Swedish East India Company

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The full scale replica East Indiaman Götheborg in Oslo, on 10 June 2005, for the centenary of the dissolution of the union between Norway and Sweden

The Swedish East India Company (Swedish: Svenska Ostindiska Companiet or SOIC) was founded in Gothenburg, Sweden, in 1731 for the purpose of conducting trade with the Far East. The venture was inspired by the success of the Dutch East India Company and the British East India Company and grew to become the largest trading company in Sweden during the 18th century, though its European influence was marginal, until it folded in 1813.


The roots for the new company extended more than a hundred years earlier. As early as 1626 the Dutchman Willem Usselincx received royal privileges from the Swedish king for a trading company, but wars and hard times had however stopped the company before it launched any ships to the Far East. Another attempt was made by pirates sailing out from Madagascar, as they thought Sweden better suited as a base. They offered solid financial rewards, and negotiations were well advanced with the Swedish King Karl XII at his camp in 1718 during his campaign towards Norway. With the king's death the venture folded.

Sweden was impoverished after the Great Northern War, and trade was therefore seen as an option for rebuilding the country. Opinions however were mixed, as steel and timber were used for trading; was it not a waste to exchange such goods for worthless tea and porcelain?[1] The emerging Swedish textile industry was also threatened by the trade, so that the new company soon promised to refrain from shipping textiles: of sixty-one successfully returning voyages between 1733 and 1767, only three (of 1735, 1740 and 1742) carried cotton and silk textiles, and raw silk from Bengal.[2]

Establishing the SOIC[edit]

Colin Campbell (1686–1757) founder of the Swedish East India Company.

In 1729 the Scottish merchant Colin Campbell got help for setting up a company with the Swede Henrik König, after initially discussing the idea with Niclas Sahlgren. The reaction from the Swedish government was reluctant: the closing of the Ostend Company in 1731, based in Ostend in the Austrian Netherlands and closed down in 1731 following British pressure as part of the Treaty of Vienna boded ill for the Swedes' competition against the main powers, where trade and politics were so intimately associated. König took the matters to the Swedish parliament and succeeded, gaining royal privileges for the company on 14 June 1731, initially for a period of 15 years.[3] The company would have the right to all trade and shipping east of the Cape of Good Hope as far as Japan excepting the port "factories" of other European nations, unless free consent had been obtained in advance. The avoidance of maintaining port facilities and "factories" as the Dutch maintained, reduced the Company's overhead and minimized frictions with Indian and East Asian rulers.

All departures and arrivals should be out of Gothenburg, and cargo was to be auctioned promptly in Gothenburg on arrival, The Swedish state was to receive 100 riksdaler on each shipment, plus taxes: in 1712 100 riksdaler was worth 1200 marks.

The company could use as many vessels it wanted, but they were to be built and outfitted in Sweden, and taxed on their measured length, 100 riksdaler to the Crown per last, and 2 to the city of Gothenburg. The ships were to fly the Swedish flag and carry Swedish ships' papers. The company's officers would have the same authority as Swedish naval officers, their crew exempted from the Swedish military service. The company had the right to defend itself, to "oppose force with force".[4]

Goods and stores needed for the company were exempted from Swedish customs. The company had the right to issue shares to finance the trading trips. Early subscribers subscribed for each voyage and had the option of withdrawing their capital after its completion, in a traditional form of corporate trading partnerships; in 1753, this having been found inconvenient, it was determined that capital should be considered invested in the company as a whole, on the model of other East India companies. A partner desiring to withdraw his funds was responsible for finding another willing to substitute capital of his own.

And finally, the company was enjoined to maintain secrecy on finances and shareholders. The reasons behind this last provision were both internal and external: British citizens were forbidden to engage in trade on Asia and within Sweden suspicions ran high against foreigners, as they were thought to siphon off Sweden's riches. Jealousy from merchants not in the company also played a part. Thus the books were burned after they had been closed and revised, effectively concealing the company's dealings from contemporaries and historians.[5]

The letter of privilege was translated into French and Latin and distributed to the major powers. Their reaction was reluctant and they made clear that they considered the new company a most unwelcome competitor. The Swedish ambassador to Britain did not even dare to present the letter to the British government. Pledges of assistance at their bases if needed were not answered.

