In this article we look at how one of the earliest, and most successful early English far-afield trading enterprises shows us the messy reality of the stuttering start of the creation of the Company form.

Entrepreneurs some 400 years ago not only had to contend with changing business formats but businesses in which there was a high chance not just of losing your entire cargo and your life but, in the case of the Levant Company, being enslaved en route. Business can be tough today but it is never that tough! For all the challenges that entrepreneurs in London face today they can give thanks that they were not in London centuries ago.

The Turkey Company was incorporated in 1581. Whether this was as a “regulated company” (a souped-up Guild where merchants traded on their own account) or an early form of Company (where the member merchants traded on a joint account) is not clear which is in itself instructive.

When the Turkey Company merged with the Venice Company in 1592 the resulting Levant Company was a “joint-stock” Company per se, although that phrase does not mean what you might expect. However within a few years it “de-corporatised” and reverted back to a traditional separate-trading Guild-like model.

What does this tell us of the early decades of the Company format? We also cover what happened before dividends existed and when joint-stock meant something rather different from what you might imagine today.


The Formation of the Levant Company

In subsequent articles on the Levant Company we shall examine the market conditions that drove the evolution of new business-vehicle forms and the challenge of getting permission to trade at one’s destination – no easy problem to solve centuries ago and one which led to engagements with the monarch and her foreign policy objectives.

Levant in passing comes form the Italian levante and refers to – as seen from Italy – the east, the lands of the rising sun ie the East Mediterranean. It was used more or less broadly in different contexts. “Turkey” as in the country (etymology “Land of the Turks) was more frequently simply synonymous with the Ottoman Empire. Interestingly the edible fowl, the turkey is connected to the Levant Company [2].

Fast-forwarding over the complexities of the preceding decades, indeed centuries of trade with the Levant and why the following happened, in 1581 Elizabeth granted a Charter, a patent (they’ve “patented a new route”) to four merchants extensible to include no more than 20 partners granting them a seven-year monopoly of English trade with Turkey and its dominions:

“…whereby many good offices may be done for the peace of Christendom, relief of Christian slaves, and good vent for the commodities of the realm, to the advancement of her honour and dignity, the increase of her revenue, and of the general wealth of the realm.” [3]

In payment they were required to import/export sufficient goods to pay customs duties to the English government of £500 in 6 out of the 7 years. Converting sums of money centuries ago to an approximation of the current value is subject to the huge compounding impact of differing assumptions; measuringworth.com states that £500 in 1581 is equivalent to a median estimate today in the millions. This was a substantial amount for a startup (as the value of the goods would be a large multiple of course of the duties paid in London), even one with a monopoly.

The Turkey Company raised the grand sum of £40,000 from merchants (~hundreds of millions now) with a further £40,000 loan in the form of 10,000 lb of silver from Elizabeth in 1582 repayable over 5 yrs. The Company was run by a Governor, although the detailed governance processes are not explicit.

As well as the costs of English duty and substantial costs of doing business with the Ottoman Empire the dire business risks had not gone away and one of the first ships and its cargo sent out in 1583 by the Company to Tripoli in Barbary (~north-west coast of Africa) was confiscated and the crew enslaved (the Bishop of London had been one of the few objectors to the incorporation of the Turkey Company on the grounds that it would lead to more Englishmen being taken as slaves).

Far-off trading centuries ago was super-complex. A notable how-to manual of the time was written by Lewis Roberts who served both the East India Company and the Levant Company in Constantinople, exclusive employment clearly not being such A Thing back then. On his return to England, Roberts became a member of both organizations and a director of the Levant Company. In 1638 he published “The Merchants Mappe of Commerce”:

“in which he set out to provide an exhaustive guide to the world’s trade for the benefit of the young merchant. He dealt in turn with each of the four known continents, putting the trade with America first as being “the least and worst knowne.” In this most painstaking and comprehensive of manuals, Roberts described the geography of each continent, the location of the principal cities and centres of commerce and the peculiarities of the methods of trade in each. He also advised on the techniques of business and revealed an intimate knowledge of the intricacies of trade in the early 17th century.” [4]


