Available now: USAvailable now: UK

Puritans and Development

The germs of US institutions, the conventional wisdom goes, were laid in the Puritan colony of Massachusetts Bay, started in 1630 by the Puritans fleeing religious repression in England. Charles I had dissolved Parliament in 1629, and the Puritans were convinced that he had no intention of calling a new one. Worse, this looked to Puritans as part of a plan to increase the King’s and the church’s authority over religion and increasing intolerance towards their beliefs. Many were indeed fleeing this intolerance under John Winthrop’s leadership as they waded on the ship Arbella for the shores of Massachusetts.

Is the conventional wisdom really on target? One may nitpick and point out that the Massachusetts colony was not itself so tolerant to people who disagreed with their brand of Puritanism, which included not only non-Puritans but also radical Puritans such as Roger Williams.

But perhaps a better way of assessing whether it was the germs of Puritan ideas that shaped the broadly inclusive institutions that developed in North America is to turn to another colony set up by the Puritans in the same year: Providence Island off the coast of Nicaragua — today Providencia, belonging to Colombia.

Though Providence Island is less well-known today, it was no sideshow for the Puritans. Quite the opposite. The Providence Island Company was founded and run by the key Puritan grandees, the same men who would play leading roles in the English Civil War in a little more than a decade later.

All the same, as Karen O. Kupperman’s history Providence Island 1613 - 1641: the Other Puritan Colony documents things did not quite work out for Providence Island.

It wasn’t because of lack of funding or lack of talent in the Providence Island Company. In fact, it was the Providence Island Company that attracted both substantial sums of investment and many godly, devout and ambitious Puritans, much more than the Massachusetts Bay colony was able to. The main reason for this was the same one that made all colonists so much more interested in the Caribbean and South America to North America: that’s where they were hoping to grow valuable crops and export to the rest of the world.

Kupperman describes this as (p. 25):

The Providence Island adventurers in London were prepared to invest enormous sums of money in the expectation that their rich tropical island would produce enough wealth to enrich backers and settlers alike. Ultimately, they hoped the colony would serve as a nucleus for settlement of Central America, which would benefit the entire English nation. None would have believed that their enterprise would fold in a decade after absorbing a fortune, whereas its fellow puritan colony on the cold, rocky shores of Massachusetts Bay would go on to become the model for many later expeditions.

Providence Island also had the added advantage of being an easy-to-defend fortress in the middle Spanish colonies. So the investors poured money into the Providence Island Company.

But it quickly became a highly militarized, repressive colony, without private property in land for settlers, and with much of the production based on slave labor. In fact, the colony, though from the beginning faithful to the Puritan objectives, quickly got into military conflict with the Spanish, and towards the end, privateering against Spanish ships became a major activity for its inhabitants. In 1641, the colony fell to the Spanish.

What explains the very different — albeit short — trajectory of Providence Island from the more illustrious history of the Massachusetts Bay colony? The roots of this difference are not to be found in the germs, culture or ideas that colonialists brought with them — after all, it was the same group of people spearheading both colonization efforts.

Instead, it lies with the conditions that the Puritans encountered, and it was these conditions that ultimately shaped the path of the Massachusetts Bay colony towards inclusive institutions, while strengthening the extractive character of those in Providence Island.

The first factor was that Providence Island became from the get-go a militarized colony, partly because the Company was expecting hostilities from the Spanish (and also intended to use the island as a base against the Spanish). It was also partly because, for reasons we next explain, the elite needed the military fist to control the settlers. This militarized atmosphere contributed to the conflict on the island, discouraging investment and economic activity.

But the most important reason related to what was on the ground and what the investors in London expected to reap from the ground. As noted above, the investors viewed Massachusetts as mostly barren, so did not expect huge profits. It is for this reason that they allowed John Winthrop to take the charter of the colony with him, meaning that authority would rest with the settlers, not back in London. It was for this reason that there was not much opposition to giving private property in land to settlers in Massachusetts. In contrast, the Providence Island Company was a major investment for the prospect of substantial profits. So the Company did not let the reins go and did not allow private property for settlers.

