Atlantic History Scandinavian Chartered Companies
by
Hanna Hodacs
  • LAST REVIEWED: 11 December 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 August 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0162

Introduction

Chartered companies were established in Scandinavia from the beginning of the 17th century. These companies were organized along similar lines as the larger and more familiar chartered companies of the time (e.g., the Dutch East India Company and the English East India Company). Other European companies provided the Danes and the Swedes with organizational prototypes, but also migrating merchants from northwestern Europe supplied know-how, which proved instrumental in setting up the Scandinavian companies and organizing the trade between the Baltic and Africa, between the West and the East Indies, and to a lesser extent in the North Atlantic. Nonetheless, it is important to acknowledge that circumstances specific to Scandinavian geopolitics shaped the conduct of the Danish and the Swedish companies. The ability of these companies to draw on the neutral statuses of the states of Denmark and Sweden during periods of conflict between the great powers of the Atlantic world constituted their distinguishing feature. This is particularly true of the two most successful Scandinavian chartered companies of the 18th century, the Danish Asiatic Company (Asiatiska Compagni) and the Swedish East India Company (Svenska OstIndiska Kompaniet). These companies were also marked by their active engagement in reexporting (and smuggling in) to Britain, the Dutch Republic, the Austrian Netherlands, France, and the German states goods imported from Asia. Thus the success and ultimate failure of the Scandinavian companies was closely connected to changing market conditions in Europe. This fact is clearly demonstrated when considering the effects of the British Communication Act of 1784, which significantly lowered the custom on tea. Adoption of the act undermined the smuggling of tea into Britain, tea that had been originally imported by the Scandinavian companies. Passage of this act marked the beginning of the end of the most successful of the chartered companies in Scandinavia.

Introductory Works

No single introductory work to the Scandinavian chartered companies is available. The best starting point for the Danish companies is Feldbæk 1986a, an article on the Danish trading companies in which the author discusses the characters of companies active in different geographical areas as well as how they operated and how they were managed. Feldbæk 1986a also highlights the pragmatism that surrounded the establishment of the chartered companies in Denmark. From the point of view of the Danish state, they were instrumental in establishing trade and trade routes; once trade was established, the state opened up the trade to more competitors, ultimately making the companies redundant. The same point is made in Feldbæk 1997, a contribution to Danish maritime history (in Danish) in which the chartered companies are discussed extensively and against the backdrop of other domestic and transnational maritime history. Worth mentioning in this context is also Feldbæk 1986b, a lengthy work (in Danish) on the charters and internal rules that regulated the operations of Danish trading companies between 1616 and 1843. Another good starting point for anyone interested in the broader Danish context in which the companies operated is Gøbel 2002, a guide (also available online) to relations between Denmark and the West Indies. This work contains a detailed guide to literature and sources not only relating to the history of the Virgin Islands and the role played by the Danish West India Company but also to Denmark’s history of colonization and trade more generally. No equivalent general introductory work on the Swedish companies and their background history is available.

  • Feldbæk, Ole. “The Danish Trading Companies of the Seventeenth and the Eighteenth Centuries.” Scandinavian Economic History Review 34.3 (1986a): 204–218.

    DOI: 10.1080/03585522.1986.10408070E-mail Citation »

    Very good but brief summary of the history of the Danish chartered companies and their main characteristics. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

  • Feldbæk, Ole. Danske Handelskompagnier, 1616–1843: Oktrojer og interne Ledelsesregler. Copenhagen: Selskabet for Udgivelse af Kilder til Dansk Historie, 1986b.

    E-mail Citation »

    Excellent resource for more advanced studies of the Danish chartered companies; illuminates how the conditions and rules regulating their operations changed over time. Has a helpful, short introduction.

  • Feldbæk, Ole. Dansk søfarts historie. Vol. 3, Storhandelens tid, 1720–1814. Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 1997.

    E-mail Citation »

    The Danish chartered companies discussed in the broader context of Danish maritime history.

  • Gøbel, Erik. A Guide to Sources for the History of the Danish West Indies (U.S. Virgin Islands), 1671–1917. Odense: University Press of Southern Denmark, 2002.

    E-mail Citation »

    Contains a very extensive bibliography on the history of the Danish West Indies, including not only the history of the Danish companies operating in the West Indies and Guinea (Ghana) but also the history of Danish colonialism more generally. Also available online.

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