Merging the Turkey and Venice Companies To Produce The Levant Company

The trade situation with Venice was highly complex. The following is a relatively pithy précis of the background to the 1583 Chartering of the Venice Company:

“In 1575, as an episode in the long tariff war with Venice, Elizabeth had granted to Acerbo Velutelli, an Italian of Lucca resident in England, and to others a monopoly for ten years of goods imported from Venice. The monopolists at once enforced this concession by obliging the native Venetian merchants who traded with England to pay heavy impositions on all goods brought in without their licence; and in retaliation the Venetian government laid similar duties on English commodities shipped to the territories of the Republic and an export duty on currants and wine taken away on foreign vessels. The English merchants who traded with Venice were badly hit both by the patent [ie the monopoly] and by the new Venetian tariff, but in 1582 they bought out Velutelli and rescinded the monopoly. Venice, however, failed to withdraw her counter-measures ; so in the following year (1583) the queen granted to the English traders to Venice a patent for six years giving them the sole right to import currants, wines, and oil from the Venetian dominions, unless in the meantime the Signory repealed its hostile tariffs.” [5]

The Venice Company’s 1583 Charter led to friction with the Turkey Company:

“This so-called ‘Venice Company’ overlapped and trespassed upon the activities of the Levant merchants. Both bodies carried out similar cargoes ; both imported wines, currants, cotton, and silks ; both coveted admission to each other’s monopoly; and the outcome was competition and friction.” [5]

By an accident of fate both the Turkey and the Venice Company Charters needed renewing within a few months, the Levant Company’s in September 1588 and the Venice Company’s in April 1589. Upon its 1588 Charter expiration the Levant Company made no effort to re-apply but continued to trade and maintain their existing infrastructure – something they surely could only have done with State connivance. They waited until the summer of 1589 to apply for a renewal as did the Venice Company. The Turkey Company favoured uniting the two companies in what would be the first corporate merger, the Venice Company favoured a continuation of separate Charters.

Then as now mergers of large Companies are matters in which the State is heavily involved. These days everything is institutionalised and key players in the UK being the PTM (Panel for Takeovers and Mergers) and the CMA (Competition and Markets Authority) and no doubt more (at least the situation has moved on from when candidate MP Lord Sutch asked the question of how come there is only Monopolies and Mergers Commission (the forerunner of the CMA).

Back in the 16thC government was less legalised (no Company Law back then), less quangoised – indeed simply wasn’t quangoised – hadn’t yet invented the major form of such same the TLA (Three Letter Acronym) and was altogether more human in the shape of Elizabeth’s advisor Burghley. Mind you timescales were also leisurely as he considered the matter for a year until a consensus arose/emerged/was created and in the summer of 1590 a petition, signed by members of both Companies, was presented to the government asking for joint incorporation. Notably, as it would transpire, there were significant protestations from merchants who would not be included in the new entity.

Once again discussions and negotiations took a considerable period of time – just as today, merger negotiations which might appear simple on paper often end up being lengthy and complex in practice. These lasted until an agreement was reached late in 1591. Finally a Charter was granted in 1592, lasting for twelve years, to form “The Governor and Company of Merchants of the Levant” to 53 named merchants with 20 more having an option to join within two months. All members had to pay an admission fee (once again totally A Guild Thing) of a non-trivial £130 each. Scope for further enlargement was also allowed by a provision for the admission of duly qualified factors and apprentices.

Twelve members were chosen to be “Assistants” to the Governor, Directors in our terms but the difference in vocabulary is instructive, as is the unitary leadership – no separation of “Chairman” and “CEO” – times contrary to what Cadbury, who mandated a separation of top roles, thought. Assistants would hold office for the length of the Charter, their life or until poor behaviour which would render them liable to be removed.

Interestingly the Barbary Company or Marocco (sic) Company which also had overlapping operations in the Mediterranean (although a principal focus on the Atlantic coast) was not included in this new Levant Company. This is perhaps as the merger was complex enough as it was. The Barbary Company had been chartered as a regulated company (ie Guild++) in 1585 for twelve years, principally trading English cloth for Moroccan sugar. Its merchants ended up trading for the Levant Company which led to the commercial decline of the Barbary Company.


