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Swedish East India Company

The Swedish East India company

(1731-1807)

Swedish East India CompanySilks, spices, tea and porcelain. These and other exotic products of China had been eagerly sought by Europeans since Roman times. But the land route through the Euroasian deserts along the "Silk Route" allowed only a trickle of Oriental products to reach the Western World. In the 16th century the sea route to the Orient was discovered. In the centuries that followed the seafaring nations of Europe vied for control of the China Trade. In the early 18th century, the collection of Oriental products became an obsession among the European aristocracy. Separate rooms and castles were built to display the collections of the most devout, such as Alexander the Strong of Saxony.
It was to be the end of the 17th century, or even the beginning of the 18th, before all the West European maritime powers were represented by companies on the new trade routes to the Far East. Smaller powers with access to the sea, such as Denmark, Sweden, the Austrian Netherlands and Prussia got the chance to make a name for themselves, next to the old powers of Spain and Portugal and to the new, strongly established England, the Dutch Republic and France, which meanwhile had expanded to become world empires.
In 1731 a Swedish East India Company was founded.

Swedish East India Company Not all the new companies were to be equally successful in their trading. The Swedish East India Company, established 1731 on the initiative of private merchants but with the caution of the central government, profited from the vain attempts of building new companies in some countries and from the short lived companies' existence in other as well. Both the Swedish and reformed Danish company were profiting from the vacuum created by the disappearance of the Austrian East India Company or commonly called Ostend Company because based in Ostend, itself dissolved under pressure from the great powers.

The companies ventured upon colonization, because for example, anyone who possessed settlements on the route to the Orient could revictual more easily during the passage, while those who did not, always had to go to their rivals or competitors to replenish their stocks of provisions or change their drinking water. If they intend to succeed, they had to work out schedules for quick and safe sailing routes and solve their own acute problems, especially when they were not always willing to depend upon their competitors. Even smaller companies tried to be represented both in India and in China in order to conduct trade there. It is plain that for smaller companies - and thus for smaller powers - the East was too far off and too vast in area for them to make an appearance everywhere on the trading scene.

Swedish East India CompanyThe Swedes drew the lesson from their unfortunate Ostend colleagues, whose company's presence, both in India and China, had probably had accelerated its collapse. After several somewhat unsuccessful experiments in Surat and Bengal, the Swedes specialized in the China trade. The ultimate option of the Swedes for an East Indian trade that forsook, whether deliberately or otherwise, every form of colonization, was to bring nothing but profit to the enterprise and to sustain its prosperity for almost a century. This characteristic attitude would not be without historical significance for the Swedish policy of neutrality in later centuries.

Nevertheless the trade with China was a difficult one. The Chinese regarded all foreigners with suspicion and contact with the "Foreign Devils" was severely restricted. Trading was allowed only in Canton and only under the supervision of Chinese "Hong" merchants. Foreign traders were not even permitted to live in Canton and could only visit their warehouses during the trading season.
Swedish East India Company Once trading was finished, the cargo was loaded - porcelain in bundles, tubs and wooden boxes cushioned with rice paddy or marketable goods such as gallingall, pepper, rice, sago, or tea, at the bottom for ballast, followed by chests of tea and finally the precious silks and spices.
The China Trade was a risky venture. Taxes, tributes, bribes and deceptions were rife. Storms, pirates, disease and rival traders were constant threats during the two-year round trip voyage from Europe. Most went well but sometimes disaster struck - as with the Gotheborg. Despite the risks, traders made huge profits for their companies, themselves and their countries.

 

A sailing route functioning by wind and ocean currents.

From Gothenburg on the west coast, the Swedish ships, just as their competitors leaving from Lorient, Amsterdam, London, Ostend, Copenhagen or Emden, tried to reach the zone of the northeast trades as quickly as possible so as to benefit from their favorable influence for the maximum length of time. For the East Indiamen set course for the northern coasts of South America, sailing via the Canary or Cape Verde Islands. The course of the first leg of the passage is reminiscent of the sailing routes of the expeditions of Christopher Columbus (1493-1500), Cabral (1500), Amerigo Vespucci (1497), Magellan (1519-1520) and Drake (1578). This is not wholly surprising, for this course answered to the most natural imperatives imposed on sailing ships by the trade wind system prevailing in the Atlantic Ocean. The route parallel with the coast of West Africa was always time-consuming because it was too dependent upon local winds.



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Author: Paulus Swaen 2017