Overseas Trading Company (COU)
Types of business entity Joint-stock company
Predecessor -
  • Medici Banking Company (1528-1571);
  • Caetité Mining Company (1551-1571)
Founded July 14, 1560
Defunct June 1, 1835
Headquarters New Florence, Ilhéus, Brazil
Industry Trade and Manufacturing
Product Multiple products (e.g., spices, ollancelum, newflorentine steel, propeline, porcelain, silk, etc)

The Overseas Trading Company (Portuguese: Companhia de Comércio do Ultramar; COU), also known as the Company or just COU, was a Brazilian company, formed in the colonial period by grouping all the Brazilian Medicis' business in the commerce of India, America and Europe.

Unlike other large companies at the time, it was not chartered by the metropolitan Crown. Ignored by the Portuguese government at the time, COU would expand to the point of becoming the richest and most powerful company in its time, rivaling the colonial powers of Europe in trade and war and starting the Brazilian first colonial expansion.

It is considered the first multinational company in the world, the first mega-corporation, and the first issue stock. It was a powerful company, possessing governmental powers, including the ability to maintain military force and make war, imprison and execute convicts, negotiate treaties, coin its own currency and establish colonies. It had had enough prestige and influence to be treated equally by the Great Powers in the international arena. Like a sovereign state in their own right, the COU was one of the greatest powers of the colonial period. According to the historian Marcus O'Neill "the Company Overseas was not only the first corporation in history, but the first to be more powerful than nations and to dominate politics and the economy of entire states. In fact, the COU was an economic and political force worthy of its current conspiracy theories."

Due to structural changes, the Napoleonic Wars and the Brazilian Independence, the COU was nationalized in 1835, its possessions and debt being taken over by the Brazilian government. The COU's territories became the Brazilian colonies and were expanded over the course of the 19th century.

The great success of the COU was not due only to its administrative structure, political independence and ability to influence governments, but also the military prowess. Leaders like Emiliano Castranova, Lucio D'Avila, Antonela Petrov, Roberto da Costa and Lorenzo Souza became famous at the time and unforgettable in military history. Also according to Marcus O'Neill, "Even being a naval power itself, its [COU's] greatest strength were its strategies. The COU would never win against powers like the Ottoman Empire and Spain, with large fleets and armies, without their brilliant strategies. The way they joined their military tactics with espionage and conspiracies to political and economic destabilization was unique and, for centuries, unrivaled."

Background and Foundation


Angelo de Medici, Duke of New Florence and COU's founder

The origins of the COU are closely linked to the conflicts between the colonial economic elite, especially in New Florence ,and the Angelo de Medici explorations within the Sertão. The discovery of big amethyst deposits in the small sertanian town of Caetité in 1551 lead to the creation of the Caetité Mining Company, ancestor of the COU. Until the 18th century, amethyst was considered one of the most valuable gems in the Old World, next to the diamond, emerald, ruby ​​and sapphire. The value of Caetité mines made Angelo to keep it discovery in secret and convince King John III to grant him a monopoly on the extraction, processing, manufacturing and trade of gems. Portugal was a little populous kingdom at the time and such discovery, the king feared, could generate a mining rush that would empty the kingdom.

Medici fenced the region and, with the help of the Defense Forces, he controlled all the mining of amethysts.

The accumulation of capital favored by the extraction of gems, jewelry manufacturing in New Florence and exportation allow Angelo de Medici realize an old dream, to unify his family's business empire and put the economic elites of the colony under his control and protection. Looking for that goal, he founded the Overseas Trading Company (COU) in 1560, bringing together under its banner all business of the Brazilian Medicis and opening a part of its capital to private investment, creating for this New Florence Stock Exchange in 1562, the oldest in the world.

Angelo could satisfy more than its original goal. Attracted by the novelty of the business and its profit promises and power, the commercial elite of the colony met under the Medicis in a common objective through investing on the COU and its amazing growth would strengthen the bonds that united the elite.

