Noyce Conference Room
  US Mountain Time
Michael Ralph

Our campus is closed to the public for this event.

Abstract: This paper explores how the US insurance industry affixes monetary value to human life with more breadth and nuance than any scholar has yet attempted. Breaking with the consensus among historians that slave insurance is distinct from life insurance because slaves were legally classified as property, I show life insurance was built from the legal rationale and commercial logic of marine insurance and, later, slave insurance. While previous studies of slavery and insurance have largely focused on slaves as cargo, I reveal why after the slave trade to the US was outlawed in 1808, people who held slaves in abundance preferred to rent rather than to sell them. Rented slaves were usually insured so planters could recover the value of these premium human assets if they died while in someone else’s possession. So many slaves were rented by private firms and entrepreneurial individuals that, during the last few decades of legalized slavery, a thriving market in slave insurance emerged that privileged slaves in select industries. This paper traces the calculus used to discuss how to value enslaved people in insurance policies and what was at stake in those assessments.


Michael RalphMichael RalphProfessor & Chair Afro-American Studies, Howard University
SFI Host: 
Travis Holmes

More SFI Events