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One important, but overlooked, risk mitigation device that facilitated the growth of the slave trade in the eighteenth century was the increasing availability of insurance for ships and their human cargoes. In this article we explore, for the first time, the relative cost of insurance for British slave traders, the underlying processes by which this key aspect of the business of slavery was conducted, and the factors behind price and other changes over time. Comparisons are also drawn with the transatlantic slave trades of other nations. As well as analyzing the business of underwriting slave voyages, we have two other objectives. First, we explore the meaning of slave insurance from the perspective of those directly involved in the trade. Was it about insuring lives or goods? Second, we provide new estimates of the importance of the slave trade to U.K. marine insurance. Did the former drive the growth of the latter, as Joseph Inikori has claimed?
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The Journal of Economic History, Vol. 79, No. 2 (June 2019). © The Economic History
Association. All rights reserved. doi: 10.1017/S0022050719000068
Robin Pearson is Professor, Business School, University of Hull, Cottingham Road, Hull
HU6 7RX, United Kingdom. E-mail: David Richardson is Professor,
Wilberforce Institute, University of Hull, 27 High Street, Hull HU1 1NE, United Kingdom.
Earlier versions of this paper were presented at the Universities of Nottingham and Umeå. We
are most grateful to the participants, as well as to the Editor of this Journal and to two anonymous
referees, for their insightful comments.
1 The other major trading nations were Portugal/Brazil, who carried 32 percent of captives
transported between 1761 and 1807, and France (17 percent). The most important of the minor
participants were American and Dutch ships (6 and 3 percent, respectively). Calculated from, accessed 4 November 2017.
Insuring the Transatlantic Slave Trade
robin Pearson and david richardson
One important, but overlooked, risk mitigation device that facilitated the growth
of the slave trade in the eighteenth century was the increasing availability of
insurance for ships and their human cargoes. In this article we explore, for the
rst time, the relative cost of insurance for British slave traders, the underlying
processes by which this key aspect of the business of slavery was conducted,
and the factors behind price and other changes over time. Comparisons are also
drawn with the transatlantic slave trades of other nations. As well as analyzing
the business of underwriting slave voyages, we have two other objectives. First,
we explore the meaning of slave insurance from the perspective of those directly
involved in the trade. Was it about insuring lives or goods? Second, we provide
new estimates of the importance of the slave trade to U.K. marine insurance. Did
the former drive the growth of the latter, as Joseph Inikori has claimed?
The forced transportation of more than 12.5 m Africans to the New
World between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries was “one of
history’s greatest crimes against humanity” (Davis 2010, p. xvii). It
reached its peak in the late eighteenth century, by which time Britain had
established itself as the leading slaver nation, carrying 40 percent (1.6 m)
of all Africans transported between 1761 and the abolition of the British
trade in 1807.1 The classic triangular pattern of the trade encompassed
three legs: the outward voyage from a British or European port to the
western coast of Africa where captives were purchased and loaded, the
infamous “middle passage” from Africa to the Americas, and the voyage
homeward to Europe. Rising real prices for sugar and slaves, improve-
ments in the productivity of plantation labor, together with high attrition
rates among existing slave populations and newly arrived captives, led
to a growing demand from the Americas, so that the average number of
Pearson and Richardson
Africans transported rose from around 20,000 a year in the late seven-
teenth century to more than 80,000 a year in the period 1781–1810 (Eltis,
Lewis, and Richardson 2005).
A critical factor enabling the transatlantic slave trade to grow to such
dimensions was the ability of the merchants to nd ways to mitigate not
only the usual risks of trans-oceanic commerce in a pre-industrial age,
but also those risks peculiar to the trade itself. The latter included high
crew and slave morbidity rates, highly variable loading rates and ocean
crossing times and the difculties of provisioning for these, the moral
hazard of crew neglecting their cargoes or trading for themselves, losses
caused through shipboard slave revolt or resistance, and a variety of
transaction risks, including exchange value uncertainties, price volatility
and planter credit default in the purchase of new slaves. Historians have
noted how failure to manage such risks undermined the trading capacities
of some companies involved in the slaving business (Carlos 1994).
It is evident, nonetheless, that a wide range of measures was employed
to try to mitigate or manage these risks. Some of these are discussed
later. Our primary focus in this article, however, is on one important risk
mitigation device largely neglected by historians, namely the insurance
of ships and goods on all legs of the trade, and their human cargoes on the
middle passage.2 The insurance of slaves at sea was already known in the
fteenth-century Mediterranean, where small numbers were occasion-
ally included in policies covering maritime cargoes (Del Treppo 1957).
From the late seventeenth century onward the expansion of transatlantic
commerce raised it to an entirely new level. The annual average number
of slaves carried by British ships in the rst half of the eighteenth century
rose by 68 percent, a faster increase than that of shipping tonnage and
probably Atlantic trade in general.3 Moreover, insurance was becoming
increasingly available. By the 1720s London insurers included the slave
trade among so-called “cross risks,” that is ships or cargoes travelling
between two or more foreign destinations outside the United Kingdom.
In 1731 as much as 42 percent of marine insurances sold by the London
2 There is no mention of insurance in, for instance, Klein (1999), Curtin (1969), and Haggerty
(2009), and only brief references in the principal studies of the French, Dutch, and Portuguese/
Brazilian trades (Stein 1979; Postma 1990; Miller 1988). The exception is Inikori (2002),
discussed later.
3 It is estimated that British ships embarked 151,877 slaves in 1701–1710 and 255,346 in 1751–
1760. Calculated from (accessed 4 November 2017). English shipping
tonnage was 323,000 in 1702 and 421,000 in 1751, a 30 percent growth. Combined trade with
Africa, the Americas, and the West Indies (average annual imports, exports plus re-exports at
ofcial values) rose from £2.2 m to £3.4 m between 1710–1719 and 1751–1758, a 54 percent
growth albeit for a shorter period. Calculated from Mitchell (1988, pp. 448, 534).
Insuring the Transatlantic Slave Trade 419
Assurance Corporation were “cross risks.” For private underwriters the
percentage was probably higher, especially when the two London insur-
ance corporations withdrew from the cross-risks market during wartime.4
We do not know precisely what proportion of cross-risks insurance was
accounted for by the slave trade, but given the relative rates of expansion
noted earlier, it is probable that it became more important as a source of
revenue for insurers (discussed later). Of the 74 slaving voyages operated
by the Liverpool trader William Davenport between 1757 and 1784 for
which accounts survived, all were insured. All of the 55 slaving voyages
of James Rogers of Bristol in 1784–1793 for which we have accounts
carried insurance. From his study of Davenport’s accounts, David
Richardson concluded “there is little doubt…that mid-eighteenth-century
slave-traders regularly insured their ventures” (Richardson 1989, p. 71).
The insurance of transatlantic slave voyages, however, has seldom been
examined as a business. Cultural and legal historians have debated the
meaning of insured slaves as human lives or property (Armstrong 2004;
Rupprecht 2007a, 2007b; Oldham 2007). The only macroeconomic anal-
ysis was by Joseph Inikori, who argued that the growth of British marine
insurance was largely dependent on insuring slaving and its related trades
(Inikori 2002, pp. 338–61). Little attention has been paid to the practice
of insuring slave ships, and to the impact of insurance on the trade. This
article represents the rst attempt to examine the process and implica-
tions of underwriting transatlantic slave voyages. What were the risks,
how were they assessed and priced, and why were they underwritten?
What was the cost burden of insurance to merchants? To what extent
were slave voyages self-insured or underinsured? Our primary focus is
on the role that insurance played in the British slave trade. Comparisons
are also drawn where possible to the transatlantic slave trades of other
nations, but because of the current paucity of published information, a
comprehensive examination of the role of insurance in these trades will
have to await future research.
Very few individual policies insuring British slaving voyages have
survived. Consequently, any analysis is dependent on other sources,
notably merchants’ records of the insurance they purchased, or, more
rarely, brokers’ underwriting books. Our analysis is based on a new dataset
comprising the latter two types of source. The rst consists of details of
69 insurance policies issued to the Bristol merchant James Rogers for 55
4 Calculated from John (1958, table 1). The cross-risks proportion of London Assurance
business varied considerably. It was 17 percent in 1769–1770. See also Cockerell and Green
(1994, p. 12).
