Al Gore and the World’s Oldest Corporation

Earlier this year, Al Gore published The Future. Six Drivers of Global Change (New York, 2013), his latest book on what the future holds for planet Earth. In it, Gore outlines what he believes are the processes that will determine the future course of human existence. It is an interesting, as well as dystopian, read.

The reason for this post, however, is not for me to comment on Gore’s views on climate change or global development. As an historian who was written a dissertation and a number of research articles on Scandinavian medieval and early-modern history, one statement made by Gore gives me reason to discuss, from a Swedish perspective, the historical development of what dominates the world today. I am talking about the historical development of corporations.

In The Future, Gore states:
“The longest running corporation was created in Sweden in 1347, though the legal form did not become common until the seventeenth century, when the Netherlands and the United Kingdom allowed a proliferation of corporate charters, especially for the exploitation of trade to and from their new overseas colonies.”
(p. 105–106)

From an historical point of view there are three points in this passage that need to be discussed.

First, the statement that a corporation was founded in Sweden in 1347. When I first read this I was genuinely confused. If a corporation had been founded in Sweden in 1347, I would have known about it since the king of Sweden at the time, Magnus Eriksson, is a person whose reign I am very familiar with. What on Earth was Gore talking about? I went to the notes section of The Future and discovered a reference to an article published in TIME Magazine in 1963. The article in question discusses the copper mine at Falun, Sweden (Falu koppargruva). To find out about Magnus Eriksson’s part in the foundation of the mine, which during its peak-production years was responsible for two-thirds of the world’s copper extraction and is the reason why most buildings in the Swedish countryside are painted red, I then consulted the online database of medieval documents published by the Swedish National Archives. The result of that consultation showed that in 1347, Magnus Eriksson issued an official letter stating the terms for the labor organization among miners in the area. This letter is not a corporation charter. It is a ratification of local mining activity that can be traced as far back as the 11th century. Moreover, this is far from the first time the mine is mentioned in Swedish medieval documents.

Overall, during the Middle Ages it is not possible to speak of the type of corporation here implied by Gore. In the city states of Northern Italy there were financial organizations that displayed traits that would later appear in corporations of capitalist societies, but in Sweden at the time, the economics of society were not sophisticated enough to reach even to that level. Moreover, the information that is available regarding the economic system of medieval Sweden is too scarce for us to be able to say anything valid regarding financial organizations and enterprises. Even the existence of guilds, seemingly the most medieval of all organizations, is being debated.

The second point that made me react when I read Gore’s statement was the phrase that this kind of corporation, of which Falun Copper Mine supposedly was one, did not become common until the seventeenth century in the Netherlands and the United Kingdom. What Gore is referring to here are in fact companies, which were common-place during the economic system of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, called mercantilism. Gore is correct in stating that the geopolitical entities today referred to as the Netherlands and the United Kingdom issued charters for companies in order to exploit colonies all over the world. For example, the first English colonies in North America were founded and run by a chartered companies.

However, these realms were not the only ones to issue colonial charters. In Sweden, the royal government issued several charters to various companies. The New Sweden Company (chartered in 1637) founded a short-lived colony on the Delaware River. The Africa Company (chartered in 1649) engaged in slave trade in present-day Ghana. The East India Company (chartered in 1731) traded with China and the West India Company (chartered in 1786) ran plantations on Saint-Barthélemy. However, Falun Copper Mine did not become a chartered company. Instead, the mine answered to a government department dedicated solely to mining, called Bergskollegium, which existed between 1637 and 1857.

The third point that needs to be discussed is the source of Gore’s information. Gore refers to an article with the title “Sweden: The Oldest Corporation in the World”, published in TIME Magazine on March 15, 1963. The article states exactly what Gore says, namely that Falun Copper Mine is the oldest corporation in the world and that this corporation was set up in 1347. However, the article states that the corporation in question was a “corporation of master miners”. In other words, a guild, which, as I pointed out above, regarding their existence in medieval Sweden, are being debated.

The greatest problem with the article in TIME Magazine is that it is hopelessly outdated. It was written exactly 50 years ago. At the time of publication, the information contained within the article was correct: Falun Copper Mine was one of the largest and most profitable mines in the world and had been so for centuries. Despite this, in 1992 Falun Copper Mine was decommissioned due to depletion of the ore. In 2001, it became a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Today, the site is a museum with guided tours.

Nationell Arkivdatabas Svenskt Diplomatariums Huvudkartotek:
Bishop Peter of Västerås, June 16, 1288, SDHK-nr:1406
King Magnus Eriksson of Sweden, Norway, and Scania, February 17, 1347, SDHK-nr:5394
Nationalencykopledien: Falu gruva Bergskollegium
“Sweden: The Oldest Corporation in the World”, TIME Magazine, March 15, 1963
Al Gore, The Future. Six Drivers of Global Change (New York, 2013)
Thomas Lindkvist & Maria Sjöberg, Det svenska samhället 800–1720 (Stockholm, 2013)

In the words of my friend, the Australian: I shall return