The Impact of European Settlement within French West Africa: Did pre-colonial prosperous areas fall behind?

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The Impact of European Settlement within French West Africa: Did pre-colonial prosperous areas fall behind?

Elise Huillery12


Did colonization change the distribution of prosperity within French-speaking West Africa? Using a new database on both pre-colonial and colonial contexts, this paper gives evidence that Europeans tended to settle in more prosperous pre-colonial areas and that the European settlement had a strong positive impact on current outcomes, even in an extractive colonial context, resulting in a positive relationship between pre and post-colonial performances. I argue that the African hostility towards colonial power to colonisation provides a random variation in European settlement since it damaged the profitability of colonial activities and dissuaded European from settling, but does not have a direct effect on current outcomes. Rich and hostile areas received less European settlers than they would have received had they not been so hostile, resulting in lower current performances partly due to lower colonial investments. Despite the absence of a “reversal of fortune” within former French West Africa, some of the most prosperous pre-colonial areas lost their advantage because of their hostility: other areas caught up and became the new leaders in the region.

Keywords: colonization, economic history, West Africa
JEL classification: N37, O11, P16

At the worldwide level, the former colonies that were relatively rich in the year 1500 are now relatively poor. This evidence has been documented by Acemoglu, Johnson and Robinson (2002) who point out what they call a “reversal of fortune”. They explain this reversal by two separate features: First, Europeans were more likely to settle in regions that were previously poor because poor regions were sparsely populated, enabling Europeans to settle in large numbers. Second, the impact of these European settlements on former colonies’ development path has been positive through the introduction of institutions encouraging investments (Acemoglu, Johnson and Robinson (2001)). In regions that were not suitable for heavy settlement, Europeans set up “extractive states” with little protection of private property and little checks and balances against government expropriation. At the other extreme, in regions where many Europeans settled, the settlers replicated European institutions with a strong emphasis on private property and checks against government power. The positive impact of colonialism on current growth performance has also been recently documented by Feyrer and Sacerdote (2007). Using a new database of islands throughout the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian Oceans, this paper finds a causal positive relationship between the number of years spent as a European colony and current GDP per capita among islands that were colonized during the Age of Discovery. They argue that this positive relationship is due in part to the quality of government and rise in human capital. Both of these papers therefore underline the positive role of settlement: the more settlers during colonial times, the better economic performance today. Yet there is still a debate on where this result comes from. Acemoglu, Johnson and Robinson (2001, 2002) focus on the positive impact of heavy settlement on formal institutions whereas Feyrer and Sacerdote recognize the potential additional role of settlers on human capital through the introduction of formal schooling and the direct importation of human capital in the form of the settlers themselves.
Even if European settlement exhibits a positive impact on colonies on the whole, the question has not been examined whether this relationship remains positive among ‘extractive colonies’ - where colonizers pursued a strategy of resources extraction. Following Acemoglu, Johnson and Robinson (2001, 2002), Europeans set up poorly functioning institutions in these colonies because relatively prosperous areas made extractive institutions more profitable for the colonizers. For example, forcing the native population to work in mines or plantations limited the benefit of the rent to a small portion of the society. This led to a specific organization of society where there were poor incentives for investment, insecure property rights, poor administration of justice, etc. One may therefore expect the regions where more Europeans settled within extractive colonies to have suffered more from the introduction of those bad institutions than regions where few Europeans settled. Under the institutional hypothesis, the impact of European settlement on current prosperity within extractive colonies should be negative. Or, if the effect of European settlement runs through mechanisms such as human capital, one may expect the regions where more Europeans settled within extractive colonies to outperform those where few Europeans settled. To answer this question, this paper focuses on former French West Africa, a federation of “extractive” colonies dominated by France from 1895 to 1960. My central finding is that European settlement remains a positive determinant of current performances: Colonized areas that received more European settlers have performed better than colonized areas that received less Europeans settlers. I strongly claim that these results do not mean that colonization, per se, was a positive experience, since I do not compare colonized versus non colonized areas3. Results only show that in the case of being colonized, the more settlers the better, even among extractive colonies. Additionally, these findings do not refute the “institutional hypothesis,” since settlers actually brought bad institutions with them which resulted in a relative loss for the extractive colonies compared to the “Neo-Europes” and potentially an absolute loss for extractive colonies on the whole. This paper does, however, highlight the positive role of settlers on human and physical capital and shows that the negative impact of bad institutions could be locally balanced by the positive impact of capital investment.