Pearson and Richardson
slaving voyages between 1784 and 1793 and recorded in his papers in the
Chancery Masters Exhibits of the British National Archives. The details
include the policy’s date and place of issue, name of ship and its captain,
route insured, amount insured, categories of property insured (ship,
goods, etc.), premium rate paid, cost of policy, valuation of “negroes
per head” (recorded in 13 policies only), amounts covered by individual
subscribers (underwriters) to the insurance and their names (28 policies),
and notes on the terms and restrictions of the cover (23 policies), such
as “liberty to join convoy” or “free from the loss by trading in boats,”
the last referring to the practice in parts of western Africa of using yawls
or other small craft to barter for and carry slaves to the principal vessel.
We have cross checked and expanded the information on these 69 insur-
ances by linking them to their respective voyages in Richardson’s gazet-
teer of Bristol slaving voyages which gives the value and composition of
outlays and the dates of departure from and return to Bristol (Richardson
1996). Our second source comprises the six underwriting books of
Abraham Clibborn, which provide details of 330 insurance policies
issued on slave ships, mostly departing from Bristol, between 1769 and
1775.5 Clibborn listed policies by the name of the rm broking the insur-
ance rather than by individual voyage or ship’s name. Nevertheless, it is
possible to reorganize the entries and extract the following information:
issue date of policy (month and year only), broker’s name, ship’s name,
amount insured, premium rate paid, categories of property insured (ship,
goods, etc.), route insured, and fate of voyage. Supplementary data on
the voyages insured—date of departure, destinations, value, and compo-
sition of outlay—have also been gleaned from Richardson’s gazetteer.
Because cargoes and hulls on some voyages were insured in more than
one policy, the 399 policies across our two sources covered an estimated
220 voyages. We believe that this is the largest dataset ever compiled for
slave trade insurance.6
There is no reason to suspect that the information in these sources
is inaccurate in any systematic way. They were compiled for private
consumption only, their usefulness to their owners lay in their accuracy
5 The National Archives, U.K. (TNA), C107/1-15, Chancery Masters Exhibits, James Rogers
Papers; C107/11, Underwriting Books of Abraham Clibborn.
Inikori’s appendix 7.2 contains insurance premiums for 60 voyages 1757–1806. His Table 7.2
of insurance rates 1701–1807 does not specify the number of observations (Inikori 2002, pp. 350,
510–11). Our denition of a voyage is determined by the contemporary insurance. Thus England to
Africa to America, if insured in one policy, is counted as one voyage. Where two or more insurances
are recorded for the same ship and same route and are dated within six months of each other, we
assume that the policies cover the same voyage. A small number of time policies (ten) recorded in
the Clibborn books, where no route is specied, are counted as insuring one voyage each.
Insuring the Transatlantic Slave Trade 421
and there were no major incentives to falsify the records.7 Moreover, to
supplement and expand the information on the policies, a detailed study
has been carried out of the extensive correspondence concerning many of
these voyages found in Rogers’ papers.8
As well as analyzing the business of underwriting slave voyages, we
have two other objectives. First, we explore the meaning of slave insur-
ance from the perspective of those directly involved in the trade. Was it
about insuring lives or goods? Second, we provide new estimates of the
importance of the slave trade to British marine insurance. Did the former
drive the growth of the latter, as Inikori claimed? We begin by exploring
these issues.
On 29 November 1781 the master of the Zong, a Liverpool slaver
becalmed in the doldrums and running out of provisions, threw 132 living
slaves overboard on the assumption that insurance would cover the loss.
When the underwriters refused the claim the owners successfully sued.
The underwriters applied for a retrial. At the Kings Bench in May 1783
Lord Manseld and his fellow judges ruled in favor of the applicants,
nding that there was no evidence that the loss had been occasioned by
“perils of the sea” covered by the standard marine insurance policy.9 Two
years later Manseld adjudicated another case, where a Bristol ship had
lost 55 slaves during a revolt off the coast of Africa. The dispute centred
on which losses the underwriters were liable for under the slave insurrec-
tion clause in the policy. The court ruled that they were to compensate
7 Legislation passed in 1788 (28 Geo. III c.54) stipulated heavy nes for British ships exceeding
the loading limit of slaves per ton, but this regulation is said by some to have been widely ignored
(Inikori 2002, pp. 246–7, 284–5). In any case our study does not draw on the types of records—
log books and surgeons’ journals—that were subject to inspection under these rules. Nor was
taxation an incentive to falsify in our period. A at sixpence stamp duty on insurance policies
was rst introduced by 5 William & Mary (1694) c.21. From 10 Anne (1711) c.26 only stamped
policies were valid in the English law of equity, so policyholders had an incentive to pay the duty.
The rst proportionate tax on amounts insured—2s.6 d per £100 insured (0.125 percent)—was
levied in 1795 by 35 Geo. III c.63. According to contemporaries this was widely evaded, but it
was introduced two years after the last policies in our dataset were issued. On marine insurance
taxation, see Park (1802, p. 28) and Walford (1874, vol. 3, pp. 552–3).
8 See note 5.
9 Gregson v Gilbert (1783) 3 Doug KB 232; 99 ER 629, discussed in Clark (2010), Oldham
(2007), and Walvin (2011). The standard SG (ship, goods) policy insured a hull and/or cargo
against the “perils of the seas, men-of-war, re, enemies, pirates, rovers, thieves, jettisons, letters
of mart and countermart, surprisals, takings at sea, arrests, restraints, and detainment of all kings,
princes, and people.” Perils of the sea included loss or damage by shipwreck, stranding, burning
or sinking, and loss damage or loss deliberately caused by master or crew (Cockerell and Green
1994, pp. 3–4).
Pearson and Richardson
for slaves shot dead or who died from wounds incurred directly in the
struggle, but that they were not liable for deaths by other means, such as
drowning, jumping overboard, or “abstinence” from despair at the failure
of the uprising.10
In the aftermath of these and other cases, both legislators and the courts
wrestled with the problem of how to dene more precisely the “perils of
the sea” as contained in the standard Lloyd’s policy and restated in the
Dolben Act of 1788, the rst major British regulation of slave shipping.11
Legal ambiguities persisted. In 1794, breaking from standard policy condi-
tions, parliament prohibited the recovery of slave losses due to jettison or
as a result of quarrels with rulers on the African coast that derived from
aggressive procurement by British crews.12 At the same time, however,
the standard underwriters’ exemption from liability for losses through
natural death, wastage, or spoilage, was conrmed in Tatham v Hodgson
(1796), where the court included within the denition of “natural death”
the starvation of slaves by insufcient provisions occasioned by delays
in a voyage due to bad weather or poor seamanship.13 The insurance of
slaves was nally made illegal in 1807 by the same act that abolished
the British slave trade, although some underwriters continued to insure
slavers sailing under foreign ags.14
The Zong trial and other legal cases and atrocity stories became mile-
stones in the campaign for abolition. Abolitionists protested that the
slave trade wrongly conated goods and persons. The Zong’s crew, they
argued, should be tried for murder. Shipboard revolts demonstrated the
human desire of African slaves for liberty, rendering them something
more than insurable cargo. Scholars have taken up these ideas and argued,
largely from legal and abolitionist texts, that the status of the insured slave
occupied “a middle position in the progress from insurance on goods to
insurance on persons, providing a way of thinking about the value of a
life” (Armstrong 2004, p. 170; Swaminathan 2010). When slaves used
their agency through suicide, revolt or other resistance, “insurance law
struggled to know how to respond...” (Webster 2007, p. 296). Insurance
10 Jones v Schmoll (1785) 1 Term Rep 130n, discussed in Park (1802, pp. 56–7) and Oldham
(2007, pp. 308–10).
11 28 Geo III (1788) c. 54, art. 12 prohibited insurance of “any Cargo of Slaves, or any Part
thereof,” except against “the Perils of the Sea, Piracy, Insurrection, or Capture by the King’s
Enemies, Barratry of the Master and Crew, and Destruction by Fire.” See also 30 Geo. III (1790)
c.33; 32 Geo. III (1792) c.52; 33 Geo. III (1793) c.73.
12 34 Geo III (1794) c.80, art. 10; 39 Geo. III (1799) c.80.
13 Tatham v Hodgson (1796) 6 Term Rep 656, 101 ER 756; Park (1802, pp. 62, 495) and
Oldham (2007).
14 47 Geo.III c.36 §5. See also 46 Geo III c.52 §6; 51 Geo III c.23 §12.
