East India Companies as chartered companies
East India Companies were chartered by their home states to conduct long-distance trade between Europe and Asia in the period between 1600 and 1800. These companies in the process received privileges and rights that would help them make a profit when conducting long-distance trade with all associated the risks. They were burdened by the costs of maintaining their presence and conducting trade despite the hostile actions of other Europeans and Asians on land and at sea. Beyond their territorial waters, they were left to their own devices, because their respective home navies could not protect them until the late 18th century.1
A group of investors, mainly merchants who were convinced that such a venture would be profitable, organized a corporation to obtain a charter that would give them a monopoly from their home country on trade to the seas to the east of Cape of Good Hope and to the west of the Strait of Magellan.2 The Dutch East India Company (hereafter VOC), for instance, was granted by the Dutch Republic exclusive rights to "create and impose laws, establish forts, factories and settlements, exercise monopolies of trade, sign treaties and wage conflicts with foreign nations, and inflict capital punishment on individuals under its jurisdiction".3 Although differences existed between European states in what rights were granted, East India companies are called charted companies because of the charter stipulating their rights and duties.
East India Companies quickly became the dominant and most successful organizational form for long-distance trade with Asia. In the 200 years after their first arrival in Asia, they shaped the European presence there.4 A handful of East India companies existed from countries such as the Dutch Republic, England, France, Denmark, Ostend, and Sweden.5 The English East India Company (hereafter EIC) was founded in 1600 and renewed its charter in 1657 and 1693. It merged with its competitor the New East India Company into the United East India Company in 1709. The combined company existed until 1858, although by then it had relinquished all trade and become a colonial administrator. VOC was founded in 1602 and, after being nationalized in 1796, was dissolved in 1799. The French East India Company (hereafter FEIC) was established in 1664 by Jean-Baptiste Colbert (1619–1683)  and, after several reorganizations, was succeeded by the Compagnie des Indes in 1719. After this company's monopoly was dissolved in 1769, trade with Asia was opened up for individual French merchants.
There were also several smaller East India Companies that were more specialized and experienced periods of frantic commercial activity with longer periods of inactivity. The Danish Asiatic Company was most active between 1616–50, followed by a relatively stagnant period after 1650. It was succeeded by a second company called the Danish East India Company between 1670 and 1729, which aimed to revitalize Danish commerce. When the activity of this company slowed towards the end of this period, it was succeeded by the Danish Asiatic Company. The latter prospered during a new flowering of Danish trade from 1732 until its quick demise in 1807. The Ostend Company (Generale Indische Compagnie) lasted from 1723 until 1732, when several shareholders moved to Sweden and founded the Swedish East India Company in 1731.6 This company existed until the end of the 18th century. There were also several attempts to establish an East India Company in other countries, which either took no or only few voyages to Asia. They are therefore not treated in this article.
East India Companies were always compromises between the competing interests of the participating merchants and the chartering state. There were consequently often conflicts over prioritizing politics or profits. VOC became the first joint-stock company in history, which guaranteed the interests of the involved merchants as a counterbalance against the influence of the state. The merchants received impersonal stocks in return for their investment capital, which they could sell at current prices on the first stock exchange in Amsterdam. On the other hand, East India Companies used the room for maneuver to take military action against other European competitors and to build their own empires in Asia. Depending on regional circumstances, mainly the English, Dutch and French East India companies sought such colonial and imperial expansion at the expense of local rulers. While European countries could only pursue territorial ambitions in a restricted number of political arenas, the smaller East India Companies generally refrained from such imperial undertakings or at most established their own trading posts with trading privileges from local rulers.
The era of East India Companies came to an end as they all gradually went bankrupt or, at the latest, when their charter was revoked by their home state around the year 1800. Although some East India Companies simply disappeared or had their possessions nationalized, others ultimately transformed into the European colonial empires in Asia. As a result, the chartered companies should be understood as precursors to the national colonial empires of the 19th century. The main colonial empire to grow out of the political and military activities of the English East India Company was the British Empire, which would extend its political influence over large parts of Asia. The Dutch colonial empire of the Dutch East Indies grew out of the activities of VOC. After the company's demise, the Danish state remained in control in the port city of Tranquebar in India. The French state did not relinquish control over the port of Pondicherry in India after the French East India Company dissolved. Instead, it expanded its influence over what would later become French Indochina.