Such a union influenced greatly the history of Brazil. Until then a powerful but disunited social group, the commercial elites gained their freedom from the Portuguese metropolis with great difficulty. Now united, they would become the largest political force of the colony, eclipsing the rural elites' remaining power and dominating politics in the Magisterium until the Courtese Period.

Commercial and Colonial Expansion

Companhia de Comércio do Ultramar (Portuguese)
Trading Company of th Overseas
Timeline: Parallel Brazil
Preceded by 1560 - 1835 Succeeded by
COU flag COU-0
Flag Coat of Arms
COU Empire
Location of the COU
(and largest city)
New Florence
Language Brazilian Portuguese
Government Corporation-ruled colonial empire
Currency Siren (§)
As an entity formed by the union of the Brazilian Medicis' all business, the COU had business spread all over the world. The Medici Bank has had considerable influence in several European nations. Many paid their debts as commercial rights.

With the Iberian Union from 1580 to 1640, the COU, which supported the Spanish king in his claim to the Portuguese throne, comes to dominate the spice trade to Spanish America.

In 1568, Medici completed the construction of the New Florence Arsenal. Inspired by the Arsenal of Venice, it used an efficient mass production method for the construction of ships, cannons, and nautical instruments. Covering an area of ​​more than 260 acres, the Arsenal wore a system that produced prefabricated parts almost identical to each other and then simply mounted the vessels. It employed 19,000 people, of from the 100,000 inhabitants the city had that timea, and could build two large ships per day. In 1575 the COU already had a fleet of 300 ships. In 1566 Medici founded the School of Navigation, a center of systematization and teaching of naval knowledge and techniques nautical, geographical, astronomical and cartographic, as well as training of sailors and officers.

So the COU had a merchant fleet able to carry heavy loads along maritime routes, a powerful war fleet to destroy all enemies who crossed it path, an agile and well equipped factory of ships and nautical instruments, permission to navigate freely by the great Portuguese and Spanish empires, united the Iberian Union from 1580 to 1640, and much capital to invest.

In 1568 the COU founded its first colony, conquering an area north of the Island of Terra Nova (known in English also as Newfoundland), in North America, in order to control a rich source of fish and fur. Over time, COU's domain extended further north to Labrador and Baffin Island. There it discovered a new product that could be marketed: the narwhal horn. Cetacean native of North Pole, the narwhal has a spiral shaped ivory horn (actually a tooth). In the Middle Ages, narwhal horns were sold in Europe by the Vikings, who claimed to be horned unicorn. With the expansion of narwhal whaling by the COU, the narwhal ivory flooded Europe, generating huge profits COU. Another product found in the region were the polar bear and arctic foxes fur, appreciated by the European elite.

With the expansion of COU's commercial influence in the Baltic Sea, mainly through privileges guaranteed by the States of the Holy Roman Empire as payment of debts, the COU entered in conflicts with the declining, but anxious to maintain its status in the Baltic trade Hanseatic League. The Hansa War (1591-1595), which brought together the main cities of the League, ended with a surprising victory to the COU and the total change of the status quo in the region. With great influence on Denmark, Sweden and the Holy Roman Empire, the COU defeated the Hansa without interference, ensuring hegemony Baltic trade, amber trade monopoly, sovereignty over the Baltic city of Riga, and the right to sell its exotic products and dock and refuel in the League cities.

Between 1600 and 1630, it founded the colony of Lagos, on Lake Michigan, current US; It conquered the coastal areas of the kingdoms of Ife and Benin in Africa, the rest of the island of Terra Nova and the region Labrador in North America; It took Corsica in the Brazilian-Genovese War (1627-1630); it won Aden and became protector of Abu Dhabi in Arabia; It conquered Ceylon and created many trading posts in India.

