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Last Updated: Tuesday, 30 March, 2004, 23:36 GMT 00:36 UK
Slave owner insurance - 200 years on
By Stephen Evans
BBC North America Business Correspondent

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Descendants of black American slaves are suing London's oldest insurance firm, Lloyd's of London, for compensation for allegedly underwriting the ships used in the slave trade. The case will throw a strange light on one of the atrocities of modern times.

Insurance could be such a difficult issue for the owners of slave ships.

Take the case of the Zong, a British vessel out of Liverpool that transported a human cargo from Africa in 1781.

Food and water were running low; some of the slaves were dying.

So, what to do? Under the terms of the insurance, a death by natural causes would not receive payment, but a death by drowning would.

The answer was clear to Captain Luke Collingwood: throw more than 130 slaves overboard to claim the insurance.

In the event, the matter was contested when it came to court.

The Lord Chief Justice, Lord Mansfield, was clearly uneasy even as he understood the dilemma: "The case of the slaves was the same as if horses had been thrown overboard.''

In the end, there was no payment and some good came of the atrocity. Publicity from the case pricked consciences and helped spur the abolition of the trade.

It also prompted the English artist, Joseph Mallord William Turner, to paint the episode in oils, and that work now hangs in Boston's Museum of Fine Arts.

Later pricked consciences would prompt a Museum of Slavery on the dockside in Liverpool near where the Zong used to berth.

Morals and commerce

The case shows how slavery was just another trade needing just another insurance policy.

It's true that some companies were uneasy about insuring slave ships, though not out of high moral principle but out of commercial wariness.

Insurers became aware of the practice of taking out policies to cover whole "shiploads".

The individual names listed on the policy were commonplace, and if any slave died it became easy to claim the death against insurance.

Such was the prevalence of bogus claims that one Kentucky insurer wrote in a pamphlet in 1856: "The company is by no means solicitous of securing a large Negro insurance business unless the owners are careful and judicious men".

Slaves, for insurance purposes, were just like cattle.

Which brings us to the question of how we should treat their descendants.


One American insurance company, Aetna, has apologised for its involvement in slavery.

In one of its policies taken out in New Orleans in 1853, a woman named Mary Raby bought 12 months of cover for $17.25. Under it, the death of an insured slave would deliver a payment of $600.

But the apology hasn't led to reparations. The American courts have taken the view that past servitude doesn't mean a present hurt for the descendants.

In the case of Lloyd's of London, the plaintiffs say they have proof through DNA that they are related to particular slaves who were insured there. And they add the crucial - but contended - point that they continue to suffer.

One of the claimants, Deadria Farmer-Paellman, said: "Today I suffer from the injury of not knowing who I am - having no nationality or ethnic group as a result of acts committed by these parties."

She and her co-claimants have a lawyer with a reputation for winning.

Ed Fagan acted for descendants of the victims of the Nazi death camps and secured $1.25 billion in reparation from Swiss banks that received some of the confiscated property.

"Lloyd's knew that what they were doing led to the destruction of the indigenous population," Mr Fagan said. "Why is it too far fetched to say that blacks should be entitled to compensation for damages and genocide committed against them, when every other people in the world... that has been victimised in this way has been entitled to compensation?"

It will be a good court argument. But a judge will need convincing that the pains of the slaves of two centuries ago are still being felt so much by their descendants that they merit many millions of dollars in reparations.


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