East India Companies and trade with Asia
Regarding trade between Europe and Asia, the era of East India Companies clearly stands apart from the period preceding it. Before Vasco da Gama (1469–1524) found the way to India through the Cape of Good Hope in 1498, goods from Asia solely reached Europe through the Arab world. Caravans carried Asian goods, especially spices, across the Arabian Peninsula to the Mediterranean. Eager traders from Italian city-states bought them to resell them for large profits on the European market. The goods had already made a long voyage across the Indian Ocean, where they were passed on to Muslim traders who connected the Mediterranean to the spice trade .
This original "land route" functioned alongside the newly found maritime route through the Cape for more than another 100 years, despite Portuguese attempts to control all trade to Europe. The land route for spices to Europe was made obsolete with the rise of East India Companies after 1600. Niels Steensgaard (1932–2013) has argued that the activities of the East India Companies lead to the total eclipse of trade over land due to trade over the high seas. In contrast to their success in Europe, it should be kept in mind that East India companies did not likewise dominate the spice trade in Asia.7
After breaking the Portuguese monopoly on trade through the Cape route and eclipsing the land route, East India Companies divided the bulk of trade with Asia between themselves. The largest part of European trade with Asia fell into Dutch hands with the advent of VOC. The Dutch share of trade hovered between 50 to 60 percent of the total number of outbound ships between 1600 and 1720. Together, the French and English companies accounted for about 20 percent of the total in this period, although the English share was larger than the French one after 1650. After 1650, there was also a small, but constant share of about 5 percent for the total shipping of the Danish, Swedish and Ostend companies collectively. The French and English East India companies started growing after 1720 at the expense of VOC. The smaller companies also managed to increase their part. After 1780, EIC finally equaled VOC in the number of ships sent to Europe.8
VOC's share was probably larger if we convert the calculations for the number of outbound ships to shares in tonnage, but such calculations are less informative for several reasons. While VOC ships were substantially larger in size than the French and English ships, this presents some problems due to different calculations of tonnage and lack of information on the size of ships. Another problem is that a relatively large part of the VOC ships stayed in Asia to participate in the intra-Asian trade, while most outbound French and English ships intended to return.9 In total, 72 percent of all the departing ships and 75 percent of the total tonnage sent out by East India companies returned to Europe.10
East India Companies involved different patterns of migration, with people either leaving for the time of one journey or for a longer period to engage in activities in Asia. We should be careful to not overstate total of number of people that were engaged in activities for East India Companies. For the smaller East India Companies (Ostend, Danish, and Swedish), the great majority of people who left for Asia returned within two years. The length of their stays is equated with the time to sail to Asia, buy goods, and return to Europe. The larger companies often sought to sustain intra-Asian trade and to engage in military activities, which extended the stays of their employees in Asia. Accordingly, people working for these companies would remain in Asia for several years. Historians believe that in the mid-17th century around 20,000–25,000 men worked for East India companies at any given moment. In the 18th century, the figures point to a number of workers exceeding 60,000.11
The loss of life in the East India Companies was massive, as workers tried to keep the long-distance trade going. Of the two million European men (very few women went to Asia) that set sail between 1500 and 1795, including Portuguese workers, probably only half returned. The numbers of people who remained in Asia as colonists is probably not very large. Historians assume that most of the people who did not return to Europe perished of disease, violence, shipwrecks, or malnourishment on board during the long journey.12
The Dutch East India Company is best researched for the occurrences of fatalities among its employees. It was probably most severely hit by high mortality rates of all East India Companies due to its strong presence in the relatively unhealthy Indonesian archipelago. In the worst years, up to 80 percent of new arrivals in Asia perished within the first two years.13 Batavia, the main center of trade and administration of the Dutch East India Company, became a veritable urban graveyard in the 18th century. Historians have concluded that this high mortality was due to the introduction of fishing ponds along the coast of Batavia. Batavia was thus infested with malaria mosquitos, which led to a strong deterioration of the living conditions and death. Obviously, this environment was even more lethal for those who were still weakened by the long and arduous voyage from Europe.14
The commodities that Asia had to offer were special and profitable enough for European traders to navigate the globe to get a hold of them. Success in trade depended as much on European sailing capacities as on the availability of American silver, necessary to stimulating European participation in these commercial networks. As Europeans had little offer that Asia coveted, trade would probably have been less substantial without silver from the Americas. Silver took up little room on the ships to Asia due to its high value relative to its weight. East India Companies were important transporters of American bullion to Asia. It has been estimated that between two-thirds to three-quarters of the silver obtained by Europeans in the Americas ultimately ended up in China, although it has also been claimed that a large part of the silver ended up on the Indian subcontinent.15 Certainly not all American silver was exported to Asia by East India Companies, but the trade imbalance had consequences for how trade developed. For instance, the small number of other exports from Europe meant that the ships sailing to Asia relatively empty ultimately returned to Europe filled to the brim.
