Among countries colonized by European powers during the past 500 years, those that were relatively rich in 1500 are now relatively poor. We document this reversal using data on urbanizations patterns and population density, which we argue, proxy for economic prosperity. This reversal weighs against a view that links economic development to geographic factors. Instead, we argue that the reversal reflects changes in the institutions resulting from European colonialism. The European interventions appears to have created an "institutional reversal" among these societies, meaning that Europeans were more likely to introduce institutions encouraging investment in regions that were previously poor. This institutional reversal accounts for the reversal in relative incomes. We provide further support for this view by documenting that the reversal in relative incomes took place during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and resulted from societies with good institutions taking advantage of the opportunity to industrialize.
This paper documents a reversal in relative incomes among the former European colonies. For example, the Mughals in India and the Aztecs and Incas in the Americas were among the richest civilizations in 1500, while the civilizations in North America, New Zealand, and Australia were less developed. Today the United States, Canada, New Zealand, and Australia re an order of magnitude richer than the countries not occupying the territories of the Mughal, Aztec, and Inca Empires.