Slavery, Insurance, and the Value of Life

Friday, April 16, 2021, 5:30 PM - 6:00 PM

Type: Paper Session

Tags: African American; Business and Economy; Slavery


For most, the entangled history of slavery and insurance is known only through the Zong massacre of 1781—the horrifying event in which Captain Luke Collingwood ordered his crew to throw 132 enslaved persons overboard in order to collect a £30 indemnity for each (Oldham 2007). This mass murder at sea became critical to the abolition movement, as it starkly illustrated how black lives were dehumanized and made into fungabile risks to be managed or even sacrificed. While the Zong has become a prominent episode in the scholarly and public understanding of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, there exists relevatively little research and almost no common knowledge about the form and prevelance of insuring enslaved persons as cargo during their forced importation to the Americas and once ensalved on land. Examining the extent of the insurance industry’s foundational entanglement with slavery is critical to understanding the ties between race and wealth across the Atlantic over the last three centuries. Typically, historians of capitalism have focused on the prices of enslaved persons sold at auction or the values of enslaved persons estimated by court assessors. This research generally focuses on the way capitalism generates economic value through violence, e.g. the direct correlation between coercion and productivity. By contrast, the research presented in this panel demonstrates the crucial role of capitalist accounting in generating value through narratives about risk that insurance underwriters tried to propagate, corral, and monetize; it thus illuminates a longer temporal horizon for making sense of the monetary value of enslaved persons.

Papers Presented

“Wresk of Mortality and Insurrection”: Insuring Human Property on the Atlantic and in the Americas

Unlike most other “cargo,” enslaved persons forcibly transported from Africa to the Americas in the course of the trans-Atlantic slave trade were susceptible to the risks that threatened life on the sea and they themselves threatened the crews of their vessels with the risk of insurrection. In some marine insurance of the eighteenth century, enslaved persons’ mortality caused them to be classified as “perishable goods”—a class that included cattle, horses, and other livestock cargoes. Likewise, their potential for insurrection also saw them equated with animals and this expression of agency constructed in policies as “the equivalent of damage and losses caused by livestock panicking during a tempest.” In underwriting the unique risks that threatened this so-called cargo and the risks that this cargo threatened, maritime slave insurance established a complex relationship between enslaved Africans and insurance even before they reached the Americas. And, once on land, life insurance and property and casualty insurance further complicated the dominant construction of enslaved persons’ liminal subject position in the economic and social worlds of the eighteenth century. This presentation unpacks the abstract-but-critical relationship between insurers and the enslaved both on the Atlantic and in the Americas. Through comparative close readings of the small-yet-diverse set of surviving insurance policies that underwrote the lives of enslaved persons, this presentation traces where and when insurance dehumanized enslaved persons and where and when insurance was forced to class them in special ways that could not deny their humanity.

Presented By
Benjamin Alan Wiggins, University of Minnesota

Varieties of Slave Capitalism: Comparative Markets and Financial Institutions in Atlantic Slavery

Historians now broadly agree about the capitalist character of antebellum American slavery. But how far can this character be extended to the broader Atlantic context? Some scholars contrast Brazilian and Spanish slavery as “pre-capitalist” or “feudal” to a peculiarly capitalist British model. Others argue that the British Atlantic was itself divided along such lines, with the U.S. case being unique in its degree of capitalist dynamism. Still others argue that “capitalism” is best understood as summarizing the entire Atlantic economy. In this presentation I examine the theoretical underpinnings and empirical evidence for each of these interpretations. I provide a comparative overview of market structure and the law of slavery in different colonial contexts, as well in the slave trade. To demonstrate the different operation of slave markets under these separate regimes I present evidence on levels and variations in the pricing, insuring and collateralization of human property, in Africa, Brazil, the Caribbean and British North America.

Presented By
John Clegg, University of Chicago

Commercial Affinity: Re-thinking Slave Mortgages

Merchants moving to the Deep South after the Transatlantic slave trade was abolished in 1808 used slaves as collateral in the mortgage agreements that enabled them to acquire land. But, while these merchants appeared to the bank as a planter with several human assets, they sometimes lived as a family with the enslaved women they had purchased several years prior and with whom they had bi-racial children. Wielding violence in the most intimate ways, these merchants capitalized on the commercial value of their children and romantic partners. Meanwhile, they would sometimes draft wills, freeing the mother and children in the event of his passing, bequeathing land and wealth that fostered social mobility for free people of color. In making sense of the intimacy that defines people as real estate, this paper encourages us to take account of the receding boundary between what people can and cannot own that defines the historicity of property.

Presented By
Michael Ralph, New York University

Session Participants

Chair and Presenter: Michael Ralph, New York University
I teach in the Department of Social and Cultural Analysis and the School of Medicine at New York University. My research integrates political science, economics, history, and medical anthropology through an explicit focus on debt, slavery, insurance, forensics, and incarceration.

My 2015 University of Chicago Press book, Forensics of Capital, explores how Senegalese people determine who owes what to whom, in daily interactions and in geopolitics. In showing how discourses on debt are used to assess social standing, I trace how Senegal became a leader of political and economic reform in Africa. I treat forensics as a theory of capital as well as a theory of sovereignty that explains how people adjust social standing based on whether they receive payment for outstanding goods and services, as well as for crimes and offenses. The main argument of Forensics of Capital is that the social profile of an individual or country is a credit profile as well as a forensic profile.

I am currently at work on two books that center on slavery, insurance, and incarceration.

Presenter: John Clegg, University of Chicago
Harper Schmidt Fellow and Collegiate Assistant Professor in the Social Sciences, University of Chicago. My research covers structures of race and class in the United States, the roots of mass incarceration, and the comparative political economy of slavery and emancipation in the Atlantic world. Building the African American Civil War Soldiers database (

Commentator: Pablo F. Gómez, University of Wisconsin–Madison

Presenter: Benjamin Alan Wiggins, University of Minnesota
Benjamin is the Director of Digital Arts, Sciences, & Humanities Program (DASH) for University Libraries and Affiliate Assistant Professor of History at the University of Minnesota.

His research focuses on the history of statistical risk assessment in insurance, lending, and cultural production. His work--both in his leadership of the DASH program and in his scholarship--also investigates how to improve research processes with digital technologies as well as strategies for effective scholarly collaboration.

He is the author of Loaded Dice: Race & Risk in the United States (Oxford University Press, 2020) and has published articles in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Ethnic & Racial Studies, Journal of Academic Librarianship, Natural Hazards Observer, Portal: Libraries and the Academy, and Television and New Media. He has also contributed to volumes from Johns Hopkins University Press, Routledge, and the University of Chicago Press and his work has been featured in The American Historian, American Libraries, and The Philadelphia Inquirer. Benjamin (with JB Shank) is the recipent of a 2019 National Endowment for the Humanities Digital Humanities Advancement grant. Previously, he served as the Director of Digital Learning Initiatives at the University of Pennsylvania, where he also taught in the Department of History and the Department of History & Sociology of Science. Additionally, he serves as a consultant for the Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project at Northeastern University School of Law.