The two faces of slavery

By Lorraine Besnier

Although there are proofs that Europeans did not invent slavery but simply changed its face, some questions remains concerning the extent of this statement. The way Europeans reinvented not only the definition of slave, but also reorganised societies around it, suggests that they did create an entirely new structure.

In this post, I will try to show that by redefining slavery, Europeans completely changed the existing institutions, based on their own perception of the matter.

Lovejoy explains in “Transformation of slavery” how slavery in its basic definition of one person owning another existed long before the Europeans first came to Africa. Indeed, indigenous slavery was based on the survival of the fittest. A man, to protect himself, would enslave his adversary for if he failed to do so, he himself would have to submit. But some rules were informally enforced. For instance, there was no idea of class, and tribes did matter.

After the arrival of the Europeans, the rules changed. Indeed, with the importance given to slaves, the indirect implantation of new institutions, and the creation of an entire market, the incentives were increasing for individuals to pay attention to this “business”.

However, the effects were not the same for everyone, and as the Europeans transposed their own beliefs abroad by solely approaching people whom had some kind of authority in the communities, only a small number of individuals could benefit from it. Lovejoy's example of the Oracle “swallowing” people to sell them perfectly illustrates the idea. Thus, native chiefs and religious guides had the monopoly on slave trafficking.

With their “contribution” of a new system, the Europeans succeeded in creating an unprecedented organisation within Africa. Slavery was no longer a matter of safety, but one of money.

21st century colonialism

By Reinout Huizer

The world’s population is rapidly growing and will continue to do so. Due to the increasing middle class in many countries consumption rates have gone up. Land is scarce and in order to fulfill the needs of this growing group companies and governments are buying and leasing land in the developing world. Countries sell or lease out their land in order to stimulate development, but in most instances this is not the result. Contrary to what the host countries are expecting products are exported out of the country and leave the local population empty handed. Is colonialism a term of the past?

Extracting resources from a country is not a new concept and has been done on an extreme scale during the colonial era. Towards the end of this era colonizers wanted to make as much profit as possible and in order to do so they exploited the countries they had claimed. Nowadays countries are not able to produce enough food on their own territories and to meet the level of consumption they look across the border. In 2009 Saudi Arabia exclusively produced for the Kingdom itself in Ethiopia, where at the time being the population was suffering due to famine. This example clearly illustrates that this modern-day land grab is purely based on the self-interests of foreign investors.

Ethiopia is not the only country that has given up its land, countries across Sub-Saharan Africa and Asia have signed contracts that only profit the twenty-first century colonizers.

The majority of these deals will harm the developing countries in the future and only provide them with money and do not stimulate their long-term development. Because foreign governments are involved in this process it can be argued that colonialism is still present today and that the second scramble for Africa has started.

Missouri Compromise

By Jori Korpershoek

The Missouri Compromise of 1820 was an agreement between the slave owning South and the abolitionist North of the United States of America. Congress drew a line through the American continent and declared that on one side slavery would be legal, on the other side it would be illegal. Acemoglu, Johnson and Robinson look at institutions on the national level, but in this case the level of inclusiveness clearly differed within the nation. Can the same mechanism of higher settler mortality leading to extractive institutions be used to explain these intra-national differences?

When talking about diseases in the New World, the main culprits are usually smallpocks, measles and chickenpox which wiped out a significant percentage of Native Americans. But not all newly imported diseases would be as harmless to the new settlers. Ships from Africa did not only bring slaves, but also carried malaria falciparum, an especially deadly strain of malaria that many West-Africans developed immunity to. 

In "The Colonial Origins of Comparative Development" Acemoglu et al. argue that the higher the mortality rate for Europeans in a colony, the worse its institutions. In his book "1493" Michael C. Mann proposes a similar hypothesis for America. In early colonies where malaria falciparum thrived, death rates for Europeans would be higher than for their immune slaves. These place would in turn rely more heavily on that most ‘peculiar’ extractive institution of African slavery rather than (European) indentured or wage labor.

