Lloyd’s of London’s debt

When it comes to the horrors of the transatlantic slave trade and ongoing support of fossil fuels, what would be the cost of financial reparations?

Illustration: Tomekah George

‘It has come to our attention that your company was built on the blood, sweat and tears of our ancestors.’

So began an open letter by rapper T.I., published on 17 July 2020. As a ‘representative of the descendants of the enslaved Africans’, he had placed the Lloyd’s of London insurance marketplace on notice for its involvement in the transatlantic slave trade, by insuring ships and their human ‘cargo’.

Nine months later, on 17 May 2021, protesters gathered outside the transnational’s headquarters in London. Tiny against the backdrop of the gargantuan building, they carried signs bearing statements such as: ‘Lloyd’s insures incineration of our Earth’, drawing attention to how Lloyd’s is estimated to account for around 40 per cent of energy market insurance.

Insurance is a crucial pillar of the fossil-fuel industry’s life-support system and, in part as a result of this, Lloyd’s of London made $2.5 billion in profits in 2019. A number of syndicates in the Lloyd’s marketplace provide insurance and reinsurance that support, enable and cover some of the world’s most polluting projects, including coal mines, tar sands pipelines and new oil and gas exploration – all incompatible with keeping climate change under 1.5°C.

Governed by the Lloyd’s Act 1871, Lloyd’s of London’s colonial history and its current complicity in contributing to climate change are inextricably linked. The colonial economic system built to control movements of people and resources was not only economically and socially devastating for colonized peoples; it has also allowed the Global North to build its economies in ways that have been foundational for the climate crisis we are experiencing today.

As of 2015, the Global North was responsible for 92 per cent of excess global CO2 emissions. It has been calculated that in order for a country like the UK to do its fair share to limit global warming to 1.5°C, it would have to reach net-zero by 2030 and support at least the same level of emissions reductions in low-income countries, in addition to helping countries to withstand climate impacts and repair loss and damage.

Hard to ignore

The links between seemingly disparate phenomena: capitalism, racialized exploitation, colonialism, ‘free trade’, and the climate crisis were drawn out in Perspectives on a Global Green New Deal, a collection published in early 2021 by Harpreet Kaur Paul (co-author of this article) and Dalia Gebrial, a researcher at the London School of Economics.

The collection brings together a range of perspectives from people in the Global South and descendants of colonized people, laying bare ‘the legacies and impacts of slavery, colonialism, discrimination and neoliberal policies that contribute to a deepening of climate change impacts’.

As the book explains: ‘Colonial practices (such as producing sugar, coffee, rice, and cotton cultivation on large slave plantations) continue to be indicators for per capita levels of poverty today, while neoliberal trade policies have continued to perpetuate inequities. This is important, because climate change magnifies existing patterns of social and material inequality, in addition to inequities in economic and political agency.’

Colonial extraction, and its associated trade practices, fundamentally reconfigured the world economy in favour of the Global North. ‘India’s share of the global economy shrank from 27 to 3 per cent, while the UK benefited by approximately $45 trillion from its colonial rule of the Indian subcontinent alone from 1765 to 1938. While China’s share shrank from 35 to 7 per cent, Europe’s share exploded from 20 to 60 per cent.’

Over 200 years on, Lloyd’s of London did pay attention to both T.I. and climate protesters – maybe because in the past two years, both race and climate have made waves that have been impossible to ignore.

In 2020, the world was moved – perhaps like never before – by the systemic racism faced by black people both in the United States and around the world, after the murder of George Floyd by a police officer in Minneapolis and the subsequent Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests.

The BLM movement forced many companies, which had until then been relatively silent on the subject, to pay some sort of lip service to the issue of racism. Lloyd’s of London was no different. It agreed to ‘look into’ its connections with the transatlantic slave trade and increase support for diversity-based initiatives. Lloyd’s apologized for its ‘shameful’ role in the slave trade, pledging to fund opportunities for black and ethnic minority groups, and hired an archivist to identify any connections that artefacts held by the company might have with slavery.

In July 2021, Lloyd’s also introduced a new ‘climate action plan to accelerate the transition to net-zero’, although its targets have been denounced as grossly insufficient. It has also said it will move out of fossil-fuel insurance by 2030 and asserts that it (and its customers/members) cannot afford to immediately stop insuring fossil fuels, despite the urgency of climate change.

