B – Economy, trade, and finances

Business of minorities: Financial services in non-western communities,19th/20th century

Event Details

  • Date

    Friday, 26 June - 9:00 – 11:00

  • Venue
  • Theme
    B – Economy, trade, and finances
  • Martin Lengwiler (University of Basel)
  • Gilad Ben-Nun (Leipzig University)
  • Jean-Jacques Dethier (Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley)
  • Claus Musterle (Paris Institute of Political Studies / University of Basel)
  • Eva Kocher (University of Basel)
  • Martin Lengwiler (University of Basel)


  • Claus Musterle
    ‘Les petits ruisseaux font les grandes rivières’: Ottoman Armenians and the Genesis of a Turkish Market for Life Insurance (1880-1930)

    ‘Les petits ruisseaux font les grandes rivières’: Ottoman Armenians and the Genesis of a Turkish Market for Life Insurance (1880-1930)

    Representing some 20 percent of the Ottoman Empire’s population in 1914, non-Muslim minorities played an integral part in the genesis of a Turkish market for life insurance. This paper seeks to shed light on the pioneering roles of Armenians in this process. Whilst rather tragically known as particularly predisposed to taking out life insurance, Armenians have been instrumental in the transfer and assimilation of what initially was a uniquely Western product. The case of Simon Kaiserlian is highly exemplary in this regard. Active in the insurance business since aged 17, he was appointed as the French Union’s branch manager for Turkey in 1891. As such, he presided over the Union-Vie’s rise to market leadership by 1915. In addition to competitive pricing, an extensive agency network as well as innovative marketing strategies, the Union-Vie’s success also stemmed from appealing to a relatively broad clientele. At a time when its competitors remained focussed on the upper echelons of Turkish society, the Union mass-insured lower-ranked employees, both Muslim and non-Muslim, of the Ottoman Public Debt Administration. Faced with mounting nationalism, the Union was also amongst the first offices to establish a so-called ‘national’ sister company. In 1918, it founded the İttihad-ı Millî Osmanlı Sigorta Şirketi (‘Union nationale’). Upon the New York Life’s general withdrawal, it took over its Turkish portfolio. In 1925, it joined, via its subsidiary İttihad-ı Millî, with Türkiye İş Bankası in order to found Anadolu Sigorta. A few years later still, it acquired a majority stake in the newly-founded Millî Reasürans (‘National Reinsurance’). Having contributed to the genesis of a Turkish market for life insurance complete with its national champions, Kaiserlian retired to the Côte d’Azur in 1938.
  • Eva Kocher
    Africanisation from Abroad: Afro-American insurance entrepreneurs in West Africa (1960–1980)

    Africanisation from Abroad: Afro-American insurance entrepreneurs in West Africa (1960–1980)

    In West Africa, private insurance was originally commercialised via the colonial powers as a luxury product for a small colonial elite. Yet, in the years after the Second World War, insurers increasingly targeted also the African cadres. Relatively little is known about the development, transition and politicisation of these emerging markets in the independence era. While the volume of insurance business underwritten in Nigeria and Cameroon in the mid-20th century is clearly not comparable to Western markets, both the insurance and reinsurance businesses were still significant for their national economies and grew during the two post-war decades. After independence, the African governments attempted to foster and supervise these markets. A number of international initiatives and cooperations were established, such as the Federation of Afro-Asian Insurers in the wake of the Bandung conference or UNCTAD’s special programme on insurance. This paper investigates the role of a prominent minority, Afro-American entrepreneurs, in these attempts to develop insurance markets in sub-Saharan Africa. Afro-American entrepreneurs played a crucial role not only in the pan-African movement in general, but also – and more particularly - in establishing local businesses for an African clientele. The presentation will focus on exemplary figures such as Robert T. Freeman and his colleagues, who co-founded the Gold Coast Insurance Company, the Ghana General Insurance, as well as the Great Nigeria Insurance. These enterprises were often backed by international reinsurers such as SwissRe or MunichRe, attempting to penetrate these emerging markets.
  • Martin Lengwiler
    Expat Communities in Emerging Asian Insurance Markets (1860–1914)

    Expat Communities in Emerging Asian Insurance Markets (1860–1914)

    The paper examines the roles of expat communities – Western as well as non-Western – in the diffusion of banking and insurance services in East and South East Asia in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. To a substantial extent international trade was driven, under the system of unequal treaties, by Western agency houses, acting on behalf of Western companies from all sorts of branches, and trading within a network of Western and non-Western companies and customers in Asia. Western insurance companies focused their overseas business on commercial centers, especially the opened port cities. These centers were populated by elite minorities of European and Asian (mainly Chinese and Japanese) expats – they represented the primary customer groups in the emerging Asian insurance markets. The paper analyses the transnational and transcultural networks between insurers, agency houses and customer groups in the East / South East Asian port cities, focusing on Chinese cities (Shanghai, Hongkong) as well as Batavia in Dutch East Indian. It traces how networks among European insurance corporations and agency houses developed, but were increasingly challenged – since the turn of the century – by local (Japanese and Chinese) competitors, partly fostered by increasingly protectionist policies of their home countries.


The panel contributes to the emerging field of non-Western conditions and actors in the formation of modern global capitalism. Focussing on the exemplary field of finance in general and insurance in particular, it aims at examining the roles, individual and/or collective, played by minority communities in the development of financial services in non-Western markets. In finance as in trade, European companies expanded into foreign markets like East Asia or sub-Saharan Africa often by building upon local practices or establishing networks and joint-ventures with local companies. Many of these local practices and networks were based on kinship or ethnicity, often providing prominent positions for minorities. The panel analyses the position of minorities in financial markets in a comparative framework with case studies on at least three different geographic regions: the Middle East (with a focus on Turkey in the late Ottoman period and the nascent Republic), sub-Saharan Africa (focussing on West-African countries such as Ghana and Nigeria in the decolonisation period), and East and South-East Asia (especially late 19th and early 20th centuries China). In all these regions, the development of insurance and banking – in their Western commercial forms – has arguably been driven to a considerable extent by minority groups acting both as customers (i.e. comparably wealthy local communities, such as the Armenian community in the Ottoman Empire), as well as entrepreneurs and corporations linked to these minorities. The panel analyses the interactions and learning processes between Western companies and local actors, the influence of government regulation (e.g. in the context of decolonization) on the development of financial markets, and the specific contributions of minority communities to this process.