Mann provides potential evidence that suggests this hypothesis is worth further investigation. Malaria falciparum is very temperature sensitive. The difference between it thriving and not being a problem depends on a temperature difference of a few degrees each winter. In Atlantic City, New Jersey, the mosquitos would die every year. 190 Kilometer south in Washington D.C. the mosquito would survive the slightly warmer winters. Between these cities runs the Mason-Dixon line, which roughly divided the North from the South.


By Lisa Day

A week ahead from an African leaders summit in 2014, Barak Obama stated: “Africa should stop blaming history for its economic problems”.  He continued on by dismissing the idea that slavery and colonialism, imposed by the west, were the root cause for poverty and under-development in Africa. Is this statement fair? Can colonialism truly be blamed for Africa’s economic misfortune?

In “The Colonial Origins of Comparative Development: An Empirical Investigation”, Acemoglu and Robinson argue that the main causes for the inequality of wealth across countries are differences among institutions and property rights. They then propose that differences in GDP per capita across colonized countries are caused by differences in the mortality rates of the settlers. The theory states that settler mortality rates affected the feasibility of creating settlements; settlements then affected the early institutions that were imposed and the early institutions affected the current institutions. The graph shown below plots GDP per capita against settler mortality rates:

Source: Acemoglu, Johnson and Robinson, "The  colonial origins  of  comparative development : An empirical investigation"

Source: Acemoglu, Johnson and Robinson, "The colonial origins of comparative development: An empirical investigation"

The relationship between the two variables suggests that as settler mortality rate increases; GDP per capita decreases. They argue that lower settler mortality rates allowed a large amount of settlers to create good institutions that persist today.

There is one country however that doesn’t appear to follow the trend as strongly as the others, Ethiopia. Ethiopia along with Liberia were the only two African countries that were not colonized. You could therefore assume that Ethiopia has a lower GDP per capita today than expected because it was not imposed with good institutions from colonization. In addition, if colonization were the main cause of modern poverty you would expect Ethiopia and Liberia to be the wealthiest of the African nations. However this is not the case as Liberia and Ethiopia are the 4th and 7th poorest countries in the world respectively.

It is undeniable that the scars of colonialism persist today. However we cannot truly blame colonialism for the current poverty in Africa alone.


By Rens Edwards

During the colonial era, Europeans would typically create two kinds of states in countries they invaded, depending on how useful that country was. In countries in which they saw a future for themselves, inclusive states appeared. Inclusiveness meant that more development-minded institutions were created. Extractive states did not provide much protection for things such as private property as its goal was to transfer as many resources as possible from the colonized to the colonizer. The latter occurred in countries where colonizers did not stay permanently.  

The idea of inclusive versus extractive institutions can be extended to the business world. In the business model, the board of directors function as the colonizers and the rest of the employees and shareholders as the colonized. Executives of a business have two options when managing the company. Either, they can choose for a short-term focus or they can pursue a long-term focus. The short-term (extractive) focus involves taking on risky projects that cause high earnings for the near future. This looks good on paper, as earning expectations are met and executives subsequently receive higher bonuses. However, this focus is detrimental to the long-term (inclusive) value of the company, because these companies invest less in research or marketing.

The main reason why executives choose the short-term focus, relates to their compensation. The higher the earnings in a given period, the higher the executive compensation. As a solution, companies should separate executive compensation from the company’s earnings. Otherwise, we see a trend where “elites (executives) that have prospered from inclusive systems can be tempted to pull up the ladder they climbed to the top.”

Similar to the depletion of resources in extractive states during colonialism, companies that become extractive will bleed out financially in no time. 

Should Rhodes have fallen?

By Lexi Rowland

A recent student movement at the University of Cape Town resulted in the statue of Cecil John Rhodes, one of the main contributors to UCT’s founding, to be unceremoniously removed from its pedestal on the campus. Among the reasons for such a removal, Rhodes’ legacy of racial discrimination and arguably influential role in the formation of Apartheid are cited as the most important.

