|Predecessor||The Venice Company and the Turkey Company|
|Successor||Duke of Leeds, Stratford Canning|
|Founder||Sir Edward Osborn|
Number of locations
|Various across Europe and Near East|
|Products||Rum and spices; cloth: cottons and woollens, kerseys, indigo, gall, camlet; tin, pewter, maroquin, soda ash.|
|Services||Trade and commerce|
|Joint-stock capital company|
Number of employees
|Divisions||Turkish, Levantine, Venetian littoral|
The Levant Company was an English chartered company formed in 1592. Elizabeth I of England approved its initial charter on 11 September 1581 when the Venice Company (1583) and the Turkey Company (1581) merged, because their charters had expired, as she was anxious to maintain trade and political alliances with the Ottoman Empire. Its initial charter was good for seven years and was granted to Edward Osborne, Richard Staper, Thomas Smith and William Garret with the purpose of regulating English trade with the Ottoman Empire and the Levant. The company remained in continuous existence until being superseded in 1825. A member of the company was known as a Turkey Merchant.
The origins of the Levant Company lay in the Italian trade with Constantinople, and the wars against the Turk in Hungary, although a parallel was routed to Morocco and the Barbary Coast on a similar trade winds as early as 1413. The collapse of the Venetian empire, high tariffs, the ousting of the Genoese from Scio (Chios) had left a vacuum that was filled by a few intrepid adventurers in their own cog vessels with endeavour to reopen trade with the East on their own accounts. Following a decline in trade with the Levant over a number of decades, several London merchants petitioned Queen Elizabeth I in 1580 for a charter to guarantee exclusivity when trading in that region. In 1580 a treaty was signed between England and the Ottoman Empire, giving English merchants trading rights similar to those enjoyed by French merchants. In 1582 William Harborne, an English merchant who had carried out most of the treaty negotiations in Constantinople to French protestations, made himself permanent envoy. But by 1586 Harborne was appointed 'Her Majesty's ambassador' to the Ottoman Empire, with all his expenses (including gifts given to the Sultan and his court) to be paid by the Levant Company. When the charters of both the Venice Company and the Turkey Company expired, both companies were merged into the Levant Company in 1592 after Queen Elizabeth I approved its charter as part of her diplomacy with the Ottoman Empire.
The Company had no colonial aspirations, but rather established "factories" (trading centers) in already-established commercial centers, such as the Levant Factory in Aleppo, as well as Constantinople, Alexandria and Smyrna. Throughout the Company's history, Aleppo served as headquarters for the whole company in the Middle East. By 1588, the Levant Company had been converted to a regulated monopoly on an established trade route, from its initial character as a joint-stock company. The prime movers in the conversion were Sir Edward Osborne and Richard Staper.
In January 1592, a new charter was granted and by 1595 its character as a regulated company had become clear. In the early days of the company there were threats not just from Barbary pirates but during the war with Spain in 1586, 1590 and 1591 they successfully repelled Spanish galleys in attempts to capture their cargo. The Company as a result though had heavily armed ships, some of which were surrendered to the Royal Navy and were used during the Spanish Armada campaign.
James I (1603-25) renewed and confirmed the company's charter in 1606, adding new privileges. However he engaged in a verbal anti-Turk crusade and neglected direct relations with the Turks. The government did not interfere with trade, which expanded. Especially profitable was the arms trade as the Porte modernized and re-equipped its forces. Of growing importance was textile exports. Between 1609 and 1619, the export of cloth to the Turks increased from 46% to 79% of total cloth exports. The business was highly lucrative. Piracy continued to be a threat. Despite the anti-Ottoman rhetoric of the king, commercial relations with the Turks expanded. The king's finances were increasingly based on the revenues derived from this trade, and English diplomacy was complicated by this trade. For example, James refused to provide financial support to Poland for its war against the Turks.
During the English Civil War (1642-1651), some innovations were made in the government of the company, allowing many people to become members who were not qualified by the charters of Elizabeth and James, or who did not conform to the regulations prescribed. Charles II, upon his restoration, endeavored to set the company upon its original basis; to which end, he gave them a charter, containing not only a confirmation of their old one, but also several new articles of reformation.