The COU was China's best western trade partner. Unique Brazilian products as ollancelus, propelines, newflorentine steel products won the Chinese favor. In 1653, the Chinese imperial government allowed the COU to establish a permanent diplomatic presence in China and in 1656, leased the region of Weihai to the COU. Between 1653 and 1842 the COU (Brazil after 1835) was the only Western government to have a permanent diplomatic presence in China.

With the Venetian-Brazilian War (1632-1640), the COU took the island of Crete from the Venetians. In 1642, taking advantage of a 20-year power vacuum in the Turkish Empire and its decline, the COU led several military campaigns against the Empire, the two Turkish-Brazilian Wars (1642-1645 and 1653-1668), taking some territories and achieving many commercial privileges. It took the Crimea, which was allied with the Turks, several islands in the Aegean, the cities of Sur and Akaba, the island of Cyprus, the right to free navigation in the seas under Turkish rule, the right to free trade in the main cities of the empire, right to install a branch of Medici Bank in Constantinople, and Turkish recognition of the COU's on Crete. In 1673, the Sultan tried to recover the lost territory and pride, starting the Third Turkish-Brazilian War. At first the Turks were winning, but after a reorganization by the COU, the Turks were defeated. In addition to recovering the lost territories, COU earned the right to install Medici Bank branches in Damascus and Alexandria. In the late 18th century, the international trade of the Turkish Empire was totally dominated by foreigners, mostly Brazilian, French and Venetians.

In 1650, the COU bought some land in the German island of Rugen, then belonging to Sweden, where it founded the port and the city of Zenith, now an autonomous city of Brazil.

A powerful naval empire in the COU 17th century, it became popularly known as the "Sea Empire".

The COU participated in many European wars, directly or indirectly, achieving great commercial advantages in Europe. It participation in the Iberian Succession War in 1580 allowed Brazil to maintain its freedom under Spanish rule and to gain trade privileges. The War of Spanish Succession (1702-1713) earned it the domain of Cadiz and Ceuta and the definitive recognition of Britain (ally) and France (enemy) of its domain over the colonies of Terra Nova and Labrador, Ceylon and East Bengal . In an attempt to weaken Britain, increasingly hegemonic at sea, took part in the American War of Independence (1776-1783) alongside American rebels, France and Spain.

COU Imp - Cópia-0

Maximum extension of COU's empire and influence.

The "Grand Plan" and Decline

Europe map Napoleon Blocus

Maximum extension of Napoleon's rule in Europe. Dark blue: French Empire; Light blue: French satellite states and occupied zones; Blue-grey: Countries forced by France into applying the Continental System.

The COU's declining began abruptly in the early 19th century with the rise of the Napoleonic government in France. Accumulating enormous executive powers since 1799, Napoleon began to undermine the economic influence of COU in France an the continent, calling it "a cancer which weakens and breaks Europe." The so-called "Grand Plan" aimed to solidify the French influence in Europe. As he conquered countries and made allies, Napoleon tried to replace the COU's bussiness in these countries by French capital, and prohibit these countries to trade with the COU, similar to the Continental System decreed against Britain. Unfortunately, the COU did not resist as well as the British.

In 1805, the naval Battle of Trafalgar, in which the British fought and defeated the Spanish and French close Cadiz, allowed the COU to maintain its control over the city for a while. However, in 1807, during the French invasion of Portugal, the Spanish allied to France briefly occupied Cadiz. As a last act in the Napoleonic Wars, the COU escorted the Portuguese royal family to Brazil. Since then, the COU bothered to maintain its colonial possessions and recover from the blow that was the end of its trade and investments in Europe.

COU's European possessions would also suffer in the war. Zenith was taken by France in 1812. Crete was surrounded by the French fleet and Cyprus was blockaded. Riga was taken by Sweden in 1810.

With the end of Napoleon and the Congress of Vienna, the European powers tried to restore the previous status quo. Zenith and Cadiz returned to COU's control, but Riga was delivered to Russia, Ceuta to Spain and Sur and Aqaba to the Turks.

