Colonial tax systems have shaped state-economy relationships in the formative stages of many present-day nation-states. This article surveys the variety in colonial tax systems across thirty-four dominions, colonies, and protectorates during the heyday of British imperialism (1870-1940), focusing on a comparison of colonial tax levels. The results are assessed on the basis of different views in the literature regarding the function and impact of colonial fiscal regimes: are there clear differences between ‘settler’ and ‘non-settler’ colonies? I show that there is little evidence for the view that ‘excessive taxation’ has been a crucial characteristic of ‘extractive institutions’ in non-settler colonies because local conditions (geographic or institutional) often prevented the establishment of revenue-maximizing tax machineries. This nuances the ‘extractive institutions’ hypothesis and calls for a decomposition of the term ‘extractive institutions’ as such.