The Twin Challenges Of Too Many And Too Few Historical Records

Naturally having too few extant records about the past is a perennial problem for historians, if only more documents had survived we would see through a glass less darkly. This definitely afflicts our understanding of 16thC Chartered Companies with one of the earliest, the Muscovy Company, chartered in 1553, having all its primary records destroyed in the Great Fire of London of 1666, where we thus are forced to rely on contemporary secondary sources.

The Levant Company in contras has plenty of extant documentation even if scanty on some key areas as we shall see. However this is a useful opportunity to point out the practical challenge that having too much information poses alongside the challenge of too little.

Perhaps the only single volume text on the Levant Company is Wood 1935 [5] which is blessedly free of the pervasive 21stC sin of approaching the past with an agenda and all too often judging rather than explaining. Wood includes some ten pages of bibliography including several pages referencing primary data such as State papers. As he outlines at the beginning of his preface there is an almost unending supply of potential material:

“This account of the Levant Company does not claim to be exhaustive. On such a subject, covering a vast tract of years and touching so many aspects of national life, it would be possible to go on amassing relevant material almost indefinitely, and I am well aware of the many points at which I have stopped short; but inclinations must bow to lack of time and opportunity. It would, indeed, have been easy, even with the material actually collected, to have made this work much longer, but a firm belief in the blessedness of brevity and the financial problem of publication have combined to encourage me to jettison ruthlessly. My aim throughout has been merely to suggest the many-sided importance of the Company’s work.”

The principal challenge of excess data is that it has not been fully-mined and thus we have no definitive, full account.

Whilst we might imagine that this could in principle, were we to so wish it, be addressed by sufficient resources, when it comes to the East India Company a full account is literally impossible no matter what reasonable level of resource is brought to bear. As author John Keay, whose ~500pp 1991 oeuvre (”The Honourable Company”) took him five years to write, says that it would take more than one lifetime to compile the history of the East India Company from its voluminous records.

Together with the post-EIC (post 1858) governmental records of the India Office the public records in the British Library cover 14 kilometers! It is generally agreed that in the early centuries there are more surviving records on the EIC than on the English/British State and I’ve seen an estimate that the EIC’s primary records were they to be one one shelf would be 10km long… Putting that into some context it would take around two hours to merely walk the length of the primary records shelf without even having the time to read the volume titles on the spines. It would literally be impossible for any single human being to read it all.

Furthermore this 10km shelf is just the EIC’s own records and does not include secondary works about them. To take one example Sir William Foster wrote “The English Factories [ie overseas trading posts] 1618-69”. A fascinating volume to take on holiday you might imagine.

But it’s not one volume, it’s thirteen volumes which took him twenty-one years to write. Not only that but the volumes are basically bibliographies, mere indices to documents! A British Library bibliography which is “merely” a list of publications about the EIC written between the years 1786 and 1858 runs to 400pp.

In practice all one can hope to achieve with these challenges is to be able to take a slice through the data looking from a certain perspective. Even then as we shall see the slice contains Swiss Cheese-like holes.


Was The Levant Company A Company?

Epstein [6] writes in 1908 that the early Turkey Company (the interchangeable usage of the words Turkey/Levant persisted) was a regulated company ie a souped-up Guild. Scott, who wrote the state of the art three volumes on the early joint-stock companies [8], in reviewing Epstein [7] praises him most notably for having uncovered new sources of information including the Court Books (ie “Board Minutes”) from 1605 onwards. The use of the phrase Court Books is illuminating in showing that the template for governing the Company was based on template for governing the State. Scott on the other hand takes Epstein to task for accepting the historic understanding (eg as documented by Cawston 1896 [9]) uncritically, namely that the Turkey Company was a regulated Company saying that “there is almost indisputable evidence” in favour of it having been a joint-stock.

