The Mercury, a British slave ship left Liverpool, England, for the coast of Africa on 26 June 1803. It made one of the quickest passages recorded, having arrived at the coast of Africa in 35 days from Liverpool.

Large orders for African slaves, in the West Indies, had been contracted by the ship’s owners. Slaves were to be delivered to Barbados, Demerara, St. Vincent, Santa Cruz, and Havanna, Cuba. When the Mercury ran out of food, at some point nearing the West Indies, the Captain left the slaves to starve.

For some reason, undoubtedly owing to the lure of more money for its slave cargo, the British ship Mercury did not stop at the British slave colonies first for which sale contracts for slaves awaited them. In fact, the Mercury sailed past Barbados and St. Vincent which they would have passed long before heading to Cuba. The Mercury stopped at the Spanish colony of Santa Cruz in Cuba first.

In testimony at the Court of King’s Bench, Guildhall, England, July 14, 1804, it was stated into evidence that the Mercury met with a Spanish slaver for which they cruised together with for some time. The reason why is unknown.

When the Mercury made way for Havana, another primary Spanish slave port, it fell into the beginnings of a storm.

Making a northerly turn hoping to avoid the storm, the Mercury made course for the Bahama Islands.

Passing through the Bahama Straights, they fell into the worst of it. In the Bahama seas, storms (hurricanes) were so frequent that they were given a name. Storms in the area of the Bahama Islands in 1803, were called “The North.”

The North, the hurricanes, sent the Mercury slave ship, to the bottom of the Bahama seas.

Its crew and reportedly only one negro slave girl survived.

Other reports said no slaves survived.

At some point during the journey two significant things happened.

First, out of a crew of fifty whites, from England, who had signed on for these lucrative slave capture journeys, ten had deserted sometime between Barbados and Santa Cruz. They were replaced by starving, emaciated, sick and brutally beaten negro slaves.

Second, the Mercury had stopped feeding the slaves that were left. Almost 300 souls had been crammed into hold of the ship. When the storm hit, locked down in the belly of the ship for months, weak and sick, they all drowned; save one girl, who it is obvious, must have been kept somewhere outside of the common slave hold.

As inadequate food supplies began to dwindle even further, the Captain tried to purchase food from a Spanish slave ship it happened upon. As the Spanish ship needed what little stores it had for itself, they could not offer any to the Mercury.


Alive, slaves were among a white man’s most prized assets, worth substantial monies. Dead, they were virtually worthless. Life insurance changed this vulgar fraction of chance into good favour, allowing slave owners to recoup three-quarters of a slave’s value in the event of an untimely death.

We erroneously attempt to look at the historical legacy of slavery from every perspective, except the one that really mattered at the time. In its totality, the Transatlantic Atlantic Trade was primarily about deriving profit. Capitalism, employed as an early economic model, had one sole purpose, that of creating profit. By creating insurance vehicles to underwrite the first leg of the Transatlantic Trade, that of the ocean passage.

Many persons benefitted indirectly from the slave trade as well and that the financial implications ‘spread far and wide’, ranging from creating employment throughout Europe to supporting the early stock exchanges.

Everything that transpired was about ensuring that profits, no matter how repugnantly derived, were maintained. Entire European economies and colonies depended on the profitability of every slave ship reaching its destination.


The National Safety Life Insurance Company, Charter Perpetual, Capital $250,000. Office of the Agency in Richmond in Lisle’s Row, 14th Street next, to Messers Toler and Cook – continue to make insurance on lives upon the most reasonable terms.—The rates of premiums for white persons have, with in the past three years, been reduced to 25%, so as to open the door at all, even those of the most modern it means to protect their families and friends from the uncertain vicissitudes of the future. None are too poor and none too wealthy to avail themselves to the inestimable advantages of Life Insurance.

Slaves will be insured at lower rates, for a period of from 1 to 7 years.—

Traders or dealers in slaves are informed that they can insure them in this company to carry to any of the slaveholding States. All losses promptly and satisfactorily adjusted. Pamphlets and Circulars containing full particulars will be furnished gratis, on application to


Agent and Medical Examiner

Richmond, Va.

(Richmond Dispatch, Tuesday, 30th November 1852)


The Mercury slave ship had two insurance policies. One insurance policy was for the journey from Liverpool to Africa to buy slaves and then to Barbados.

