Sea voyages were a major economic activity—and a risky one. Ships sank, ran afoul of piracy, suffered delays due to weather, or arrived to find that prices were unexpectedly low. This made insuring and financing voyages the high finance of the time. Before there were private equity firms and hedge funds, there was cargo insurance. It was a speculative way for wealthy families and private banks to earn high returns—as long as ships arrived safely in harbor.
Today, however, the shipping industry no longer dominates the way it did in Ancient Greece and Rome or 18th century London. Most people never consider the skyscraper-sized container ships that carry clothes, grain, and other cargo from one port to another.
Nor do most people consider the $30 billion maritime insurance industry that insures that cargo for a few cents on the dollar against the possibility of, say, a giant container of cargo falling overboard in stormy seas—a calamity that befalls an estimated 2,000 to 10,000containers (much less than 1% of all containers) each year.
But 2,000 years ago, cargo insurance was also essential to the survival of some of the world’s first great cities. Rome’s population was the largest in the Western world until 18th century London. Athens and other Greek cities grew large on the strength of their ports rather than landholdings. Without the Ancient Romans insuring trading ships, those cities would never have received enough food each year to become large urban centers whose accomplishments we still study and admire today.
An Alternative to the Oracle
Maritime insurance is the oldest form of insurance by centuries. But it looked very different when it was sought by sailors crossing the seas that Odysseus had found so perilous. It was much more speculative.
Instead of paying a fee to insure their cargo, merchants funded their voyages with loans that also served as insurance. The loans had very high interest rates, because under the terms of the loan, if the ship sank or the voyage did not succeed, the merchant did not have to repay the loan. This practice, which dates back to at least 1800 BCE and Ancient Babylon, is known as “bottomry”—a reference to the fact that lenders could claim the ship itself if they were not paid back on time.
It is an arrangement that is easy to describe but difficult to characterize: not a pure loan, because the lender accepts part of the risk; not a partnership, because the money to be repaid is specified; not pure insurance, because it does not specifically secure the risk to the merchant's goods. It is perhaps best considered as a futures contract: the insurer has bought an option on the venture's final value.
Still, it’s clear that merchants and lenders used bottomry and maritime loans to minimize risk and maximize profit. In Ancient Greece, lenders demanded higher interest rates during stormy seasons. They also charged higher rates to unreliable borrowers like Aischines, a merchant whose reputation led Athens’ maritime lenders to say it was “less risky to 'sail to the Adriatic' than to deal with this fellow.”
Greek lenders did not jealously guard access to the best deals. Instead it seems that Athenian lenders spread the risk by investing and insuring small amounts in many voyages. Surviving records of maritime loans all show more than one lender per vessel.
Historians believe that Greek merchants and lenders thought of the high interest rates as compensation for taking on the risk of the voyage failing. They also note that Rome copied the practice of bottomry from the Greeks, and a legal text from 500 AD, when the Empire’s capital had moved to Constantinople, explicitly confirms that Romans equated high interest rates with paying for risk. At the time, Roman law capped interest rates at 12%. Yet as James Franklin notes in The Science of Conjecture, the law sanctioned higher interest rates in the case of maritime loans because “the price is for the peril.”
This is why historians consider bottomry and maritime loans to be the earliest form of cargo insurance....MUCH MORE
There is so much business that has the coffeehouses back in the mists of their early history, Lloyd's and The Jerusalem for the maritime crowd, Jonathan's and Garraway's [#14 on map] for the stockjobbers. Unfortunately the instant piece doesn't go into much detail, I may have to put a post together. For now here's Jonathan Swift on the exchange crowd:
...Meantime, secure on Garraway cliffs, A savage race, by shipwrecks fed, Lie waiting for the foundered skiffs, And strips the bodies of the dead."
Harsh. (He lost money in the South Sea bubble) From The Public Domain Review:... ...Here are the main establishments frequented by the stockjobbers and other denizens: