In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section British and Dutch Chartered Companies

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Journals
  • Primary Sources
  • Globalization and Imperialism
  • Economic Development or Underdevelopment
  • Business and the Development of the Firm
  • Literature on Other Companies

Atlantic History British and Dutch Chartered Companies
Tony Webster
  • LAST REVIEWED: 11 October 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 May 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0099


Chartered companies were commercial organizations that enjoyed special privileges granted by the state, usually encapsulated in a royal charter. Most were created by merchants in Europe between the 16th and 19th centuries, in England, Scotland, the Dutch Republic, Spain, Portugal, France, and elsewhere. Most chartered companies were formed by investors seeking to exploit commercial opportunities in a particular branch of trade, frequently with a specific part of the world. This latter phenomenon reflected the growth of European commerce with Africa, the Americas, and Asia from the 16th century onward, and many chartered companies specialized in trade and other economic activities in these parts of the world. In many cases, the close relationships between the companies and the states that granted their charters reflected prevailing intellectual notions in the period from the 16th through 18th centuries about the nature of economic activity and state power. In essence, these postulated that global wealth and resources were finite and that the power of states depended upon their ability to control as much of the world’s trade and resources as possible. These ideas are summarized by the term “mercantilism,” and company charters created in this period were frequently intended to help state acquisition and control over trade and resources at the expense of rival powers. In general, monopolies over particular branches of commerce (such as the English East India Company’s monopoly of trade with India and Asia) were granted, and consequently chartered companies became organs of imperial expansion and control. This feature of chartered companies outlasted the era of mercantilism, with later chartered companies, such as the British South Africa Company of the late 19th century, being created with a specific remit for the promotion of imperial interests. Leading investors and managers of chartered companies acquired considerable political influence with the states that granted the charters. In some instances this arose because of the importance of the chartered company in supplying loan finance to governments (e.g., the English East India Company in the 17th and early 18th centuries), in others because of the importance of the company in facilitating the extraction of essential resources or revenues from overseas colonies. Thus chartered companies were political and imperial entities as well as commercial organizations.

General Overviews

There are relatively few works that address the chartered companies as a specific historical theme, with the possible exceptions being Scott 1910–1912 and Roper and van Ruymbeke 2007. Nonetheless, they have attracted the interest of historians engaged several different fields. These include those interested in globalization and imperialism (see Globalization and Imperialism), those interested in questions related to globalization and international economic development or underdevelopment (see Economic Development or Underdevelopment), and business historians concerned with the development of the firm as an organization of commerce (see Business and the Development of the Firm). Even encyclopedia references to chartered companies are thin on the ground. Entries in Bannock and Baxter 2010 and Hattendorf 2007 provide perhaps the best summaries of chartered companies, while Goodall, et al. 1997 provides bibliographic references to works on specific chartered companies.

  • Bannock, Graham, and R. E. Baxter, eds. The Palgrave Encyclopedia of World Economic History since 1750. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.

    See entry on “Companies” (pp. 125–129). This outlines the development of companies in Britain, with some explanation of what chartered companies were.

  • Goodall, Francis, T. R. Gourvish, and Steven Tolliday, eds. International Bibliography of Business History. London: Routledge, 1997.

    Contains numerous entries on specific chartered companies.

  • Hattendorf, John B., ed. The Oxford Encyclopedia of Maritime History. Vol. 1. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.

    See entry on “Chartered Companies” (pp. 391–334). Contains separate entries on chartered companies in the Iberian world and northern Europe.

  • Roper, L. H., and Bertrand van Ruymbeke, eds. Constructing Early Modern Empires: Proprietary Ventures in the Atlantic World, 1500–1750. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2007.

    DOI: 10.1163/ej.9789004156760.i-425

    An edited volume providing a number of studies of French and other European chartered companies, which in the process seeks to promote debate about the nature of these commercial organizations.

  • Scott, William Robert. The Constitution and Finance of English, Scottish, and Irish Joint-Stock Companies to 1720. 2 vols. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1910–1912.

    Venerable but still useful study of the development of early joint-stock companies in the British Isles, with particularly strong coverage of the chartered companies.

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