The first expedition[edit]

The driving force was the Scottish trader Colin Campbell, who had gained firsthand knowledge of the China trade as supercargo for the Ostend Company; he was knighted by the Swedish King and moved to Gothenburg to organise the first expedition. Campbell's reconstruction of his diary of the initial voyage, rediscovered in 1986, is a primary source.[6] It sailed in 9 February 1732, as the vessel Friedericus Rex Sueciae, with Campbell on board, also appointed ambassador to the Chinese court, accompanied by the Ulrica. The captain of Fredericus was Georg Herman af Trolle: both he and Campbell had previously visited China. Altogether the crew was around one hundred.

The expedition started well – the Cape of Good Hope was passed, the vessel arrived safely in Canton (Guangzhou), the main trading port in China at the time, in September 1732, after 181 sailing days, and trading was carried out successfully, over four months' time. Initially, the goods sought were spices; however on later voyages demand soon meant that porcelain and tea made up the bulk of the trade.

On its return, the vessel was stopped by the Dutch between Java and Sumatra, and brought to Batavia. Campbell protested and produced his papers, but the Dutch argued that they had suspected the vessel falsely flew the Swedish flag. The expedition was eventually released,[7] but time was lost and the winds unfavourable. So many of the seamen died en route that the ship had to recruit Norwegian sailors upon reaching the coast of Norway.

On 27 August 1733 the vessel returned to Gothenburg, almost one and a half years after its departure. The voyage was a huge economic success, the auction bringing in some 900,000 Swedish riksdaler. The dividend paid was 25% of the capital invested.

Overview of expeditions[edit]

The charter was renewed in 1746, 1766 and 1786.[8] In the first fifteen years of the company's charter, 25 ships were sent out, 3 to India and the rest to China; four of these were lost.[9]

Under terms of the second charter 36 ships were sent out, 3 to Surat, the rest to Canton, and only one was lost. When its charter came up again for renewal in 1766, the Swedish state extorted a loan at 6% that was estimated in 1813 to have been the equivalent of £100,000, another, interest-free, of half that sum, to be repaid out of import duties,[10] in essence an advance payment of duty.

During its entire existence from 1731 to 1813 the SOIC launched 132 expeditions. Of these a total of 8 ships were lost, totally or partially. Probably the sorest loss was the Götheborg in 1745, as it sunk just off Älvsborg Fortress on the entrance to Gothenburg; it had managed to get safely to China and back. Even though most books were burned its evident that the voyages made huge profits for the shareholders, and many Swedes became wealthy due to the SOIC.

From Gothenburg the vessels carried iron, both in bars and processed, as axes, anchors, steel, etc. Copper was also brought, as was timber. The expeditions called at Cádiz where they traded goods to acquire essential Spanish silver, on which the China trade depended[11] in the form of coins, pesos duros, for their agreement was that silver they carried to China, coined or uncoined, could not be in Swedish coin.[12]

The main cargo from China as of value was tea, in an overview from 1774 its share was about 90%. Much of the tea was re-exported and smuggled into England, undercutting the prices of that country's own trade monopoly. The other important item was porcelain, accounting for about 5% of the cargo's value. Over the years it is estimated that some 50 million pieces of porcelain were imported by the SOIC. A cargo tally printed by William Milburn in 1813 is instructive: first are the chests of tea of Bohea, 1,030,642 pounds of it, in 2885 chests, Congou (90,589 pounds), Souchong (67,388 pounds), Pekoe (17,205 pounds), Hyson and "Hyson Skin" (5713 pounds together); textiles are listed next: damasks and heavier damasks for furniture, satin, some of it "coloured and flowered", paduasoy, gorgoron, taffetas, lampas and Nankeen cloth, as well as 33 chests of raw silk; drugs:galangal root and "China root", sago and rhubarb; mother-of-pearl, some of it cut in thin "jettoons" for gaming counters, and thin canes for hoops, painted wallpapers, and lacquer ("japanned") quadrille boxes and toilet tables and tablets for table tops; 6 tons of arrack; and porcelain, in 274 chests and 989 barrels and other packages.

