Author: Sharon Ann Murphy

a professor of history at Providence College. She is the author of Investing in Life: Insurance in Antebellum America (2010), which won the 2012 Hagley Prize for the best book in business history, and Other People's Money: How Banking Worked in the Early American Republic (2017).
ENTRY

Slave Insurance

Slave insurance involved a contract between a policy holder and an insurance company in which the insurer promised to pay a sum of money upon the death of an enslaved person. In the three decades leading up to the American Civil War (1861–1865), such policies became widespread in southern states. In Virginia, the Baltimore Life Insurance Company of Maryland and later the Virginia Life Insurance Company sold insurance to slaveholders who were worried about the potential deaths of enslaved people performing particularly valuable work, such as blacksmithing, carpentry, and household duties, or dangerous work, such as in factories and mines or on railroads and steamboats. Most policies were concentrated in urban areas, with few plantation owners seeking policies on their field hands. In a few cases people purchased policies as collateral toward the manumission, or freedom, of enslaved people. Hampered by a lack of research on slave mortality, companies tended to charge premiums on black lives at twice the value of those on white lives and regularly reviewed the policies for changes in health or occupation. Baltimore Life did not insure enslaved people beyond two-thirds of their total value and prohibited more than one policy on a single person. Almost 60 percent of the company’s policies between 1854 and 1860 covered slaves, with many of those policies being sold out of a Richmond office opened in 1854. The practice suggested a sophisticated understanding of how best to exploit capitalism toward the ends of making a profit on the enslavement of African Americans.

Sponsors  |  View all