Reversal of fortune or persistence of wealth? Institutions and wealth inequality in a Caribbean slave plantation economy, 1750s to 1917

Research project
Active research
Project period
2019 - 2024
Project owner
Unit for Economic History, Department of Economy and Society

Short description

The project examines wealth distribution in a Caribbean plantation economy over the long run, 1750-1915 ca.. The aim of the project is twofold. First, the project intends to contribute to the debate over the effect of different colonial set-ups on inequality by studying how unequal plantation societies were compared to other types of colonial societies, e.g. settler societies. Second, the project intends to contribute to the debate over institutional persistence by analysing the impact of systemic shocks, e.g. slave trade abolition, slave emancipation, on wealth distribution and elite persistence.

In recent years, there has been a resurgence in scholarly interest in the topic of inequality, with research studying both drivers and consequences of inequality. Many colonies have also been shown to have had a highly unequal distribution of both income and wealth, if compared to non-colonies. There has then been a plethora of studies from various places in the settler societies in North America (the northern parts of current-day United States and Canada). But what about the slave societies dominating much of the rest of the Americas?

This study will focus upon the case of the Danish West Indies, made up of three islands in the Caribbean, due to a uniquely rich source available for this particular colony. The Danish colony – and in particular the main island of St. Croix – was at its core very similar to other slave-plantation islands in the Caribbean. Firstly, the purpose of the colony was to produce cash crops for export such as sugar or cotton to be consumed in Europe. Secondly, the colonial economy was controlled by a comparatively small elite of European settlers, while the vast majority of the population on the islands was made up of slaves.

One key part of the project will be to study how wealth distribution developed in the long-run on an aggregate level, from the middle of the eighteenth century until the Danish West Indies were sold to the United States in the early twentieth century. Our estimates from the Caribbean will therefore be used for a comparative analysis relative to historical data on inequality in other (settler) colonies in continental America, found in previous research, to determine how unequal the slave societies in reality were, if compared to these other types of colonies.

A second key part of the project will study how some particular shocks – such as the occupations during the Napoleonic Wars (in 1802 and 1807), the abolition of the slave trade (in 1803 in the Danish case), the emancipation of slaves (in 1848 on the Danish West Indies), and the increased competition from sugar beets on the main markets for the colony’s output (primarily from the 1860s) – influenced the distribution of wealth in the colony on an aggregate level.

Galli, Stefania, Dimitrios Theodoridis and Klas Rönnbäck (forthcoming): “Economic Inequality in Latin America and Africa, 1650 to 1950: Can a comparison of historical trajectories help to understand underdevelopment?”, accepted for publication in Economic History of Developing Regions.