Continuity or Change? (In)direct Rule in British and French Colonial Africa


Low levels of development and state capacity in Africa are thought to originate in colonialism in general and indirect colonial rule in particular. But despite a century of debate about the nature, causes, and consequences of direct and indirect colonial rule on the continent, data and evidence about its application are scarce. Based on newly collected historical data, this paper provides evidence for two claims that have marked the debate since its inception. First, British administrations have ruled more indirectly than French ones. French colonization led to demise of 7 out of 10 pre-colonial polities. Under British rule, 3 out of 10 polities disappeared as measured by the continuation of their lines of succession. Second, pre-colonial centralization was a crucial prerequisite for indirect rule. Local administrative data from 8 British colonies shows that British colonizers employed less administrative effort and devolved more power to native authorities where centralized institutions existed. Such a pattern did not exist in French colonies. Together, these findings improve our understanding of the long-term effects of pre-colonial institutions, the roots of regional and ethnic inequalities, and the origins of currently observed customary institutions in Africa.

International Organization, First View