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The Tontine and Lorenzo Tonti - What is a Tontine?

Updated on December 1, 2013

TONTINE, the 'reality show' that never was, should have hit the U.S. in 2008, boasting the biggest ever cash prize, $10,000,000, awarded to the sole survivor after 100 days of physical and emotional trials.

Things didn't go to plan and the show, mercifully, was never made. It ran into problems as early as the casting stages; the producer publicly decking one of the contestants arguably militated against its ever coming to fruition.

But, behind the hype, is there anything new under the sun? Why was the show to be called TONTINE? Is it just a word dreamed up by a TV production team, or, maybe, has the Tontine been around for 350 years? Read on...

Tontine Hotel

The Tontine Hotel, Peebles, Scotland
The Tontine Hotel, Peebles, Scotland

Why is there a 200 year-old Tontine Hotel in the little town of Peebles in the Scottish Borders? Simply because a celebrated Tontine was ratified there and the name stuck. There are a few more Tontine Inns and Hotels of like age in the UK, and in France, and many more public buildings and monuments that owe their existence to a Tontine. All well and good, you may say, but what's a Tontine??

Tontine Reality TV

I'll be honest - I'm not a fan of the 'reality TV' genre. I'm far more interested in the historical Tontine than in this money-making spin-off. Old man Tonti will be turning in his grave at such a misinterpretation of his doubtful but essentially philanthropic vision.

Yet there is one aspect of this show that was unusual and, I suspect, calculated to bring out the best/worst (you decide!) in participants and viewers alike - Tonti's investment principle applied! The selected participants were required to stake their own life savings in an all-or-nothing gamble. Would you do the same?

An Italian in France

It all began 1653, with a banker from Naples, Lorenzo de Tonti. While working in France, he invented an unusual investment scheme:

  • a group of people of similar age, the 'Tontinites', all contribute a lump sum
  • this fund is managed by an administrator on behalf of the Tontinites, who each receive regular dividends, while the capital sum also grows
  • there is no 'pulling out' allowed - you are in it for life!
  • as members die, one by one, the survivors benefit more and more, as their proportion of the dividend increases with each death
  • your reward, for outliving your fellows, is a very healthy pension!

In Tonti's original scheme, when the last rich old rogue finally copped it, the capital, by now considerable, reverted to the State. Depending on the size of the Tontine, this would then be used to erect anything from a public fountain to a library to a hospital. After all, the late departed would have no further use for it.

There wasn't much wrong with Tonti's original scheme. If you lived to collect your pension, it was there for you, and guaranteed to grow for as long as you survived. Certainly it was a little tough if you fell on hard times early and wanted your money back. On the other hand, after the initial investment there was no further outlay, no monthly deductions to maintain. I'm sure many of us today would be happy with such an arrangement.

Enter Greed, stage left . . .

Then a new version appeared in which the final capital devolved onto the last survivor, instead of reverting to the State. Superficially, this seems OK, but in practice, as the huge sum was of no use to a frail old man, it meant that families were the beneficiaries. Instead of a hospital, you create nouveaux riches, hardly an improvement. Worse - there was the unedifying spectacle of 'living competitions', and even concealed deaths, as families of weary old guys tried everything to keep them alive, not out of love but out of avarice. Which brings us to . . .

Robert Louis Stevenson

RLS - the initials of genius
RLS - the initials of genius

The Wrong Box

In collaboration with his nephew, Lloyd Osborne, Robert Louis Stevenson wrote one of the dark comedy masterpieces of English literature, The Wrong Box. It is the story of a Tontine. But it is much more than that. It is a tale of greed and desperation; of a railway crash and a body buried in a shallow grave, of a statue of Hercules smashed with a coal-hammer, of a silent Broadwood Grand Piano harbouring a corpse, of still Champagne and a rotting houseboat, of forgery, fear, false whiskers and the timeless expletive - Bent Pitman!

For this book alone, let's give thanks for the life of Lorenzo de Tonti, as we ponder the latter-day phenomenon of 'reality' TV.


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    • Paraglider profile image

      Dave McClure 7 years ago from Kyle, Scotland

      Happy Sunday, or happy birthday (to me ;) But a working day, because the local weekend is Friday Saturday and the working week starts on Sunday. No rest for the wicked!

    • prettydarkhorse profile image

      prettydarkhorse 7 years ago from US

      wow, greed afterall, I am not a fan of reality tv show too, but definitely I want the original tontine as the money could be used by the state afterwards, like you said building hospital etc. Times had changed indeed, and greed will change everything.

      Have a good weekend and happy Sunday Dave, maita

    • Paraglider profile image

      Dave McClure 9 years ago from Kyle, Scotland

      That's fascinating - I never heard of Tontine as a name before (except Tonti, the Italian founder)

    • In The Doghouse profile image

      In The Doghouse 9 years ago from California

      My aunt who was a small child in the early 1950's had two imaginary friends their names were Torma and Tontine. My grandmother was never sure where she came up with those two names, she was very small. It is interesting to finally find out who Tontine is.

    • Kenny Wordsmith profile image

      Ashok Rajagopalan 9 years ago from Chennai

      Thank you for the 'Finsbury Tontie' info too.

    • Paraglider profile image

      Dave McClure 9 years ago from Kyle, Scotland

      Thanks Kenny - I'll look out for the Wodehouse. I hadn't heard about it before. The Stevenson book was originally going to be called 'The Finsbury Tontine' but was published instead as 'The Wrong Box'

    • Kenny Wordsmith profile image

      Ashok Rajagopalan 9 years ago from Chennai

      Thanks for filling us in.

      I remember reading about this in a novel by Wodehouse. Spring Fever, I think. The whole plot revolves around a tontine created by the hero's father and his friends.