The return on expeditions could be around 25-30% of capital invested, but up to 60% was achieved. Much depended on the merchants and the captain; the merchants had to close a large number of favourable deals, and the captain had the extremely difficult task of safely sailing the ship to China and back. The vessels were around 50 meters long, and besides cargo and men each also carried around 25-30 guns for self-defence. In most years of the period after 1766 one or two SOIC ships were loaded at Canton, or as many a four (1785–86).[13] The last vessel returned to Gothenburg in March 1806, and even though the company had a privilege until 1821 it ceased to exist in 1813.

The company also used to pay tax to the Dey of Algiers and to carry Moroccan passports, thereby promising protection from raids by Berber pirates. These transactions are documented in receipts.

The mercantile expansion of the SOIC provided a setting for Jacob Wallenberg's comic Min son på galejan ("My Son on the Galley") written during the 18-month round trip to Canton in 1769-71.[14] Among his other joking and casual racism, Wallenberg parodies the serious accounts published by traveling naturalists in the wide web of Linnaeus' correspondence.[15]

Revival of one SOIC vessel[edit]

Main article: Götheborg (ship)

In 1993 a project to recreate the East Indiaman Götheborg and sail her from Gothenburg to Canton was started. The project is today run by a firm that uses the same name as the original company. The vessel was reconstructed and sailed in October 2005 for China which it reached in July 2006, with a mixed crew of professionals and students. The ship have since then travelled around to many locations and maritime events all across the world.


  1. ^ Contemporary arguments pro and con concerning the Swedish East India Company (SOIC) are examined in the last chapter of Christine Koninckx, The First and Second Charters of the Swedish East India Company (1731-1766) (Kortrijk), 1980.
  2. ^ Koninccx, quoted in "The European Trading Companies", in The New Cambridge History of India vol. 5 European Commercial Enterprise in Pre-Colonial India 1998:80.
  3. ^ The reappearance of some Antwerp bankers who had been members of the Ostend Company, as investors in the Swedish East India Company misled some historians in viewing the SOIC as a type of front for continuing the Ostend Company; this misperception was put to rest by Koninckx 1980.
  4. ^ Quoted by William Milburn, Oriental commerce: containing a geographical description of the principal places in the East Indies, China, and Japan, With their Produce, Manufactures, and Trade, 1813:575.
  5. ^ Scattered archives have been assembled into a digital archive of the Swedish East India Company, 1731-1813: a joint project of a university library and a history department: Svenska Ostindiska Companiets Arkiv.
  6. ^ Campbell had destroyed his diary when the ship was taken by the Dutch and reconstructed it from memory and some loose papers; it was translated and published by Paul Hallberg and Christian Koninckx, as A Passage to China: Colin Campbell's Diary of the First Swedish East India Company Expedition to Canton, 1732-33, 1996.
  7. ^ "Since which period the Swedish East India Company have been suffered to carry on their trade without the least interruption, but which is solely confined to China," observed William Milburn, who included a summary account of the Swedish East India Company in Oriental Commerce, 1813:576-78.
  8. ^ Milburn 1813:577; Koninckx 1980.
  9. ^ Milburn 1813:577.
  10. ^ Milburn 1813:577.
  11. ^ Koninckx 1980.
  12. ^ Milburn 1813:575, 577.
  13. ^ Milburn 1813:578.
  14. ^ Sven-Erik Rose, "The Funny Business of the Swedish East India Company: Gender and Imperial Joke-Work in Jacob Wallenberg's Travel Writing", Eighteenth-Century Studies 33.2 (Winter 2000:217-232): Rose examines the comic account of a real voyage.
  15. ^ Rose 2000:220-23 "Spoofing Linnaeus".

See also[edit]

External links[edit]


  • Frängsmyr, Tore (1976) Ostindiska Kompaniet Bokförlaget Bra Böcker AB Höganäs