‘Excessive Memories’: History Workshop Journal 64, (2007), pp. 6-28. ISBN: 1363-3554 print, 1477-4569 online
My specific research on the case of the slave ship, Zong (as part of my larger research project) led to the development of this article. It contributes to a special edition of History Workshop Journal containing a collection of articles edited by Prof. Catherine Hall and entitled ‘Remembering 1807: Histories of the Slave Trade, Slavery, and Abolition’. The edition engages with the contested histories and memories of transatlantic slavery in relation to the official decision to commemorate the bicentenary of the British Abolition of the Slave Trade in 2007. It is concerned to illustrate the different ways in which understandings of ‘race’ and slavery require a grasp of the multiple ways in which racial practices are embedded in wider society. Engaging with critical issues of historical accounting and with the shaping of cultural memory, the articles contribute to the current revisioning of the British national narrative both in the academic realm and in the wider public sphere.
My article combines primary research on the history of insurance with a consideration of the contemporary political and ethical questions currently asked by the campaign for slavery reparations. It has thus enabled a critical extension of my research interests both in the historical representation of transatlantic slavery and with the politics of cultural memory. The article engages with, and makes connections between, issues of historical representation, cultural memory, politics, and the ethics of ‘compensation’.
The historical research was initiated by the recent passing of Slavery Era Bills in America as a result of reparations lawsuits. The Bills require companies to disclose their involvement in slavery. The article presents a detailed analysis of one such report by Royal & Sun Alliance, and argues that the disclosure opens onto a hitherto occluded aspect of slave resistance. 18C 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 in order to compensate traders for their ‘losses’. Thus, for the purposes of financial insurance, Africans were never simply ‘commodities’. By relating the detail 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 paper concludes by arguing that the reparations movement is re-activating the history of slavery by facilitating the exposure of concrete connections between the past and the present. As the history of insurance reveals, slavery is central to the development of key conceptual structures that govern the financial and legal parameters of modern global capitalism and its practice.
Versions of my article were delivered as ‘Slavery, Insurance and Resistance’ at the Politics, Philosophy and Aesthetics Seminar, University of Brighton, (2006) and as ‘Slavery and Insurance: Resistance and Reparations’ at ‘Imagining Transatlantic Slavery’, Chawton House Library, University of Southampton, (2007).The research was supported by the Centre for Research Development, Faculty of Art and Architecture, University of Brighton (2005/6). This support led directly to a successful application for an AHRC Research Leave Grant for my larger project entitled, ‘Sympathy, Slavery, and Representation in the British Atlantic World, 1770-1840’ (2007).