The second insurance policy began for the Mercury from St. Vincent throughout its back to Liverpool.

Parr v Anderson represents the first case, which found for the defendant, thus disallowing the insurance claim.

Parr v Winstanley is the second case, found for the plaintiff, the slave ship owners.

This was an action on a policy of insurance, and the following interesting and lamentable facts appeared in evidence. The plaintiff was the owner of the ship Mercury, bound from Liverpool to the coast of Africa, for slaves, and from dance to the West Indies, for a market for them.

For this voyage she was insured, for a market for them. For this voyage she wasn’t sure, and having first obtain letters of marque, proceeded on it accordingly.

While sailing for the African coast, she spoke the Swallow armed brig, whose Captain came on board the Mercury, and while both Captains were taking some refreshment, a French corvette that appeared in sight, with a vessel of hours (the Rachel of Bristol, bound to Saint Kitts), which the Frenchman had recently captured.

The second mate of the Mercury and four other crew were sent back to Liverpool with the Rachel, which the Mercury took possession of while the Swallow pursued the corvette.

The Mercury after this affair, which occasioned some though not a very considerable, deviation from her course, proceeded according to her original destination, and took in a cargo of 246 slaves, with which she sailed to the West Indies.

Failing of the expected market for them I Barbados, Demerara, Saint Vincent’s, and Santa Cruz, where she successfully touched, she bore away for the Havannah; but in the Bahamas Straights a dreadful storm, which in those seas they call a North, came on, and the Mercury went to the bottom: 245 of the 246 poor slaves perished.

The crew, and by some accident which did not appear, a negro girl was saved. The defence set up to this action was the deviation, and Lord Ellenborough observed to the jury, that the vessel is allowed, as a measure of defence, to institute a measure of offence, and while in a regular course is permitted to make captures without forfeiture of the policy, but must not go out of her way to cruise.—-

Verdict for the Defendant.

Parr v Winstanley

The insurance in this case being made to commence from Saint Vincent’s only, the deviation in the former case did not apply to it. The defence was, that the underwriters were not fully apprised by the plaintive of the following circumstances, there is. That the Mercury had sprung a mast in the course of a voyage. To be but this it was prove that the mast was refitted and repaired and sufficient for its purpose.

The insurance in this case being made to commence from Saint Vincent’s only, the deviation in the former case did not apply to it.

The defence was, that the underwriters were not fully apprised by the plaintive of the following circumstance, there is. That the Mercury had sprung a mast in the course of the voyage. To rebut this it was prove that the mast was refitted and repaired and sufficient for its purpose.

It was also contended that the Mercury was not sufficiently provisioned for her voyage, and that out of fifty hands, ten had deserted, whose places were filled by negro slaves.

It appeared in evidence that on her way from Santa Cruz to the Havannah, the Mercury fell in with a Spanish ship, with which she sailed in company for some time, and being short of provisions requested some from the Spanish Captain, who could not spare any; and that the Spanish advise the Captain of the Mercury not to venture at that season into the Bahama Straights, as the hurricane called the North was likely to come in.

His scantiness of provisions, and eagerness to get a supply, caused him to disregard this advice, and the dreadful fatality before-mentioned in the last case took place.

The Jury, after some consultation, found for the Plaintiff.

(The Morning Chronicle, Monday 16 July 1804)

On Saturday, Parr v. Anderson.—- This was, an action for the recovery of the amount for a policy of insurance on the ship Mercury, from Liverpool to the American coast, which was lost of the Bahama Islands with 246 slaves on board, all of whom perished; but it appearing the Mercury, in company with the Swallow brig, has before the accident, deviated from her regular course to pursue a French lugger, the Jury found for the defendant.—-

Parr v. Winstanley.—- This was an action on a policy of insurance upon the same ship, from St. Vincent’s to the Havannah, and the defence set up was, that the ship was not sea worthy. The Plaintiff, however, was more fortunate in this action than the preceding, as he obtained a verdict, after a trial of many hours.—

A fact came out in this cause which was not stated in the preceding, namely, namely when the ship struck, the slaves were nearly famished, and having got the raw beef, devoured it like cannibals.


(Morning Chronicle, Saturday, 10th November, 1804)