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What Anno 1800 gets wrong, and right, about colonialism and the Industrial Revolution

Zoom in on a fishery in Anno 1800 and you'll see men dangling rods off the end of a rickety pier, while others carry boxes full of the day's catch to storage, ready to be transported. Zoom in on the pub and you'll see men and women sitting on wooden benches sipping beer, listening to a band in brightly colored clothes bang on drums.

Blue Byte has gone to great lengths to sell its 19th century setting, right down to replicating the types of crops that you would've found in its South America-inspired New World at the time, but it's vague about any actual historical context. That's deliberate—the dev team says it's supposed to be a "tongue-in-cheek celebration" of the era "in which time, place and identity blur." 

But as I lay out another perfectly formed square of apple trees opposite a sheep farm, I can't help but wonder: How much, if anything, can Anno teach us about the way European people lived, worked and colonised during the 19th century? I spoke to two experts to find out, one an industrial archaeologist, the other a historian on the Atlantic World. They told me that in some ways Anno 1800 is meticulous—but in others, especially on slave labor and the experience of the native people during colonisation, it's far removed from reality.

Boom and bust

In some big ways, though, Anno 1800 is nothing like the 19th century.

Let's begin with the ways Anno 1800 steers closest to the truth, starting with the rapid growth of your cities. The boom of industry in the 19th century caused cities to expand as people moved from the countryside for work, says Ashley Tuck, archaelogist at charity Wessex Archaeology in Sheffield. As an example, "textile production was initially a cottage industry happening in a shed attached to a farm, and as factories began to be develop people would move from the farms to the towns to work in those factories," he says.

Anno 1800 also reflects the importance of trade during this period. You can trade with other industrialists to obtain goods you can't produce enough of, and this happened in real-life cities such as Sheffield. The city grew off the back of its local resources—water power, charcoal, and coal—but imported Swedish iron was vital for its famous steel industry. Prominent tool manufacturer John Kenyon spent more time "as a merchant, importing grain from Russia and exporting goods to America and the Baltics," Tuck says.

The way your Anno 1800 citizens change over time from farmers to workers to merchants could represent a simplified version of the way people gained skills during the Industrial Revolution via apprenticeships, Tuck says, or the way generations in a family worked in different sectors. "A farmer's son or daughter might become a worker, and their offspring might become an artisan, so there's parallels there."

In the New World, Anno 1800 "captures the exoticism" that Europeans saw in far-off islands, says Dr. Nicholas Radburn, a lecturer in the history of the Atlantic World at the University of Lancaster. "When people came over on ships to explore or colonise, they are really struck by the natural world they're accompanying—the tropical forests, the exotic flora and fauna, the waterfalls, the weather, the little crocodiles you see wandering around in the game. Europeans as late as the 18th and 19th century are still sketching those and writing about having seen them," he explains.

Europeans relying on colonies for goods is also true. As shown in the game, these "fields of monocrops" on plantations were grown to be sent back to the Old World. The types of goods in Anno 1800—sugar, tobacco, coffee, cotton—also mirror reality. Before Europeans colonised the New World these were luxury goods, but they were later seen as essentials. "The idea that to improve people's standard of living in Europe you need to obtain things that can only be grown overseas in particular climates and locations, that rings fairly true with history," he says.

In Anno 1800 you play an individual striking out into the New World—this also reflects real life. "It's not state-directed… it's people doing their own thing, building up things for their own benefit, and that's what often forms these New World companies, Radburn says. "Often, they're private companies, private individuals, with a bit of very loose state backing. So you see some parallels there."

In some other big ways, though, Anno 1800 is nothing like the 19th century.

God complex

Part of the explanation is simply down to Anno's nature as a city-building game. You found a new settlement on an empty island in the Old World, lay out roads and place down buildings. These "blank slates" simply didn't exist in the 19th century, Tuck says. "You'd have to go right back into prehistory to find places that weren't touched by humankind."

The idea of a single person controlling the layout of a town or city would also have been alien. While there is evidence of industrialists designing model settlements in the 18th century, these towns didn't pan out as intended because the desires of other residents and businesspeople conflicted with the original plan, creating "piecemeal" development, Tuck says.

I don't think Anno 1800 would be as fun if you didn't have full control—that's an easy concession for game design—but it's interesting to think about how city building in games differs from what happens, or happened, in real-life.

Anno 1800 touches on workers' rights and working conditions, and you can push your population to work harder and harder if you're short on resources. Fires break out in workplaces, and if your citizens are unhappy they can riot. But Anno 1800 still doesn't capture just how bad conditions were for the working class during the Industrial Revolution, Tuck says. 

Workers often didn't receive any money, and were instead paid in goods, leaving them unable to buy other necessities. They could lose arms in machinery and child labor was not uncommon. "People weren't concerned with the happiness of workers, they were concerned with money or production," he says. "I recently read some letters where the owner of a steelworks was boasting about how labour was a buyer's market in Sheffield, and he was boastful of how he didn't pay them any money."

