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The Swedish East India Company – background and business rationale

The Swedish East India Company (SEIC), established in 1731, was one of the smaller companies engaged in the Asian trade. In contrast to the English, Dutch, French or Danish the SEIC did not gain any more permanent footholds or colonies in India, in fact only 6 out of the 132 expeditions sent out from Sweden between 1731 and 1806 went to India. The success of the SEIC is instead to be found in its trade with China and in tea. All tea consumed in Europe came from China, and tea consumption increased exponentially in Europe in the eighteenth century. In Britain and the Dutch Republic tea became an every-day drink demanded by even the poorest consumer. In Britain, the foremost tea drinking nation of Europe, the importation of tea was taxed heavily. Not only did it provide the state with steady revenue, but it also created a lucrative market for smuggled tea originating from the cargoes of the Swedish and other East India companies operating from the continent.

When the SEIC was set up it was able to draw on know-how and funding streams of a previous East India venture based in Ostend, in the Southern part of the Low Countries. Starting in 1715 a group of wealthy merchant investors based in Antwerp and Ghent had begun trading with Asia and particularly China. In 1722 the General Indian Company was officially established and sanctioned by the Habsburg emperor Charles VI. The success of the company importing tea supplying the Dutch and the British market proved its downfall. The trade was banned due to the pressure the Dutch and British governments put on the Habsburg regime, which had ruled the Southern Netherlands since the Peace of Utrecht in 1713. The gain was only temporary as those engaged in the Ostend Company, many of whom came from Scotland, moved over to the Swedish Company.

The Scottish’s networks and knowhow were very important for getting the Swedish Company’s business going. The strong Scottish presence in the East India trade reflects conditions that were internal to Britain. The British trade with Asia was in the hands of the English East India Company (EIC) which was based in London. Scottish merchants were largely excluded from the trade of the EIC, as British subjects they were also banned from engaging in trade with Asia conducted elsewhere in Europe. In spite of this Scottish merchants, of whom several of them were also connected to the Jacobin resistance, sought their fortunes on the continent, in Ostend and once this trade came to a halt, in Gothenburg. The delicate political circumstances surrounding the establishment and running of the Swedish company meant great care was taken to safeguard the names of non-Swedes engaged in the Swedish trade with Asia, particularly those investing in it. The large bulk of accounts books and other material relating to the trade of the SEIC were destroyed once the accounts been settled.

Further reading:

  • Koninckx, Christian. The First and Second Charters of the Swedish East India Company, 1731–1766: A Contribution to the Maritime, Economic, and Social History of North-Western Europe in Its Relationships with the Far East. Kortrijk, Belgium: Van Ghemmert, 1980.
  • Kjellberg, Sven T. Svenska ostindiska compagnierna, 1731–1813: Kryddor, te, porslin, siden. 2d ed. Malmo, Sweden: Allhem, 1974.
  • Müller, Leos. “The Swedish East India Trade and International Markets: Re-exports of Teas, 1731–1813.” Scandinavian Economic History Review 51.3 (2003): 28–44.
  • Müller, Leos. “The Swedish East India Company: Strategies and Functions of an Interloper.” In Small Is Beautiful? Interlopers and Smaller Trading Nations in the Pre-Industrial Period: Proceedings of the XVth World Economic History Congress in Utrecht (Netherlands) 2009. Edited by Markus A. Denzel, Jan de Vries, and Philipp Robinson Rössner, Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 2011. pp. 73–93.