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Looking at the history of Ghana relative to many post-colonial African states, it appears to be quite a successful and stable nation-state, both politically and economically, compared to many other post-colonial African nations. My hypothesis is that Ghana's success may to a large extent be the result of its being administered by the British during its colonial period, rather than the French, Belgians, or Portuguese, etc: Perhaps British colonies evolved into more stable, economically successful, independent states than their counterparts who are former French, Portuguese colonies, etc. A friend of mine from Ghana confirmed my hypothesis, but had no solid evidence to back it up.

A brief survey of some African countries seems to confirm my hypothesis: I compared the history of Ghana (formerly Gold Coast under the British) with that of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (formerly "Belgian Congo"), Republic of the Congo (formerly "French Congo"), and Angola (formerly a Portuguese colony). Compared to Ghana, the non-British colonies have been plagued with long and violent civil wars and political instability, which seriously impacted their economic growth and viability,

More research into the the success and stability of other former British colonies relative to their non-British counterparts also seems to back up such a theory: For example Jamaica, under the Brits from 1655 until 1958, and Trinidad/Tobago, administered by the Brits from 1889 until 1958 - in comparison to countries such as Cuba (Spain), Haiti (France), and the Dominican Republic(France/Spain/USA for a brief periods).

But my research here is admittedly quite superficial. Does historical analysis confirm or contradict my hypothesis that former British Colonies have been more successful as post-colonial states? More generally, can we find a pattern of success in the independent states that corresponds to their former colonial administrators (not necessarily the British)?

Although this question is admittedly complex, it can be answered with empirical analysis. A capable historian or economist should be able arrive at a clear conclusion, although not all will come to the same one, as is the case with any complex question. It requires extensive research to arrive at an accurate, well documented answer, but the answer itself can be quite concise and empirically based.

To side-step the issue of when to 'stop the clock' regarding measurement of success (today; five years ago; 10 years after independence....) the best answer might take into account the sum total of a former colony's history, such that a country like Angola, now quite successful, might not be considered successful relative to Ghana, considering the long and bloody civil wars that dominate much of Angola's history. But not being a historian or economist, I am not really the one to decide on the metrics: I turn to the Historians and experts among us for an appropriate way to quantify and answer this question.

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The comments section is not for discussion. Please use The Time Machine for discussions: chat.stackexchange.com/rooms/1560/the-time-machine –  ihtkwot Aug 6 '13 at 2:07
I am accepting the answer of our friend Lennart, although he has admittedly only scratched the surface of this complex question, because he seems to be the only one with the knowledge and the moxie to even attempt to tackle it, and has done us all a service thereby. Still, I would welcome more in depth answers and perhaps an authoritative source that would help more definitively resolve this question. –  user2590 Aug 6 '13 at 11:01

3 Answers 3

up vote 11 down vote accepted

Although this question probably can't be resolved without years of comparative study, a quick indication of the answer can be done by looking at the current GDP of the countries as a reasonable measure of "stability and success". The cases are also very different between different continents and times, as colonization changed a lot during the period. Therefore I have looked at African colonization only, as this was done during a relatively consistent time, during the late 19th century, and ended at a relatively consistent time after WWII. It was also a similar type of colonization, with little settling from the colonial powers, with the exception of South Africa and Egypt which both had very different colonial histories (and therefore are excluded).

And the only conclusion that we possibly can draw from that is that Belgium was singularly bad, as all of the countries Belgium colonized has remained impoverished, although two of them were German colonies until 1918. Congo is still very poor, and this is perhaps not surprising, considering that Belgian colonization was extra-ordinarily brutal, but on the other hand, this is just a question of one (or possibly three) countries, so one should be wary of making any conclusions at all from that.

Italy, Spain and Portugal all have one rich colony, but Italy and Spain also have one poor and Portugal three poor, so no conclusion can be drawn there either.

Then remains British and French colonies, and there the numbers are quite similar. The average PPP GDP per capita in British former colonies is around $3.300, while in French former colonies $4.000. The richest former colonies have in both cases a GDP/capita of $17.000 and $16.500 respectively, and the poorest $400 and $580. That's not enough to claim any reasonable difference.