Insuring the Transatlantic Slave Trade 423
cases, and the abolitionist commentaries that accompanied them, “drama-
tized the consequences of legal perversion in the name of prot,” so that
“even the most hardened slavers tacitly acknowledged the ...irreduc-
ible humanity of a so-called human cargo” (Rupprecht 2007b, p. 334,
While the horrors of the middle passage may indeed have advanced
the case for abolition, the focus on the latter has given rise to several
misconceptions about how the trade regarded slaves and their insurance.
Among the extensive private accounts and correspondence of merchants,
factors, ships’ captains and surgeons that we have examined, there is
not a hint that slaves were regarded by those involved in the business
as anything other than a cargo of goods. In the papers of James Rogers
covering 1784–1793, the very decade in which the general recognition of
the humanity of slaves is supposed to have occurred, the most frequent
term in the trade for a slave cargo was “parcel.” The real value of a
“parcel” was determined by the ethnicity, size, height, age, gender, state
of health, and physical appearance of the slaves comprising the “parcel”
at the time of sale, together with the arithmetic of external factors in the
market concerned, primarily the supply of and demand for slaves, the
state of the sugar crop, and the state of planters’ credit at the time of a
ship’s arrival, minus the cost of purchase on the African coast and the
cost of provisions on the middle passage.15 There were similarities with
the common Dutch and French methods of quantifying slave cargoes as
piezas de India (PI), by which an adult male aged 15 to 35, and “without
major blemish…good in health, not blind, lame, or broken” was counted
as one PI, while women and children were counted as various fractions
of one (Postma 1990, pp. 37–8, 228–9; Stein 1979, p. 85).
Underwriters and their clients uniformly classied slaves as perishable
goods. In his 1781 digest of English insurance laws and practices, John
Weskett placed slaves alongside cattle as class II common hazards.16
The association of slave and livestock cargoes continued to be made
by English courts long after abolition.17 It was also found in maritime
codes and trading practices elsewhere in Europe. The principal compi-
lation of Portuguese commercial law and practice “bluntly headed its
chapter regarding insurance for cargoes at sea as ‘marine insurance for
slaves and beasts’ ” (Miller 1988, p. 394). Article 44 of the French Code
Noir declared slaves to be “moveable stock” (meubles) and therefore
15 Clark (2010) also cites the slang term “logs” for British slave cargoes.
16 Weskett (1781, p. 105). The categories were “least hazardous,” “common hazardous,” “more
hazardous,” and “most hazardous.”
17 Cf. Lawrence v Aberdein (1821), 106 ER 1133.
Pearson and Richardson
a legitimate object of marine insurance (Émerigon 1783, p. 208). The
Dutch used the word kop (head) for individual slaves, the same term used
for cattle (Postma 1990, p. 227).18
In most maritime codes, perishable goods, as well as goods of high
value or strategic worth, had to be described and have their value specied
in the policy as a means of reducing the opportunity for fraud (Weskett
1781, p. 261). This stipulation was important because, as noted earlier,
insurers commonly were not held liable for “natural deaths” or “natural
wastage,” “corruption” or “spoilage” (including sickness) of perishable
goods. On the other hand, they were liable for damage and losses through
“perils of the sea,” including goods jettisoned to save a ship in trouble
and losses incurred in putting down shipboard revolts that could justi-
ably be said to endanger ship and crew. Thus it was important for loss
adjusters to be able to distinguish between these two types of indemni-
able and non-indemniable losses in the event of a claim.
The “natural deaths” exemption clause had a long history. It was found
in the policies of fteenth-century Catalan merchants and in the French
maritime ordinance of 1681 (Del Treppo 1957, p. 23; Weskett 1781,
pp. 260–1).19 French legal commentators agreed that when “animals or
negroes” died a “natural death,” or also where slaves committed suicide
through despair, the insurer was not to be held liable (Valin 1776, vol.
2, p. 55; Émerigon 1783, pp. 208–9). Similarly, in the Brazilian trade,
slavers could not insure their cargoes against common mortality, hence
the practice of killing the rst slaves to show any signs of a disease feared
to be contagious, to save the costs of mortality among the remainder
(Miller 1988, p. 661).
As we have seen, for those arguing for a post-Zong transition in atti-
tudes towards slave cargoes, the question of insurance losses during ship-
board revolts is central. Tim Armstrong, for example, has claimed that
slaves were distinguishable from other goods by the “general average
sacrice” clause routinely inserted into slave ship policies (Armstrong
2004, pp. 170–5; see also Webster 2007, p. 291). This exempted insurers
from liability from claims arising from shipboard insurrection if the losses
amounted to less than 10 percent of the total value of the cargo, hull, and
outt. The argument was that the application of general average to slaves
lost in insurrection imbued them in the eyes of underwriters with human
18 Dehumanizing terms were also applied by Dutch and French slavers to elderly, sickly,
disabled, or very young captives who remained unsold, namely “macrons” or manquerons”
(Dutch), and “queues de cargaison” (French) (Postma 1990, p. 229; Geggus 2001, p. 127).
19 There were similar clauses in the maritime ordinances of Prussia, Hamburg, Sweden, and
Insuring the Transatlantic Slave Trade 425
agency. General average, however, was merely an accounting device to
facilitate the adjustment of losses on certain goods as an average on the
value of the ship and all cargo. It was widely applied to other perishable
goods, including cattle and horses, in the same measure and with the
same level of excess of 10 percent.20 “Sacrice” was understood by those
involved in the trade not as a reference to the loss of lives, but to the
sharing of the loss of a perishable cargo among the insured. Underwriters
used the general average clause with its proportionate excess to hedge
against small and pernicious claims on all types of cargo losses. Slaves
were no exception. Underwriters and courts dealt with slave losses arising
from shipboard revolt as the equivalent of damage and losses caused
by livestock panicking during a tempest.21 Indeed, in the Zong hearing,
Manseld described the jettison of slaves as similar to the jettison or
shooting of horses in a storm to save a ship. The problem for the Zong’s
owners was that the court found no evidence that the jettison was justi-
ed by any perils of the sea. Instead it was the master’s negligence and
seamanship that was deemed at fault, and thus there was sufcient doubt
that insured losses were not recoverable to warrant a retrial (Oldham
2007, p. 316; Clark 2010, pp. 56–7; Lobban 2007).
Those arguing that transatlantic slave cargoes were positioned some-
where between the insurance of lives and goods have also turned to
French evidence suggesting that slaves were insured under ransom
insurance policies as ctional “captives,” as a means of circumventing
the prohibition on insuring human lives (Armstrong 2004, p. 170).22
According to this ction, insurance on slaves was to cover the risk of
loss of the “ransom money” paid for them upon loading until the money
was redeemed through their sale across the Atlantic. A related ction was
that slaves were captured “enemies” and therefore a peril of the sea and a
legitimate object of maritime insurance. In his 1783 treatise Balthazard-
Marie Émerigon cited ancient sources that argued there was always a
state of war between masters and slaves. Thus, when insurers underwrote
a ship known to be in the slave trade, they knew it was taking on board
“enemies” that would, if they could, cause the loss of the ship.23
20 Weskett (1781, p. 263) citing the 1744 Ordinance of Amsterdam. The same clause was in
the Rotterdam Ordinance of 1721 (Magens 1755, p. 95). Some general average clauses xed the
excess at 5 percent.
21 Lawrence v Aberdein (1821), 106 ER 1133; Gabay v Lloyd (1825), 3 B&C 793, 107 ER 927.
22 Insurance on lives was widely banned as a form of gambling that offended religious
authorities, beginning with the Ordinances of Barcelona (1435) followed by similar prohibitions
in the Netherlands, Italy, Sweden, and France in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries (Roover
1945; Clark 1999, pp. 13–16).
23La révolte des Negres est donc une fortune de mer” (Émerigon 1783, p. 397).