What remains missing – oddly (or perhaps predictably) for an insurance company – is the question of direct payment and compensation for past and present injustices. Lloyd’s acknowledges the damage (intergenerational, ecological, emotional and fiscal) to which it has contributed, and continues to contribute. And in the case of past reparations for having insured the transatlantic slave trade, Lloyd’s apologies (and proposed forms of atonement) remain silent on the question of outright compensation.

Lloyd’s of London’s position begs a very simple question: who should pay for the sins of the past and take responsibility for present-day destruction? If this question is not asked explicitly and urgently, then the Global South and marginalized people within the Global North will continue – in a global economic and ecological system shaped by colonial capitalism – to pay by default. As Gebrial and Kaur Paul put it: ‘A globally just Green New Deal would require reparations. This includes reparations owed not only due to disproportionate greenhouse gas emissions, but also the unfair trade and investment regimes and economic policies that have curtailed the potential to protect people and the planet over profit.’

The climate crisis was not caused by Lloyd’s all by itself, nor is it solely responsible for the transatlantic slave trade and its continuing effects. But the Lloyd’s marketplace is a microcosm of a broader problem. A clear idea threads through Lloyd’s historic and current actions: that certain people (primarily men in the Global North) have the right to do business in a way that renders nature – and human lives – disposable. Without this inherent devaluing of others, Lloyd’s would not have been able to insure enslaved people and slave ships in the past, and would not be able to continue to insure pipelines through indigenous territories today.

Lloyd’s of London owes people and the planet real, tangible reparations. And these reparations cannot be on Lloyd’s terms; they must actually repair, in the broadest meaning of the word.

Illustration: Tomekah George

Human cargo

Britain’s role in the transatlantic slave trade grew in tandem with Lloyd’s. The insurance market began in 1686 as a coffee house on Tower Street in the City of London. The establishment was owned by Edward Lloyd and was a place where sailors and merchants gathered to discuss shipping news and business. A culture began to take shape here, one which is still at play today, in which Englishmen were able to ‘trade freely’, and other lives are tradable commodities. In the late 17th century, England’s Royal Chartered Monopolies (corporations created by the British state to facilitate colonization abroad) began to specialize in the transportation of goods, such as sugar and tobacco, from the Americas to the UK. As trade increased and colonial plantations expanded, so did the demand for slave labour. Slave voyages became more regular and demand for marine insurance – where Lloyd’s held an estimated 80-90 per cent of the market – grew.

Without this inherent devaluing of others, Lloyd’s would not have been able to insure enslaved people and slave ships in the past, and would not be able to continue to insure pipelines through indigenous territories today

The role of the broader UK insurance market in the transatlantic slave trade can be seen in the infamous ‘Zong’ (Gregson v Gilbert) legal case in 1783. A Liverpool-based consortium owned the British slave ship Zong, along with its ‘cargo’ of enslaved people. When the ship’s freshwater supplies ran low on the journey from Ghana to Jamaica the crew threw 130 enslaved Africans overboard in a horrific massacre. After the ship docked, the owners filed an insurance claim for the loss. The insurance underwriter, Thomas Gilbert, refused to pay out and eventually a court ruled that the insurers were not liable. Throughout the case, the focus was on the insurance claim and not the mass murder that had taken place. For this, nobody was ever prosecuted.

As well as being a key enabler of the slave trade, insurance and the wider world of finance helped to keep separate those that did the trading from those whose lives and lands were traded. The Tower Street coffee house was nowhere near Africa; the parties to the Zong case were based in the UK. Britain itself housed no plantations and made little domestic use of enslaved people. Insurance and finance mechanisms allowed people to pull strings in a world that most of them never had to see – more bluntly, it enabled British people to participate in the kidnap, torture and murder of people they had never met. And it enabled Britain to prosper.

It wasn’t just the rich who profited. While 10-20 per cent of wealthy Britons can be identified as having had significant links to slavery, records show that many ordinary people in the UK benefited directly from smaller stakes.

Claiming just dues

A quick look through University College London’s (UCL) Legacies of British Slave Ownership database also shows that a number of men at the top of Lloyd’s of London were also woven into the fabric of the slave trade.

So far the media has noted that Simon Fraser, a founder subscriber of Lloyd’s, was paid around $554,000, adjusted for inflation to its modern-day equivalent, for ‘ceding’ a plantation upon the abolition of slavery when the 1837 Slave Compensation Act ensured that enslavers were compensated for their so-called losses.

