A review of Treasury of Weary Souls, a collection of insurance policies that underwrote enslaved people as property, directed by Michael Ralph
Treasury of Weary Souls
Michael Ralph, Howard University
Caitlin Pollock, University of Michigan Library
The Treasury of Weary Souls provides interactive, public access to all known insurance policies that underwrote enslaved persons as property across plantations and industries of the antebellum U.S. South. It represents the largest collection of publicly accessible information on the practice of insuring enslaved persons as property in the antebellum United States, presenting more than 1,300 policies taken out on the lives of enslaved persons. Research on the links between slavery and insurance has hitherto been hampered by the fact that, well into the 18th century, clearinghouses like Lloyds of London evaluated the risk that each subscriber to an insurance policy undertook separately. By digitizing these records and studying them in a systematic fashion, Michael Ralph explores how insurance helped merchants mitigate perils associated with transporting enslaved persons and how insurers classified people as risks to be priced.
Ralph conceived Treasury of Weary Souls in 2014-2015. He would eventually partner with a Boston tech firm known as Resilient Coders, which trains “at risk” young people for jobs in the tech sector. In collaboratively collecting, presenting, and analyzing the records, the Treasury of Weary Souls seeks to enhance interpretations of the valuation of enslaved persons at each point in the slave trade and U.S. and European financial institutions’ investment in slavery. Insurance has grown to become the largest industry in the world. Examining the extent of the industry’s foundational entanglement with slavery is crucial to understanding the ties between wealth and social difference across the Atlantic over the last three centuries. Formally trained as a medical anthropologist, Michael Ralph’s research draws heavily upon historical methods to integrate politics and finance through a sustained emphasis on forensics, debt, insurance, labor, slavery, and incarceration. Ralph is also the author of Forensics of Capital (2015), which argues that the social profile of any person or country is a forensic profile as well as a credit profile.
For most, the entangled history of slavery and insurance is known primarily through enslaved people insured as cargo, perhaps most famously through events like the Zong massacre of 1781, where British ship Captain Luke Collingwood — in discovering he did not have enough water for his crew and human cargo to survive the voyage from Accra, Ghana to Jamaica — ordered his crew to throw 132 enslaved persons overboard in order to collect insurance on their lives. This mass murder at sea starkly illustrated how insurance affixes monetary value to lives and helped catalyze the abolition movement. And yet, most scholars have overlooked the formative role slave insurance has played in life insurance, especially after the birth of the domestic slave trade.
After the slave trade to the United States was outlawed in 1808, people who wanted access to enslaved workers in large numbers kidnapped them (which relied on serendipity) or bred them (which involved careful attention to the life cycle). Otherwise, they rented enslaved people from merchants who held them in abundance. When merchants rented out slaves, they insured them to be sure they did not lose the full value of these precious assets if they died while in someone else’s possession. As enslaved people were rented out to merchants and corporations in the nation’s largest emergent industries, they became some of the most highly valued and most skilled workers in three broad domains: 1) the most lucrative and most dangerous industries (including coal mines, steam boats, and railroads); 2) artisanal enterprises (working as cobblers, blacksmiths, carpenters, bricklayers, and barbers); and 3) bureaucrats (working as household managers, drivers, and clerks).
The first decade of the 21st century was occasioned by bicentennial events marking the abolition of the slave trade (1807) in Britain as well as the triumph of enslaved people in San Domingue, who freed themselves from bondage (1804) to create Haiti, the first sovereign state governed by people who were formally enslaved. In this same moment, scholars have turned with renewed attention to the role slavery has played in capital accumulation—through varied terms that include “slavery’s capitalism” and “racial capitalism.” Particularly among historians, research on capital and race has emphasized the formative role of the Mississippi River Valley during the last few decades of legalized slavery. In this context, scholars have typically focused on the tight correlation between coercion and productivity, insisting that violence drive profits.