Pearson and Richardson
This ction of slaves as the object of ransom insurance appears,
however, to be entirely derived from French legal and commercial
commentaries (Weskett 1781, p. 72; Valin 1776, vol. 2, p. 55). The ransom
insurance described in other European maritime ordinances only referred
to insurance against the loss of liberty of European crews, rather than
their lives, if captured by Turks, Moors, Corsairs, or Barbary Pirates.24
The French sources are in any case ambiguous. Émerigon also cites a
Marseille admiralty case from 1776 that makes it clear that French courts
regarded slaves as goods, without any reference to ransom or redemp-
tion (rachat) insurance (Émerigon 1783, pp. 199–205, 396). Exactly how
underwriters and their clients in France and elsewhere in Europe classi-
ed slave cargoes in practice, however, would require a close examina-
tion of individual merchant’s records and underwriter’s books, the sort
of analysis that we have carried out for English slavers, but which for
the slave trades of other European nations is beyond the scope of this
Inikori was the rst historian to attempt to measure the importance of
the slave trade and the “Atlantic slave economy” to British marine insur-
ance. It formed part of his broader argument about the importance of
the trade to the British industrial revolution (Inikori 2002, pp. 338–61).25
He dened three channels by which the “Atlantic slave economy” was
linked to the insurance industry: premiums earned from insuring British
slave voyages in the triangular trade; premiums earned from insuring the
trade in slave-produced commodities between England and America,
and on the re-export trade in American produce between Britain and
Europe; and premiums from insuring in London the American trade of
European powers. The last, Inikori declared, was impossible to measure
given the limited data. He estimated, however, that in the 1790s the rst
two channels—slave voyages and the British trade in slave-produced
goods—together accounted for 63 percent of premiums earned by the
British marine insurance industry (see Table 1 Panel 1.1 Column D).
Thus, the slave trade and its related transatlantic commodity trades
appear to have been hugely important to the growth of this key nancial
24 Compare the Insurance Ordinances of Hamburg 1731 (article 10), Amsterdam 1744 (article
14), and Sweden 1750 (article 9): Magens (1755, vol. 2, pp. 225–7, 132–3, 259–310).
25 As recently as 1999, Clark remarked that “it is unclear how frequently English merchants
actually insured slaves on the Middle Passage” (1999, p. 17).
Insuring the Transatlantic Slave Trade 427
The contribution of the slave trade to British economic develop-
ment has been much debated. While some scholars are sceptical about
its macroeconomic impact, arguing that the trade was small and prots
precarious, others have pointed to the economic spin-offs and multiplier
effects of capital accumulated from trade in slave-grown commodities
circulating among British business networks during the late eighteenth
and early nineteenth centuries (Eltis and Engerman 2000; Zahadieh
2014, p. 403; Pearson 1991; Pearson and Richardson 2001; Devine
1975). Slave traders were prominent investors, for instance, in the early
London dock companies, but they were not necessarily a dominating
presence in the City. According to Nicholas Draper, planters’ bills
formed an important part of London nance, but, contrary to Inikori,
they did not comprise the bulk of bills in circulation in London and the
provinces. In the same vein, Draper has also questioned Inikori’s argu-
ment that slavery-related trades dominated marine insurance. He esti-
mates, from data of the London Assurance Corporation for 1769–1770,
that 15 percent of sums insured on marine insurance policies and one-
third of premiums derived from African and West Indian trades at that
time, levels well below those estimated by Inikori for the 1790s (Draper
As explained in our notes to Table 1, Inikori’s estimates were based on
projecting total British marine insurance premiums backwards from John
Julius Angerstein’s gure of £10.95 m in 1809, given in his evidence to
the Select Committee on Marine Insurance.26 Inikori took the ratio of
premiums earned by London Assurance in 1809 to its average premiums
for 1793–1807, and applied this ratio to Angerstein’s gure to estimate
average annual British marine insurance premiums for 1793–1807.
He then employed the same method to estimate annual average total
premiums for 1750–1792 and 1720–1750.
There are several problems with this back-projection method. First,
Inikori obtained only approximate gures for London Assurance from a
graph by A.H. John (1958, p. 130). Barry Supple calculated more accu-
rate average premiums for London Assurance from the annual data in the
company records, and we have used these for our estimates (Supple 1970,
p. 61 n2). Second, Inikori ignored the marine business of the other insur-
ance corporation, the Royal Exchange Assurance, which by the 1770s
was more than twice as large as that of London Assurance. The accuracy
of Inikori’s method partly depends upon the smaller insurer adequately
26 Report from the Select Committee on Marine Insurance, British Parliamentary Papers
(hereafter BPP), 1810, IV, 314–15. Angerstein was a former chairman of Lloyd’s.
Pearson and Richardson
representing the growth of British marine insurance. Our estimates, by
contrast, utilize the combined premiums of both corporations, as given
by Supple.27
Third, Angerstein derived his estimate of £10.95 m premiums in 1809
by applying a rate of 7.5 percent—the “average rate of premiums for
the last 22 years…”—to the amount insured by the corporations and by
private underwriters in London, as calculated from returns of stamp duty
in 1809, plus an estimate for the amount insured in London on the British
coasting trade.28 This, however, ignored British marine insurance written
outside London. The Select Committee itself made an allowance for the
latter and estimated the total sum insured to be £162.5 m, compared to
Table 1
1.1. Inikori’s Estimates
Average Annual
Premiums (£),
Average Annual
Premiums (£ m),
British Marine
Average Annual
Premiums (£ m),
Slave and West
Indian Trades
C as Percent of
1720–1750 35,000 1.80
1750–1792 38,000 2.00
1793–1807 76,000 4.00 2.52 63.0
1809 228,000 10.95
Notes: Column A: Inikori’s gures derive from the graph in John (1958, p. 130). Inikori states
that the average for 1793–1807 was “roughly twice” that for 1750–1792, and the gure for 1809
was “roughly three times” the average of 1793–1807; Column B: The gure for 1809 is given
in Angerstein’s evidence to the Select Committee on Marine Insurance.. As explained in Inikori
(2002, p. 342 n88), the other gures are the product of the ratios between the average premiums
of London Assurance for the different periods. Thus, as its premiums in 1793–1807 were one
third (not three times as stated in Inikori (2002, p. 342 n88)) of those in 1809, the annual average
premiums for U.K. marine insurance 1793–1807 are “put at approximately £4 m.” London
Assurance’s average premiums in 1750–1792 were half those in 1793–1807, so the U.K. average
for 1750–1792 is £2 m. Inikori (2002, p. 342 n88) states that “the gure for 1720–50 is a marginal
adjustment arising from the closeness of the company’s premium earnings in 1750–92 and 1720–
50”; Column C: Inikori estimates premiums of £2.52 m from the slave and West Indian trades by
applying average premium rates to his estimates of the value of these trades (ships, outt, goods,
slaves). £2.52 m relates to the period 1791–1800, but is applied by Inikori to his estimate of total
marine insurance for 1793–1807 to produce the percentage in Column D.
Sources: Column A: Inikori (2002, p. 342 n87); Column B: Select Committee on Marine
Insurance, BPP 1810, IV, 314–15; Inikori (2002, p. 342 n88); Column C: Inikori (2002, p. 356).
27 Supple gives the average premiums of London Assurance net of returns. We have increased
these by 25 percent to obtain gross premiums comparable with those of Royal Exchange
Assurance. According to Supple, returns in the period 1796–1815 “averaged just over 25 percent
of gross premiums” (Supple 1970, p. 62, table 3.1n).
28 BPP, 1810, IV, 314–15.
Insuring the Transatlantic Slave Trade 429
Angerstein’s £140.5 m. Applying the rate of 7.5 percent to £162.5 m
gives a total of £12.19 m for marine insurance premiums in 1809. Another
member of Lloyd’s, Joseph Marryat, thought that the Select Committee
had underestimated the amount written outside London, and he calcu-
lated total insured on marine policies to be £175.6 m (Marryat 2000,
Table 1 (conTinued)
1.2. New Estimates
Average Annual Premiums £ m
Average £ p.a.
