Plantations versus the people: Explaining the diversity of land policies within the tropical British Empire

Derek Byerlee


Property rights regimes governing the expansion of agricultural commodity exports in the tropics have varied widely between and within colonial empires. This article illustrates this diversity within the British Empire from about 1850 to 1920. In British West Africa, indigenous customary rights were  recognized and land concessions to plantations excluded. By contrast, colonial governments alienated large land tracts for plantations in Malaya, the Indian Hills and Ceylon that often conflicted with indigenous rights and shifting farming systems in upland forested areas. These differences among colonial policies on land and forest rights in turn led to quite different agrarian structures and strongly influenced the location of export production – differences that have persisted until today. The article explores a range of explanations for policy divergence with respect to land rights, including the initial conditions of population density and pre-existing industries, strategic concerns of the metropolitan power, growing civil society agitation on human rights in Africa, the role of individual champions of human rights and shifting paradigms within the empire with respect to the role of plantations.


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