Never recovering from the consequences of the "Great Plan", the COU continued to strongly resist its decline. Its last major intervention would be with the Brazilian War of Independence (1821-1823), supporting the Brazilians in the invasion of Portugal. In 1824, the COU sold Lagos to the USA. To asure the Lagoanos' rights within the United States, they signed the Treaty of Boston.

Despite having managed to maintain its colonial domains and regain some influence in the European trade, the COU had to make commercial concessions, as well as influence over the COU's policy, to the Brazilian government in exchange for financial aid. In 1835, the COU was definitely nationalized and dissolved by the Brazilian government, which took control of all its colonies, troops, possessions and business.



Brazil and its colonies after COU's dissolution in 1835. Green: Metropolitan Brazil; Blue: COU's colonies legated to Brazil; Light-Green: Colonies obtained in the War of Independence and Great Latin American War.

The Overseas Trading Company had lasting impact on world's history. It was the first incarnation of the Brazilian colonial expansion. In its expansion, it exported products, culture and the Brazilian-Portuguese language. It played a key role in the expansion of the Portuguese language in the world and boost the Brazilian economy during the colonial period. Some historians also agree that the COU was instrumental in keeping the Brazilian civil and economic rights guaranteed by the Holy Charter of Rights, as being rich and powerful entity, it had an influence on the Portuguese policy to ensure its maintenance.

It also influenced the Brazilian second colonial expansion. The COU's nationalization by the Brazilian government in 1835 gave to the only 14 years old nation an established colonial empire right after the stunning victory in the Great Latin American War (1829-1835).


Between the late 16th and the 19th centuries, the COU (as many other Brazilian merchants) marketed many products, mainly:

from North Africa: gold, wheat, horses, barley and oats;

from West Africa: gold, ivory, chili, dyes, fabrics and leathers;

from East Africa: amber, ceramic, copper, ivory, gold, furs, pearls, iron, fabric, dyes and sandalwood;

from the Arabian Peninsula and the Turkish Empire: rice, gems, pearls, horses, salt, iron, incense, musk and dates;

from India and Ceylon: cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, ivory, pepper, cardamom, saffron, muslin, dyes and gems;

from the Baltic Sea: wheat, copper, amber, barley, oats, honey, wood, hemp, tar, wax, leather, resin, herring and beer;

from East Asia: cinnamon, cloves, pepper, aloes, camphor, sandalwood, gems, jade, metals, cotton, porcelain, ceramics and silk;

from Crete, Cyprus and Corsica: wine and olive oil;

from North America: corn, wheat, coal, iron, wood, rum and beaver, fox and bear fur;

from Spanish America: gold, silver, Hispaniola amber, feathers and llama, alpaca and vicuna wool;

from the Arctic: blubber, polar bear and arctic fox fur, narwhal horns and fish;

from the Free Cities: wine, beer, fish, rye, starkvatska (Patagonian whiskey), wheat, oats, seal fur, whale oil, sheep, alpaca and guanaco wool, butter and cheese;

and from Brazil: Brazil wood, leather, cotton, feathers, rum, cachaça, cinnamon stick, cloves, guarana, indigo, vanilla, pepper, ginger, erva-mate, lumber, propeline and cotton fabrics, ollancelus, ceramics, dyes, amethysts, jewels, iron and newflorentine steel artifacts, ships, swords, cannons, fish, dried fruits, liqueurs, sertão wine, sweets and various manufactured goods.

Among the products there were six unique Brazilian products with great commercial value:



Vestments of propeline commonly used in colonial times by the general population.

Propeline (Propelinum) is a fabric made ​​from Sertão flax, whose scientific nomenclature is Propelinum brasiliensis . Despite its name, it is not one of the many species of flax. Reminiscent of prehistory, it is the last species of the genus Propelinum (Latin: prope , false, and Linum, flax). Different from the varieties of real flax, it is adapted to of the Northeastern Sertão semi-arid climate and soil from the banks of the São Francisco River. It was cultivated by the Koreni tribe for the production of hammocks, ropes and cabins. Its cultivation by Brazilian settlers began in the 1530s after contact with the Koreni. The Sertão flax fibers are more pliable, thin, elastic and resistant to the linen, they are also easier to dye and the finest varieties are brighter, similar to satin. As it don't warm up easily under sunlight, ​​propeline became greatly appreciated by the Brazilians as their main fabric.