In the grand scheme of things, it was probably the Massachusetts Bay colony that was the exception. Leading Puritans, though keen on their own freedom to worship, trade and enrich themselves, were not categorical supporters of freedoms in general. They thought that an orderly colony run, not by settlers or merchants, but by the elites — i.e., themselves — was the best model for development, especially when there were a lot of riches to be had. This, at least, seems to be the lesson they drew from past experiences as Kupperman explains (p. 51):

The adventurers were obsessed with the dismal failure of other colonial ventures, such as Bermuda and Virginia, to forge and sustain orderly, well-governed societies, and they traced such failure to the presence of divided councils in America and shortsighted greed of merchants and lesser gentleman in England. The solution was to keep power in their own hands in London, while restricting company membership to a small group of like-minded grandees.

But this made it much harder to motivate the settlers to experiment with the right crops and increase agricultural productivity on the island, so much so that by the time the Spanish overran the island, the hopes for high-value agriculture had still not been realized.

Kupperman’s description of this is also instructive (p. 42):

The colonists also objected to the uncertainty of tenure; they feared the dispossession of land laboriously cleared by them.

And she continues (p. 126):

Thus, even before Providence Island was settled, the essential meaning of the American experience was plain for those capable of reading it: Private property in land, combined with a degree of political devolution, was the key to success.

Kupperman describes why the Massachusetts Bay colony became exceptional as follows (p. 51):

Contemporaneous Massachusetts Bay Company also sought a radical solution to the same problems: The New England puritans, less intimately acquainted with the corridors of power at home, took the opposite tack and cut their colony off from English control by taking the charter with them and converting company meetings into the colony’s government.

But this was not a course that suited Puritan grandees.

All of this is of course a footnote to history, a small colony that lasted just 11 years. Yet it is also central for our understanding of colonial history, and how the trajectories of the colonies depended not so much on the good values and intentions of the elites, Puritan or otherwise, that organized the expeditions, but often on their inability to realize their plans of setting up colonies under their control.


Did War create the English State?  

Our last three posts (here, here and here) focused on the process of state formation and using data from the Standard Cross Cultural Sample (SCCS) suggested that the generally-emphasized association between inter-polity warfare and political centralization is not so strong. No doubt there are problems with the SCCS and the measurement of the relevant variables. But the lack of correlations in the state is set is not the only problem of Charles Tilly’s dominant paradigm maintaining that “states made war and war made states” (see here for a discussion of this paradigm).

James Robinson’s recent research with Yale historian Steve Pincus shows that inter-state warfare does not provide a good explanation of the process of political centralization in the canonical case of the development of the English state. The first modern state is often argued to have been created by warfare. But the literature which argues that inter-state warfare created the English state seems to be seriously divorced from the facts. Years of war did not in fact correlate with several measures of state involvement in English society. For example, the number of laws passed by Parliament declined during the Restoration (after 1660) despite Charles II’s two wars against the Dutch. After the Glorious Revolution, legislative activity did pick up, but it was still higher in-between than during wars and this pattern was maintained for most of the 18th century. Members of Parliament were more likely to pass new laws during years of peace rather than the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-1713), the War of the Quadruple Alliance (1718-1720), the War of the Austrian Succession (1739-1748), or the Seven Years War (1757-1763). Reflecting this, private sector investments in roads and rivers boomed right after the Nine Years War (1688-97), declined sharply during the War of the Spanish Succession, and then boomed again after the peace of Utrecht (1713). The number of days per year that the House of Commons met also declined during the wars of Charles II, only to jump up to a new level after 1688. After this it was little influenced by whether or not the country was at war.

