“Slavers Throwing overboard the Dead and Dying—Typhoon coming on" J. M. W. Turner
From the very beginning, the insurance business has been a crucial element, even a contributor, to the shipping and maritime industries. For more than three hundred years, Lloyd’s, the London and the US Insurance Markets have offered insurance solutions to ship owners, carriers and financial establishments, securing trade and maritime adventures for a wide variety of economic ventures. It is the foundation upon which insurance has developed and has been seen as an essential component in the development of the British economic standing. What is perhaps most unfavourable, however, is the notion that British and US insurers partook in the notorious slave industry, insuring both transportation ships and the human cargoes they carried on a transatlantic basis.
As recently as 2000, Aetna, a US insurer, apologised for its role in the trafficking of people more than 150 years previously. In the same year, the Slavery Era Insurance Policies Bill was passed requiring US insurers to disclose insurance policies or slips that related to slave insurance. Many insurance companies in the Illinois Division of Insurance produced an actual list of those policies written. Aetna disclosed one particular policy written for Mary Raby from New Orleans in 1853 offered an indemnity rate of $600 per insurance loss (i.e. the death of a slave) for a premium of $17.25. In the UK during 2004, there was also a call for reparations by slave descendants, following the events of the Liverpudlian vessel, Zong.
Whilst transporting a consignment of African slaves in 1781, the captain of the Zong, Captain Luke Collingwood, encountered problems of food and water shortage resulting in the deaths of a number of slaves on transit. Concerned with the dead, the dying and the potential for disease on board, Collingwood ordered the jettisoning of diseased (but still alive) human cargoes so as to conserve the remainder and the European members of crew. Collingwood argued that the interests of the voyage could claim the loss of 133 slaves under General Average against its principle insurers. However, the insurance policy conditions required that:
The insurer takes upon him the risk of the loss, capture, and death of slaves, or any other unavoidable accident to them: but natural death is always understood to be excepted: by natural death is meant, not only when it happens by disease or sickness, but also when the captive destroys himself through despair, which often happens: but when slaves are killed, or thrown into the sea in order to quell an insurrection on their part, then the insurers must answer.
Denying payment of the insurance claim, the insurers took the owners of the Zong to court in the famous case of Gregson v Gilbert (1783) 3 Doug 232, 99 ER 629,  EngR 85 (22 May 1783). The basis of this court case, however, was one of insurance fraud rather than of murder or indeed of human trafficking. Indeed, commenting on his deliberation, Lord Chief Justice, Lord Mansfield attested that “[t]he case of the slaves was the same as if horses had been thrown overboard.” Insurers in this case likened human cargoes to that of cattle, preferring to outline subsequent voyages with the relevant conditions pertaining to Marine Cargo insurance policies. Such was the proliferation of insurance fraud that many US insurers became wary of the entire trade. One Kentucky-based insurer commented in 1856 that “[t]he company is by no means solicitous of securing a large Negro insurance business unless the owners are careful and judicious men.”
The result of the Gregson v Gilbert case initiated a change in British and US political circles, prompting the abolition of slavery and the characterisation of cargoes in subsequent marine cargo insurance policies. Call for reparations are currently ongoing with many descendants claiming for injuries suffered and displacement caused. Ed Fagan, acting for the descendants, has argued that “Lloyd’s knew that what they were doing led to the destruction of the indigenous population.” Whatever the outcome of this litigation, insurers should remain conscious of the effect that marine insurance has had on history. The history of Africa, the British Empire and the Wealth of Nations can all be traced back to and have been influenced by the development of the marine insurance industry.
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