The History of Life Insurance

"The Thin Man sits at Ragman Harbour in Braavos, across the sea from the famed seven kingdoms.  Bent and grey, he lounges under a dirty tent, chewing on tobacco and slurping down fresh oysters; glaring condescendingly at the working class scuttling around the harbour. He sells insurance to merchant ships, sailors who may never return from the treacherous seas beyond the horizon. More often than not, the families never receive a penny of that payout and the Thin Man grins, mercilessly ordering beatings of any families who try to claim their rightful inheritance." - from Game of Thrones Season 5 "Hardhome".

This is the picture I had always envisioned of unscrupulous insurers back in history. Taking advantage of the helpless, manipulating the desperate and growing ever rich. This may not be an entirely accurate historical account, however.

Some more detailed research reveals that the concept of insurance appeared as early as 100 B.C. in Ancient Rome (that we can trace through literature).  This was in the form of a military club, a similar setup to a ‘stokvel’ in South Africa, with funeral funding being provided by the other club members in the event of a soldier’s death.

How to take care of a family in the event of death or disability has always been an important and daunting question for the bread winners of history.  Compensating for those who have suffered at your hand or who have been adversely affected by your actions has even been a biblical concept in Mosaic Law, set down in the book of Exodus.

Since the discovery of longevity patterns and the construction of a rudimentary mortality table in the 1600s, life insurance has developed the type of policies we know. Lloyd’s of London (formerly New Lloyd’s Coffee Shop), which started as a gathering place for mariners and shipbuilders, is widely credited as being the first modern form of insurance underwriting as we see it today.

From 1837 onwards, the move towards mutualisation and a shift in social structures created the perfect grounds for large insurance firms to bloom.  After that, history is a whirlwind of economic depressions, wars, insurance product development, social transformation and the eventual  emergence of group life insurance in 1911. This opened the way for modern insurance companies to establish a presence in the economy, providing advice and support for grieving families around the world.

So, despite public opinion, or television, insurance brokers seem to have provided a service that has helped hundreds of thousands of families and individuals over history. Life insurance certainly carries long-term benefits that any modern-day breadwinner would be hard-pressed to ignore. We all know what happened to that Thin Man in the end.



Posted in Insurance 101 on 20 Oct, 2016