The French Revolution of the Compagnie des Indes: Shareholder Rights and Revolutionary Ideology, 1790-1793

Elizabeth Cross

This paper explores the history of the last French East India Company during the French Revolution.  Chartered by royal decree in April 1785, its monopoly on the East Indies trade was revoked by the National Assembly in April 1790.  The revocation led to a debate among the directors and shareholders about whether to liquidate the company or continue operating, at the core of which were legal and practical questions about the nature of corporate structure and governance.  Could the company continue to legitimately exist without a royal privilege?  If so, from whom did authority over the company derive?  In answering these questions, the shareholders of the Company leaned upon Jacobin concepts of sovereignty and the inviolability of property in order to argue that the company, like the French nation, could only be legitimately governed with the consent of its citizen-shareholders and not by the arbitrary will of the King’s ministers or their own directors.  Through their – short-lived – success in legally and publically defending these claims, the story of the Compagnie des Indes demonstrates how French Revolutionary ideology could be constructive, rather than just destructive, of property rights, by transforming a royally chartered monopoly company into a strikingly modern private enterprise.