This paper also investigates the question of the impact of colonization on the distribution of prosperity within former French West Africa. I document the fact that Europeans tended to settle in more prosperous pre-colonial areas, which was consistent with the extractive policy pursued in the region. As a consequence, the general relationship between pre- and post-colonial prosperity is positive. However, among West African areas that were relatively prosperous at the end of the nineteenth century, some are not any more developed than the rest of the region today, for example the districts of Porto-Novo (Benin), Assinie (Ivory Coast), Dosso (Niger), Tivaouane and Casamance (Senegal), Mopti (Mali) or Bobo-Dioulasso (Upper Volta), among others. They lost their advantage while some poorer areas caught up with them such as, Cotonou, Abidjan, Niamey, Thies, Bamako, Ouagadougou. This paper shows that this reallocation of the leadership within former French West Africa is a consequence of the colonial experience. The reason is that some of the prosperous pre-colonial areas received less European settlers than others because they expressed more hostility towards colonial power in early colonial times: refusal to apply colonial rules, to pay taxes, to enrol in forced labor and or military recruitment or to obey administrators’ commandments. As a result, the discriminated prosperous pre-colonial areas lost their relative advantage in the long run and other areas, less hostile towards colonial power, became the new leaders in the region.
From a methodological point of view, the first obvious difficulty in my empirical investigation is the lack of historical data. The paper uses a first-hand dataset that matches direct and precise historical data with current data at the district level. Colonial and pre-colonial data at the district level were collected from historical archives in Paris and Dakar, whereas recent data come from national household surveys from the current former colonies gathered in 1995 (approximately). I matched both datasets using the geographical coordinates of household locality and very precise maps of colonial districts. The second obvious issue was selection: Why did Europeans settle intensely in certain areas? As Europeans were more likely to settle in economically more developed districts, the naïve estimates of the effect of European settlement on economic development might be upwardly biased. I pursue two strategies to better document the causal relationship between European settlement and current outcomes. First, I focus on a limited geographical area. To date, the macroeconomic literature on institutions and development has largely relied on cross-country regression evidence. Faced with the statistical challenge of isolating causal pathways, the use of cross-country variables tends to derive instruments from persistent features of a country environment and limits their usefulness for studying institutional change (Pande and Udry, 2005). Following Banerjee & Iyer (2005) and Iyer (2005), this paper uses variations between infra-national districts, which is advantageous with regard to the identification of European settlement influence. Former French West Africa is much more homogeneous with respect to its pre-colonial and colonial context than all other former colonies, in particular with respect to geography, anthropology, pre-colonial history, the coloniser identity and the period and length of colonial times. The observed controls therefore capture a much larger part of the variation between districts than they usually do between countries all over the world. Second, I pursue an instrumentation strategy to better understand the causal relationship between European settlement and current performance. The instrument in question is the hostility towards colonial power expressed in the early colonial period after conquest (1906-1920) measured by acts of protest like strikes, riots, or religious movements, local chiefs’ refusal to obey, difficulties in collecting taxes or in recruiting civil servants or refusal of coerced labor. These manifestations of hostility were likely to mitigate most of the profitability of colonial activities. One issue is that hostility may reflect heterogeneity across districts directly correlated with current outcomes. As evidence shows, hostility actually tended to be higher in more prosperous and more socially and politically cohesive areas. But the evidence from African historians on hostile areas strongly supports the fact that hostility was also largely accidental. Conditional on the observable characteristics that capture most of the endogenous part of hostility, I therefore argue that hostility is a good instrument for European settlement. Furthermore, one may be reassured on the validity of my basic results by the fact that this strategy is likely to produce downwardly biased estimates of the effect of European settlement on current performance since there is clear evidence that the areas which tended to select into hostility towards colonial power were the most able to advance economically to modern age.
This paper therefore shows first that European settlers preferred prosperous areas in West Africa, which is consistent with the extractive policy pursued in the region. European colonization thus tended to reinforce pre-colonial inequalities by settling in prosperous areas. Secondly, this preference towards prosperous areas was sometimes discouraged by the existing hostility towards colonial power. Hostility actually dissuaded Europeans from settling. Indeed, when hostility was severe in a prosperous area, Europeans preferred to settle in a calmer, neighboring area, even if it was less prosperous. Thirdly, European settlement has had a positive and persistent influence on current performance. Variations in hostility towards colonial power thus explain why certain changes in the prosperity distribution occurred within former French West Africa. Yet in the end, the distribution of prosperity within former French West Africa did not reverse. Changes in prosperity affected only hostile areas and these areas did not actually become the poorest in the region, even if other areas caught up with them and sometimes overtook them. With respect to the existing literature, this paper innovates in four ways. First, it highlights the role of the African attitude towards colonialism in colonization features. Second, the paper extends the positive role of European settlement within an “extractive strategy” area. Third, it disentangles the two main channels of the positive effect of European settlement: institutions and capital (human and physical). Fourth, the paper documents the evolution of prosperity distribution within former French West Africa since 1900.
The paper is structured as follows. Section 1 provides a description of the pre-colonial context. Sections 2 analyses the determinants of European settlement during colonial times. Section 3 measures the impact of European settlement on current performance. Section 4 explores some explanations of the positive impact of European settlement on current performance. Section 5 documents the change in prosperity distribution within former French West Africa. Section 6 concludes.