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By the charter of Charles II, the company was erected into a body politic, capable of making laws, etc., under the title of the Company of Merchants of England trading to the Seas of the Levant. The number of members was not limited, but averaged about 300. The principal qualification required was that the candidate be a wholesale merchant, either by family, or by serving an apprenticeship of seven years. Those under 25 years of age paid 25 pounds sterling at their admission; those above, twice as much. Each made an oath, at his entrance, not to send any merchandise to the Levant, except on his own account; and not to consign them to any but the company's agents, or factors. The company governed itself by a plurality of voices.
The company had a court, or board at London, composed of a governor, sub-governor, and twelve directors, or assistants; who were all actually to live in London, or the suburbs. They also had a deputy-governor, in every city and port where there were any members of the company. This assembly at London sent out the vessels, regulated the tariff for the price at which the European merchandise sent to the Levant were to be sold; and for the quality of those returned. It raised taxes on merchandise, to defray impositions, and the common expense of the company; presented the ambassador, which the King was to keep at the port; elected two consuls for Smyrna and Constantinople, etc. As the post of ambassador to the Sublime Porte became increasingly important, the Crown had to assume control of the appointment.
One of the best regulations of the company was not to leave the consuls, or even the ambassador, to fix the impositions on the vessels for defraying the common expenses--something that was fatal to the companies of most other nations--but to allow a pension to the ambassador and consuls, and even to the chief officers--including the chancellor, secretary, chaplain, interpreters, and janissaries--so that there was no pretence for their raising any sum at all on the merchants or merchandises. It was true that the ambassador and consul might act alone on these occasions, but the pensions being offered to them on condition of declining them, they chose not to act.
In extraordinary cases, the consuls, and even ambassador himself, had recourse to two deputies of the company, residing in the Levant, or if the affair be very important, assemble the whole nation. Here were regulated the presents to be given, the voyages to be made, and every thing to be deliberated; and on the resolutions here taken, the deputies appointed the treasurer to furnish the required funds. The ordinary commerce of this company employed from 20 to 25 vessels, of between 25 and 30 pieces of cannon.
The merchandises exported there were limited in quality and range, suggesting an imbalance of trade; they included traditional cloths, especially shortcloth and kerseys, tin, pewter, lead, pepper, re-exported cochineal, black rabbit skins and a great deal of American silver, which the English took up at Cadiz. The more valuable returns were in raw silk, cotton wool and yarn, currants and "Damascus raisins", nutmeg, pepper, indigo, galls, camlets, wool and cotton cloth, the soft leathers called maroquins, soda ash for making glass and soap, and several gums and medicinal drugs. Velvet, carpets, and silk were bought by the traders.
The commerce of the company to Smyrna, Constantinople, and ?skenderun, was much less considerable than that of the East India Company; but was, more advantageous to England, because it took off much more of the English products than the other, which was chiefly carried on in money.
The places reserved for the commerce of this company included all the states of Venice, in the Gulf of Venice; the state of Ragusa; all the states of the "Grand Signior" (the Sultan of Turkey), and the ports of the Levant and Mediterranean Basin; excepting Cartagena, Alicante, Barcelona, Valencia, Marseilles, Toulon, Genoa, Livorno, Civitavecchia, Palermo, Messina, Malta, Majorca, Menorca, and Corsica; and other places on the coasts of France, Spain, and Italy.
Ships owned by the Levant Company from 1581 to 1640:
The British government took over the Company in 1821 until its dissolution in 1825.
Membership began declining in the early eighteenth century. In its decline the Company was looked upon as an abuse, a drain on the resources of Britain. The Company's purview was thrown open to free trade in 1754, but continued its activities until dissolution in 1825.
The Levant Company encompassed American merchants before 1811 who bought Turkish opium. These merchants would sell the opium to the Chinese, beginning in 1806. Among these American Turkey merchants were members of the famous Astor family.
The arms of the Levant Company were: Azure, on a sea in base proper, a ship with three masts in full sail or, between two rocks of the second, all the sails, pennants, and ensigns argent, each charged with a cross gules, a chief engrailed of the third, in base a seahorse proper. * The crest was: On a wreath of the colours, a demi seahorse saliant.