Hence, it is impossible from this to tell any reliable difference between different colonies, and it is certainly impossible to claim that Britain was a better colonial master than other countries, which the OP suspected.

Source data: https://docs.google.com/spreadsheet/ccc?key=0AtnyuomzEsQMdFdIT296eGRsQTRVY3BMZ1Z3U3BPenc&usp=sharing

Germany's colonies was generally split up between France and England after WWI, so I have skipped those, and I have also skipped all other colonies who doesn't have a clear major colonizer.

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The comments section is not for discussion. Please use The Time Machine for discussions: chat.stackexchange.com/rooms/1560/the-time-machine –  ihtkwot Aug 6 '13 at 2:07
"Belgium was singularly bad, as all of the countries Belgium colonized has remained impoverished. This is perhaps not surprising, considering that Belgian colonization was extra-ordinarily brutal" Any ideas why Belgian colonialism was so specially bad? –  Felix Goldberg Aug 6 '13 at 9:13
@FelixGoldberg: "Why" is always a difficult question. –  Lennart Regebro Aug 6 '13 at 9:45
I double-checked the German colonies and fixed some errors, which increased the difference between Britain and France, but I think the conclusion is still correct based on this data. –  Lennart Regebro Aug 6 '13 at 9:58
Wasn't the Congo a private possession of Leopold II as the "Congo Free State"? I didn't think it was formally part of Belgium until the early 1900s. –  Kobunite Aug 6 '13 at 10:01

Why ignore Australia, New Zealand & the United States - are they are not all former colonies of Great Britain?

The United States does particularly well, being the country with the highest GDP. They gained their independence in 1789, that is two centuries ago.

One may suppose, that most of the former colonial nations that aren't doing so well are still building their political institutions. This is the work of several generations. After large-scale economics requires strong political institutions.

One could also perhaps point out that these countries could industrialise relatively rapidly as this is the social environment that colonists came from, and who form the dominant & majority population. Whereas places like Africa or India this 'lesson' in modernity would have had to be absorbed by the indigenous population.

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Marx on Western Australia ( marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1867-c1/ch33.htm ) and the relatively common place findings about finance capital preceeding federation (Noel Butlin) seem to falsify your argument in the Australian case. Capital preceded political institutions. –  Samuel Russell Aug 11 '13 at 22:05
@russell: If it invalidates it in the Australian case, then it should invalidates in the others too. Are you talking about London finance capital funding these colonial expeditions? According to Butlins obituary 'before the publication of his major book Investment in Australian Economic Development (1964), historians saw Australia's past almost solely in terms of rural development. Noel, however, was able to show that, as early as the second half of the nineteenth century, more investment was being undertaken in urban than in rural areas, –  Mozibur Ullah Aug 11 '13 at 22:29
...and that the public sector was a major player in this process'. The public sector surely requires a political formation? –  Mozibur Ullah Aug 11 '13 at 22:32
Connell & Irving's Class Structure in Australian History ought to explain. The "political formation" was substantially off-shore and administered as an external colonial administration. Local administration and state industry lagged behind the development in the world-system's centre until after capital formation. Representation came after capitalisation (and never mirrored the basis of capitalisation, being restricted to state or dominion governance). Also, a cursory look at UK corporations law in the 19th century shows the state lagged behind capital in the core. –  Samuel Russell Aug 12 '13 at 0:47
@Russell: I understand what you say up to 'Representation came after capitalisation'. But what does the following sentence mean 'and never mirrored the basis of capitalisation, being restricted to state or dominion governance'? –  Mozibur Ullah Aug 12 '13 at 2:22

There is in fact a small PDF available online which attempts to answer this question through detailed study of a small area of the South Pacific. The islands of Vanuatu were administered jointly by the British and French.

The author finds that "political indicators are in favor of British administration, but economic indicators are in favor of French administration".

His paper is called Is British colonization better than that of the French?: A study of Vanuatu and it's here:


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+1 - good source. I will look at it. –  user2590 Sep 30 '13 at 16:43

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