Scott in his 1910 oeuvre gives his evidence which definitely tilts in that direction but, were I to be a barrister taking this case to court, I would be rather nervous as to what the other side had as their evidence. Scott’s case includes only a few tangential pieces of evidence including as key a reply to a marginalia written on a document by Burghley.

Wood, in 1935, writes:

“The wording of the letters patent was ambiguous about the actual organization of the Company and might be interpreted to cover either a joint stock or a regulated undertaking, but the evidence proves that in its early days the trade was conducted upon a joint-stock basis.”

Interestingly back to interest in company governance and company structure not being much of A Thing even a century ago this is his only reference to this matter barring a footnote to the above in which he writes:

“Company’s letter to the Aleppo Factors, June 1586, from which it is clear that the Company was then buying and trading as a unit. In a petition of 1591 the members stated that the trade had hitherto been carried on by a joint stock… I am unable to say whether the joint stock was wound up and the profits divided at the end of each voyage, as was the practice in the early days of the East India Company, or whether it was allowed to run on without interruption for the duration of the charter.”

Note whilst in our time we might automatically take “joint stock” to refer to capital in its historic usage it would refer not to liabilities (the word capital was not to appear for decades) but to assets, the cargo, the jointly-owned stock that made it back to England in the ships. This stock would then be physically divided between the investors in a division.

Such divisions preceded the later financialisation which replaced them with a financial payment – a dividend – when the Company first sold the jointly-owned stock on the merchants’ behalf. The EIC’s “candle auctions” were a good example of this process when the best bid before a candle burned out won the auction. Dividend comes from the Latin gerundive dividendum “to be divided” – the final auction proceeds being a sum to be divided between those who owned the joint-stock. A modern company will still “declare a dividend” ie a sum of money to be divided (in the future) between the shareholders.

The one point none of the above esteemed authors remark upon is that folks always document what they deem important – especially in these huge financial transactions. Thus, for example, there is no doubt to whom the Charter is granted, for how long, the terms of grant, the powers conveyed, that it is run by a Governor and so forth.

So the instructive dog that doesn’t bark here – and thereby reveals essential information – is the lack of clarity over precise format. It clearly wasn’t that important in those times otherwise it too would have been well documented. Furthermore flexibility was no doubt useful as the new business form was evolving, adapting and adopting to new circumstances.

Early companies were membership organisations and as we see with the better-documented EIC, from 1600 onwards different voyages would be funded by different groups of members. In principal with the less capital-intensive Levant trade – which had been historically conducted by the odd wealthy sole-trader – it is perfectly possible that a member trying to raise a syndicate of fellow members to fund a voyage, especially after a catastrophe such as the capture of the prior voyage, would fail and end up having to fund it himself. In the period 1589-90 when the Turkey Company charter had lapsed there is evidence [5] that members were trading individually in the Levant.

Whatever the precise details the Levant Company was not alone in having incorporated in the new-fangled form later de-converting from being a joint-stock company.



Old habits clearly die hard and the Turkey/Levant Company, to use simplified vocabulary, “wasn’t a Company for very long”:

“…recently published correspondence of John Sanderson proves that by 1595 members of the Company were trading independently on a regulated basis… By then the merchants in London had their separate factors in the Levant and each individual adventured his own stock. Sanderson himself represented William Garraway, while at Aleppo George Dorrington, who figures in his letters, served Sir John Spencer; and in 1599 the factors actually refused to pay an additional consulage ordered by the Company on the ground that they had no orders from their masters to do so. At Aleppo there is mention of cloth being sent for sale by men ‘that have commission from their masters or els are sufficient of themselves’, and Sanderson’s own business speculations show that a member of the Company was free to have a ‘flutter’ in silk or any other commodity entirely according to inclination. The resolution of the Company in 1598 imposing the additional levy mentioned above on ‘every trader into the parts of Turkie’ is in itself sufficient proof that the cargoes then being shipped were not traded on a joint stock. Exactly when or why the change from a joint stock to a regulated basis took place it is impossible to say.” [5]

It is another topic for another time but as per the cliché all change creates winners and losers and the change from Guild to Company created plenty of losers who felt excluded and thus busied themselves undermining the new-fangled Company. Thus the Spanish Company, chartered in 1530 for trade with Spain but weakened by the generally hostile English relations with the Iberian peninsular, was basically mugged by free traders lobbying parliament and fell apart by 1606. The Company per se was certainly no overnight success as a format.