D as
of C
E as
of C
69,649 5.0 1.39 0.11 7.9
73,298 4.5 1.63 0.08 4.9
135,600 5.0 2.71 0.11 4.1
280,451 4.5 6.23 0.41 2.52 6.6 40.5
263,125 3.89 6.76 0.53 7.8
1809 3.79 10.95
Notes: Column A: We have raised London Assurance’s net premiums (net of returns) by 25 percent
to estimate gross premiums, following the note in Supple’s Table 3.1, and added them to those of
Royal Exchange Assurance; Column B: The percentage gure for 1809 is the two corporations’
combined insurance (£6,155,755) as a share of total U.K. marine insurance (£162,538,900), as
estimated by the Select Committee on Marine Insurance from company returns and from stamp
duty collected on marine insurance policies that year. The gure for 1800/1801–1809/1810 is
the corporations’ combined share of stamp duty paid on policies 1800–1809. This probably
overstates the corporations’ share (and therefore understates total U.K. marine insurance)
because of widespread evasion of duty by private underwriters before 1808. See Marryat (2000,
p. 289). Percentages for 1760–1800 are estimates based on the following assumptions: (i) that
the corporations’ share of total duty paid in 1800 (£5,355 out of £113,442, or 4.7 percent)
approximates the corporations’ market share in 1790–1799, once adjusted downwards (to 4.5
percent) to allow for some evasion of the stamp duty by private underwriters; (ii) that the two
corporations kept pace with Lloyd’s through to 1790; (iii) that their market share was lower
during wartime years due to more conservative underwriting, their refusal to insure cross-risks,
their higher rates, stricter policy conditions, and the accelerated growth of Lloyds after 1793 (see
Kingston 2007). Column C: The gure for 1809 is Angerstein’s estimate given in his evidence
to the Select Committee on Marine Insurance. All other U.K. marine insurance premiums are
estimated by multiplying up the corporations’ combined premiums by the market shares given in
Column B.
Sources: Column A: Supple (1970, p. 61 n2 and table 3.1). Column B: Select Committee on
Marine Insurance, BPP 1810, IV, 250. Column C: Select Committee on Marine Insurance, BPP
1810, IV, 314–15. Column D: Inikori (2002, table 7.3). Column E: Inikori (2002, p. 356).
Pearson and Richardson
p. 289).29 Applying 7.5 percent to this gives an upper bound of £13.2 m
premiums in 1809 (upper bound, because the average rate on Irish and
coasting trades would have been lower than 7.5 percent, which was more
representative of the premium rate on foreign trade). Furthermore, when
the percentage stamp tax on marine insurance was introduced in 1795,
Pitt estimated its yield based on a gure of £104 m insured (Raynes 1948,
p. 189). At a rate of 7.5 percent, this suggests £7.8 m marine insurance
premiums in that year. In short, taking all the previously noted calcula-
tions into consideration, Inikori’s annual average of £4 m premiums in
1793–1807, back-projected from Angerstein’s gure of 1809, is almost
certainly too low, probably by at least 50 percent. The result, we argue, is
to overstate the importance of slaving and slave trade related insurance to
British marine insurance in the 1790s and 1800s.
Our new estimates, shown in Table 1, are based on the combined
premiums of both corporations 1760–1810 and the annual duty paid on
marine insurance 1800–1809. We have used these two components to
derive decennial averages of British marine insurance premiums, 1760–
1809, and the share in these of Inikori’s estimated premiums earned on
slave and West Indian trades. To do this, we calculate the combined
stamp duty paid by the two corporations 1800–1809 as a percentage
of the total duty paid, and then multiply the combined premiums of the
corporations by that percentage in order to obtain the total premiums
earned from British marine insurance in that decade. The same multiplier
method—applying the market shares of the corporations to their actual
premiums—is used to estimate total marine insurance premiums for the
decades between 1760 and 1800. For this period, however, the corpora-
tion market shares are estimates based on several assumptions, explained
in the notes to Table 1, about the growth of marine insurance before
Our new estimates suggest that 7 percent of British marine insur-
ance in the 1790s was accounted for by slaving voyages alone, while
the slave and West India trades combined accounted for 41 percent,
well below Inikori’s gure of 63 percent for 1793–1807. Nevertheless,
if not accounting for the great majority of the British marine insur-
ance industry as Inikori claimed, the “Atlantic slave economy” still
represented a sizeable portion by the end of the eighteenth century.
Moreover, comparing our gure of 41 percent with Draper’s estimate
of 33 percent in 1769/1770 suggests that the transatlantic slave trade
and its related commodity trades may have increased somewhat in
29 Marryat became chairman of Lloyd’s 1811–1824.
Insuring the Transatlantic Slave Trade 431
importance to British marine insurance during the nal three decades
of the eighteenth century, though this was probably not a linear trend
as high wartime premiums were offset by reduced volumes of trafc
(see Table 2).30
Risk Distribution and Under-Insurance
Owners of slave ships and their cargoes obtained insurance either indi-
rectly through brokers or by directly contracting with an underwriter,
who was often a fellow merchant. For voyages tted out in London, the
former method may have been important, though without a study of the
way that London slave traders insured we remain unsure. It is likely that
their access to insurance became easier during the late eighteenth century,
as the activities of Lloyd’s brokers and underwriters became more differ-
entiated and capacity there increased. By 1810 there were up to 1500
subscribers to Lloyd’s, of whom two-thirds were regular or occasional
In the provincial ports the second method of insuring prevailed, with
local slave merchants in Bristol and Liverpool commonly acting as under-
writers for each other’s voyages. Given the importance of local business
30 Our estimates, however, may be regarded as upper bound. If the gure of £7.8 m total marine
insurance premiums in 1795, discussed previously, is accurate, premiums earned from insuring
the slave trade would have accounted for only 5 percent (0.41/7.8), and those from the slave
and West India trades together 32 percent (2.52/7.8) of the total in the mid-1790s. Thus, taking
Draper’s estimate as a base, slave trade insurance would have grown at about the same rate since
1770 as British marine insurance as a whole.
31 There had been just 179 subscribers in 1775 (Wright and Fayle 1928, p. 218; Kingston 2007,
p. 389).
Table 2
1756–1760 (war) 101,449
1761–1765 (war and peace) 164,311
1766–1770 (peace) 245,938
1771–1775 (peace) 264,900
1776–1780 (war) 140,535
1781–1785 (war and peace) 189,971
1786–90 (peace) 307,060
Source: Eltis, Lewis, and Richardson (2005, table 4, p. 691).
Pearson and Richardson
networks, it is not surprising that the pattern of underwriting seems to
have mirrored the well-known ownership structure of the trade in these
ports, whereby a few large and closely connected rms dominated the
business, accompanied by a greater number of small rms tting out a
minority of ventures.32 We have analyzed the distribution of insurance
in 27 policies insuring £83,150 on 15 ships and cargoes undertaking
six voyages from Bristol between 1784 and 1793. On 19 of these poli-
cies, James Rogers was the lead underwriter, insuring 29.3 percent of
the total. A further eight underwriters, including the closest partners of
Rogers, wrote another 34 percent of the total. Together these nine men
wrote 64 percent of the amount insured on these 27 policies. There was,
however, a long tail of 54 others writing small sums—£50, £100, £200—
on either the ships or cargoes or both. By insuring each other’s voyages,
Bristol merchants saved 5 percent on brokers’ fees, while their business
contacts and partnerships across the city and region doubtless mitigated
the costs involved in nding insurance themselves. The data suggest the
general capacity of the major provincial ports to provide sufcient cover
for most of their own slaving voyages without signicant resort to the
London insurance market. Whether or not there was differential access
to insurance cover among slave trading rms, leading to the kinds of
market distortions that John Dalton and Tin Cheuk Leung have recently
investigated, is impossible to say. As yet we know nothing about the
dispersion, if any, of premium rates and insurance cover among rms
of different sizes operating out of British ports. The greater productivity
of the British trade compared to those of France and Portugal, however,
suggests that such distortions in British insurance markets were relatively
minor (Dalton and Leung 2015).33
Slaving voyages often required multiple policies, especially when
goods were added to the cargo after the original policy had been issued,
either before sailing or at different ports on the voyage. On the Rogers
voyages sometimes these additional policies were written outside Bristol,
mainly in Liverpool and London, but also in Exeter. It was common,
therefore, for policies to be written at different times before and during
a voyage. On the African Queen, for instance, which departed Bristol in
32 Of 359 Liverpool rms tting out 878 “Guinea” ships between 1783 and 1793, just ten
accounted for 502 of these ships. In 1789–1791 the four largest rms in London and Bristol
employed 61 and 93 percent, respectively, of the entire tonnage in their port’s slave trade (Inikori
1981, tables 1, 3). For similar accounts of ownership concentration in the British trade, see
Anstey (1992, pp. 6–7) and Richardson (1989, p. 68). On Liverpool networks, see Pearson and
Richardson (2001). Ownership structures in the French slave trade were also highly concentrated
(Stein 1979, pp. 152–5; Viles 1972, pp. 535–6).
