Coyping with Kismet alafranga. British and French Life Offices and the Genesis of a Turkish Market for Life Insurance, 1890–1940

The paper investigates the activities of British and French life insurers in Anatolia between 1890 and 1940. As it was integrating into the world economy of the outgoing 19th century, the heartland of the Ottoman Empire rapidly became a prime destination for life offices. Amongst these, British and French insurers figured most prominently. Enjoying market leadership positions, Western and especially French societies simultaneously explored new avenues of business. Upon the collapse of the Empire, a majority of the British and a few French offices retreated from the Turkish market. Those taking the gamble of maintaining their operations sought salvation in setting up joint-ventures amidst financial and political turmoil. Increasingly embattled by local competitors some of which they had helped build up and suffering from an ever more deteriorating standing, most British and French insurers had ceased their underwriting operations in Turkey by the mid-1940s.

The paper examines the genesis of a Turkish market for life insurance through an analysis of the interplay between British and French insurers, on the one hand, and Ottoman as well as Turkish actors, both institutional and corporate, on the other. In so doing, it simultaneously aims at broadening our understanding of an industry precociously, albeit not without difficulty, expanding on a global scale. The Turkish case strongly suggests that the dissemination of insurance was conditioned as much by material factors as it was fraught by socio-cultural dissonances. Which aspect of life insurance – providing for family members, particularly in case of an untimely demise or, in its more prosaic form, investing savings as well as hedging loans – and what kind of insurance product – permanent or term insurance – enticed the local customer base into taking out insurance? To what extent and how did the firms – as prime ‘creators of culture’ – attempt to influence, foster, and change local notions of prudence and thrift, thereby creating new needs and standards?