We study the effect of exposure to colonial public primary education on contemporary education outcomes in Tunisia. We assemble a new data set on the location of schools with the number of pupils by origin, along with population data during the French protectorate (1881–1956). We match those with contemporary data on education at both district and individual level. We find that the exposure of local population to colonial public primary education has a long-lasting effect on educational outcomes, even when controlling for colonial investments in education. A one per cent increase in Tunisian enrolment rate in 1931 is associated with a 1.69 percentage points increase in literacy rate in 2014. Our results are driven by older generations, namely individuals who attended primary schools before the 1989/91 education reform. We suggest that the efforts undertaken by the Tunisian government after independence to promote schooling finally paid off after 40 years and overturned the effects of history.