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Research project on Cape Colony's colonial structures launched
Author: Daniel Bugan
Published: 10/12/2020

Starting January 2021, Stellenbosch University researcher Prof Johan Fourie will co-lead an international research team that aims to create the most complete database ever of South Africa's colonial economy.

The project −The establishment, growth and legacy of a settler colony: Quantitative panel studies of the political economy of the Cape Colony − has been funded by the Bank of Sweden Tercentenary for SEK 29.4 million (about R51.84 million) over a period of six years.

Fourie coordinates the Laboratory for the Economics of Africa's Past (LEAP), a research unit within the Department of Economics and History. Three other LEAP academics – Prof Dieter von Fintel (Department of Economics), Calumet Links (Department of Economics) and Kate Ekama (Department of History) – are also participating in the project. The other researchers are from Lund University in Sweden, Utrecht University and Leiden University in the Netherlands and MIT, UC Davis and the University of Colorado in the USA.

The research team will for the first time systemise large amounts of historical data from the Dutch East India Company's colonisation of South Africa. This will give them an insight into the gradual social and economic development of South Africa from the establishment of the Cape Colony in 1652 and up to 1840.

Erik Green, principle researcher and associate professor of Economic History at Lund University, said: “We will now be studying material from day one, in principle: from the establishment of a formal colony and over 150 years onward. This will enable us to see how the structures were built up and what links exist between various variables. Currently, most people assume that South African society is unequal because of colonialism. But that is too simplistic. We want to know what factors gave rise to this unequal distribution and why it persisted for so long."

The researchers will be using three unique databases: the Cape of Good Hope Panel dataset; a registry of South African Families and the Slave Emancipation dataset. These databases have been partially transcribed, but require more work.

“The implementation of this project requires a large group of experts in different fields. We need everyone from people with knowledge of the Dutch language as it was spoken in the 1700s and people familiar with the broad theoretical debates, to people who are true experts on the history of the Cape Colony. We also have experts on specific statistical methods and machine learning," said Fourie.

With the databases in place, it will be possible to study the colony and its population (settlers, slaves and indigenous population) at the individual level. This brings a unique opportunity to analyse how a colonial economy and its institutions gradually develop and are affected by – and affect – people's behaviour and living conditions.

“It was not Holland as a nation that founded the colony, but the Dutch East India Company. In other words, it was run as an enterprise. Because of that, they had better incentives to produce more detailed reports," said Fourie. “That gives us wonderful insight into the workings of a colonial economy and society, and allows us to test our general theories of development against real-world evidence."

The ultimate aim of the project is to contribute to what we know about economic and social development, institutions and colonialism.

“The databases are unique in that they cover such a long period of time. They are also unique in being so rich in detail and may even have a slight edge over Swedish historical data, which is usually considered to be very good. There is a preconception about not being able to study Africa because historical data is lacking in many cases. Here we have an exception, where we can probably build up one of the world's most detailed databases," said Green.

  • Photo (supplied): On a photo which was taken at a LEAP workshop last year, research team co-leader Prof Johan Fourie (with red pullover) is on the far right, while the other co-leader, Prof Erik Green (with blue jeans) of Lund University, is in the front row, 4th from right. Next to him is Prof Dieter von Fintel (3rd from right in the front row) of the SU Department of Economics, one of the members of the research team.​​