Companies enabled merchants to band together to undertake ventures requiring more capital than was available to any one merchant or family. From the sixteenth century onwards, groups of European investors formed companies to underwrite and profit from the exploration of Africa, India, Asia, the Caribbean and North America, usually under the patronage of one state, which issued the company's charter. But chartered companies go back into the medieval period. Authorizations of charters enabled even small states to greatly augment their influence by indirect rule, steering private resources into national pursuits of exploration and trade. As they grew wealthier, some companies developed extensive administrations for their ventures, and frequently conducted local affairs with little homeland oversight.
Chartered companies were usually formed, incorporated and legitimised under a royal or, in republics, an equivalent government charter. This document set out the terms under which the company could trade; defined its boundaries of influence, and described its rights and responsibilities.
- Trade with African rulers such as King Lobengula
- Form banks
- Own, manage and grant or distribute land
- Raise its own police force (the British South Africa Police).
In return, the British South Africa Company agreed to develop the territory it controlled; to respect existing African laws; to allow free trade within its territory and to respect all religions.
To carry out their many tasks, which in many cases included functions – such as security and defence – usually reserved for a sovereign state, some companies achieved relative autonomy. A few chartered companies such as the British Honourable East India Company (HEIC) and Dutch Verenigde Oostindische Compagnie (VOC) had military and naval forces of their own that dwarfed even the average European state's armed forces, and adequate funds to buy the best men and equipment, in effect making them a state within a state.
More chartered companies were formed during the late nineteenth century's "Scramble for Africa" with the purpose of seizing, colonising and administering the last 'virgin' African territories, but these proved generally less profitable than earlier trading companies. In time, most of their colonies were either lost (often to other European powers) or transformed into crown colonies. The last chartered company to administer territory directly in Africa was the Companhia de Moçambique in Portuguese East Africa (now Mozambique), which handed over rule of the colonies of Manica and Sofala to the Portuguese republic's colonial government in 1942.
Notable chartered companies and their abbreviations/ years of formation
British crown charters
- 1711 South Sea Company
- 1792 Sierra Leone Company
- 1752 African Company of Merchants (abolished 1821)
- 1824 Van Diemen's Land Company
- 1835 South Australian Company
- 1839 New Zealand Company
- 1847 Eastern Archipelago Company
- 1881 British North Borneo Company
- 1886 Royal Niger Company
- 1889 British South Africa Company
English crown charters
- 1407 Company of Merchant Adventurers of London
- 1553 Company of Merchant Adventurers to New Lands
- 1555 Muscovy Company
- 1577 Spanish Company
- 1579 Eastland Company
- 1581 Turkey Company
- 1588 Morocco Company
- 1600 East India Company (HEIC)a
- 1604 New River Company
- 1605 Levant Companyb
- 1606 Virginia Company
- 1609 French Company
- 1610 London and Bristol Company
- 1616 Somers Isles Company
- 1629 Massachusetts Bay Company
- 1629 Providence Island Company
- 1635 Courteen association
- 1664–1674 Royal West Indian Company
- 1670 Hudson's Bay Company
- 1672 Royal African Company
- 1693 Greenland Company
a Became the largest colonial empire in the 19th century.
b Merger of the Turkey and Venetian Companies.
- 1613 Company of One Hundred Associates
- 1625 Compagnie de Saint-Christophe
- 1664 Compagnie de l'Occident
- 1717 Compagnie du Mississippi
- 1635 Compagnie des Îles de l'Amérique
- 1660 Compagnie de Chine
- 1664 Compagnie des Indes Orientales
- 1664 Compagnie des Indes occidentales
- 1682 Brandenburg African Company
- 1752 Emden Company
- 1882 German West African Company
- 1884 German New Guinea Company
- 1884 German East Africa Company
- 1891 Astrolabe Company
- 1482 Companhia da Guiné
- 1628 Portuguese East India Company
- 1888 Companhia de Moçambique
- 1891 Companhia do Niassa
- 1602 Dutch East India Company (VOC)
- 1614–1642 Nordic Company
- 1614 New Netherland Company
- 1614 Noordsche Compagnie
- 1621 Dutch West India Company
- 1717 Ostend Companya
- 1720 Society of Berbice
a The Austrian Netherlands (now Belgium), active in India.
- 1347 or earlier Stora Enso
- 1616 Danish East India Companya
- 1671 Danish West India Company
- Royal Greenland
- 1638–1655 New Sweden Companyb
- 1649–1667 Swedish Africa Companyc
- 1721 Bergen Greenland Company
- 1731–1813 Swedish East India Company
- 1749 General Trade Company
- 1774 Royal Greenland Trading Department
- 1786–1805 Swedish West India Companyd
- 1738 Swedish Levant Companye
a Governed Danish India from Trankebar.
b Created in connection with the Swedish colony New Sweden (Nya Sverige); absorbed by the Dutch; presently in Delaware.
c On the short-lived Swedish Gold Coast.
d Created in connection with the colonisation of Saint Barthélemy.
e A failed attempt to organise Swedish trade in the eastern Mediterranean region.
- 1799–1867 Russian American Company
- Chartered companies
- Colonial flags of Mozambique
- Ferguson, Niall, 2003. Empire—How Britain Made the Modern World, Allan Lane, London, United Kingdom.
- Hudson's Bay Company
- Ross, R., 1999. A Concise History of South Africa, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom.
- Micklethwait, John, and Adrian Wooldridge. 2003. The company: A short history of a revolutionary idea. New York: Modern Library.