The advent of East India Companies also enlarged the possibilities for trade in Asian commodities to Europe. In the literature, trade of East India Companies to Europe is often characterized in the context of waves of new commodities arriving on the continent.16 In such accounts, the merchants involved in East India Companies were mainly interested in spices, which were of high value and required relatively little cargo space to transport to Europe. Spices could also resist the relatively long journey to Europe without spoiling. Trade was considered profitable as an almost guaranteed market existed for these goods in Europe, while the prices were high. As European trade with Asia grew, trade in spices was increasingly supplemented by other commodities such as tea, textiles and a host of products such as coffee, sugar, saltpeter, chinaware as well as many medicinal goods. In general, historians first point to the introduction of substantial trade in colorful Indian textiles in the years leading up to 1700, which was followed with an upsurge in the trade in tea from China around 1715. For other commodities, there has been far less scholarly attention and it is less clear how trade in them developed over time.
When the first ships of the East India Companies set sail in the 17th century, they were intended to obtain Asian spices such as pepper, cinnamon, nutmeg, and mace. Spices were suitable for long distance trade as they were dried before they were shipped. The European competition for spices meant that attention in the 17th century was aimed at access to the spice-producing areas in the Indonesian Archipelago, Ceylon (present day Sri Lanka), and the Malabar Coast on the Indian subcontinent. Cloves were only found in Moluccan archipelago, while mace and nutmeg only grew on the Banda Islands.17 Originally black pepper came from the Malabar Coast. Although it had the best quality, prices were somewhat higher than the pepper from the larger islands of Southeast Asia. Pepper cultivationhad been introduced in those areas after 1400, when pepper demand from China surged.18 Europeans traded with all these Asian pepper producing regions, which soon became important suppliers of pepper for the European market.19
In the rivalry for spices between East India companies in the 17th century, the Dutch East India Company is typically seen as the most successful. However, European and Dutch success was not just a matter of commercial competition, but also a willingness to apply military force against competitors, preferably through local alliances. The main victims of the Dutch strategy were the Portuguese and their local asian allies. Long before the East India companies arrived, the Portuguese had settled close to the producing areas of spices and made alliances with local rulers to control the spice trade. VOC managed to supplant the Portuguese through alliances with Asian rulers who were known adversaries of the Portuguese or of the Portuguese allies in that particular region. These enemies of the Portuguese often used VOC to strengthen their positions vis-à-vis their local political rivals and the Portuguese and to benefit more from the trade flows of local spice.
VOC tried to enforce its control over the spice trade through contracts with rulers and military might. Despite such enforcement measures, it could never claim to control all trade or production in any spice, except for nutmeg and mace. In the case of pepper, full control was undermined by the fact that pepper grew in different regions across Asia. VOC's strategy was to wield as much political influence as possible over the rulers of the pepper regions. Political deals with the sultan of Banten and several rulers in Sumatra helped VOC obtain a large stake in the pepper production in these areas. Nonetheless, it proved difficult to fully enforce these deals and VOC often simply settled for what it got. VOC managed to acquire a large part of the pepper from these regions at below market prices, but failed to convince all the respective rulers to sign treaties. After their expulsion from Banten, EIC relocated to Benkulu on the west side of Sumatra, where it made its own deal with the local ruler. On the Malabar Coast, East India Companies had no way to impose their will on local rulers until the end of the 18th century so that East India Companies had to compete for pepper at market prices.20 They did in fact exert military pressure to sway local rulers in this region too, but only to limited effect. The other East India Companies also had stakes in pepper, but VOC and EIC were the main players. The other companies were less successful, explaining the problems of several East India Companies to sustain themselves after 1650.
