Excessive Memories: Slavery, Insurance and Resistance

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This essay was published in a special edition of History Workshop Journal marking the Bicentenary of the Abolition of the Slave Trade. The Journal is widely recognised internationally as the leading academic platform for radical historians, with an established reputation for historical rigour and tight editorial standards. The essay draws on Rupprecht’s AHRC-supported research concerning the representation and cultural memory of slavery. The text combines original research on the history of insurance with the contemporary political and ethical questions currently asked by the campaign for slavery reparations. It thus engages with, and makes connections between, issues of representation, cultural memory, politics, and the ethics of ‘compensation’. This historical research was initiated by the passing of Slavery Era Bills in America as a result of reparations lawsuits, requiring companies to disclose their involvement in slavery. The essay presents a detailed analysis of one such report by Royal Sun and Alliance, and argues that the disclosure opens onto a hitherto occluded aspect of slave resistance. Eighteenth-century maritime insurance policies on slaves in transit to the Americas initially developed from kidnap and ransom policies and thus played a significant part in the development of modern life insurance. More significantly, the fact of consistent slave insurrection meant that underwriters included clauses in their policies to compensate traders for their ‘losses’. Thus, for the purposes of financial insurance, Africans were never simply ‘commodities’. By relating the details of insurance practices to existing empirical research on the transatlantic slave trade, it is confirmed that slave resistance had a significant impact on the profitability of the trade. The work advances a distinctive thesis that the reparations movement is re-activating the history of slavery by facilitating the exposure of concrete connections between past and present.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)6-28
Number of pages23
JournalHistory Workshop Journal
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - Sept 2007


  • Abolition of the slave trade,


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