In the time period that Anno is based on—the mid 1800s—those pristine islands simply didn't exist in the New World.

But Anno 1800's starkest departure from history comes when you land in the New World and find pristine islands, ripe for colonisation. All that's required is to build a trade post, and from there you can pluck resources from the islands to ship back to the Old World.

In the time period that Anno is based on—the mid 1800s—those types of islands simply didn't exist in the New World, says Radburn. There were "basically no areas of the Americas that are either uninhabited or undiscovered," and Europeans weren't still sailing ships to set up colonies. That happened earlier, beginning with the voyages of Christopher Columbus in the 1490s. The Caribbean was rapidly colonised in the following 30 years, while other parts of the Americas were colonised in the 16th, 17th and 18th century.

These islands weren't empty when Europeans found them, either. The New World was "pretty much completely inhabited by Native Americans"—and Europeans "either enslaved or wiped out" these people, Radburn says.

"The acquisition of colonies is a process of conquest. If you look at Mexico, South America, modern-day Peru, those were literally conquered, and in the Caribbean they're sending out expeditions of armed men with dogs and horses to conquer whole islands." After Europeans arrived, Native American populations declined rapidly, largely because of introduced diseases, but also because of forced labour, cruelty and warfare, Radburn explains. 

When those populations dropped, Europeans realised they didn't have enough workers, and quickly replaced them with enslaved Africans brought over by the transatlantic slave trade. "You might say, okay, that's not happening in 1800, but it is, and that happens right up until the late 19th century," Radburn explains.  

"They don't abolish slavery in Cuba until 1886, in Brazil until 1888, and in US until 1865. The 19th century is a world in which slavery was still very much part of the world economy." Many of the resources in the game were, in reality, closely tied to slave labour: Cotton, for example, was grown "almost exclusively by slaves in the American South until the Civil War," Radburn says. Coffee was produced by slaves in Brazil in the 19th century, and sugar by slaves in Cuba.

None of this is tackled in Anno 1800. 

A missed opportunity

You could argue that the closest parallel to your Anno nation is Britain, which abolished slavery in the mid-19th century, and therefore the absence of slavery makes sense historically. Radburn also explains that there were Spanish-speaking cultures in the 19th century that had grown from colonised Native Americans, and perhaps the jornaleros and obreros that make up your New World towns represent those people.

But to make that work requires a huge historical fudge. By the time Britain had abolished slavery, and by the time these Spanish-speaking cultures were in full flow, Europeans weren't sailing to the New World to colonise. Whichever way you look at it, it's impossible to decouple colonisation from slavery, from cruelty, from violence and disease. 

When asked in the past, the devs have said they didn't include slavery because it would be difficult to handle sensitively. "We don't think that a game like Anno, and also we as developers, can cover this topic in an appropriate way," they said in a Q&A back in 2017. "We are focussing on a game which delivers a fun strategy experience set in the given setting." Later, creative director Dirk Riegert talked about the potential difficulties of including slaves as a game mechanic with German publication Focus.

One NPC is a former slave, so clearly slavery exists in Anno 1800's world, but it's rarely in the spotlight.

Radburn acknowledges that being able to trade slaves in Anno 1800 would be "gruesome." "I don't think anybody would really want to play a game where your job was to go over to islands, conquer native people, import slave laborers, force them to work and then import more slave laborers to replace those who perish. That's just incredibly gruesome and would be rather insensitive, especially because the descendants of those enslaved people are still alive today."

Games that have been able to include slavery have largely been fictional: Stellaris, for example, added slave trading last year. Frostpunk, the bleak city builder, let you send children to work to boost production. Anno 1800's historical grounding means it's understandable that Blue Byte would tread cautiously, but I think it's a shame slavery isn't acknowledged more directly.

One NPC is a former slave, so clearly slavery exists in Anno 1800's world, but it's rarely in the spotlight, and there's plenty the team could've done without literally allowing the players to trade slaves. Omitting them conveniently ignores a huge part of the history of industrialisation, and an inextricable part of the time period Anno is celebrating.

Radburn's concern is that players will assume the cherry-picked version of the past is close to reality, and he points out than none of the 23 comments below the developer blog on historical accuracy mention, or ask about, slavery.

Yet perhaps there's reason to be optimistic. Radburn, who has played many of the previous Anno games, thinks the genre is a good way to "get gamers interested in history." For some players Anno 1800 will hopefully be a springboard to reading books or visiting museums, to learn where reality and game diverge. It worked for me: The detail Blue Byte painted into Anno 1800's world, however historically inaccurate, has pulled me into that era and made me want to find out more. I hope it does the same for others, too.

Blue Byte and Ubisoft did not comment in time for publication of this article.