Our calculations, based on data extracted from the UCL database, indicate that Lloyd’s founder subscribers and chairpersons can together be linked to the receipt of approximately £8,105,872 (just over $11,000,000) in terms of purchasing power today ($86,219 in 1835 when these funds were awarded), derived solely from compensation upon the abolishment of slavery in the 1830s. These funds were awarded for the enslavement of approximately 3,110 people (many of whom would be forced to work for their former ‘owners’ for several more years in indentured servitude, under conditions that differed little from enslavement), and would have been collected in part by the founder subscribers’ descendants and/or heritors. So Lloyd’s does have a track record in supporting ‘reparations’ in the past – when they, or their descendants, have been the recipients.

Lloyd’s founders jointly owned plantations with numerous others, or received annuity payments from the profits accrued. They can be connected with colonial ventures including the West India Docks, the East India Company, and the North American fur trade. The proceeds from these seem to have poured into everything from Pall Mall houses to prestigious UK universities and London’s National Gallery collection. The iconic modern Lloyd’s of London building is a physical embodiment of these networks, occupying the former site of the East India Company headquarters in London.

This astounding sum of over $11 million does not take into account profits derived from the actual ownership of enslaved peoples and plantations, or accrued by Lloyd’s of London from the insurance of slaving voyages. The figure is also not a simple representation of a sum that was tidily transferred to Lloyd’s founder-subscribers or chairpersons directly; the nature of the slave trade meant that these men were embedded in systems of financialization that were the parents of modern financial systems. Crucially, it is these systems (large-scale movements of capital, made possible by networks of co-operation amongst white men) that enabled the large-scale violence and extraction of colonial ventures.

What did Lloyd’s make from the slave trade, then? A lot. Where in the UK did this money go? Everywhere. This is often the impasse at which reparations detractors love to sit and enjoy the view. But there is a concrete amount (over $11 million) that can function as a starting point, representing as it does a perverse form of reparations received as a result of Lloyd’s founder subscribers’ ‘independent’ contributions to the slave trade. (Given the nature of underwriting, independent investments in this context can hardly be said to be separate from the Lloyd’s marketplace.) The full extent of the financial reparations Lloyd’s owes cannot necessarily be calculated easily, but a bare minimum certainly can be. It might be argued that these funds cannot be linked to Lloyd’s as the entity that exists today, separate from its individual founders/subscribers. But such abstraction was precisely the mechanism used by colonial entities to embed individuals in colonial financing, while creating mazes of legal and conceptual smokescreens so intricate that everybody could be absolved from culpability.

There have been some important attempts to secure reparations from Lloyd’s. In 2004, a number of African-American litigants sued Lloyd’s of London (and 17 other corporations) for their role in the transatlantic slave trade (on behalf of all descendants of African enslaved people). The case was dismissed in 2005 because, among other issues, the litigants had failed to establish proper ‘standing’ to bring the case in question. A party must demonstrate a sufficient legal interest in the proceedings in order to bring a case. The judge doubted whether standing could be ‘inherited’ or whether groups could sue in their capacity as groups for individual harms suffered. In contrast, in the case of Gregson v Gilbert which we talked about earlier, there was no question as to whether or not two white men with no personal relationship to enslaved peoples massacred aboard the Zong had ‘standing’ to claim money for the loss of these people’s lives.

The legal mechanisms that enabled the 1783 Zong case to be heard are preserved in the Western legal and political structures that enabled the reparations case against Lloyd’s to be swiftly dismissed in 2005.

As the researcher Anita Rupprecht has pointed out: ‘The legacy of slavery is not something that merely haunts the present as a ghostly reminder of a disreputable past. It contributes decisively to the shape that the present assumes.’

Illustration: Tomekah George

What’s at stake?

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s 2021 Sixth Assessment report confirmed what climate justice groups have been saying for decades: that every increment of warming will bring higher seas, multiplying health crises, and result in more extreme and regular droughts, storms, wildfires and floods; that these climate disasters will erode human beings’ ability to access safe and secure housing, food and water – the basics for a dignified life. And that the impact is most felt by those that have contributed the least to emissions levels.

Yet, companies – including Lloyd’s – continue to uphold the mythology that unproven future green innovation will save us. In Perspectives on a Global Green New Deal, Nathan Thanki described this as the ‘same kind of logic that underpinned the indulgences of the Middle Ages’ Catholic Church; those who can afford to pay are absolved of their sins. The poor pick up the burden.’