In the case of the Levant Company it was only a few years after its inception before if fully reverted to being a regulated company. Interlopers – private individuals who trade without worrying that someone else has a Charter – proved difficult to control and Scott presents indirect evidence that there might have been a parallel regulated Company trading in the same area in the late 16thC. If private individuals at times ignored Charters then so occasionally did monarchs, Elizabeth’s successor James I for example allowing Michelbourne to go off on his own voyage of discovery to the east indies which included plundering the EIC’s customers.



Platonic abstraction, using terms such as “Company”, or indeed many nouns, is very nice and tidy but reality is always messy, always fluid and does not neatly conform to fixed cookie-cutter categories.

What we regard as a kind of given, an absolute – the existence of the Company format – was not always so and some early Companies gave up the unequal struggle and reverted to early, more stable business formats especially when the Company form was not far evolved from earlier forms and when it was flexible enough to include significant mutation of de facto business practice within a given Charter.

Much later in the 19thC there were all sorts of twists and turns as to what a Company would become. The whole evolution of what we now take for granted as a nigh-on fixed absolute was a historically contingent process.

To put it in simpler more sci-fi terms, in parallel universes there are Earths in which Companies do not exist and others in which Companies look rather different. It would be interesting to be able to view the impact on society of the differing evolutionary paths taken in these parallel worlds. Which business format would prove to be the most pro-social? Certainly in our world there is much anti-social behaviour that takes place under the rubric of Company – especially the format later developed whereby the Company is a wrapper which protects a person from incurring the full consequences of their actions which they would otherwise incur without being wrapped in a corporate vehicle.

The contingent nature of the Company is a salutary message when we consider the challenges presented to society today by the MegaTech companies. These are simply the latest incarnation of the vast monopolising of new market niches and business possibilities that inevitably arises every few centuries upon great changes in the business environment.

As much now as centuries ago the Company format is subject to pressures, demands and challenges. There is, I would argue, little difference between then and now in this regard. The only thing that is different is that in an article like this we can fast forward through the past decades at a time whereas we experience today one day at a time. Change however is the only constant and it is a moot point how writers four centuries from now will view us and our business formats, how much they will have changed and how much will have to have changed.



[1] English can be a perverse language as this process of de-listing, taking something out of public ownership is often referred to as “taking it private”. However privatisation refers to moving State-owned assets in to public ownership. As American English would put it, “Go figure!”

[2] Simple explanation – the Levant Company imported turkeys from the Levant and they became very popular in 16thC England. In his 1755 dictionary, Samuel Johnson defined the turkey as a “large domestic fowl brought from Turkey”. More complex explanations we don’t need to address revolve around confusion between similar looking (perhaps more so at the time) guinea fowl and turkeys (the latter coming from the Americas). Interestingly the turkey is allegedly known in Turkey as hindi – India/Indian (with a similar logic, naming an exotic bird by its country of origin although I wonder if it is guinea fowl which is native to India), which is echoed in the French coq d’Inde (which is AFAIK a guinea fowl). In Portuguese turkey is a “Peru bird,” and in Malay, it’s apparently a “Dutch chicken”.

[3] 1581 Charter extract from ‘The British Chamber of Commerce of Turkey: levantineheritage.com/note52.htm

[4] Dictionary of Canadian Biography

[5] Wood “A History of the Levant Company” 1935 (republished 1964)”

[6] Epstein “The Early History Of The Levant Company” 1908

[7] The Economic Journal, Volume 18, Issue 72, 1 December 1908

[8] Scott “The Constitution and Finance of English, Scottish, and Irish Joint-Stock Companies to 1720 [Volume 2/3]” 1910

[9] Cawston “The Early Chartered Companies (A.D. 1296-1858)” 1896