Following a decline in trade with the Levant over a number of decades, several London merchants petitioned Queen Elizabeth I in 1580 for a charter to guarantee exclusivity when trading in that region. The Company had no colonial aspirations, but rather established "factories" (trading centers) in already-established commercial centers, such as the Levant Factory in Aleppo, as well as Constantinople, Alexandria and Smyrna. Throughout the Company's history, Aleppo served as headquarters for the whole company in the Middle East. By 1588, the Levant Company had been converted to a regulated monopoly on an established trade, from its initial character as a joint-stock company. The prime movers in the conversion were Sir Edward Osborne and Richard Staper. A new charter was granted in January 1592, and by 1595 its character as a regulated company had become clear. In the early days of the company there were threats not just from Barbary pirates but during the war with Spain in 1590 and 1591 they successfully repelled Spanish galleys in attempts to capture their cargo. The Company as a result though had heavily armed ships.
James I (1603–25) renewed and confirmed the company's charter in 1606, adding new privileges. However he engaged in a verbal anti-Turk crusade and neglected direct relations with the Turks. The government did not interfere with trade, which expanded. Especially profitable was the arms trade as the Porte modernized and re-equipped its forces. Of growing importance was textile exports. Between 1609 and 1619, the export of cloth to the Turks increased from 46% to 79% of total cloth exports. The business was highly lucrative. Piracy continued to be a threat. Despite the anti-Ottoman rhetoric of the king, commercial relations with the Turks expanded. The king's finances were increasingly based on the revenues derived from this trade, and English diplomacy was complicated by this trade. For example, James refused to provide financial support to Poland for its war against the Turks.
During the Civil Wars, some innovations were made in the government of the company, allowing many people to become members who were not qualified by the charters of Elizabeth and James, or who did not conform to the regulations prescribed. Charles II, upon his restoration, endeavored to set the company upon its original basis; to which end, he gave them a charter, containing not only a confirmation of their old one, but also several new articles of reformation.
By the charter of Charles II, the company was erected into a body politic, capable of making laws, etc., under the title of the Company of Merchants of England trading to the Seas of the Levant. The number of members was not limited, but averaged about 300. The principal qualification required was that the candidate be a wholesale merchant, either by family, or by serving an apprenticeship of seven years. Those under 25 years of age paid 25 pounds sterling at their admission; those above, twice as much. Each made an oath, at his entrance, not to send any merchandise to the Levant, except on his own account; and not to consign them to any but the company's agents, or factors. The company governed itself by a plurality of voices.
The company had a court, or board at London, composed of a governor, sub-governor, and twelve directors, or assistants; who were all actually to live in London, or the suburbs. They also had a deputy-governor, in every city and port where there were any members of the company. This assembly at London sent out the vessels, regulated the tariff for the price at which the European merchandise sent to the Levant were to be sold; and for the quality of those returned. It raised taxes on merchandise, to defray impositions, and the common expense of the company; presented the ambassador, which the King was to keep at the port; elected two consuls for Smyrna and Constantinople, etc. As the post of ambassador to the Sublime Porte became increasingly important, the Crown had to assume control of the appointment.
One of the best regulations of the company was not to leave the consuls, or even the ambassador, to fix the impositions on the vessels for defraying the common expenses—something that was fatal to the companies of most other nations—but to allow a pension to the ambassador and consuls, and even to the chief officers—including the chancellor, secretary, chaplain, interpreters, and janissaries—so that there was no pretence for their raising any sum at all on the merchants or merchandises. It was true that the ambassador and consul might act alone on these occasions, but the pensions being offered to them on condition of declining them, they chose not to act.
In extraordinary cases, the consuls, and even ambassador himself, had recourse to two deputies of the company, residing in the Levant, or if the affair be very important, assemble the whole nation. Here were regulated the presents to be given, the voyages to be made, and every thing to be deliberated; and on the resolutions here taken, the deputies appointed the treasurer to furnish the required funds. The ordinary commerce of this company employed from 20 to 25 vessels, of between 25 and 30 pieces of cannon.
The merchandises exported there were limited in quality and range, suggesting an imbalance of trade; they included traditional cloths, especially shortcloth and kerseys, tin, pewter, lead, pepper, re-exported cochineal, black rabbit skins and a great deal of American silver, which the English took up at Cadiz. The more valuable returns were in raw silk, cotton wool and yarn, currants and "Damascus raisins", nutmeg, pepper, indigo, galls, camlets, wool and cotton cloth, the soft leathers called maroquins, soda ash for making glass and soap, and several gums and medicinal drugs.
The commerce of this company to Smyrna, Constantinople, and İskenderun, was much less considerable than that of the East India Company; but was, doubtless, much more advantageous to England, because it took off much more of the English products than the other, which was chiefly carried on in money.
The places reserved for the commerce of this company included all the states of Venice, in the Gulf of Venice; the state of Ragusa; all the states of the "Grand Signior" (the Sultan of Turkey), and the ports of the Levant and Mediterranean Basin; excepting Cartagena, Alicante, Barcelona, Valencia, Marseilles, Toulon, Genoa, Livorno, Civitavecchia, Palermo, Messina, Malta, Majorca, Minorca, and Corsica; and other places on the coasts of France, Spain, and Italy.
Membership began declining in the early eighteenth century. In its decline the Company was looked upon as an abuse, a drain on the resources of Britain. The Company's purview was thrown open to free trade in 1754, but continued its activities until dissolution in 1825.
- The charter of 11 September 1581 was good for seven years; it was not renewed when it expired in 1588. (T. S. Willan, "Some Aspects of English Trade with the Levant in the Sixteenth Century". The English Historical Review 70.276 (July 1955, pp. 399–410) p 405.
- The London Port Books from the 1560s and 1570s do not record any shipments by English merchants to or from the Levant, when Venice filled the role of intermediary and Antwerp retained its position as entrepôt. (Willan 1955:400ff).
- Willan 1955:405–07.
- Eysturlid, 1993
- This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Chambers, Ephraim, ed. (1728). "article name needed". Cyclopaedia, or an Universal Dictionary of Arts and Sciences (first ed.). James and John Knapton, et al.
- Epstein, M. The Early History of the Levant Company (New York: Dutton) 1908. Covers the years of the periodic charterters, 1581–1605 and the permanent charter to 1640.
- Eysturlid, Lee W. "'Where Everything is Weighed in the Scales of Material Interest': Anglo-Turkish Traden, Picary, and Diplomacy in the Mediterranean during the Jacobean Period," Journal of European Economic History, Winter 1993, Vol. 22 Issue 3, p613-25
- Wood, A.C. A History of the Levant Company (Oxford) 1935.
- Mather, James. Pashas: Traders and Travellers in the Islamic World (Yale University Press) 2010. ISBN 9780300170917.