It was easier for VOC to exert control over the trade and production of what are called the "smaller spices" (in opposition to their "big brother" pepper) such as nutmeg, mace, and cloves from the Indonesian Archipelago. These small spices were only produced on the Banda Islands and in the Moluccan archipelago, whose relative physical isolation kept other competitors at bay. In the case of the Banda Islands, VOC intervened by seizing control of several islands and instituting a plantation-system with slave labor to produce nutmeg and mace. As it took full control of global production for these products, it gained a global monopoly. In the case of cloves, VOC struck deals with local rulers on the islands of Ambon. In return for military support against their own subjects or other rulers, VOC obtained favorable contracts of trade. It had local allies to enforce and police its monopoly on cloves. This was not a fully controllable monopoly, unlike the one on mace and nutmeg, but nonetheless strategically quite successful, despite smuggling by local merchants.21
Cinnamon was obtained on the island of Ceylon. The spice was not only abundant there, but of the best quality as it grew in the wild. An alliance between the last indigenous ruler of the island, the king of Kandy, and VOC allowed the parties to achieve their mutual goal: ousting the Portuguese from their strongholds on the island. After this was accomplished with the conquest of Colombo (1656) and Galle (1640), VOC imposed an exclusive trade deal on the king of Kandy to peel cinnamon in his kingdom as well as to pay off his war debts. This also gave VOC a monopoly in the cinnamon trade with Ceylon, but it depended on the collaboration of the king. A conflict erupted between the king and the subjects of the VOC on the one hand and the VOC on the other around 1760. The war ended in a stalemate, but a new and similar equilibrium was established that lasted until the end of the century.22
Cotton textiles were another important commodity imported by East India Companies. Cotton textiles were mainly purchased from the Indian subcontinent, either from Gujarat, the Coromandel Coast, or Bengal. These beautiful textiles were of high quality yet affordable. Through painting and printing, the Indian craftsmen had superior skill and dexterity in spinning, weaving, and coloring the textiles. The textiles had global appeal as the painting and printing could be adapted to customers' tastes. At first Europeans desired these textiles to purchase spices from other Asians. The textiles fetched considerable profits on Asian markets, which made spices more affordable. Europeans also brought Indian textiles to Europe from the start of their contact with Asia. It was not until the 1680s that the textile trade became a substantial part of the return cargo to Europe. In general, this shift is attributed to a change in European consumption, as these textiles were now used less for household apparel than for clothing. Indian textiles presented a cheap and beautiful substitute for European silks. The introduction of Indian textiles eventually led import bans. European states feared that the Indian textiles would outcompete home-manufactured textiles. Only the Dutch Republic continued to allow the import of these textiles without limitation. Today, the Industrial Revolution is partly seen as a response to the limitation on Indian textiles with factory produced English textiles.23
Tea became increasingly important during the 18th century. Tea plantations existed in Japan and China, but for large-scale importations of the 18th-century East India Companies depended on Chinese supply. Initially, tea trade was a byproduct of European interactions with Chinese merchants in Banten in Java. The Chinese merchants who bought pepper there sold some tea in return. VOC imported Japanese tea in the 1680s, but soon abandoned the idea. Tea became the prerogative of private trade, as crew and employees on the returning ships to Europe had the right to bring home goods to supplement their income. When tea became popular in the Dutch Republic, VOC decided to enter the trade. Other East India Companies looking for new opportunities decided to purchase tea in China. In turn, China opened up one port in Canton, where European traders could buy tea. VOC and the smaller East India Companies focused on the cheapest black teas, while the English East India Company preferred more expensive teas. Tea was taxed very severely in England and its American colonies, which meant that the cheaper teas of the other East India Companies were smuggled locally into these markets. Once EIC established its dominance in India and reduced the taxation on tea it became the most successful tea trader. It was not until the 19th century that tea plantations were established under British control in India and under Dutch control in Indonesia, breaking the Chinese monopoly on producing tea for the world market.24
In order to sustain and safeguard long-distance trade, Europeans targeted other areas in Asia at the crossroads of trade. For instance, the Portuguese repeatedly inserted themselves at hubs of Asian trade in order to try to tax it. They conquered or established fortresses at Goa (Malabar Coast), Malacca (Strait of Malacca), Ormuz (entrance of the Persian Gulf) and Macau (China). VOC were less interested in taxing Asian trade than in controlling certain nodal points. It wrested control of Malacca from the Portuguese, but also successfully brought Makassar under its influence in order to "seal" off the Moluccan islands and the Banda Islands. The Dutch East India company established a colony at the Cape of Good Hope to supply its ships on route to either Europe or Asia. The French East India company settled nearby at the Isle of Bourbon for similar reasons and eventually tried unsuccessfully to establish itself on the island of Madagascar, while the English East India company settled on St. Helena.
East India Companies often had political claims on trade or even on territories, but in the economically and politically most developed parts of Asia such claims were illusory. In northern India, East India companies had to work in accordance with the Mughal Empire until its demise in the 18th century. The latter gave EIC the opportunity to seize colonial power in Bengal and to slowly expand its power over the rest of the Indian subcontinent. In East Asia, East India Companies had to adapt to hegemonic Asian states. East India Companies did not gain access to China until the 18th century, but their presence was restricted to the Port of Canton.25 In Japan, the Shogun severely restricted the European presence. Only Dutch and Asian merchants were allowed to visit the country, with VOC's presence being restricted to a small artificial island in the Bay of Nagasaki.26 VOC briefly enforced a colonial claim on the island of Formosa, where it set up a sugar plantation with the help of Chinese entrepreneurs. However, the last remnants of the army and navy of the Ming dynasty put an end to VOC's prerogatives when they took control of the island.27 In the Arabian seas, little was also achieved politically, as local rulers were powerful enough to resist European demands.