33 We are indebted to an anonymous referee for drawing our attention to this reference.
Insuring the Transatlantic Slave Trade 433
January 1792 and returned in May 1793, policies totalling £20,400 were
issued on ship and goods in December 1791, February 1792, and May
As planters’ payments for slaves in the Americas by the late eighteenth
century were largely made in post-dated bills, merchants tended to insure
their shares in total outlays to Africa and America only. Insurance on the
ship on the return run, and on the small quantities of produce brought
home from America, were often underwritten separately at a later date.
Of the 330 policies listed in Abraham Clibborn’s underwriting books
for 1769–1775, 227 combined the outward run to Africa and the middle
passage in one insurance policy. Our data, however, also show that all
segments of the triangular trade could be individually insured, as well
as the direct trade to the West Indies, and direct voyages to and from
Establishing the extent to which the full values of ship, outt, and
cargo were covered by insurance is more difcult. The business accounts
that have survived do not always enable us to be sure that they include
all the insurance issued for the voyage. As noted earlier, policies might
be issued intermittently and by different underwriters in different places
before and during a voyage. Far more so than xed capital on land,
the “replacement value” of a ship and cargo en route could change not
only between different segments of a journey, but also within the same
segment. Historians have carried out considerable research on the outlay
costs (ship, outt, and goods) of slave voyages, and, as discussed later,
we know that insurance amounted to, on average, about 10 percent of
these costs in the British trade during the second half of the eighteenth
century, but this does not tell us how often ships and their outt and cargo
were fully insured.
What can be said at present is that it is unlikely there was any system-
atic underinsurance in the maritime industry, especially in the slave trade
where owners were often among the underwriters of their own ships and
cargoes. British insurance companies did systematically limit insurance
on property on land against damage by re to 75 percent of its replace-
ment value, as a device to compel the insured to carry one quarter of
the liability (Pearson 2004, pp. 309–12). However, the widespread pres-
ence of self-insurance in slaving voyages must have greatly alleviated the
moral hazard problem in this business, especially as many of the other
underwriters were partners of the owners or belonged to their wider busi-
ness network.
34 TNA, C107/13, 15, James Rogers Papers.
Pearson and Richardson
Owners of slaving voyages did not always seek full coverage. Writing
to James Rogers from Tortola in 1788, William Grumly reported on the
sloop Lion:
I think there is no occasion for making an insurance on the sloop’s cargo. She is
a ne vessel, sails fast and [it is] summer time. Will be ready for sea 22 May, sail
within 7–10 days. I am sorry I could not get her away before but such short crops.
Every person here is pushed to get a freight and some vessels that has been here
four or ve months has not on board 50 hogsheads sugar.35
In short, a light cargo and a fast ship sailing in the summer induced the
captain to avoid insuring the return leg to England. The Select Committee
on Marine Insurance estimated in 1809 that 49 percent of all insurable
property at sea (£158 m out of £320 m) was not covered by insurance.
Risk Assessment and Rates
What did underwriters consider when assessing the risk of insuring a
slaving voyage? From 1764 the key information for London underwriters
was listed in Lloyd’s Register, which itself was probably compiled from
the private registers of Lloyd’s members. This fell into three categories:
data about the owner, master, and crew; the route (port and destination);
and the ship (tonnage, hull, number of decks, guns, construction history,
condition) (Wright and Fayle 1928, p. 86). It is clear from our dataset
that the two principal factors determining Bristol rates were the route and
the time of sailing, particularly whether in peace or war. Table 3 pres-
ents average premium rates—measured as £ premiums per £100 insured
(£ percent)—from three different but consistent sources: the rates given
by Inikori, those we have calculated from Abraham Clibborn’s under-
writing books, and the accounts of James Rogers. All three sources show
that average rates varied between different segments of the triangular
voyage. Between the 1770s and 1790s premium rates for the middle
passage (Column 2 in Table 3 Panel A, Row 2 in Table 3 Panels B and
C) were higher than the other two segments, though not much higher
than those charged for the return journey from the Americas (Column 3
in Table 3 Panel A, Row 3 in Table 3 Panels B and C). During wartime,
with the increased risk of enemy privateers, the home voyage eastward
attracted the highest rates (Column 3 in Table 3 Panel A, Row 3 in Table 3
Panel C).
35 TNA, C107/8, James Rogers Papers, William Grumly to James Rogers, 21 May 1788.
Insuring the Transatlantic Slave Trade 435
Table 3
(A) Inikori’s Rates
1 2 3
England to Africa Africa to Americas Americas to England
1701–1713 4.0 8.0 10.0
1714–1738 2.0 4.5 4.5
1739–1748 4.0 8.0 10.0
1749–1755 2.0 4.5 4.5
1756–1762 6.0 10.0 10.0
1763–1775 2.0 4.5 4.5
1776–1782 5.0 10.0 10.0
1783–1792 2.0 4.5 4.5
1793–1807 8.0 12.0 14.0
(B) Clibborn’s Rates, 1769–1775 (N = 330)
Number of Policies Average Rate
1 England to Africa 16 2.3
2 Africa to America 46 4.8
3 America to England 29 4.3
4 England to Africa and America 227 6.6
5 England to Africa and return 1 10.5
6 America to Africa and return 1 8.4
7 Time policies (no route) 10 6.2
8 All policies 330 5.9
(C) Rogers’ Rates, 1784–1793 (N = 69)
1784–1792 1793
Number of
Number of
1 England to Africa 18 2.4
2 Africa to America 12 4.0 7 9.3
3 America to England 6 3.9 6 13.5
4England to Africa & America 15 6.1
5 Africa to England 3 3.3
6 England to America 2 2.0
7 All policies 56 4.5 13 10.8
Notes: (1) All average rates are expressed as £ premiums paid per £100 insured, the standard
metric used by contemporary insurers. (2) Inikori states his “rates represent a rather conservative
average view of the differing rates in the sources cited” (2002, p. 350). He does not state the
number of policies on which his rates were calculated. (3) Rogers was declared bankrupt
in 1793 and apparently insured no outward slaving voyages departing from England that
Sources: (A): Rates as given in Inikori (2002, table 7.2, p. 350). (B): Calculated from amounts
insured and premiums paid as given in TNA, C107/11, Underwriting books of Abraham Clibborn,
1768/1769–1775. (C): Calculated from amounts insured and premiums paid as given in TNA,
C107/1-15, James Rogers Papers.
Pearson and Richardson
Perhaps surprisingly, however, these differences in rates did not reect
the “actuarial” risk of losses at sea. Table 4 shows that in the period after
1760 more British slave ships were lost on the rst and third segments of
the triangular route than in the middle passage, and also that this pattern
holds true for the transatlantic slave trade more generally. Why then were
rates higher on the middle passage? As previously noted and discussed
later, underwriters did not cover the “natural mortality” of slaves on board
ships. Only the loss of slaves who died during shipboard insurrections,
subject to an excess of 10 percent, or of slaves that were jettisoned to
save a ship from storms or shipwreck or other “perils of the sea” could be
insured, and both were fairly exceptional events (described later). Thus,
slave mortality in the middle passage cannot explain the differential in
premium rates. If premium rates for the middle passage had been deter-
mined solely by the risk of the wreck or destruction of the ship—our
best approximation of the “actuarially fair” rate given the absence of data
on other major insurable “perils of the sea”—then the policyholders in
our Clibborn-Rogers dataset would have been charged for the middle
passage between one quarter to one-third of the premium rates that they
actually paid.36
This nding does not mean that underwriters were necessarily irrational
when pricing insurance for a slaving voyage. They may have imposed a
higher rate for ships on the middle passage because they regarded all cross-
risks as inherently riskier than voyages to and from England, although we
know of no evidence that this was the case. More probably, they may have
factored in a notional premium for the uncertainty of a ship on the high
seas being endangered by carrying live, rather than inanimate, cargoes.
Livestock such as horses or cattle could stampede in a storm or carry
contagious diseases in the same way that slaves might resist control or
fatally infect the crew, imperilling the safety of the ship and its navigation.