I. The pre-colonial context
Information on the pre-colonial context is crucial to examine the evolution of prosperity distribution since 1900. I will focus particularly on economic prosperity, but political and geographical factors are also helpful to capture the different aspects of the pre-colonial context. The main issue is the lack of data for such early times. This is far more problematic at the district level than at the national level. This section, therefore reviews evidence from African historians and describes the data used to capture pre-colonial district differences. All data are original.
A. Pre-colonial economic prosperity
At the end of nineteenth century, French West Africa was a vast territory of 4 800 000 km2, scarcely inhabited by a population of around 12 000 000 people4. Population density was therefore very low (2.5 people per km2). West Africa was mostly rural and towns were scarce and small. Colonial censuses5 from the 1900s report that the five biggest towns were Saint-Louis (about 24 000 habitants), Dakar (18 400), Rufisque (12 500), Conakry (8 200) and Cotonou (4 400). Most people in West Africa were farmers. As documented in Curtin (1978), fishing along the coast and rivers was an intensive and specialized occupation. Dry-season hunting was a major source of meat in the savannah and forest alike. People mined rock salt in the Sahara and evaporated sea salt along the coast. Iron was found almost everywhere in West Africa, but some regions with the best ore became iron centres and sold their iron to other regions that were less well endowed. Other regions concentrated on cotton and cotton textiles or on sheep breeding and woollen cloth.
As a result, regular patterns of internal trade helped in the exchange of surplus from one region to another. The vegetation zones stretching east and west encouraged extensive north-south trade. Trade, in turn, encouraged the growth of small towns, some near the desert-edge, to profit from the trans-Saharan trade, like Timbuktu, Agadez, Gao and Oualata. Others towns, located well away from the desert like Jenne, Bobo-Dioulasso, Kankan and Borgou, profited from the transit along commercial routes between the savannah and the forest. Curtin (1995, p.325) writes that in the nineteenth century “internal trade was still far more important than trade with the world overseas, as it had been in the period of slave trade”. For most of sub-Saharan Africa, overseas trade was only a small fraction of total trade. Curtin reports that the nineteenth-century kola nut trade from Asante to the savannah country increased even more in value than did the palm oil exports from the Gold Coast. Islam was the religion of commerce and was highly prevalent in ethnic groups with strong commercial ties like the Juula.
Regarding overseas trade, coastal West Africa, like Central Africa, had a longer and more intense experience of maritime trade than any other part of sub-Saharan Africa. Legitimate trade had replaced the slave trade in importance at the end of the nineteenth century. But the new exports came from particular regions that “were not the same regions that had profited from the slave trade” (Curtin (1995, p.326)). He continues: “With the winding down of the trade in slaves, the new “legitimate” trade was not merely a substitution of the old; it shifted the centres of wealth and power. Those who had benefit from slave trade lost out, and new wealth arose to those who could supply gum-Senegal, palm-oil or peanuts”. And as opposed to the slave trade, the payoff for the non-slave trade went not only to merchants, but also to producers.
The question is how to measure these pre-colonial economic patterns. The main variable that I use to capture economic prosperity is the density of population. As documented by Malthus (1798) and Bairoch (1988), only prosperous areas could support high population densities. From a Malthusian point of view, more natural resources and agrarian prosperity is necessary to maintain a higher population density. This measure is therefore more appropriate in the case of rural societies like pre-colonial West Africa than in modern industrialised societies where the agricultural factor is not as crucial. I collected data on local populations from colonial censuses and land area from colonial maps at the district level to calculate population density by dividing total population by land area6. The earliest measure I can use is the population density in 1910, a few years after the beginning of the effective French colonial occupation. Map 1 reports the distribution of population density in 1910. The most densely populated areas were the southern region of what is currently Benin, the Mossi land in current Upper-Volta, the Wolof region in the western region of what is currently Senegal and the Fuuta Jaalo in what is present-day, central-west Guinea.
But population density does not capture the relative prosperity of the southern Saharan belt areas because these areas are located at the desert-edge. They are arid and sparsely populated, but during the nineteenth century they profited from the dynamic trans-Saharan trade and were well-known to be relatively prosperous. It was under the kingdom of Mali that the great cities of the Niger bend prospered, with Gao, Jenne and Timbuktu in particular becoming known across Europe for its great wealth. Important trading centers in southern West Africa developed at the transitional zone between the forest and the savanna like Bondoukou (present-day Ivory Coast). Western trade routes continued to be important, with Ouadane, Oualata and Chinguetti being the major trade centers in what is now Mauritania, while the Tuareg towns of Assodé and later Agadez grew around a more easterly route in what is now Niger7. The population density is thus not sufficient to capture differences in prosperity within West Africa. I therefore include a dummy for desert-edge areas in my econometric framework in order to take into account this specificity regarding population density.
