Scandinavian Working Papers in Economics

African Economic History Working Paper,
African Economic History Network

No 9/2013: The economics of slavery in 18th century Cape Colony: Revising the Nieboer-Domar hypothesis

Erik Green ()
Additional contact information
Erik Green: Departmnet of Economic History, Lund University, Postal: PO Box 7083

Abstract: The Nieboer–Domar hypothesis has proved to be a powerful tool to identify the economic conditions under which slavery is more likely to emerge as a dominant form of labour. It states that in cases of land abundance and labour shortages the use of slavery was more likely to become a vital alternative to increase production. These conditions have been identified for large parts of pre-colonial and partly colonial Africa. The hypothesis has, however, not remained uncontested. Scholars have criticized it on both theoretical and empirical grounds. This paper discusses the validity of the Nieboer– Domar hypothesis using the eighteenth-century Cape Colony as our point of departure. We show that the hypothesis partly holds but needs modified. First, slavery emerged as an urban phenomenon. Second, the use of slaves increased parallel with other forms of labour and the role of slaves can only be understood in relation to a wide range of existing labour contracts. Once established, slavery came to play a significant role in facilitating increased production on the settler farms in the 18th century. Capacity for surplus production was the key factor, but why slaves became a major form of labour was partly a consequence of its’ pre-existence in the urban areas and partly how it be combine slavery with other forms of labour.

Keywords: Cape Colony; settler agriculture; labour; slavery

JEL-codes: N17; N37; N57

32 pages, April 30, 2013

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