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Living costs, real incomes and inequality in colonial Jamaica

Burnard, Trevor; Panza, Laura; Williamson, Jeffrey


Laura Panza

Jeffrey Williamson


© 2018 This paper provides the first quantitative assessment of colonial Jamaican real incomes and income inequality. We collect local prices to construct cost of living and purchasing power parity indicators. The latter lowers Jamaica's GDP per capita compared with the rest of the Atlantic economy. We also compute welfare ratios for a range of occupations and build a social table. We find that, being a net food importer, the slave colony had extremely high living costs, which rose steeply during the American War of Independence, and low standards of living, particularly for its enslaved population, but also for the free unskilled population that competed with slave labor. Our results also show that due to its extreme poverty for the many in the middle of great wealth for the few, Jamaica was the most unequal place yet studied in the pre-modern world. Furthermore, all of these characteristics applied to the free population alone.


Burnard, T., Panza, L., & Williamson, J. (2019). Living costs, real incomes and inequality in colonial Jamaica. Explorations in Economic History, 71, 55-71.

Journal Article Type Article
Acceptance Date Sep 25, 2018
Online Publication Date Sep 25, 2018
Publication Date 2019-01
Deposit Date May 26, 2021
Journal Explorations in Economic History
Print ISSN 0014-4983
Electronic ISSN 1090-2457
Publisher Elsevier
Peer Reviewed Peer Reviewed
Volume 71
Pages 55-71
Keywords Colonial Jamaica; Slavery; Inequality; Living standards; Cost of living
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