Insurance and finance mechanisms allowed people to pull strings in a world that most of them never had to see − more bluntly, it enabled British people to participate in the kidnap, torture and murder of people they had never met

Lloyd’s, in true modern neoliberal fashion, seems to hope that in speaking of the financialization of experimental fuels such as blue and green hydrogen and ‘sustainable’ aviation fuels, attention will be drawn away from the action that can – and must – be taken today. Lloyd’s should stop insuring all coal, oil and gas development, and divest its $30 trillion capital from fossil fuels. These funds could be redirected towards community-owned renewable energy projects, retrofitting or building low-energy and highly insulated housing and community health infrastructure, for example.

Limiting warming to 1.5°C will bring health benefits, including reducing projected cases of dengue fever and malaria by hundreds of millions. By 2100, it could prevent about 153 million premature deaths from air pollution worldwide, about 40 per cent of those over the next 40 years. Meeting the 1.5°C target could also help protect over two billion people from food, water and heat stress.

Fed up with the lack of progress, a group of parents in the UK are taking nonviolent direct action. In June 2021, on Father’s Day, Parents for Future gathered outside Lloyd’s of London’s London office to make a direct appeal to its chair, Bruce Carnegie-Brown. ‘Lloyd’s must quickly phase out support for oil and gas,’ says Sandra Freij, a member of the group. ‘Without insurance these damaging projects cannot go ahead. We are urging Lloyd’s to do what is right by all children. We want our children to grow up on a healthy planet in balance with nature – that doesn’t seem too much to ask.’

Governments also have a significant role to play in this, of course. While many leading insurance companies have taken action to stop underwriting the most harmful fossil-fuel projects and sectors, Lloyd’s is holding out, saying it does not set underwriting policy unless there is a legal or regulatory requirement to do so. This raises the question, given what’s at stake, of why governments have not legislated to stop banks, asset managers, and insurance companies from enabling and profiting from life-threatening fossil-fuel extraction.

Continued disregard

If we look more closely at the areas in which Lloyd’s is providing insurance for fossil-fuel infrastructure, we can also see a pattern of continued disregard for local communities and ecosystems, which in many ways has precipitated our global climate crises. As Sebastian Ordoñez Muñoz wrote in Perspectives on a Global Green New Deal: ‘The mining industry, along with other extractive industries, has been at the heart of a colonial model which continues to bring profits to multinational corporations and the wealthy few, while dispossessing countless communities of their lands, water and livelihoods and exploiting workers at the expense of their health and well-being.’

The implications of Lloyd’s continued insurance of fossil fuel pipelines is no different. When the Adani Group company originally proposed the Carmichael mine in Queensland, Australia, it was planned to be one of the largest mines in the world. If built, it would allow 500 more coal ships to travel through the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area every year for 60 years and destroy the ancestral lands, waters and cultures of indigenous people without their consent. It would add an estimated 4.6 billion tonnes of carbon pollution to the atmosphere and suck out at least 270 billion litres of groundwater over the life of the mine. The Wangan and Jagalingou Family Council, who represent people who live in the area, have refused the project five times.

Critically, if allowed to go ahead, Adani’s Carmichael coal mine will unlock the Galilee Basin – one of the world’s largest untouched coal reserves – paving the way for at least eight more coal mines to be built. All at a time when scientists are warning we can’t build any more fossil fuel infrastructure if we want to avoid catastrophic global heating.

To date more than 70 financial institutions, including 18 insurers, have withdrawn from or committed not to be involved in the Adani Carmichael coal mine. However, in June 2020, Lloyd’s confirmed to the Insure our Future network that its members were currently insuring Adani. It appears that as other insurers have withdrawn, Lloyd’s members have stepped in to provide cover.

As Lindsay Keenan, European Co-ordinator at Insure Our Future, summarized: ‘It is unfathomable to me that despite the Secretary Generals of both the UN and the Insurance Development Forum calling on insurers to stop insuring fossil fuels, Lloyd’s of London continues to allows its members to insure coal and tar sands projects and new oil and gas infrastructure, while claiming to be a climate leader.’

Adani is not the only potentially devastating project that Lloyd’s is enabling. It also continues to support the continuation of dirty polluting coal mines in Poland, as well as insuring the Bahama Petroleum Company’s offshore oil drilling project which is carrying out exploratory well drilling in the Bahamas.

In August 2020, 140 organizations representing 24 million people wrote to Lloyd’s and the remaining insurers asking them to withdraw from another damaging project: the Trans Mountain pipeline in Canada. The letter noted that the existing pipeline is a major public health and environmental hazard with a long history of spills and leaks, threatening aquifers that supply the Sumas First Nation with drinking water. For more than a decade, the expansion of Trans Mountain has been delayed in the face of powerful, indigenous-led land defenders’ resistance on the ground and in the courts.

