A Tontine before Lorenzo de Tonti’s! The Lisbon Tontine Proposal of 1641


The idea of a tontine is eponymously derived from a proposal made by Lorenzo de Tonti to the French court, via Cardinal Mazarin, in 1653. In all the standard financial histories, this is the first appearance of the idea. I took it as gospel in my article in FJCFL in 2009[1]. However, I recently learned it has apparently long been known among historians in Portugal that a revenue scheme organized as a tontine was proposed by a Nicolas Bourey to the Senado de Lisboa in 1641.

The text of this proposal is in the Colleccao Pombalina papers in in Biblioteca Nacional de Lisboa (#650, fol 133-134) and is reprinted in A. H. de Oliveira Marques, Para a historia dos seguros em Portugal, notas e documentos, (1977).

The whole document is relatively short, only twelve paragraphs with two more appended for further explanation. Here is a translation of the text of the first article of the proposal:

  1. I say that the means through which to obtain one million cruzados, which my petition proposes, consists of having this Senate establish a fund (“Companhia” = company) with 10,000 members who will contribute each 100 cruzados, which makes one million, and having the interest set at 5%,which amounts to 50,000 cruzados and will be distributed equally, beginning the first year and continuing for each following year of each person’s life, because as soon as they die they will not gain any more dividends and will lose the 100 cruzados they originally invested, so that the surviving investors each year enjoy increasingly higher earnings because the dividends of 50,000 cruzados will always be divided among the surviving investors until 50 years of age and therefore those who live will divide the 50,000 cruzados among themselves and this Senate will be released from the original one million investment as well as the payment of dividends (“hipoteca” = mortgage).

(I am deeply indebted to Meika A. Mustrangi for the translation)

This text is clearly proposing what became known as a tontine. It even served the same purpose as Tonti’s proposal, ie., government revenue related to war.   However, it pre-dates the Tonti proposal by twelve years and is much simpler. Its very existence raises a number of interesting questions. Is this the real first appearance of the idea and Tonti was simply a better publicist? Did Tonti know of Bourey’s proposal? Was the idea floating around in mercantile circles, but not written down until Bourey and then Tonti drafted their texts?

The Bourey proposal document is dated January 1st, 1641, which was a time of considerable turmoil in Lisbon and Portugal as a whole. In 1580 Philip II, King of Spain, asserted his right to rule Portugal as well as Spain as the grandson of Manuel I of Portugal. After sixty years of joined governance of Spain and Portugal based in Madrid, central control had degenerated to the point where many Portuguese felt independent rule was preferable, and on December 1st, 1640 a revolutionary coup sparked the Portuguese Restoration War. Local sources of revenue had to be found, and the Bourey proposal was submitted[2].

Nicolas Bourey is described in one source[3] as a French merchant, but in another as a Belgian. In the latter he is described as long resident in Lisbon. This is in a biography[4] of Antonio Vieira, a renowned Portuguese Jesuit of the late 17th and early 18th century. “Nicolau” Bourey shows up around 1660 in relation to a declaration to the Inquisition which was investigating Vieira. The author, in describing Bourey’s background, makes a direct reference to his tontine-like proposal. He indicates Bourey was originally from Antwerp but had lived in Portugal for a long time. The declaration of Bourey to the Inquisition is reprinted in this book. It reads, roughly translated:

Done in this city of Lisbon on the day of Our Lady of Conception by Nicolau Bourey, of the Belgian nation, in the year 1660, a relative of the Holy Office, and resident in the same city for fifty-two years, at the age of seventy-four years, Lord, be patient,

The idea that this is a “discovery” outside Portugal is an illustration of how, even with modern information systems and the Internet, knowledge can still be narrowly constrained.

The content of this document provokes several ideas for further research. One obvious one would be to try to find any connection, direct or through a third party, between Bourey and Tonti. On the other hand, the two proposals could be an example of the idea known as “simultaneous invention” or “multiple discovery.” This might inspire a project to try to find similar proposals in other European archives. Note that Bourey does not propose giving his idea a particularly special name, only “companhia.” Similar proposals could have a dozen different names and use a pretty broad vocabulary, which would make the task extraordinarily difficult.

[1]   Kent McKeever, A Short History of Tontines, 15 Fordham J. Corp. & Fin. L. 491 (2009).

[2]   Interestingly, Tonti’s proposal, twelve years later reflected a similar purpose, a means to finance Louis XIV’s war with the Augsburg Confederation.

[3]   de Oliveira Marques, D. H. Para a historia dos seguros em Portugal, notas e documentos, 101, 1977.

[4]   D’Azevado, J. Lucio, Historia de Antonio Vieira, com factos e documentos novos, Tomo Segundo, 7-8, 33-24, 313-314, 1921 [HathiTrust, University of Michigan copy.] Bourey’s short declaration with its elements of autobiographical data is on page 314.


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