Finally, even if the relative importance of overseas trade with respect to internal trade was not so important at the regional level, exports toward European countries accelerated the pace of economic development especially in the coastal trade centers. Since the trade centers concentrated many economic activities, they attracted many Africans as well as Europeans and are to be considered as specific in my empirical framework. I will therefore include a dummy for the presence of a European trade centers in the district to capture this particular feature of the distribution of economic prosperity within what will become French West Africa.
B. Pre-colonial political structures
The West African political context changed before the colonial period because of what Curtin calls a “religious revolution.” Revolutionaries who claimed a religious motive had been important since the seventeenth century from mid Senegal to the highlands of Fuuta Jaalo. Before, Islam had been gaining gradually throughout the western Sudan, but its gains had come as pockets of adherents, not a broad expansion across the countryside. From 1780 to 1880, preachers and moral leaders often called for jihad, resulting in a substitution of new rulers for old and new large states for the former small states, and a substantial spread of Islam (Sellier (2003)). Many West African states are therefore officially related to Islam.
What characteristics mark a state? At one extreme, full-time rulers claimed authority over every individual within a defined territory. These were clearly states, also called kingdoms or empires. At the other, authority was so dispersed that no rulers could be identified. Stateless societies could work in many different ways, but the key building block was usually the lineage. That is why African anthropologists often call them “lineage-based societies.” They are also called “decentralized societies,” “segmentary societies” or “autonomous local systems” (Murdock (1967), Barrett (1968), Mitchell and Paden (1989), Morrison (1989)). State and stateless societies have existed side by side for over nearly two millennia “without stateless people feeling a need to copy the institutions of their more organized neighbours” (Curtin (1995)). Between these two extremes cases, these African anthropologists identify a third category which corresponds to chiefdoms and city-states, which were smaller political units than kingdoms. They also claim that political structure should not be associated with the size of society: Some African states were very small and some stateless societies were very large.
In this paper, I follow African anthropologists and economists who have previously worked on this topic (Morrison, Mitchell and Paden (1989), Murdock (1967), Barrett (1968), Englebert (2000)) and distinguish 3 pre-colonial political statuses: kingdoms or empires, chiefdoms and completely amorphous areas. I do not use the index of state-like nature of pre-colonial systems used in Englebert (2000) because this index is at the national level. As I need more precise information at the district level, I use evidence from African historians (Boahen (1989), Bouche (1991), Coquery-Vidrovitch & Moniot (1993), Ki-Zerbo (1978)). There is a strong consensus within these historical sources on the location of pre-colonial kingdoms, chiefdoms and amorphous areas so it was not so difficult to construct a dummy for each of these three categories. Completely amorphous areas correspond to a total absence of political authority, also called “lineage-based societies” in Englebert (2000) or “segmentary systems” in Murdock (1967). These amorphous areas were located in the forest regions of Guinea (Toma and Guerze), in the south-western Ivorian forest (Krou), in Casamance in south-western Senegal and in Atakora in north-western Benin (Somba). Kingdoms correspond to large areas with political control concentrated in the hands of a few people, with an ability to collect revenue and tribute, usually through the control of trade, in addition to control of an army. Appendix 1 shows the corresponding districts, the name of the related pre-colonial kingdom and the historical sources that allow me to construct these data. Approximately half of the colonial districts were part of pre-colonial kingdoms and 13 colonial districts were part of completely amorphous pre-colonial areas. Table 2 shows that pre-colonial, well-structured kingdoms had significantly higher population densities than the rest of the region. In other words, political development and economic prosperity were positively correlated, which is consistent with Stevenson’s view of higher population densities in traditional states in sub-Saharan Africa and lower ones in the non-states regions (Stevenson (1968)). This can be explained because stateless societies had several problems: warfare on a large scale called for strong military command and permanent officials, traders needed a way to protect goods for transit, there was a need for a system of law allowing aliens to come and go in peace, and there needed to be a system to facilitate borrowing and collection of debts. These needs could only be offered by permanent officials and central direction. A reverse causation is also plausible: Densely populated areas were likely to coincide with a higher division of labor which likely required a higher level of political organization than extensive labor organization.

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