Timetable of Legal History logoOn December 31, 1600, the British monarch granted a 15 year monopoly to a group of 216 nobles and an assortment of traders in regards to any and all trade with the "Indies", essentially the modern-days states of China, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Nepal, Sri Lanka, the Maldives, and also Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Brunei, Singapore, the Philippines, East Timor, Malaysia and Indonesia.

It was not the first such company - a Russia Company had been formed in 1553. Similarly, for centuries, municipalities, universities, religious institutions and regional governments had been enabled by a succession of English kings and queens to exercise separate legal powers under the banner of corporations.

But the East India Company started a succession of corporations designed to finance exploration and promote trade with England. Other companies soon followed: the Virginia Company in 1609, the Bermuda Company in 1612, the New England Company of 1620 and the Hudson's Bay Company in 1670. In the result, these common law innovations promoted the refinement of corporations law to what we know today.

The East India Company charter was granted by Elizabeth I. Her interest was to control access to customs on exports and imports from China and India, without having to commit any money from the Royal treasury for the ships, supplies and sailing staff.

The formal name was Governor and Company of Merchants of London Trading into the East Indie but it soon became known by a variety of names including:

  • East India Company;
  • East India Trading Company;
  • English East India Company; and
  • British East India Company.

In 1609, James I renewed the monopoly indefinitely until and unless it was unprofitable for three consecutive years.

The East India Company was not only one of the first recorded use in English law of the structure and independent legal personality of a corporation, but it quickly became a significant political player in India. The Company took over large parcels of land in India and imposed company rule on the inhabitants. It created an army to protect its interests and is credited with changing the official language of India from Persian to English.

After rebellion broke out in India in the second half of the 1800s, the British government first absorbed, then, in 1874, dissolved the company, but not before a private club had opened its doors in London, the East India Club which had as a criteria of membership, persons who had served as officers of the company in India, or who had been solicitor or barrister of the company. Notable members have included Winston Churchill and Sebastien Coe.