36 In this calculation we have applied the ratios of British slave ships wrecked on the middle
passage to those wrecked on the outward (2.14) and return (2.88) legs respectively to the actual
average premium rates for the outward and return legs charged on the Clibborn and Rogers
voyages (the latter excluding the wartime year of 1793) as shown in Table 3. For example, the
average rate for the outward leg in the Clibborn policies is £2.3 (Table 3 Panel B Row 1). This
gure, divided by the ratio of shipwrecks on the middle passage to those on the outward leg
(2.3/2.14), gives an actuarially fair premium rate for the middle passage of £1.1. Applying the
ratio of middle passage shipwrecks to those on the return leg to the Clibborn premium rate (Table
3 Panel B Row 3) for the return leg (4.3/2.88) gives an actuarially fair middle passage premium
rate of £1.5. Clibborn policies thus would have paid between £1.1 and £1.5, or just 22 percent
to 31 percent of the rate £4.8 that was actually charged (Table 3 Panel B Row 2). Using the
same method, the actuarially fair middle passage rates for the Rogers voyages 1784–1792 would
have been between £1.1 and £1.4, or 28 to 34 percent of the actual average rate of £4. Average
premium rates, as elsewhere in this article, are given as £ per £100 insured.
Insuring the Transatlantic Slave Trade 437
Although the incidence of such events was probably well known, under-
writers would have found it difcult accurately to predict at the outset
whether the security and hygiene measures on any given voyage were
sufcient to mitigate these risks fully. Similarly, the navigation hazards of
the middle passage were well understood—the need to pick up the north
east trade winds, the difculty of passing through the equatorial doldrums
without being becalmed for an uncertain and dangerous length of time,
mid-ocean storms blowing a ship off course, the risk of tropical storms
near the West Indies, the huge variation in crossing times.
Yet it would
have been difcult to price these hazards for individual ships with any
degree of certainty, notwithstanding good information about the captain’s
expertise and the seaworthiness of the vessel.
Table 4
All Voyages
British Voyages
Loss Number
1. Total voyages 35,942 6,146
2. Voyages with unknown outcome 3,749 81
3. Completed as intended 16,805 4,150
4. Total ships wrecked/destroyed 1,013 3.1 397 6.5
5. Ships wrecked/destroyed before
251 137
6. Ships wrecked/destroyed while slaving 249 64
7. Ships wrecked/destroyed after slaves
453 184
8. Ships wrecked/destroyed—unspecied 60 12
Note: Percentage losses are computed by dividing totals in Row 4 by the sum of voyages with
known outcomes (i.e., Row 1 less Row 2).
Source: Based on, accessed 1 May 2017. Search database/basic variables/
all voyages and nation/ag/Great Britain, for line 1; basic variables/voyage outcome/outcome of
voyage for owner, for line 2; general variables/voyage outcome/particular outcome of voyage/
menu options “shipwreck,” for all other lines.
37 Ships leaving Senegambia could move directly into the northeast trade winds, but from the
1760s Bristol and Liverpool ships traded principally from Sierra Leone to the Bight of Biafra
and beyond (Morgan 2007, table 1.2). This part of the coast had prevailing westerlies and a
strong eastward current. The route to the West Indies commonly involved sailing south to the
Equator to pick up the southeast trades, then turning north in mid-ocean to cross the doldrums for
a second time to catch the northeast trades (Curtin 1969, pp. 278–9). For large deviations from
mean crossing times, see Postma (1990, p. 162) and Stein (1979, p. 97). For the argument that
Lloyd’s underwriters were well informed about Atlantic navigation risks, see Leonard (2013, p.
52) and Kingston (2007).
Pearson and Richardson
Another possible explanation for the relatively high premiums for
the middle passage may be that ships on this leg were more exposed to
capture. In wartime, shipping losses rose and rates on most categories of
marine insurance doubled, although there were substantial discounts or
rebates if ships joined armed convoys (Wright and Fayle 1928, p. 158).
Convoy protection, however, was not available for the middle passage,
but only for direct routes between Britain and the West Indies and back, as
enemy privateers mainly hunted ships sailing outward through the Bristol
and English channels or returning from the Americas. Moreover, it was
easier for direct traders to get convoys because their schedules were more
predictable. By contrast, slave voyages were timed to arrive in Africa in
the dry season, which varied by coastal trading location, and, once their
cargoes were sold in the Americas, they aimed to clear out for home as
soon as possible in order to ret for Africa, without necessarily waiting
for a convoy (Eltis, Lewis, and Richardson 2005; Behrendt 2001).38
As Table 5 shows, marine underwriters charged large price differen-
tials in summer and winter for some, though not all, routes in other trades,
but these played little role in slave trade insurance. Most slave voyages
departed from England to avoid the rainy season in Africa, and left the
Caribbean before the onset of the hurricane season in August (Davis
1962, pp. 277–82, 292–7; Behrendt 2001, 2009). The repeated advice of
West Indian factors to owners was to have slave cargoes arrive at market
just prior to or at the start of the sugar harvest, when demand for newly
imported slaves was highest and when planters were most likely to agree
to shorter terms on their bills, subject, of course, to the state of that year’s
crop (Radburn 2015).
Information about the ship, its master and crew, and the quality and
value of its cargo, at least on the outward route to Africa, was of less
signicance in Bristol than route and timing, given that so many local
underwriters were part-insurers of their own ships or those of their busi-
ness partners and neighbors. To that extent, provincial underwriters may
have had information advantages over their counterparts at Lloyd’s when
assessing risks, though it is still unclear whether this was reected in
differential rates.
Generally, slaves were included in the general rate for the ship and/or
cargo. Some, though not all, policies specied “negroes at £30 per head,”
increasing to £40 in the war years of the 1790s. This standard price seems
to have been set in some relation to the expected average sale price of a
38 On the more concentrated seasonal voyage patterns in the direct trade to the West Indies, see
Davis (1962, pp. 279–80).
Insuring the Transatlantic Slave Trade 439
“prime adult male” in the West Indies. Cargoes loaded on the African
coast, of course, comprised a mixture of slaves by gender, height, age,
and ethnicity, factors that, together with the condition of the slaves upon
arrival at market, and the state of supply, demand and planters’ credit
requirements, would determine the average price achieved by a ship’s
cargo. None of this could be known with any certainty at the outset of a
voyage. In fact, the per capita insured value of slave cargoes appears, in
general, to have been somewhat below the prices achieved in the 1780s
by factors in the West Indies.
Both in peace and war, slaving insurance rates tended to be at the higher
end of the scale charged by marine underwriters on British foreign trades.
Yet as Tables 3 and 5 demonstrate, they were by no means the highest.
Slaving voyages, therefore, from the point of view of underwriters,
were not extraordinarily risky. The relatively high premiums applied to
the large cargoes, however, did amount to a signicant cost burden for
owners. Richardson and Inikori, separately, have estimated the propor-
tion of outlay costs accounted for by insurance premiums. The gure for
74 voyages out of Liverpool, 1757–1784, was 8.6 percent, and for 60
“African ventures” 1757–1806 it was 9.8 percent. Thus during the second
half of the eighteenth century insurance premiums amounted to nearly 10
percent of outward voyage costs. The ratio must have been even higher
during wartime (Richardson 1989, appendix; Inikori 2002, appendix 7.2).
Table 5
Summer Winter
Out Home Out Home
Newcastle on Tyne 0.75 1.00
Dublin 1.05 1.25 1.50
Hamburg 1.00 1.00 2.00
Bilbao 1.25 1.25 1.50 1.25
Cadiz 1.05 1.05 1.25 1.25
Smyrna 1.75 1.50 2.00 2.00
North America 2.10 2.10 2.10 2.10
Jamaica 2.50 4.20 2.50 4.20
East Indies out and home 15.75*
Notes: * John (1958, table 2) notes that £8 of the East Indies premium was to be returned “if no
hostilities in European waters.” All rates are shown as £ premiums paid per £100 insured (or £
Sources: John (1958, table 2).
Pearson and Richardson
As Richardson has pointed out, this must have had an important effect on
slavers’ reported prot margins, though account must be taken of the fact
that merchants were often paying some of the premiums to themselves
as underwriters (Richardson 1989, p. 74). Whether insurance amounted
to a higher cost burden than in other trades remains an open question,
owing to the lack of evidence on premium payments as a proportion of
outlay costs in the latter. As Table 3 Panels B and C indicate, the higher
premium rates on the middle passage inated the cost of insurance for
slave traders, at least in peacetime, while rates on the other two legs of
the slaving voyage were more aligned with standard bilateral voyage
rates in the direct trade. But slaving voyages were also labor intensive,
with the cost of hiring crew specically to attend to and control slaves in
transit tending to inate their overall wage bills (Behrendt 2007).39 Ship
owners took steps to mitigate those bills, by, for example, encouraging
the discharge of crew superuous to the navigational needs of ships once
slaves were disembarked in the Americas (Richardson 1987, p. 190).40
Nonetheless, it may well be the case that the expense associated with
such crew reduced the proportionate importance of insurance among the
operating costs of slave ships.