Stepping back to examine the larger contours of the development of the English state over the early modern period, the correlation with inter-state warfare is obscure, to say the least. In the century and a half after the 1540s, English monarchs largely gave up attempting to expand territorially in Europe nor did they play a major role in European power politics. Henry VIII did make some unsuccessful attempts at invading France, but thereafter English kings abandoned their expansionist aspirations. In the middle of the 17th century, European states fought one another in the costly and devastating Thirty Years War (1618-1648) in which England played a peripheral role. Yet during this period, distinguished from the previous and subsequent periods by the relative absence of warfare, key innovations in the state took place. These included Henry VII’s move towards controlling the independent military forces of the aristocracies.

By 1558 these had vanished and were incorporated into the local militias under the control of the centrally appointed lord lieutenants. This was a critical phase in the final establishment of a monopoly of violence by the central state. At the same time Thomas Cromwell’s reforms of the central government, separating its functions from that of the King’s household, took place in the 1530s in the absence of warfare.

Perhaps most striking is that it was the decade of the 1640s, the decade of the English Civil War, that saw some of the most important institutional innovations – a period of internal conflict, not international warfare. Parliament introduced the excise tax in 1643 not to fight France but to raise money to fight King Charles I. In 1649 the Rump Parliament instituted important military reforms, including centralizing control over the construction of warships. After the Restoration in 1660, further important state building reforms took place in the absence of warfare, including James II’s abolition of tax farming.

Finally it was another internal conflict, the Glorious Revolution, that led to profound changes in the state. It is true that after 1688 the English — then British — state embarked on an ambitious project of empire building and engaged in a series of inter-state wars on a very intensified scale. Yet even this experience does not fit the version of events that dominates the warfare-centric literature on the state. The English state after 1688 was not forced to develop in order to survive according to some Darwinian logic of winnowing out weak states. Rather, even to the extent that it developed the tax base to fund a large navy and army, it did so because this was part of the implementation of an aggressive and intended policy of imperial and commercial expansion. It could have chosen not to do this had it wanted.

Overall, the British state development was not brought on willy-nilly by inter-state conflict. Instead English and then British politicians initiated state-building projects for political purposes, including partly to be more effective in inter-state conflict to achieve their commercial objectives.

Political aspirations rather than the logic of warfare generated state formation.


Why didn’t the Tiv have a State?

In our last two posts (here and here), we discussed the implications of political centralization in Africa and also saw that the standard theories supposed to account for European political centralization fail to explain the African variation. (Next week we’ll return to the European case and see that these theories don’t actually do such a great job in the European case either).

What might explain African political centralization? To understand this, it is useful to ask what political centralization actually implies. Put simply this occurs when one group or polity manages to subjugate the others on a common territory to its power. Jan Vansina in Antecedents to Modern Rwanda describes how King Ndori did this sometime in the 1600s in Rwanda. He forged a larger polity by using his army (another of his innovations) to force a group of other kings to acknowledge him as their overlord.

Many factors might influence this process, for example military technology. In ongoing work with Philip Osafo-Kwaako, we develop a different hypothesis about something which might influence the ability of one group to dominate another. A hint of what this might be comes from the study of the Tiv, a stateless society in Eastern Nigeria we met briefly in our last post.

Though the Tiv did have chiefs, they just were not that powerful. For the Tiv to have become politically centralized, the chiefs would have had to become more powerful and to have increased their ability to tell other people what to do. A revealing story of why they could not do this is related by Laura Bohannon in her book Return to Laughter (written under the pseudonym Elenore Smith Bowen). Bohannon related how Chief Kako is trying to decide what to do about Yaav, a man who is seriously ill and hiccoughs repeatedly. It is assumed to be the result of some bewitchment. Kako arrives with his son Ilhugh at a meeting of elders to decide what to do only to find to his astonishment, that Ilhugh instead of backing him up, sides with Yaav. Kako’s attempt to exert power is partially thwarted by his own son. Why? Because Ilhugh and Yaav are part of the same age set.

