industrialization, but during the interwar years, and especially in the 1930s, it was able to activate a complex and aggressive industrialization policy to accelerate the modernization of its industry. This policy consisted of import substitution and exports of manufactures to its region of influence. This newly created empire was very efficient in developing a peculiar imperial trade in the shadow of power throughout East and Southeast Asia in conjunction with a more aggressive imperial regional policy through conquest.

The trade generation capacity of the Japanese empire during the interwar years was much higher than that suggested by Mitchener and Weidenmier (2008) for the preceding period (1870-1913). However, some caution needs to be exercised in making this comparison because it might indicate issues associated with the interpretation of the relevant statistics. Japanese empire trade membership increased by more than ten times that associated with the British, German and French Empires, during this period and was twice as great as that for the US and Spanish empires. Consequently, it might be argued that our coefficients are more prominent because they are capturing stronger intra-bloc bias that emerged after the Great Depression.

Employing a granular database consisting of Japanese exports towards 117 countries over 1,135 products at six different benchmarks (1912,1915,1925,1929,1932 and 1938) we are able to demonstrate that the expansion of Japanese exports during the interwar period was facilitated by the exploitation of formal and informal imperial links which exerted a bigger influence on export determination than productivity increases.

Figure 2: Japanese total manufacturing exports by skills and region. Source: Annual Returns of the Foreign Trade of the Empire of Japan.

a) Manufacturing exports by skills

b) high skilled exports by region


The main characteristics of this trade expansion between 1932 and 1938 were high-skill exports directed towards Japanese colonies. Additional evidence indicates that Japan did not enjoy comparative advantage in products with limited export- market potential. Colonial infrastructure, building and urbanization were used as exclusive markets for high-skill exports and became one of the main drivers of Japanese export expansion and its modern industrialization process.

Trade blocs in the interwar years were used as instruments of imperial power to foster exports and as a substitute for productivity in encouraging industrial production. In that sense, Japan’s total exports in 1938 were between 28% and 47% higher than 1912 thanks to imperial mechanisms. The figure is much higher when we capture the imperial effect on high-skill exports (between 66% and 76% higher thanks to imperial connections). The quoted figures are based on a counterfactual comparing exports without the empire to those obtained via Imperial mechanisms.

We believe that our results demonstrate the colonial trade bias mechanism used by imperialist countries was inversely related to productivity. The implicit counterfactual hypothesis would be that without imperial intervention in the region Japan would not have expanded its high-skill exports and would not have exported such a variety of new products. In other words, Japan’s industrialisation process would have been much less pronounced.



Ayuso-Diaz, A. and Tena-Junguito, A. (2019): “Trade in the Shadow of Power: Japanese Industrial Exports in the Interwar years”. Economic History Review (forthcoming).

Findlay, R. and O’Rourke, K. (2007). Power and Plenty. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Garfinkel, M, Skaperdas, S., and Syropoulos, C. (2012). ‘Trade in the Shadow of Power’. In Skaperdas, S., and Syropoulos, C. (eds.), Oxford Handbook on the Economics of Peace and Conflict. Oxford University Press.

Mitchener, K. J., & Weidenmier, M. (2008). Trade and empire. The Economic Journal, 118(533), 1805-1834.

Ritschl, A. & Wolf, N. (2003). “Endogeneity of Currency Areas and Trade Blocs: Evidence from the Inter-war Period,” CEPR Discussion Papers 4112.


To contact the authors:

Alejandro Ayuso Díaz (

Antonio Tena Junguito (

Britain’s post-Brexit trade: learning from the Edwardian origins of imperial preference

by Brian Varian (Swansea University)

Imperial Federation, map of the world showing the extent of the British Empire in 1886. Wikimedia Commons

In December 2017, Liam Fox, the Secretary of State for International Trade, stated that ‘as the United Kingdom negotiates its exit from the European Union, we have the opportunity to reinvigorate our Commonwealth partnerships, and usher in a new era where expertise, talent, goods, and capital can move unhindered between our nations in a way that they have not for a generation or more’.

As policy-makers and the public contemplate a return to the halcyon days of the British Empire, there is much to be learned from those past policies that attempted to cultivate trade along imperial lines. Let us consider the effect of the earliest policies of imperial preference: policies enacted during the Edwardian era.

In the late nineteenth century, Britain was the bastion of free trade, imposing tariffs on only a very narrow range of commodities. Consequently, Britain’s free trade policy afforded barely any scope for applying lower or ‘preferential’ duties to imports from the Empire.

The self-governing colonies of the Empire possessed autonomy in tariff-setting and, with the notable exception of New South Wales, did not emulate the mother country’s free trade policy. In the 1890s and 1900s, when the emergent industrial nations of Germany and the United States reduced Britain’s market share in these self-governing colonies, there was indeed scope for applying preferential duties to imports from Britain, in the hope of diverting trade back toward the Empire.

Trade policies of imperial preference were implemented in succession by Canada (1897), the South African Customs Union (1903), New Zealand (1903) and Australia (1907). By the close of the first era of globalisation in 1914, Britain enjoyed some margin of preference in all of the Dominions. Yet my research, a case study of New Zealand, casts doubt on the effectiveness of these polices at raising Britain’s share in the imports of the Dominions.

Unlike the policies of the other Dominions, New Zealand’s policy applied preferential duties to only selected commodity imports (44 out of 543). This cross-commodity variation in the application of preference is useful for estimating the effect of preference. I find that New Zealand’s Preferential and Reciprocal Trade Act of 1903 had no effect on the share of the Empire, or of Britain specifically, in New Zealand’s imports.

Why was the policy ineffective at raising Britain’s share of New Zealand’s imports? There are several likely reasons: that Britain’s share was already quite large; that some imported commodities were highly differentiated and certain varieties were only produced in other industrial countries; and, most importantly, that the margin of preference – the extent to which duties were lower for imports from Britain – was too small to effect any trade diversion.

As Britain considers future trade agreements, perhaps with Commonwealth countries, it should be remembered that a trade agreement does not necessarily entail a great, or even any, increase in trade. The original policies of imperial preference were rather symbolic measures and, at least in the case of New Zealand, economically inconsequential.

Brexit might well present an ‘opportunity to reinvigorate our Commonwealth partnerships’, but would that be a reinvigoration in substance or in appearance?