What Did Insurance Cover and Not Cover?
As we have seen, slaving voyages were insured on the standard Lloyd’s
policy form (or its Bristol and Liverpool counterparts), which listed the
usual “perils of the sea.”41 Ships and cargoes were covered from departure
in England to arrival on the African coast, usually—not always—with
the destination left unspecied, and up to 24 hours after safely beginning
trading there. In the majority of policies coverage then resumed from
Africa to the Americas, again usually with destination ports left unspeci-
ed, to give the captain the opportunity to sail between islands looking
for the best market. Excluded was the underwriters’ liability for any lack
of seaworthiness of the vessel at time of departure42; losses while trading
or transporting slaves in boats on the African coast and in rivers—though
this was not always specied; worm damage to hulls due to delays in
sailing from tropical rivers—some policies, though not all, required hulls
39 Our thanks to an anonymous referee for this suggestion.
40 Richardson relied on actual crew numbers per ship on different legs of voyages rather than
crew per ton ratios in making this point. Recent research has questioned the consistency and
reliability of tonnage measurements used in the records of British slave ships (Solar and Duquette
41 See note 9.
42 This was conrmed by a court ruling of 1764 (Wright and Fayle 1928 p. 148).
Insuring the Transatlantic Slave Trade 441
to be copper sheathed as a condition of insurance; and the “natural deaths”
of slaves. The latter was normally left unspecied in the policy contract.
It is clear, however, from their everyday business accounts that under-
writers and merchants commonly understood it to mean any slave deaths
on board from illness, beatings or torture, suicide or fasting to death,
and that they took it to be the equivalent of the standard exemption from
liability for the ordinary spoilage, wastage, leakage, or poor handling and
storage of other perishable goods such as corn, sh, salt, fruit, our, and
seed. These were commonly warranted “free from particular average,”
by which their particular value could not be claimed for unless it was
included in any general claim for loss or damage to ship and cargo on
which all insurers would pay in proportion to the sums they had individu-
ally written. We have found no actuarial calculation by underwriters of
the “natural mortality” of slaves on slaving voyages. There was a lot of
discussion in the business records between owners, captains, and factors
about mortality on individual ships, but this was only ever in relation to
what was deemed to be a “paying voyage.”
As previously noted, underwriters were also commonly exempt from
liability for any loss or damage to the ship and cargo caused by slave
revolt up to 10, or sometimes 5, percent of the net outlay value of the ship
and cargo. Any losses above that level would be paid for under general
average. On a £6000 policy, assuming this covered the full value of the
outlay, at £30 per head a minimum of 20 slaves would have to die directly
in a shipboard revolt before underwriters would begin to pay for losses. 43
This was a hefty “excess” for owners to carry.44 The 10 percent insur-
rection exemption clause was intended to reduce the moral hazard of the
willful murder of slaves on board, to encourage owners and captains to
take proper safety precautions in controlling and preserving the value of
these and other perishable cargoes, and to remove the opportunity for
small and vexatious claims for losses at sea due to negligence. Taken
together, these exclusions, plus the other devices to mitigate moral hazard,
such as “privilege” slaves for masters and chief ofcers and “head”
43 Compare the £6000 policy on the Bristol slaver Daniel in 1792, TNA, C107/11, James
Rogers Papers, Inset notes for the Swift, Henry Laroche, Africa to Grenada.
44 It has been estimated that one in ten slaving voyages experienced a revolt of some kind, with
an average of 25 slave deaths per revolt. But this average was heavily skewed by a small number
of revolts with catastrophic mortality. The median number of deaths was less than half the mean,
and 37 percent of revolts resulted in ve or fewer slave deaths (Behrendt, Eltis, and Richardson
2001, pp. 461–4). In the later eighteenth century only the smallest British voyages, with total
outlays of £4000 or less, at a £30 per head valuation and experiencing the median number of
shipboard revolt deaths, would have reached the excess (in this case 13 deaths) above which
underwriters were liable. The average outlay on Bristol voyages in 1790 was £8,500 (Richardson
1996, pp. xvii–xviii).
Pearson and Richardson
money for surgeons (enhanced by the bonuses paid to them for low ship-
board mortality rates under the 1788 Dolben Act), made the underwriting
of slave voyages a far less precarious business than it otherwise might
have been.45 This helps to explain the relatively moderate rates charged
in comparison, for example with the East Indian trade, or with northern
European routes during wartime.
The primary conclusion about insuring transatlantic slave voyages
from the perspective of underwriters, brokers, and merchants is that it
was a generally unexceptional business. Premium rates were not astro-
nomically high compared to other trades, especially during wartime.
Premiums were not strictly actuarial in the sense that they did not reect
the real loss frequency of slave shipping on the different segments of
the triangular trade, but the same was probably true for the insurance of
all other types of cargo. Average slave ship losses and captures over the
period 1760–1807 were not exceptionally high, especially in the middle
passage. The proportion of British ships lost (gross of recaptures) was 7.7
percent in 1793–1801, and 9.5 percent in the worst years of the American
war 1779–1782.46 With a loss rate of 6.5 percent between 1760 and 1810,
a period covering war and peace, British slaving voyages were no more
risky than general foreign trades during war years. In fact, as we have
seen, more British slave ships were lost on the legs of the triangular route
without slave cargoes than with.
The process of underwriting slaves differed little in practice from that
of other maritime trades. Levels of self-insurance, though perhaps not
under-insurance, may have been rather higher than in other trades, but the
contracts were standard. Slaves were insured in policies alongside a wide
range of other commodities traded across oceans, such as textiles, guns,
hardware, beads, and a variety of raw materials. The extent to which
cargoes and ships were monitored, and the exemptions from liability
built into policies, point to the trade being relatively safe, and probably
protable, for insurers over time, not least because the latter concentrated
on covering the standard perils of the seas, while the slave merchants
themselves had to nd ways of mitigating or managing most of the perils
associated with their human cargoes.
45 The Dolben Act stipulated bonuses for masters and surgeons on vessels achieving mortality
rates below 3 percent. It has been argued, however, that this had little effect on overall slave
mortality which was 5.7 percent between 1791 and 1797 (Klein and Engerman 1989).
46 Calculated from Wright and Fayle (1928, pp. 156–7, 451–5).
Insuring the Transatlantic Slave Trade 443
The agency of slaves in taking decisions over their lives through suicide,
jumping overboard, shipboard revolt, and fasting to death resulted in a
marginally greater number of exemptions from liability being built into
insurance contracts than in other maritime trades, but that was only a
difference of degree not substance. Among those directly involved in the
trade slaves were commonly regarded as animate and perishable goods,
and no more than that. Even where the welfare of slaves—their diet,
quality of provisions, medical treatment—was critically remarked upon
by traders, factors, and masters in private business correspondence, it
was only ever in the context of protecting the value of an asset, with a
view to achieving a high average price at sale.47
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Drawing on classical development theory and recent theoretical advances on the connection between expanding markets and technological developments, this book shows the critical role of expanding Atlantic commerce in the successful completion of England's industrialization process over the period 1650–1850. The contribution of Africans, the central focus of the book, is measured in terms of the role of diasporic Africans in large-scale commodity production in the Americas - of which expanding Atlantic commerce was a function - at a time when demographic and other socioeconomic conditions in the Atlantic basin encouraged small-scale production by independent populations, largely for subsistence. This is the first detailed study of the role of overseas trade in the Industrial Revolution. It revises inward-looking explanations that have dominated the field in recent decades, and shifts the assessment of African contribution away from the debate on profits.
Cambridge Core - British History after 1450 - The Cambridge Economic History of Modern Britain - edited by Roderick Floud
Inconsistent measurement of ship tonnage, the denominator in the usual measures of crowded conditions on slave vessels, may confound estimated associations between crowding and slave mortality on the Middle Passage. The tonnages reported in Lloyd's Registers are shown to be consistent over time and are used to demonstrate that both the unstandardized and standardized tonnages in the Transatlantic Slave Trade Database are deeply flawed. Using corrected tonnages, we find that crowding increased mortality only on British slave ships and only before the passage of Dolben's Act in 1788.