Prison Guards Vs. Postmen: Settler Mortality, British Colonial Officers, and the Impact of World War Ii

Valentin Seidler (University of Vienna)

Abstract: How persistent is the effect of early European colonization on current institutions in former colonies? An important school of thought argues that European settlers adopted their colonial policies in response to initial disease environments. Where disease conditions were hostile to settlement, Europeans were more likely to pursue extractive colonial policies (Acemoglu et al. 2001). However, the persistence of the effect of the early settler mortality rates on modern day institutions has been debated by others (Austin 2008, Maseland 2017). This paper argues that the movement and mixing of officials and populations caused by World War II makes a persistent effect very unlikely. We use newly collected biographical data for the 14,000 senior colonial officers who served in 54 British colonies between 1939 and 1966. The colonial administrations employed a wide range of professions, and we observe substantial variation in the mix of professions across these 54 British colonies. If the latter-day colonial institutional regimes were indeed based on early settlement conditions, then the distribution of professions within each colony should be consistent over the period 1939-1966. Extractive colonial regimes for example, would steadily employ more prison guards and policemen than, say, postmen and teachers. For the first time, the fine-grained biographical data for senior British officers allow us to test this assumption empirically. Preliminary results show a connection between early settler mortality rates and the distribution of professions within colonies. (The robustness of results varies across regions.) Subsequent conscription and movement of troops during WWII led to a geographic relocations for the officers, which can be followed through their detailed biographical records. After 1945 we find no robust connection between early settler mortality rates and the distribution of professions in the colonial administrations.