But scholars have thus far generally overlooked the fact that, during this same period, some enslaved people acquired a range of expertise crucial to the success of the nation’s chief industries — these workers also experienced unprecedented mobility as the emphasis placed on their ability to generate revenue through industrial and artisanal enterprises enticed merchants to create more favorable working conditions and to even offer incentives for increased productivity. These artisanal and industrial workers — who were often rented out and whose owners would insure them before doing so — likely numbered 15% of all total number of persons who were legally enslaved by the time this practice reached its height in the last decade before Emancipation. Despite being a small fraction of the total number of people enslaved, insured artisanal and industrial workers were used in every major U.S. industry and played a crucial role in capital accumulation in all of these contexts.
Ralph plans to enhance Treasury of Weary Souls through a new research initiative forged with two new collaborators: Benjamin Wiggins (University of Minnesota) and John Clegg (Lund University) to spatially and temporally expand the project from its current focus on insuring enslaved persons as property in the U.S. to a broader analysis of underwriting on enslaved lives across the Atlantic World, including the human “cargo” insurance of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. By structuring the project’s data collection practices around Enslaved.org’s linked data protocols, the Treasury of Weary Souls data can better harmonize with the data on the lives of enslaved person in other major digital projects on slavery. Eventually, this project also plans to follow the lead of Slave Voyages and introduce a mediated crowdsourcing function in which scholars and the broader public alike can contribute policies which they uncover in private collections, in their own family papers, or in archives that we have yet to reach or discover.
For the past several years, Black digital humanities (DH) scholars and practitioners have explored many avenues of Blackness and digitality in history, literature, and culture. Treasury of Weary Souls is one of the few Black DH projects to explicitly probe the historical foundation of racial capitalism in the United States. Using life insurance policies taken out on enslaved people by their enslavers, Treasury reveals how insurance companies also turned a profit from U.S. slavery. Providing essays on the linkage between slavery and economic history, along with maps, the Treasury of Weary Souls demonstrates how enslaved people were risk-assessed as property whose value to their enslaver grew as their skill and expertise grew. Thus enslaved laborers contributed not only to the formation of the fields in which they worked — agriculture, cooking, husbandry, carpentry, etc. — but also to the growth of other industries like insurance. While this project still has much more potential for growth, it makes crystalline the extent to which the modern U.S. economy has been funded by chattel enslavement. Treasury of Weary Souls models approaches to interdisciplinary Black digital humanities projects that can demonstrate how our modern institutions and infrastructures are still rooted in and benefit from their foundations built on enslavement.
The primary component of Treasury of Weary Souls is a map that illustrates which life insurance company held the most policies in different states. The map has other functionalities that were not available at the time of review. However, based on viewing screenshots, one of the most important functions of the map allows users to view the details of individual policies in a pop-up box. From the pop-up box, visitors to the project can view the enslaved individual and their occupation as listed in the policy. As the project team grows and more data from insurance policies are added, I would recommend other data visualizations and a search tool so that there are portals besides the geographical to more easily discover the names of the enslaved. This would take advantage of the relational database that focuses on the nascent application of actuarial science in U.S. property-and-casualty and life insurance businesses to class Black lives on the plantation as a distinct form of property that accrued value over time based on its expertise.
The map is accompanied by essays that elucidate the history of insurance and slavery, especially for those who do not have expertise in economic history. The essays also humanize the enslaved, which is different from the way they appear as property, financial investments of their enslavers, or as simple data points on map. For example, “Insurance to Free the Family” offers project visitors stories and a view into the lives of the enslaved people who attempted to leverage life insurance for manumission of themselves and their family. This adds much needed context to the map and strengthens the project as a pedagogical and research tool. However, the essays are somewhat hard to find from the navigation. An accessibility and usability audit of the entire project may help incorporate essays more prominently in the navigation, as well as improve the overall layout of the project. Along with this function, having digitized primary sources incorporated not only into the map and future database but also in the contextual essays would add more nuance and textuality.