An age set is a social institution famously defined by the great British social anthropologist A.R. Radcliffe-Brown (see here) as:

A recognised and sometimes organized group consisting of persons (often male persons only) who are of the same age .. In Africa, at any rate in East and South Africa, an age-set is normally formed of all those males who are initiated at one time … Once a person enters a given age-set, whether at birth or initiation, he remains a member of the same age-set for the remainder of his life .. In East Africa, where the age-organization is highly elaborated, each age-set normally passes from one grade to another as a whole. (p. 21).

The important point here is that the age set created a solidarity which cut across families and social classes . It stopped Kako accumulating power, and more generally we hypothesize that it may have played an important role historically in Africa in impeding the process of political centralization. Interesting Vansina notes in Rwanda:

a structure of age classes was never used … either in government or in social structures (p. 61).

Further evidence from this comes from the Standard Cross Cultural Sample we discussed in our last post. The next figure shows that within Africa there is a strong negative correlation between the number of age organizations cutting across communities and the extent of political centralization.

So perhaps age sets and other social institutions that created a form of cross-cutting linkages in societies without the modern state, partly to sustain cooperation and law and order, have also played the role of slowing down the emergence of political centralization.


Roots of Political Centralization in Africa

Seen from a wider perspective, the development of the strong central state we described in our previous post in Rwanda is anomalous in African history. Though states did form in pre-colonial Africa, for example around the Niger bend in the late middle ages, and in many parts of West, Central and East Central Africa after the 17th century, it is clear that these processes lagged those which took place in Eurasia. One can get some quantitative picture of this via the data coded by Louis Putterman and his collaborators (see this paper).

The lagged development of political centralization in Africa is an important part of the puzzle about why Africa developed less slowly than the rest of the world (see also this paper and this paper).

What can explain this retarded political centralization? Scholars of European political development, notably Charles Tilly in Coercion, Capital and the European State, have advanced several hypotheses which, they claim, can explain the development of European states. Tilly’s boldest claim was “states made war and war made states”. He argued that it was the intense inter-state warfare of Europe which led to political centralization. Other scholars have instead emphasized high population density and trade and commerce.

A natural approach to explaining why political centralization lagged in Africa is therefore to argue that the factors that led to such centralization in Europe were absent in the African continent. Jeffrey Herbst in his book States and Power in Africa did exactly this, arguing that African had not developed powerful centralized states because it had low population density and inter-state warfare was absent.

Is this the right answer to the puzzle? One way of examining these ideas is to look at data from the Standard Cross-Cultural Sample, a dataset which has been built since the late 1960s by anthropologists and contains rich data on 186 cultures. Though this dataset is less than ideal and it only includes 40 cultures in Africa, it does contain several major Africa societies with differing levels of political centralization. These include famous hunter gatherers such as the Hadza of Tanzania or the Kung of Botswana, and stateless agricultural societies such as the Tallensi of Northern Ghana, the Kikuyu of Kenya, and the Tiv of Nigeria. It also includes some important politically centralized societies such as the Asante of Ghana, the Ganda of Uganda, the Hausa of Nigeria, and the Bemba of Zambia. Finally there are intermediate societies such as the Mende in Sierra Leone.

The next figure shows the positive relationship between population density and one measure of political centralization from this dataset, the extent of judicial hierarchy beyond local community, for the sample of cultures outside Africa.

But let us next look at the same relationship for the African subsample:

Here the relationship is much weaker, essentially nonexistent. Within Africa, it seems that it is not the societies occupying lands with greater population density that have achieved greater political centralization.

The data also show no correlation between warfare and political centralization, either in Africa or in the rest of the world, thus not providing much support for Tilly’s main hypothesis. This can be seen in the next four figures which show scatterplots of the relationship between the frequency of internal and external wars, and political centralization for the non-Africa and Africa subsamples (for the warfare measures, 1 means infrequent wars, 2 stands for frequent wars, and 3 for continual wars).

