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Mallory Hope (Yale) – Marine Insurance and Slave Trading in the French Atlantic

In the eighteenth century, about 12 percent of Atlantic slave-trading voyages organized under the French flag ended in shipwreck, condemnation of the vessel by Admiralty authorities, capture by privateers or pirates, or with the enslaved men and women on board taking control of the ship. During this period, a commercial solution was available to insulate slave traders from the financial losses that shipwreck, capture, and revolts represented to them: marine insurance policies, written to cover the estimated value of enslaved people and slaving vessels. 

My presentation will compare examples of French slave insurance policies and will show that their terms varied significantly from one contract to another. Certain policies detailed the physical and psychic dangers to which the enslaved would be exposed during their passage from Africa to the Americas, making these policies important historical testaments to the experience of being on a slave ship and to French investors’ awareness of violence of the trade.

Recent studies of the history of capitalism and of insurance and risk accentuate the partnership between slavery, slave-trading, and finance. Many scholars argue that the transatlantic slave trade—and the plantation economies it fed—honed and widespread the use of credit and insurance instruments. Though this literature offers a powerful and corrective narrative, it typically employs sources from Britain or the antebellum United States and lacks a comparative perspective. Drawing on French sources instead, I will present preliminary findings that suggest marine insurance had a more limited place in French slave-traders’ strategies than the existing literature would lead us to expect. Insurance markets in French port cities were expanding during the eighteenth century, but the Atlantic slave trade was not the main driver. At the same time, the slave trade offered the highest risks and potential returns to insurance underwriters. Even compared directly with other voyages to warm-water ports outside the bounds of France’s formal empire, slave-trading ventures had higher insurance costs as underwriters took into account the risks of resistance, revolt, and cross-cultural trade in Africa.

Antonio Iodice (Exeter/Genoa) – Sharing Risks: General Average and Maritime Perils in the Western Mediterranean, 1500-1700

General Average was, and still is, a risk-sharing instrument which dates back to Roman times and underpins maritime trade by redistributing extraordinary costs across all parties engaged in the business venture. It involves the apportionment of loss caused by intentional damage to vessel, sacrifice of cargo or other expenses incurred to secure the safety of vessel and cargo. It is an ex-post mutual agreement, informally accepted by all parties. This paper will present the main features of GA procedures drafted in the Western Mediterranean area as well as the potentiality of this source for research on maritime risks and transaction costs.

Jake Dyble (Exeter/Pisa): Risk Sharing, Economic Culture, and the ‘Little Divergence’: Maritime Averages in Tuscany and England

In 1670, the English resident in Florence demanded that Cosimo III put a stop to the exorbitant maritime Averages being awarded in the Grand Duchy of Tuscany. According to the resident, the Tuscan courts were conceding enormous sums in damages to shipmasters, to the detriment of merchants, all in the hope of inviting ships to the port. The recent damages awarded to the ship Alice and Francis in particular had caused consternation among the London merchants. In England, it was claimed, acts of parliament protected merchants from such abuses. 

On the surface, this diplomatic episode backs up the ‘institutional’ thesis of Douglass North and others, which contends that parliamentary protection of property rights was a key factor in the ‘little divergence’ between the English economy and that of continental Europe. But an in-depth study of the case of the Alice and Francis tells a different story. Peeling away the layers of deceit and deception that surround the case, we find that the real responsibility for the ‘exorbitant award’ in fact lay with the English merchants themselves. This microhistorical mystery not only sheds light on Tuscan political economy, at once highly creative and intensely pragmatic; it also highlights the dissonances that existed between the pretentions of the mercantilist English state and the private interests of its subjects abroad. 

All welcome, this seminar is free to attend but booking is required.

Please note that bookings for this seminar will close 24 hours in advance to allow the meeting link to be distributed.