Clockwise: Florentine and Spanish noblewomen in the 17th century; British and French noblewomen in the 18th century; British bourgeois lady in the 19th century; and the American actress Cassandra Cho in 2010. All of them wearing thin propeline.

By the early 16th century, propeline vestments spread to all social classes of the colony, and the varieties of higher quality (fine propeline) became symbol of distinction between the colonial elites. Its fiber, the more hardy varieties (wild propeline), was also used for the production of hammocks, ropes, ship sails, paper and bags, feeding various economic activities. The Sertão flax seeds were used in the food, paint and fuel oil production.

From the 17th century, Brazil began to export large quantities of fine propeline to Europe, further contributing to the negative balance that European countries had in their relations with Brazil. The propeline became a symbol of distinction not only in Europe but also in the Muslim world, India and China. Even today propeline is an important textile raw material, grown mainly in the Northeastern Sertão.

The city of Mayen, capital of the province of São Francisco, was throughout the colonial period the center of the propeline industry, which made the city, its location along the navigable Rio Grande which is a tributary of the São Francisco, a large trading post. The Fair of Mayen is the largest and oldest fabric fair in Americas and one of the world's largest.

Newflorentine Steel

Newflorentine steel is an alloy (steel) of high quality developed in New Florence in the mid-16th century. Made from iron-vanadium and manganese (mined in northern Bahia) using the Montês Process, created in 1551, the newflorentine steel was more durable and resistant to corrosion than any then existing steel, it had a percentage of carbon on average 0.9% and few impurities. It was also brighter and harder. The secret of its manufacturing was kept in secret by a few newflorentine families until the 19th century. These families knew that could only be produced from iron extracted from certain mines in Bahia. Today, it is known that such iron formed a natural alloy with Vanadium, whose effect on alloy steel was only discovered in the 20th century. Also manganese, used in the newflorentine steelmaking process, it would only be discovered in the Old World in 1774 by the Swedish Johan Gottlieb Gahn.

Used in the production of cutlery, knives, swords, nautical instruments, guns, cannons and many other materials, it was one of the most valued export products produced in New Florence. It was sought worldwide. Brazilians intensively used the newflorentine steel in their trade with China, the Chinese valued quite the alloy and tried unsuccesfuly for centuries to copy its composition.




Ollancelus is a type of pottery developed in the late 16th century in Heraclion. Like other valued Brazilian materials, its composition was kept in secret for centuries by a few families. Considered a type of stoneware or porcelain, is known for its matte finish and produced in a variety of different colors, of which the most common is pale blue, and relief decoration applied. It Became a valued product in Europe, Turkey, India and China.

Sertão Wine

Sertão Wine is a variety of wine created in Brazil between the late 16th and early 17th century.

Although there were a grape production in the Northeastern Sertão since 1530, wine production has never favored. The grown species, the weather, the strong sun, all disfavored wine production in the region. That situation only changed with the emergence of  the Chevron, Marina and Coral varieties sometime between the 1550s and the 1580s. Its is unknown their origins, but there are theories that they have arisen from artificial selection or mutation. These varieties became well adapted to the Sertão climate and allowed the emergence of an important wine culture in the region.

486071367 XS

Scarlet Sertão wine, commonly known as Blood wine.

The Sertão wine are divided in mainly three varieties, which have become well appreciated by winemakers from the 1640s:

  • The scarlet variety, known primarily as a Blood Wine, is the most famous, characterized by its blood-like red color and strong flavor.
  • The white variety, known primarily as a Franciscan, is characterized by clear and shimmering yellow color, reminiscent of the silver.
  • The red variety, known primarily as Garanhuns, is similar to European red wines.

