The labour question and settler colonialism: Jutta Bolt, Erik Green, ‘Was the wage burden too heavy? Settler farming, profitability, and wage shares of settler agriculture in Nyasaland, c. 1900-60’, Journal of African History, 56, 2, pp.1-22


Abstract: The historical role of European farming in southern and central Africa has received a great deal of attention among scholars over the years. A striking consensus emerges in the scholarly literature, namely that the success or failure of European farming in southern Africa was to a large extent dependent upon the colonizers’ access to and control over cheap labour, which they in turn could only access through strong support of the colonial state. Yet, these propositions have so far not been systematically and empirically tested. This paper is a first attempt to do that by analysing the ‘wage-burden’ European settler farmers faced. The wage-burden is identified by measuring wage shares (total amount paid in the form of wages as a share of total profits) on European farms in colonial Africa. Based on archival documents, we construct time-series for value of output, transportation costs, investments in agriculture, and wages paid for the European tobacco and tea sector in colonial Malawi. Our results contradict both previous research on settler colonialism in Africa and the historiography of Nyasaland. Our estimates show that settler farming did not collapse in the 1930s as commonly assumed. On the contrary, the value of production on both tobacco and tea farms increased significantly. And so did the settler farmers’ capacity to capture the profits, which was manifest in a declining wage share over time. In contrast with previous research we argue that the declining wage share cannot be explained by domestic colonial policies but rather through changes in regional migration patterns, and global commodity markets. Migration patterns had a significant impact on the supply of farm labour and global commodity markets influenced value of production. Market forces rather than colonial policies shaped the development trajectory of settler farming in Nyasaland.

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