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Decoder: The Slave Insurance Market

How much did slave owners pay for antebellum-era policies from Aetna, AIG, and New York Life?

By Michael Ralph and William Rankin

Recent portrayals of American slavery — from 12 Years a Slave and Django Unchained to Walter Johnson’s River of Dark Dreams and Sven Beckert’s Empire of Cotton — have emphasized the brutal violence on cotton plantations in the years preceding the Civil War. What they miss is that during the same period, slaves that were engaged in other enterprises developed skills that placed them at the heart of industrial capitalism.

Especially after the slave trade was outlawed in 1808, planters found ways to keep human bondage profitable, including smuggling, controlled breeding, and renting slaves to business owners. This last option became especially pervasive in Virginia and the port cities of the Ohio River and Atlantic Coast. A slew of industries — from blacksmithing and carpentry to large-scale railroad construction, coal mining, and steamboat operations — were fortified by the skilled labor of the enslaved.

These men and women became such valuable assets, in fact, that their owners sought to insure them as such. By the 1840s, the number of slaves insured in the South mirrored the number of free whites with life insurance in the North — and both kinds of policies could be issued by the same companies. Slave insurance was one of the earliest forms of industrial risk management, providing an important source of revenue for some of today’s largest multinational insurance companies. It also makes clear that the recent economic crisis, driven by credit default swaps, was not the first time new financial instruments, utilized by AIG and its peers, shaped the lives of U.S. workers. And it won’t be the last.


Occupational Hazards

Steamboat work on the Ohio River and coal mining in Virginia were dangerous jobs and usually involved slaves traveling and living away from their owners. Slaves in coastal cities did not travel as far, but since their specialized skills — whether domestic, artisanal, or industrial — were often procured through short-term contracts, they, too, usually worked without the direct oversight of their owners.

In September 1843, Daniel Zacharias of Frederick, Maryland, insured his slave Robert Randall, 27, a brick-maker, for $200. Randall died near the end of the seven-year policy.

In October 1853, William Easter of Baltimore insured his slave Jane Cole, 21, for $250 to be a servant in the home of John Denning, a local slave dealer. Cole died just two months later. (Denning later moved out of the city to become a planter; in 1860, he owned 10 slaves.)

In January 1855, Thomas Doswell insured seven slaves to work in the coal pits of Kanawha County, in what is now West Virginia. Two older slaves — Nathan and Reuben — were insured for $500 each, and the others — Turner, another slave named Reuben, Richard, Emanuel, and Aaron — were insured for $700. (The average slave price in 1855 was $600.) Doswell owned a large plantation outside Richmond, Virginia; in 1860, he owned 89 slaves.

In January 1855, Richmond merchant Joseph Winston insured his slave Andrew, 11, for $400 to work in a cotton factory across the river in Manchester. The policy was for seven years, but Andrew died that December.

In February 1857, the hiring agency Tompkins & Co. insured 14 slaves — ages 12 through 50 — to work in the Black Heath Coal Pits in Chesterfield County, Virginia, for one year. They were owned by a few different people, including Joseph Tompkins himself, and the value of the policies was over $800 per slave. (In 1857, the average slave price was $636.)


The Marketplace

Slave insurance was issued by a wide range of companies in the North and South and sold both to people who owned many slaves and to those who owned just a few. The map here shows about 1,300 antebellum-era policies found in the archives of the world’s largest insurance companies, including Aetna, AIG, and New York Life. The archives are incomplete, and evidence suggests that at least 85 percent of policy records may have been lost over time. Yet the available figures show that the market for slave insurance was mostly urban and especially vibrant in areas where plantation agriculture was in relative decline.

Database by Michael Ralph, with additions and mapping by William Rankin. Sources: California Department of Insurance, Slavery Era Insurance Registry, 2002; Nancy Frantel, ed. Chesterfield County, Virginia, Uncovered, 2008; Illinois Department of Insurance, Slavery Era Insurance Policies Registry, 2004; Baltimore Life Insurance Co. collection, MS 175, Maryland Historical Society; and Virginia Historical Society, unknownnolonger.vahistorical.org. Special thanks to Sharon Ann Murphy.

Photo credit: Das Wissen des 20. Jahrhunderts via Wikimedia Commons

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