In many ways, European powers were late to enter the competition for Asian goods. Nonetheless, the ultimate result was that they found new ways to exert control over the production of these commodities, either through political enforcement in Asia or by bringing production under their control in Europe or Asia. Asia's strong position was supplanted by Europe with the advent of slave plantations in the Americas or in European colonies in Asia, which started to produce Asian commodities such as sugar, coffee, tea, and cotton. European textiles replaced Asian textiles when they were manufactured by machines in European factories.
East India Companies and Intra-Asian trade
Depicting East India company trade as a simple exchange of silver for Asian goods ignores the complexity of the European commercial and political interactions. In fact, silver exports to Asia did more than serve to finance return cargoes for Europe directly. When the silver arrived in Asia, East India Companies or European private traders, who otherwise would not have been considered worthwhile partners, used it to obtain other Asian goods. The latter, in contrast to European goods, had market potential on Asian markets, where they could be resold.28 Or private traders used intra-Asian trade to obtain silver in Asia, as VOC did in Japan with its own silver mines.
The most successful East India Companies used the profits from this intra-Asian trade to lower the cost of their trade with Europe, as well as for their military costs for protection and enforcement. Enforcement also allowed access to Asian goods below market prices, which meant opportunities in intra-Asian trade. The profits from the European commercial involvement in Asia limited the amount of silver needed from the Americas to solidify trade and helped sustain political alliances. Ultimately, the two most intrusive East India Companies even used their acquired income from the taxation of Asians to finance their return trips to Europe and their intra-Asian trade. For instance, the English East India Company invested part of the income it had made from taxing Bengal and other regions that came under its control after 1757 in return cargoes and intra-Asian trade, while the Dutch East India company used its political power especially in the Indonesian archipelago to obtain goods at below market prices.
There are several examples in which the success of individual East India Companies in intra-Asian trade and their ability to command Asian commodities are viewed as key to beating out rival European competitors. The Dutch East India Company's intra-Asian trade in spices, over which it held some control, made it the most profitable East-India Company and gave it a decisive advantage over the European competition in the 17th century and early 18th century. It also secured VOC's incredibly widespread network of intra-Asian trade throughout its existence.29 It had already been claimed that the right granted to conduct "country trade" for employees of EIC – a different strategy than VOC-monopoly on intra-Asian trade –, helped to establish English dominance in trade and empire.30 The truth is probably more straightforward: English country traders only became serious competitors when they got a hold of vast supplies of goods from India, including cotton and opium. These traders brought European commercial exchange within Asia to new levels, just as VOC had done earlier by monopolizing the trade with small spices and getting hold of sub-market priced pepper.31
However, the idea to engage in intra-Asian trade was not new. Asian merchants and Portuguese traders, partly of mixed descent, had in fact already commanded such trade networks. The idea of redirecting both European and Asian trade to suit individual needs also already existed long before the East India Companies arrived. Indeed, several Asian rulers and the Portuguese had tried to personalize trade at different points in time. The Dutch East India company and English country traders were only following in their footsteps, albeit in new and more extensive ways, while other East India Companies had fewer opportunities to pursue a similar strategy.
East India Companies dominated long-distance trade between Europe and Asia for two hundred years. The special charters they received from their home state allowed them to protect their trade and to build commercial and territorial empires in Asia. Apart from silver from the Americas, Europeans had little to offer to Asians, who, on the other hand, had ample commodities desired in Europe. Europeans used the profits of intra-Asian trade – selling Asian commodities to Asians with a profit – to partly finance their returns to Europe. To get a hold of these Asian commodities required an enforcement of trade that lowered the price of Asian commodities. Europeans moved beyond spice by introducing Indian textiles and Chinese tea in trade to Europe, leading to new rivalries for empire. Together with an increase in European participation in intra-Asian trade, this led to shifts in balances of power between East India Companies and between Europeans and Asians. Ultimately, the partial transfer of the manufacture of Asian products to Europe and the Americas meant the loss of trade's profitability for East India Companies, causing several to go bankrupt. The development towards territorial conquest instead of a continued concentration on trade at the end of the 18th century spelled the demise of the remaining East India Companies.