Beginning with the Compagnie de Saint-Christophe (1626-1635), to the final Compagnie des Indes (1785-1793), many French companies benefited from privileged access to overseas commerce during the Ancien Régime.
Such privileges were in some cases restricted to a particular type of commodity, or to a specific region, such as the Compagnie des Îles d’Amérique (1635-1651); alternatively, they could yield access to expansive spaces and to a vast range of products. Apart from the final Compagnie des Indes, set up in 1785, these companies not only enjoyed privileges in the form of exclusive trade and tax exemptions, but could also receive state powers and colonising responsibilities. In their various guises, trade companies took part in the construction of an overseas French empire, contributing to its underlying violence as well as to the mobility of capital. Their exclusive privileges were often contested or circumvented.
In early modern France, a “company” was an association set up as a legal person, with responsibility for the public good and the right to determine its own internal rules, by virtue of royal acts, including letters patent. Whether it had a religious or scholarly vocation, or had some other purpose, such a corporation could, among other things, borrow money, own property, or file lawsuits. Companies whose vocation was maritime trade came into being in the 16th century. While a commercial partnership could assemble several individuals and their capital, to be dissolved after just one trading venture, a company could bring together investors for a longer, or even indeterminate period of time. In the form of shares, portions of capital could be transferred or withdrawn without endangering the overall enterprise. Traders saw this as a more suitable form of association given the risks and dangers of long-haul voyages, especially when it came to accessing potentially dangerous new trading routes. Sovereigns saw such associations as a source of power and money. As early as the early 17th century, large companies in North-Atlantic Europe became genuine weapons in trade wars, and sometimes in just plain war. Thanks to the privileges granted by sovereigns, they contested Iberian pretensions to vast monopolies, in the Americas as well as in Africa, and East of the Cape of Good Hope.
Convinced of the link between state power and trade growth, French authorities drew inspiration from ambitious English and Dutch models. The Cardinal de Richelieu, who became France’s Grandmaster, Chief and Superintendent General of Navigation and Commerce in 1626, commissioned translations of the charters of the English East India Company, founded in 1600, and above all of the Dutch East India Company (or VOC), which in 1602 united several pre-existing companies. Each of these entities was granted a national privilege to access vast spaces (“from the Cape of Good Hope as far as the Strait of Magellan”) in which Portuguese merchants already navigated. To sideline rivals and gain acceptance by political authorities in the Indian Ocean, the VOC obtained from the Dutch General Assembly the right to confiscate foreign vessels, to make war and peace, to form colonies and even to mint money. In 1621, the Dutch set up a similar company for the Atlantic area. From 1623 to 1636, its main profits resulted from seizing 545 Iberian ships.
The Company of One Hundred Associates (1627-1663) was initially the largest French chartered company for trading with the Americas. As with other companies, making profits was not its sole objective and it was an instrument for imperial expansion. As a corporation, it had to contribute to the public good. In the midst of a war with Spain and its vast colonial empire, the Company was tasked with populating French settlements at its own expense, and with turning Indigenous people into Catholics; its privileges included the “full ownership and seigneury” of the entire “country of New France from the coast of Florida to the Arctic circle, and from Newfoundland to all the new places where the French will travel.” It benefited from a definitive, exclusive control over the fur trade and, for a period of fifteen years, over “all other commerce,” with the notable exception (which turned out to be permanent) of fisheries. Its regalian rights were wide-ranging, but narrower than those of the VOC or of the Virginia Company. While it could build forts, exercise seigneurial justice and name governors, it remained firmly under the control of the King, and could not declare war or negotiate alliances.
Under Louis XIV’s reign, thirty-nine commercial companies came into being. Founded in 1664, the French West and East India Companies were the most heavily capitalised. They contributed to establishing a French presence in the worldwide circuits of African captives, Asian textiles, Iberian silver, sugar, tobacco and coffee. With a capital of 15 million livres, the East India Company was the only one to survive the reign of Louis XIV. The main objective of the West India Company, with a capital of 5.5 million livres, half of which was provided by the crown, and the rest by officials, was to stop the Dutch from trading in the Antilles. It was accorded in full “justice, property and seigneury” all the French possessions in the Americas and obtained the right to conduct trade exclusively for 40 years in the “islands and hinterlands of America,” including Cayenne and its environs, which had previously been in the hands of the Compagnie de la France Équinoxiale; it also gained the rights of the Compagnie du Cap Vert et du Sénégal, which used to trade exclusively from Cape Verde to the Cape of Good Hope. Among other things, the Company obtained the right to establish Sovereign Councils. Its founding edict also imposed the Custom of Paris throughout its possessions. It was dissolved in 1674. Some of its privileges, including those associated with New France, were to be recovered by the new Domaine d’Occident tax farm. West Indian commerce was open to private tradesmen at a fee. African commerce, including the slave trade, was initially in the hands of the Compagnie du Sénégal, before becoming accessible to private merchants.
France’s overseas trade companies reached a short-lived apotheosis under the regency. John Law’s Company of the Indies sought to “perpetually” unite all the great overseas French companies: the Compagnie d’Occident, founded in 1717, with a monopoly for 25 years over Canadian beaver fur and trade with Louisiana, was gradually merged with the Compagnie de Saint-Domingue (which, since 1698, had been the sole source of slaves for the colony, and was intended to develop its activities in the south-west of the island, where contraband dominated), the Compagnie du Sénégal, the Compagnie d’Afrique (with posts in Algiers and Tunis), the Compagnie de la Chine, and the Compagnie des Indes Orientales. Linked to Law’s new Banque royale, this giant company acquired the State’s fiscal and monetary functions: the exclusive right to collect direct and indirect taxes, mint coins, or issue paper money. In Louisiana, as in the Indian Ocean, the company governed directly, attempting to transform the Mississippi Valley into a plantation society. Half the French and German colonists recruited by the Company perished. The mortality rate was even more catastrophic among the enslaved.
John Law’s perpetual Company of the Indies was broken up in 1721, after a dramatic drop in the value of its shares. But a reduced variant lasted until 1769. Its main source of trade was Asia, but it kept its Atlantic commerce, including the monopoly over the sale of tobacco in France and over the exportation of Canadian beaver furs. It also obtained the exclusive right to import essential British textiles for trade with Indigenous people. The Company retained ownership of Louisiana until the aftermath of the Natchez War. The colony was then retroceded to the crown in 1731. The Company of the Indies also held on to posts on the coasts of West Africa. Its monopolies over the slave trade and the supplying of Saint-Domingue were then strongly contested, especially during the rebellion of 1722-1724.
Published in may 2021
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