Jean-Baptiste Colbert


Mr. Jean-Baptiste Colbert was a principal contributor in the reign of Louis XIV (1643-1715). His major contribution was to establish internationally uniform rules of marine insurance, a historically important advancement of insurance and world trade for the time.

As a reformer, he helped change the fiscal and judicial systems of France. He encouraged trade and industry and the arts and science by founding the Observatory and the Academies of Science, Architecture and Music. He created the merchant marine and navy, a task that involved shipbuilding, improvements in ports, development of nautical science and the establishment of the principle that appointments be based on merit.

In the mid-1660’s France’s maritime trade was at a low point, due to the uncertainty in relevant law and to decay in the organization of the Admiralty, whose courts were supposed to administer it. Colbert saw the need for study, with a view to reform as needed.

Called upon to produce reform, his work took 15 years and involved a number of people. Information as gathered and draft texts made on various subjects. Colbert brought the texts for review and revision before various committees, even to the level of the King’s Council of Ministers. By 1680 there existed a preliminary draft text.

The culmination of Colbert’s service was the Ordonnance de la Marine, a statute of some 711 articles applying to such matters as admiralty officers, seamen, ships, bills of lading, insurance, and letters of marque. . Compared with older codes, it brought uniformity within its territorial jurisdiction. In the course of the preparation of this Ordonnnace, Colbert prevailed upon the King to establish La Caisse de Invalides de la Marine Royal – the half pay system for inactive officers and seamen in the royal navy. That system evolved into a comprehensive scheme of social insurance for merchant seamen.

The Ordinance became law in 1681 and France quickly became the leading maritime nation in the world, holding that position for nearly a century. Of the 711 articles in the Ordannance, 74 apply to insurance, specifically marine insurance and they address such matters as termination of voyage policies, reinsurance, double insurance, earning of premium, change of voyage. An edict created in Paris in 1686 formed "Compagnie Generale pour les Assurance Maritimes en France", and the merchant underwriters promptly formed their own Bureau des Assurances.

His contribution was to see that insurance was essential to trade and that it depended upon law that was sound, clearly stated and published, and upon the existence of respected courts to apply it. He applied his power of mind and office to bring about those ends.