In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Insurance

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Medieval, Renaissance, and Early Modern Marine Insurance
  • Slave Insurance and the Zong Case
  • Insurance beyond Imperial Metropoles
  • Fire Insurance, Life Insurance, and Other Insurance-Like Arrangements
  • Risk, Quantitative Thinking, and Capitalism

Atlantic History Insurance
Hannah Farber
  • LAST REVIEWED: 21 November 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 September 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0227


The insurance of oceangoing vessels and their cargoes, known as marine or maritime insurance, underpinned the commerce of the Atlantic world. Emerging in recognizably modern form during the Italian Renaissance, marine insurance was adopted by large numbers of Atlantic merchants over the 17th and 18th centuries. These merchants paid, or bound themselves to pay, premiums to their insurers to insure specific vessels or cargoes. If the insured property was lost, damaged, or destroyed in transit, the merchants’ insurers reimbursed them for their losses. As the volume and value of Atlantic commerce increased, marine insurance became big business, attracting more capital, more customers, and more political attention. At the same time, other forms of insurance took root. Evolving ideas about risk, society, and commercial enterprise accompanied experimentation with a wide variety of risk-reduction initiatives. Insurance projects, broadly defined, proliferated in the financializing port cities at the edge of the Atlantic Ocean and within empires competing for control of the Americas. The state was deeply involved in some insurance projects: modernizing European states chartered large corporations to sell insurance against the risk of fire, for example, and launched “tontines” that offered a form of annuity tied to an individual’s life. Other forms of insurance were essentially gambling: individuals could, for periods of time, “insure” against the occurrence of specific, unpredictable events. Still other forms of insurance, such as mutual aid societies, allowed people of humbler backgrounds to ameliorate one another’s risks. While in some respects these projects had little in common, the Atlantic insurance business itself brought wildly diverse stakeholders into conversation with one another. Atlantic merchants communicated with speculators, who read the works of political economists, who made their opinions known to governments, which increasingly made their marks on the lives of working people. During the 19th and 20th centuries, new forms of insurance (life, accident, property) grew to prominence in what had become a formidable global industry. The legacy of Atlantic insurance includes, but is not limited to, these modern forms of business. Contemporary conversations about risk, security, the government/business nexus, and the value of human life also owe a great deal to the insurers and insurance buyers of the Atlantic age.

General Overviews

Business and economic historians have the longest track record of writing about insurance. They have profiled individual corporations and explained the rise of the insurance sectors of various cities, regions, and states. Economic historians, drawing on the enormous archives retained by large, careful insurance corporations, have shown how insurance became a prosperous national or global capitalist enterprise, and they have debated the efficacy of various institutional forms within the insurance industry. General overviews of insurance history produced by these two groups tend to emphasize the 19th and 20th centuries rather than the age of Atlantic empire and to focus extensively on the corporate form. For broad overviews of the business of insurance around the world over the past two centuries, see Borscheid and Haueter 2012 or Pearson 2010. These works provide only a little content of interest to scholars of the 17th, 18th, or early 19th centuries, but they demonstrate that a movement toward an overall framework for the study of insurance is underway. Pearson and Yoneyama 2016 offers insight into the corporate forms that have emerged within the insurance industry, particularly over the past two centuries. Those interested in the variety of institutional forms that have emerged within the marine insurance business should begin with Leonard 2016; those interested in insurance and society should begin with Clark 2010. Cockerell and Green 1976 focuses on the branches of insurance that flourished within Britain. While dated, Trenerry 1926 is valuable for its plain language and its capacious definition of insurance, which allows for coverage of such important (though now obscure) maritime practices as bottomry and respondentia.

  • Borscheid, Peter, and Niels Viggo Haueter, eds. World Insurance: The Evolution of a Global Risk Network. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.

    With chapters on twenty separate countries, this compilation envisions a “British system” of insurance spreading around the world through the 19th and 20th centuries, and continuing to evolve up to the present day.

  • Clark, Geoffrey. The Appeal of Insurance. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2010.

    Focusing on a variety of insurance practices that rose to prominence in the 18th and 19th centuries, with an emphasis on life insurance, this collection as a whole offers a broad set of ideas about the evolving relationships among insurance, the public, and the state.

  • Cockerell, Hugh Anthony Lewis, and Edwin Green. The British Insurance Business, 1547–1970. London: Heinemann Educational Books, 1976.

    A brief overview of the evolution of British life, fire, marine, and accident insurance, with a guide to extant business records.

  • Leonard, Adrian, ed. Marine Insurance: Origins and Institutions, 1300–1850. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016.

    Separate chapters narrate the history of marine insurance, organized around important business locations such as Amsterdam and London; a general overview is also provided.

  • Pearson, Robin, ed. The Development of International Insurance. London: Pickering & Chatto, 2010.

    While most of the nine essays in this compilation address the 19th and 20th centuries, the lengthy introduction to this volume proposes a broad framework for the study of insurance as an international practice.

  • Pearson, Robin, and Takau Yoneyama, eds. Corporate Forms and Organizational Choice in International Insurance. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016.

    An edited volume with chapters addressing various corporate forms employed in the insurance business around the world, primarily during the 19th and 20th centuries.

  • Trenerry, C. F. The Origin and Early History of Insurance, Including the Contract of Bottomry. London: P. S. King, 1926.

    Traces the history of insurance (primarily life and marine) from the ancient Greeks, Phoenicians, and Romans through the beginning of the Early Modern period in Europe (c. 1500s). Places a wide variety of insurance-like practices (e.g., bottomry) within the same framework; few recent works have made similar attempts.

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