Coffin ship (insurance)

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Coffin ship is the name given to any ship that has been overinsured and is therefore worth more to its owners sunk than afloat. These were hazardous places to work in the days before effective maritime safety regulation. They were generally eliminated in the 1870s with the success of reforms championed by British MP Samuel Plimsoll. A coffin ship was also a ship carrying Irish or Scottish emigrants over the Atlantic where infectious disease lead to high mortality. Overloaded, overinsured ships frequently carried Irish emigrants over the Atlantic and were coffin ships of both types.[1]

Many overloaded, overinsured ships in the days of wooden sailing ships were old ships riddled with wood rot and woodworm and shipworm, repainted and renamed and falsely stated to be new ships. There were over 2000 cases of sailors who had signed on as crew for a ship, seeing the ship's condition, refusing to go on board it, and being tried in court for this refusal.[2][3] Samuel Plimsoll stated in the UK Parliament that "The Secretary of Lloyd's tells a friend of mine that he does not know a single ship which has been broken up voluntarily by the owners in the course of 30 years on account of its being worn out."[4]

In 1977 the ship Lucona sank in the Indian Ocean as a result of a time bomb which had been planted by Udo Proksch, the owner of the cargo, so he could fraudulently collect the insurance money. The cargo was claimed to consist of a disassembled uranium processing plant but in fact consisted of worthless scrap. 6 of the 12 crew members died.[5]

In popular culture[edit]

The 1900 Dutch play Op hoop van zegen by the socialist playwright Herman Heijermans depicts a ruthless shipowner in a small Dutch village sending an unsound fishing boat out into a stormy sea - with the deliberate result that it becomes lost with all hands - and with the owner pocketing the insurance money. The play is considered a classic of Dutch theatre and literature, and was adapted to film four times.

Leon Uris also refers to death ships in his novel Redemption.

The Death Ship (German title: Das Totenschiff) is a novel by the pseudonymous author known as B. Traven which deals with sailors working on a ship which the owners want to sink.


  1. ^ Plimsoll Line and Coffin Ships
  2. ^ Coast (TV series), episode "Hull to London"
  3. ^ "Merchant Shipping Act". Spartacus Educational. SchoolNet. Retrieved 30 March 2013. 
  4. ^ "Parliament — Breach of Order (Mr. Plimsoll)". Hansard, 22 July 1875. Millbank Systems. Retrieved 30 March 2013. 
  5. ^ "The Lucona Affair". Chicago Tribune. March 15, 1989. 

See also[edit]

  • The London, an overloaded ship that sank in 1866

External links[edit]