The project would increase the extraction of tar sands in northern Alberta, which requires vast quantities of fresh water and natural gas as well as clearing of the boreal forest, a natural carbon sink. The carcinogenic and toxic pollutants released in the mining process have done irreparable and widespread harm to the health of indigenous communities, and there is an ongoing legal challenge from the Beaver Lake Cree Nation to stop the expansion of tar sands extraction in Alberta.

Insurance is about security and preserving a neoliberal future in which capital and property are protected. It’s perhaps for such reasons that insurance companies like Lloyd’s cling so desperately to the ‘myths’ of green capitalist and technocratic futures

‘It’s the blood and bones of our ancestors that make up the soil that we’re standing on,’ said Kanahus Manuel, from the Secwepemc and Ktunaxa Nations. Manuel is part of Tiny House Warriors, a group building tiny houses along the Trans Mountain pipeline route to protect Secwepemc land. ‘Oil and gas pipelines are not welcome on Unceded Indigenous Territories.’

Further down the supply chain, the processing of tar sands oil takes place in US oil refineries, which are disproportionately located in communities of colour, exposing at alarming rates black and Latinx Americans to toxic chemicals, dangerous air quality and explosive facilities.

Campaigners are calling for Lloyd’s to exit the tar sands sector entirely, as other companies have done – namely AXA, AXIS Capital, Generali, The Hartford, Munich Re, Swiss Re, Talanx, and Zurich. Yet Lloyd’s continues to underwrite and invest in fossil fuel companies despite being fully aware of and – on paper – committed to the need to take action on climate change.

Accountability to the present

The genesis of Lloyd’s of London in many ways symbolizes its role in global society, then and now. It is possible to conjure an image of Edward Lloyd’s coffee house in the City of London in the late 1600s, full of white men heartily discussing the latest shipping news of the day, shaking hands to seal deals and, in so doing, the fates of countless soon-to-be enslaved African people. It was an important symbolic site for the origin of the modern-day Western obsession with ‘free trade’. Rupprecht explains that the rise in the free trade of independent mercantile insurance increased after ‘the right to free trade in African slaves was “recognized as a fundamental and natural right of Englishmen”’.8

Lloyd’s of London today is a regulatory body that manages syndicates, much like the original coffee house – it is a space in which values and norms are created. Its work still consists of measuring ‘risk’, assigning this risk a financial value, and then holding carefully calculated segments of this risk for certain groups in certain circumstances. It pays compensation if something goes wrong. It profits so long as too much does not go wrong, contrary to its calculations.

Why then is it so blind to the most all-encompassing risk that faces humankind: the climate crisis? Lloyd’s isn’t actively willing the planetary destruction (though its actions may make it seem that way), it’s doing what it does because insurance is about security and preserving a neoliberal future in which capital and property are protected. It’s perhaps for such reasons that insurance companies like Lloyd’s cling so desperately to the ‘myths’ of green capitalist and technocratic futures, which are compatible with the world that Lloyd’s has helped create.

Ultimately, the issue of Lloyd’s culpability is bigger than one insurance marketplace. The repair of damage done, to the environment, to relationships with those that have been subordinated to and harmed by the whims of financial giants, is essential for everybody’s survival.

The question of, in Rupprecht’s words, ‘how, and in what ways, catastrophic pasts become accountable into the present’ is one not easily answered on the global scale. But given the unequivocal call for reparative justice from colonized people and their descendents, it is clear that corporate giants can start by making concrete reparations in the form of direct compensation. This can only ever be a beginning of redress because (contrary to what insurance conceptually claimed – and still claims) no real monetary value can be placed upon human life. It is not possible to measure the depth of the wells that are intergenerational trauma and communal pain, and convert these into financial compensation. However, this should not rule out financial compensation; it should make financial compensation an essential prerequisite for further conversation.

We must also ensure that Lloyd’s of London, and companies like it, are no longer able to profit from the devaluation of life by insuring projects that threaten the health, lives, and liveable futures of marginalized people, including impoverished communities, communities of colour and indigenous communities. We need to amplify calls for Lloyd’s to stop facilitating fossil fuel projects that subordinate people and places in this way. The era of devaluing life, livelihoods and land is over.

This piece was funded by Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung, also funders of Perspectives on a Global Green New Deal. Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung, founded in 1990, is closely linked to Die Linke, the German Left Party, and seeks to represent democratic socialism with an unwavering internationalist focus.