Losing a household member is usually negatively associated with welfare, especially if that person is a breadwinner. Coping methods include disposal of assets to generate cash flow, while other households increase their labour supply. This paper considers a specific case in a pre-industrial society, presenting evidence where male mortality was associated with distinct benefits for widows. In the Cape Colony (during the Dutch East India Company occupation), Roman Dutch inheritance laws favoured widows, who were then able to set up households independently of their children. Their sizable inheritances (relative to other heirs) enabled investment in production assets with otherwise prohibitively high fixed costs (in particularly slave labour and vineyards) and resulted in divestment from other non-productive assets. While the mortality shock would presumably have had negative impacts on income and subsistence crop levels, this was not the case in the Cape: instead, reconstructed asset portfolios set widows up for productive, slave intensive farming and subsequent status and affluence.


Keywords: Widows, inheritance laws, welfare, development




Von Fintel, D., Du Plessis, S. and Jansen, A., 2013. The wealth of Cape Colony widows: Inheritance laws and investment responses following male death in the 17th and 18th centuries. Economic History of Developing Regions28(1), pp.87-108.