Insurance giants have expressed regret over their role in the trans-Atlantic slave trade, which involved insuring property and ships carrying slaves from West Africa to the Americas between the 17th and 19th centuries.

Lloyd’s of London, the world’s oldest insurance market, has apologised for its links to the slave trade, following what it says is “a spotlight on the inequality that black people have experienced over many years as a result of systematic and structural racism”. Founded in the 1680s and with roots in the maritime industry, Lloyd’s insured ships that were involved in the transportation of slaves.

The connections have been made by Legacies of British Slave-ownership, a detailed database created by University College London (UCL). It highlights the historical links between past and present insurance companies, financial institutions and other corporate giants, and their connections via former associates to the slave business – a system which encouraged the trade of slaves and colonialism.

“Lloyd’s has a long and rich history dating back over 330 years, but there are some aspects of our history that we are not proud of,” the firm stated in June. “In particular, we are sorry for the role played by the Lloyd’s market in the 18th and 19th century slave trade. This was an appalling and shameful period of British history, as well as our own.”

According to UCL’s database, which contains details of 61,000 individuals connected as owners or associates to the slavery business, five founder-subscribers of Lloyd’s, as well as two former chairs and one member, benefited from or had ties to the slave trade.

Slave traders’ ability to insure their ships and human cargoes became easier during the late 18th century, as Lloyd’s brokers and underwriters became more differentiated and capacity increased, explains a journal chapter published by University of Hull professors Robin Pearson and David Richardson. It estimates that 41% of British marine insurance in the 1790s was accounted for by slave and West India trades.

Global general insurer Aviva has also issued an apology for its connections. “We can trace Aviva’s history back over 300 years to 1696. Given our long heritage, there have been decisions, actions and behaviours made by our predecessors that are clearly unacceptable to us today and it is likely that Aviva insured people, or property, that enabled the slave trade,” reads a statement sent to GTR.

Aviva’s ties are thought to be through senior staff members at former insurance firms – North British Insurance Company, Universal Life Assurance Society and Indemnity Marine Insurance Co – which it later acquired, reports The Telegraph.

The statements follow the police killing of African-American man George Floyd in May in the US and the growing global Black Lives Matter movement, which has put pressure on corporate institutions to address the role they play in systematic racism as well as be more transparent about their involvement in slavery and colonialism in black history.

In fact, the insurance of trans-Atlantic slave voyages has rarely been examined as a business, explains the paper by Pearson and Richardson. It says that underwriters and their clients classified slaves as “perishable goods”.

Another insurer linked by UCL’s database to the slave trade is AXA. The France-based firm acquired the Guardian Royal Exchange Assurance group in 1999, a company which was the result of an earlier merger of Royal Exchange Assurance and Guardian Assurance Company. According to the database, Royal Exchange Assurance had three directors and one deputy governor associated with the slavery business. AXA was unavailable to comment when contacted by GTR.

Meanwhile, global insurer RSA Insurance Group acknowledged its ties to the slave trade, revealing in a statement sent to GTR that many parts of the business were founded in the 17th and 18th centuries and “there are aspects of that history that don’t reflect the values we hold today”.

RSA says it is working on a number of new initiatives, which include strengthening support for its Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) employees, and making a donation to a charity which supports education programmes to address racism and improve awareness of black history in society.

Lloyd’s says it will invest in positive programmes to attract, retain and develop BAME talent and provide financial support to charities and organisations promoting opportunity and inclusion for BAME groups.

Aviva says it is “working hard to be a diverse and inclusive business, but we have much more to do”. It is also supporting charities that support racial equality and diversity.

However, while 76% of insurance firms in the UK have a diversity and inclusion strategy in place, only 13% of employees were BAME, down from 15% the previous year, according to the 2019 talent and diversity survey by the Association of British Insurers (ABI), which collects data from more than 100,000 insurance employees. This poses the question of whether initiatives and schemes are intended to make a difference or are simply for PR purposes.

BAME groups are largely absent from boards at the insurance firms that have pledged to do better. There are no BAME people sitting on the board of directors at Aviva, and none on the Council of Lloyd’s – the body responsible for the supervision of the Lloyd’s Market. AXA and RSA each have one BAME board member.

An updated Parker Review report, a government-backed report of ethnic and cultural diversity of UK boards first published in 2017, reveals that 37% of FTSE 100 companies surveyed do not have any ethnic minority representation on their boards. The 2020 review also finds that FTSE 250 boards are even less diverse, with 69% of the companies analysed featuring no BAME talent on their boards.