Acemoglu and Robinson, in their 2001 paper 'The Colonial Origins of Comparative Development: An Empirical Investigation', present a model for the analysis of institutional change in colonial countries from the time of colonization to today. Such a model aims to find a development in history that cannot be affected by any omitted variables and therefore be afforded a direct causal relationship with a current institution. Arguably, in the case of the Rhodes Must Fall Movement where Rhodes is depicted as a solely racist reminder, such a relationship with Apartheid has been afforded to Rhodes' himself. 

Yes, Rhodes' was undoubtedly racist however many other factors, as well as persons, were similarly if not more influential to the formation of Apartheid decades later. The importance of such omitted variables, or people, in the history of a country such as South Africa would mean that in order to remove all racist symbols or institutional reminders of its history, the history of the country would have to be restarted. 

Rhodes, just like many politicians today, had both good and bad qualities and therefore he should not be remembered as a simple racist. Although he was undeniably involved in the formation of Apartheid, Rhodes was also influential in mending relations between the British and the Afrikaners as well as creating infrastructure valuable to today's South Africa; thus making his legacy a double edged sword. Shouldn't he stand therefore, not in commemoration, but in remembrance of the recklessness of colonizers toward race relations in Africa as a whole? 

History matters

By Kelsey Bischot

Spending six weeks in a hut in the mountains of rural Thailand, I left feeling quite pessimistic about the state of the country and its institutions. I can’t help but wonder what countries like Thailand would have been like if it had been colonized like all of its neighbors. Likewise, it is hard to imagine what the world would be like today if there had been no colonization.

History matters and it is important to be critical of our history such as colonialism, which I will show is not the only path for past institutional change. Ferguson claims that the British disseminated many features in their colonies such as: the English language, the common law, and the idea of liberty. This is exactly what Thailand seems to be missing in its institutions so it would be easy to say that it would have gained these features, had it been colonized. Yet, we must look at history and institutions critically. Yes, it would be more likely that the living standards would be higher but it is important to realize that Thailand could have or will “naturally” gain these features without the British’s bloody path to modernity. Japan for one, is known to have high living standards like many Western nations although it escaped formal colonization.

This is where I disagree with Ferguson. Colonization is not the most successful way to create the above-mentioned features in an institution. As it may seem that many of the British Empire’s colonies have the characteristics of a “democratic or successful nation,” the empire built these institutions on oppression and exploitation.

Hence, it is important to understand history but it is likewise crucial to be critical of history’s effects. 


By Geerte Verduijn

In 1911, Agnes Ferguson decided to leave her life in Scotland and headed to the United States of America. Dating back over a million years, migration is no new phenomenon. Yet media reports of citizen’s animosity against migrants intensify in frequency. With David Cameron referring to ‘a swarm’ of refugees, and foreign secretary Philip Hammond predicting ‘a threat to the EU’s standard of living and social structure,’ explicit opinions now have reached the United Kingdom’s government. When expressing such worries however, there are several things the British might want to take into account. 

First of all, the country’s fairly recent past. It is interesting to see how easily is spoken in generalized terms – ‘the swarm’, ‘Africans’ - when addressing great groups of migrants, as if all that is foreign is homogenous. Meanwhile, when referring to ‘our country’, the outspoken Britain’s seem to conveniently forget ‘’their’’ ancestors who massively migrated to the furthest corners of the world. Those journeys moreover showed that migration is not a priori negative. It has even been argued that the presence of refugees can supply a country with labor and stimulate economic growth. Is the British standard of living really as threatened as its people fear?

On the other hand, even comparing current affairs with past migrations of the British would not suffice. While Ms. Ferguson was ‘enticed by alluring pictures of the Canadian prairies,’ and economic migration is still happening, the motives of many refugees anno 2015 have exceeded such luxuries. People are fleeing from ‘apocalyptic’ civil wars, willing to risk their lives trying to reach safer ground.

How long does it take before people get used to a certain standard of living? Before having Maslow’s first needs fulfilled and owning the most powerful passport in the world starts to weaken their empathy for the less-lucky or unknown? Perhaps the British should reconsider the treasured but ‘threatened’ social and institutional structures that allow them to make such impassive statements when human lives are at stake.