We gather the most comprehensive database of government bonds for the first globalisation era to date to conduct the first historically informed study of the importance of liquidity for colonial and sovereign yield spreads. Considering both liquidity and credit shows that the two markets were segmented: credit was the most important factor in the pricing of sovereign debt, but liquidity predominated in the colonial market, explaining 10% to 39% of colonial yield spreads. This reflected both different market microstructures and bond clienteles, themselves influenced by heterogeneous political, institutional and financial arrangements. The flows from the colonies to British ‘ordinary’ investors in the form of illiquidity premia should be taken into account in future studies of the political economy of empire.