Factor Endowments on the “Frontier”: Algerian Settler Agriculture at the Beginning of the 1900s

August 15, 2019 | Blog
Home > Factor Endowments on the “Frontier”: Algerian Settler Agriculture at the Beginning of the 1900s

by Laura Maravall Buckwalter (University of Tübingen)

This research is due to be published in the Economic History Review and is currently available on Early View.


It is often claimed that access to land and labour during the colonial years determined land redistribution policies and labour regimes that had persistent, long-run effects.  For this reason, the amount of land and labour available in a colonized country at a fixed point in time are being included more frequently in regression frameworks as proxies for the types of colonial modes of production and institutions. However, despite the relevance of these variables within the scholarly literature on settlement economies, little is known about the way in which they changed during the process of settlement. This is because most studies focus on long-term effects and tend to exclude relevant inter-country heterogeneities that should be included in the assessment of the impact of colonization on economic development.

In my article, I show how colonial land policy and settler modes of production responded differently within a colony.  I examine rural settlement in French Algeria at the start of the 1900s and focus on cereal cultivation which was the crop that allowed the arable frontier to expand. I rely upon the literature that reintroduces the notion of ‘land frontier expansion’ into the understanding of settler economies. By including the frontier in my analysis, it is possible to assess how colonial land policy and settler farming adapted to very different local conditions. For exanple,  because settlers were located in the interior regions they encountered growing land aridity. I argue that the expansion of rural settlement into the frontier was strongly dependent upon the adoption of modern ploughs, intensive labour (modern ploughs were non-labour saving) and larger cultivated fields (because they removed fallow areas) which, in turn, had a direct impact on  colonial land policy and settler farming.

Figure 1. Threshing wheat in French Algeria (Zibans)

Buckwalter 1
Source: Retrieved from https://www.flickr.com/photos/internetarchivebookimages/14764127875/in/photostream/, last accessed 31st of May, 2019.


My research takes advantage of annual agricultural statistics reported by the French administration at the municipal level in Constantine for the years 1904/05 and 1913/14. The data are analysed in a cross-section and panel regression framework and, although the dataset provides a snapshot at only two points in time, the ability to identify the timing of settlement after the 1840s for each municipality provides a broader temporal framework.

Figure 2. Constantine at the beginning of the 1900s

Buckwalter 2
Source: Original outline of the map derives from mainly from Carte de la Colonisation Officielle, Algérie (1902), available online at the digital library from the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, retrieved from http://catalogue.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/cb40710721s (accessed on 28 Apr. 2019) and ANOM-iREL, http://anom.archivesnationales.culture.gouv.fr/ (accessed on 28 Apr. 2019).


The results illustrate how the limited amount of arable land on the Algerian frontier forced  colonial policymakers to relax  restrictions on the amount of land owned by settlers. This change in policy occurred because expanding the frontier into less fertile regions and consolidating settlement required agricultural intensification –  changes in the frequency of crop rotation and more intensive ploughing. These techniques required larger fields and were therefore incompatible  with the French colonial ideal of establishing a small-scale, family farm type of settler economy.

My results also indicate that settler farmers were able to adopt more intensive techniques mainly by relying on the abundant indigenous labour force. The man-to-cultivable land ratio, which increased after the 1870s due to continuous indigenous population growth and colonial land expropriation measures, eased settler cultivation, particularly on the frontier. This confirms that the availability of labour relative to land is an important variable that should be taken into consideration to assess the impact of settlement on economic development. My findings are in accord with Lloyd and Metzer (2013, p. 20), who argue that, in Africa, where the indigenous peasantry was significant, the labour surplus allowed low wages and ‘verged on servility’, leading to a ‘segmented labour and agricultural production system’. Moreover, it is precisely the presence of a large indigenous population relative to that of the settlers, and the reliance of settlers upon the indigenous labour and the state (to access land and labour), that has allowed Lloyd and Metzer to describe Algeria (together with Southern Rhodesia, Kenya and South Africa) as having a “somewhat different type of settler colonialism that emerged in Africa over the 19th and early 20th Centuries” (2013, p.2).

In conclusion, it is reasonable to assume that, as rural settlement gains ground within a colony, local endowments and cultivation requirements change. The case of rural settlement in Constantine reveals how settler farmers and colonial restrictions on ownership size adapted to the varying amounts of land and labour.


To contact: 


Twitter: @lmaravall



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