Maybe Africa needs a different theory of political centralization.


From Gisenyi to Goma to Genocide

In Why Nations Fail we use the large differences in income borders as a way of showing dramatically how changes in institutions can lead to large differences in prosperity. This is true of the difference between North and South Korea, and between the old Bantustan of the Transkei and Kwa-Zulu Natal in South Africa.

One of the most dramatic borders in Africa is at the north of Lake Kivu when you cross from Gisenyi in Rwanda into Goma in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The Rwandan side is very orderly. The streets are clean even if not all tarmacked. The drivers of motor cycle taxis, known as boda bodas, wear a helmet and carry spare ones for their passengers. Drivers drive beneath the speed limit and policemen do not ask for bribes. There is electricity and running water. From Gisenyi you can see Goma on the shore just around the lake. But Goma is like a different planet. As the next picture shows, seen from Google Earth the chaos on the DRC side of the border is readily evident. To get into Goma you have to pay “du sucree” the Congolese phrase for a bribe and you have to pay more to get out. The town has a faded grandeur, but electricity, water and basic services are erratic to non-existent.


Why is Gisenyi so different from Goma? Both were part of Belgian colonies. If anything you might have expected Rwanda to be much poorer and less functional. After all they don’t have the mineral wealth and Congo does. And wasn’t there a huge genocide in 1994 in which maybe 800,000 people perished? Why do things seem to work so much better in Rwanda?

The explanation for these differences lies not in the last 50 years when both countries were independent. Neither does it lie in the colonial period. The roots are much deeper. The key fact is that around 1700 a powerful centralized state appeared in Rwanda while such a state never formed to the west of Lake Kivu in the Eastern Congo.

The state, the seminal study of which is Jan Vansina’s Antecedents to Modern Rwanda, mythically emerged on Gasabo Hill northeast of the modern day capital of Kigali. By the 19th century it had spread to most of modern Rwanda, making Rwanda one of the few modern African countries whose borders correspond closely to a pre-colonial polity. The Rwandan state was highly militarized and run by a king and a cattle owning elite which became associated with the so-called Tutsis. Historically the king had constantly moved their capital but in the 1890s he settled at Nyanza where parts of the traditional palace have been restored. You can also visit the king’s heard of cattle (if you want to see how the court was in the late 1940s it, and much of the aristocracy, they featured in the Hollywood classic King Solomon’s Mines, or the 1985 remake).

The historical Rwandan state was not a “developmental state”. It was highly militarized and in the 1870s succeeded in turning most of the rural population of farmers into serfs who had to pay heavy dues and do free labor services for their chiefs for half of the week. It was this act which helped to institutionalize the differences between Tutsis and Hutus, the latter bearing the brunt of this new set of economic institutions. But developmental or not the state brought order and rules and heavily influenced the behavior of people in Rwanda. Most striking is the impact this had on the genocide in 1994. As pointed out in every treatment (e.g., the Human Rights Watch’s study led by Alison Des Forges Leave None to Tell the Story), this was planned and executed from above. Order came down to kill. As Joseph Sebarenzi puts it (referring to pre-1994 massacres) in his memoir God Sleeps in Rwanda:

These rounds of massacres used to be called muyanga, meaning wind .. It would come suddenly and forcefully and then, just as suddenly as it came, it would stop… [which] demonstrated Rwandans’ strong obedience to authority. Rwandans kill when they are asked, and stop as soon as they are told.

As we have argued in Why Nations Fail, political centralization is key not only for the development of inclusive institutions but for even the most basic form of growth under extractive institutions, and the orderliness and the economic revival in Rwanda since 1994 are both due to this type of growth under extractive institutions.

But Rwanda also illustrates that political centralization can also have perverse consequences, particularly when the state turns genocidal. And that of course is not unique to Africa. Just think of the Nazi state.