In 2014, the British government announced plans to pay down a chunk of debt dating all the way back to the early 18th century. The bills existed in the form of perpetual bonds left over from the “Four Percent Consolidated Loan,” which Prime Minister Winston Churchill had issued in 1927 to refinance national war bonds from World War I. These “4% Consols,” however, included more than just World War I debt. Thanks to decades of government refinancing and consolidation, the stew of old bills also contained borrowing from the Napoleonic and Crimean Wars, an 1847 loan to assist Ireland during its Great Famine, and even money paid to compensate slaveholders when Britain’s Slavery Abolition Act was passed in 1835. By far the oldest debt was from a government bailout that followed the so-called South Sea Bubble, a 1720 financial panic caused by rampant stock speculation in Britain’s South Sea Company. In a 2014 press release, Britain’s Chancellor of the Exchequer said there were over 11,000 bondholders still collecting interest on the centuries-old debt. At the time, the government had not made an effort to redeem any of its perpetual bonds for 67 years.
A 151-year-old Civil War pension
The Civil War officially came to a close in 1865, but a century and a half later, one American is still collecting a government pension for her father’s service in the Union Army. Irene Triplett is the daughter of Private Mose Triplett, a North Carolina farmer who began the war as a Confederate soldier before switching sides and serving in a regiment of Union bushwhackers known as “Kirk’s Raiders.” Pvt. Triplett survived the war and later wed a woman nearly 50 years his junior in the 1920s. He was 83 when his daughter Irene was born in 1930, but died just a few years later. Now 86 years old and residing in a nursing home in Wilkesboro, North Carolina, Irene Triplett receives $73.13 each month as compensation for her father’s Civil War service. She is the last living child of a Civil War soldier on the rolls of the Department of Veterans Affairs, but she’s not the only person still receiving benefits from a 19th century conflict. According to a 2016 article in U.S. News and World Report, several dozen other people collect pensions earned by veterans of the 1898 Spanish-American War.
Germany’s World War I debt
1919’s Treaty of Versailles formally ended World War I, but it only marked the beginning of an astronomical reparations debt for the German government. As part of a “War Guilt Clause” in the peace deal, Germany was deemed responsible for the conflict and ordered to compensate the Allies with 132 billion gold marks—the equivalent of over $400 billion today. The Germans were forced to print money to keep up with the payments, and they later defaulted several times before an American banker hatched a scheme to issue private bonds to raise funds for the debt. The bonds still had to be repaid, however, and the lingering resentment over them later helped fuel the rise of Adolf Hitler, who cut off all reparations payments after taking power in the early 1930s. The debt remained in arrears until the 1950s, when West Germany agreed to begin fulfilling its pre-World War II bond obligations. The country spent the next several decades paying off its foreign debt, but some of the interest on the bonds remained outstanding until after the reunification of Germany in 1990. The last installment payment of $94 million was finally made in 2010—a full 91 years after the Treaty of Versailles.
Dutch water bonds
Some of the oldest bonds still paying interest were issued way back in the 17th century by the Hoogheemraadschap Lekdijk Bovendams, a Dutch water authority responsible for maintaining levees. The earliest of the securities dates to 1624 and was originally floated to raise funds for the repair of a dike. Another, from 1648, is written on goatskin and was issued to help finance construction of piers on the Netherlands’ Lek River. In 2003, Yale University forked over around $25,000 to buy the 1648 perpetual bond, which was originally worth 1,000 Dutch guilders (a little over $500). The university purchased the 368-year-old bond for its historical value, but since it was issued with no maturity date, it still pays out interest even today. In 2015, a Yale professor traveled to the Netherlands to collect 12 years of interest totaling $153.
Haiti’s independence debt
In 1791, African slaves on the Caribbean island of Saint Domingue initiated a bloody uprising against their French masters. The rebellion culminated in 1804 with the founding of the republic of Haiti—the only nation ever forged out of a slave revolt—but it came with a massive price tag. The United States and most of the nations of Europe refused to officially recognize Haiti, and in 1825, the French sent a fleet of warships and threatened the former colony with blockade and invasion. Left with little recourse, the Haitian government eventually agreed to pay France an indemnity of 90 million gold francs to cover the property losses of its colonists and slaveholders. The sum was equivalent to more than five times Haiti’s annual national revenue, and the islanders weren’t able to pay it in full until 1947—more than 120 years after it was first levied. In the years since, many activists and politicians have argued that France should repay Haiti for the “independence debt” it extracted in the 19th century. According to some economists, the total inflation-adjusted amount would be over $20 billion.
A French annuity from 1738
For nearly 280 years, the French government has carried an unusual debt on its balance sheet: an annuity owed to the family of an 18th century lawyer. The debt dates to 1738, when a man named Claude Linotte acted as a financial advisor to the French Duke of Bouillon and his children. As compensation for his services, Linotte persuaded the Duke to provide him with a perpetual life annuity of 1,000 French livres per year, which was to remain active until “the date of death of the last survivor among the descendants of Mr. and Mrs. Linotte.” Linotte’s family line proved resilient, and his annuity later survived a turbulent few centuries that included the French Revolution, the rise and fall of Napoleon and two World Wars. According to economist François Velde, who first discovered the Linotte story in 2009, the French government even tried to buy out the annuity in the early 20th century, only to have their offers rejected by Linotte’s descendants. While the pension is still active today, several centuries of inflation and currency changes have taken their toll. As of 2009, its value had dwindled to a measly $1.25 per year.