Each of these varieties are divided into dozens of other different varieties.

Even today the wine production is an important activity in the Northeastern Sertão, from the semi-handmade wines to large mechanized production. Brazil is a large consumer (approx. 32 liters per capita per year) and wine producer (seventh in 2015), which in addition to the Sertão wine, also produces more temperate climate wines in the South. The Sertão wine is the non-European wine most consumed by Europeans, and known for longer.

Although countries such as Angola, Indonesia and India produces wines of Sertão style, Brazil has treaties with 189 countries that only the wine registered by IVS and coming from Brazil can be labeled as "Sertão Wine", although the varieties produced in other countries as may be labeled as "sertão type", for example.

A UNESCO's Intangible Cultural Heritage, the Sertão wine is regulated by the Sertão Wine Institute (Portuguese: Instituto de Vinho do Sertão, or IVS), which is an official body belonging to the Ministry of Agriculture and is a key institution in promoting the Sertão wine industry and knowledge.

Yerba Mate

Marajoara ceramic

Organizational Structure

The COU is generally considered to be the world's first truly transnational corporation and it was also the first multinational enterprise to issue shares of stock to the public. Some historians such as Timothy Brook and Russell Shorto consider the COU as the pioneering corporation in the first wave of the corporate globalization era. The COU was the first multinational corporation to operate officially in different continents such as Europe, Asia and Africa. It employed people from different continents and origins in the same functions and working environments. Although it was a Brazilian company its employees included not only people from the Portuguese America, but also many from Portugal, Italy, Germany and from other countries as well. Besides the diverse colonial and European workforce recruited by the COU, it made extensive use of local Asian labour markets. As a result, the personnel of the various COU offices in Asia consisted of Euro-Ameriacan and Asian employees. Asian or Eurasian workers might be employed as sailors, soldiers, writers, carpenters, smiths, or as simple unskilled workers. Also, while most of its shareholders were from Brazil, there were also a few Portuguese, Germans and Italians.

The COU was the first company in history to actually issue bonds and shares of stock to the general public. It was the COU that invented the idea of investing in the company rather than in a specific venture governed by the company. The COU was also the first company to use a fully-fledged capital market (including the bond market and the stock market) as a crucial channel to raise medium-term and long-term funds.

The COU had two types of shareholders: the participantes, who could be seen as non-managing members, and the 80 majores who acted as managing directors. The innovation in the case of the COU was, that the liability of not just the participantes, but also of the majores was limited to the paid-in capital (usually, majores had unlimited liability). The COU therefore was a limited liability company. Also, the capital would be permanent during the lifetime of the company. As a consequence, investors that wished to liquidate their interest in the interim could only do this by selling their share to others on the New Florence Stock Exchange.

The COU consisted of six Chambers (nine since 1715) in port and trade cities: New Florence, Salvador, Heraclion, Rio de Janeiro (since 1715), Laguna (since 1715), Bethlehem of Brazil, Mayen and Vila Rica (since 1715). Delegates of these chambers convened as the twenty-seven Lord Directors. They were selected from the majore-class of shareholders

Of the Lord Diretors, nine delegates were from the Chamber of New Florence (one short of a majority on its own), four from the Chamber of Heraclion, and two from each of the smaller Chambers, New Florence had thereby the decisive voice. The nine cities were the regions where COU's offices were locate, allowing the elites from Brazil's richest cities to invest in it.

The Lords Directors met every two years in New Florence. They defined the COU's general policy and divided the tasks among the Chambers. The Chambers carried out all the necessary work, built their own ships and warehouses and traded the merchandise. The Lords Directors sent the ships' masters off with extensive instructions on the route to be navigated, prevailing winds, currents, shoals and landmarks. The COU also produced its own charts.

The Company's banking activities

The Company and the Portuguese Empire

Political Influence and Foreign Relations

Military Force