The early bird catches the worm? Timing, location, and wealth accumulation among settlers at a colonial frontier

August 18, 2022 | Blog
Home > The early bird catches the worm? Timing, location, and wealth accumulation among settlers at a colonial frontier

by Jeanne Cilliers (Lund University), Erik Green (Lund University and Stellenbosch University), and Robert Ross (Leiden University and Stellenbosch University)

This blog post is based upon the authors’ article forthcoming in the Economic History Review.


On 5 October 1848, the Governor of the Cape Colony, Sir Henry Wakelyn Smith, ordered that a full list be compiled of landowners and their properties in all 30 districts of the Colony. His request was carried out in 1849 and 1850, and the findings later published in the Cape Colonial Gazette. In 2012, the society known as the Drakenstein Heemkring republished the lists and provided maps of the farms within the various districts, on the basis of contemporary plans. This allowed the construction of a newly digitised farm-level map of the Cape Colony, in which farms could be differentiated on the basis of establishment date, as shown in figure 1.


Figure 1.   Graaff-Reinet farm locations by settlement timing, c. 1850

Sources: Le Roux et al., Bewaarders; Cilliers et al. ’Wealth accumulation’.


Taking a closer look at this map reveals a fascinating pattern with respect to settlement of Europeans in the newly opened eastern frontier regions of the Colony. Those of settler descent who arrived before the end of the eighteenth century, i.e. in the very early years of the district, and those who arrived in the 1830s appear to have clustered in the more fertile south-eastern regions of the district, distinct from those arriving in the intervening years. Even more intriguing is that the latter group mainly consisted of British immigrants who bought up smaller tracts of land than the Dutch settlers who arrived last and who chose to locate their farms in the more arid western regions of the district.


How important was settlement timing and farm location for a household’s ability to accumulate wealth? Did early arrivals experience a wealth premium from having access to superior land as suggested by research on the US frontier? If so, did this lead to persistent wealth differentials between groups on the basis of arrival time? These questions are crucial to understanding differences in wealth accumulation in rural pre-industrial societies in general, and in pre-industrial settler colonial frontier settings in particular. It is not obvious that early arrivals would be in a favourable position compared to latecomers. Investing in land, initially wrested from the indigenous populations, was characterised by tremendous risk, and European expansion of the eastern frontier led to several wars with the indigenous Khoesan. Under such conditions, it is far from certain that being a pioneer would have been beneficial.


In our article forthcoming in the Economic History Review, we examine the link between initial conditions and wealth accumulation on an agricultural frontier in the eastern parts of the Cape Colony. We consider the following specific research questions: were early arrivals generally wealthier than the latecomers, and did early arrivals capitalize on favourable initial conditions, which then reinforced inequality by putting them on a path towards higher wealth accumulation over time? Graaff-Reinet went through important institutional changes in the 1830s. The district was gradually transformed into the centre of commercial wool production at the Cape as new actors—they were mainly British immigrants—entered the scene. To explain the location patterns found in figure 1, we take both institutions and geography into account.


To reconstruct the European settlement patterns in Graaff-Reinet we make use of three sources: the tax censuses from Cape of Good Hope Panel (CGHP), genealogical data from the South African Families Database (SAF), and farm location from the Bewaarders Van Ons Erfenis (BVOE) map. We find that those who arrived early located their farms in the more climatologically suitable areas of the district compared to latecomers. These pioneers utilized their superior lands to accumulate wealth more quickly than latecomers. However, the closing of the eastern frontier and its gradual incorporation into the global capitalist economy created incentives to shift towards more capital-intensive production. This transformation was, to a large extent, led by a new group of British immigrants arriving at the district from the 1820s. With superior commercial and political influence, this group had the advantage of easier access to credit, which became increasingly important as the district became incorporated into the global capitalist economy. This group bought up pockets of good land and soon became leading actors in commercial wool production. A considerable number of early arrivals—who had enjoyed a premium by having access to high-quality land—sold their land to British immigrants with preferential access to capital. Because of these changes, the existence of an early arrival premium did not mean persistence in land ownership.

To contact the author:



Cilliers, J., Green, E., and Ross, R., ‘Did it pay to be a pioneer? Wealth accumulation in a newly settled frontier society’, Economic History Review (forthcoming)

Le Roux, J. G., Niemandt, J. J., and Olivier, M., Bewaarders van ons erfenis (Paarl, 2012).