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Europeans at the end of the eighteenth century had settled across the globe, from North and South America to Australia to the southern tip of Africa. While theories of institutional persistence explain the ‘reversal of fortunes’ between settled and unsettled regions, few studies consider the large differences in early living standards between settler societies. This paper uses newly transcribed household-level tax censuses from the Dutch and British Cape Colony and the United States shortly after independence to show comparative levels of income and wealth over four decades both between the two regions and within them. Cape farmers were, on average, more affluent than their American counterparts. While crop output and livestock were more unequally distributed at the Cape, ownership of enslaved people in America was more unequal. There was little indication of an imminent reversal of fortunes.