London is facing up to its role in the trade of slaves as part of a global reassessment of history and racism.
It was triggered by the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis which has shocked many around the world.
The Guildhall, Gresham Street, London EC2V 7HH epitomises the involvement of London in the transatlantic slave trade. It was the meeting place between 1660 and 1690 of 15 Lord Mayors of London, 25 sheriffs and 38 representatives of the City of London, all of whom were shareholders in the Royal Africa Company. These links to the slave trade grew during the 18th century.
Around 17 million African men, women and children were torn from their homes and constrained into an inhumane globalised trades between the 15th and 19th centuries. Many died in atrocious conditions.
By the late 18th Century, Britain was the leading slaver nation, selling about 40% of Africans transported between 1761 and the abolition of the trade-in 1807.
Other preeminent traders were Portugal/Brazil, with about 32% of the market, and France, with about 17%. American and Dutch ships were also involved, with around 6% and 3% respectively.
How important was slavery to British maritime insurance?
There is a lack of documented evidence from the time, but historians have concluded that the slavery and West India trade combined accounted for 41% of British maritime insurance in the 1790s. (For more information: Insuring the Transatlantic Slave Trade.)
“Between a third and 40 per cent of London marine insurance in the 18th Century was accounted for by the slave trade and by the movement of slave-grown produce across the Atlantic,” said Nick Draper, former director of the Centre for Study of the Legacies of British Slave-ownership.
“Those ships bringing sugar to Britain had a valuable cargo, and the ships themselves had high value and often coming through enemy waters because Britain was at war for long periods.”
Who were the big players?
There were three leading maritime insurers in the 18th Century: London Assurance, Royal Exchange and Lloyd’s of London.
“Lloyd’s had the major insurance business – presumably had 80-90 per cent of the market,” said Draper.
“By 1807, when the slave-trade was abolished, it was almost unimportant to maritime insurance and by the 1830s when slavery was abolished the sugar economy, consequently, became less important. We were shipping then huge amounts of raw slave-grown cotton, for example, back to the UK from the American south.”
How did it work?
The insurance industry of the time treated slaves as cargo and usually included them in the overall insurance rate.
Slaves were often considered a “parcel,” and their value was determined by ethnicity, size, height, age, gender and health.
Also, brokers classified the slaves as “perishable goods,” along with livestock. Brokers and courts dealt with slave loss caused by revolt as the equivalent of damage and losses caused by animals panicking during a storm
“Most insurance policies excluded the death of those enslaved from disease or revolt – they were insuring the ship against the perils of the sea,” said Draper. “But they wouldn’t insure so that people disembarked at the other end in healthy conditions.”
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