In general we think of Corporations as not acting on nations with force, simply with legal power. (Perhaps they maintain a fleet of security guards). We generally think of Corporations as leaving the military work to the government.

(Not to say that the Corporations can't influence the government strongly for a particular military outcome - but the idea was they'd leave it to the government armed forces to take this action.)

Yet when we read the history of the British East India Company, we read about the Presidency Armies. It does appear that a private Corporation in that period of history maintained an armed force for interacting with nations.

In fact we read:

The Brigade of Gurkhas is the collective term for units of the current British Army that are composed of Nepalese soldiers. The brigade, which is 3,640 strong, draws its heritage from Gurkha units that originally served in the Indian Army prior to Indian independence, and prior to that of the East India Company.

My question is: Is there a precedent for private companies maintaining a military force?

  • I'd imagine that many of the early European expeditionary companies (i.e. those set up to find and exploit wealth in the rest of the world) would have had some form of military capability, determining which was first could be tricky (and determining which were truely "private companies" rather than state sponsored actors could too). – Steve Bird Jul 5 '16 at 12:29
  • One could also include (if one is very,very liberal with the term "Company" & the goal of the "Company") the Knights Templar. As the were more than just a Knights Order. They were also (amongst others) bankers, seigneurs,... . – User999999 Jul 5 '16 at 13:12
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    I'm confused; you cite two precedents and then ask if there is a precedent. You neglect the notion of mercenary companies, the City of London, the Papacy (and religious military orders), Roman burial societies, gangs, colonial ventures, and many others. If we define a "company" as a chartered organization, there are myriad precedents in addition to the two that you cite. Is there some subtlety that I'm missing that makes this question non-obvious? (That's a sincere question; I'm not attacking anyone, I'm just trying to figure out how to answer the question.) – Mark C. Wallace Jul 5 '16 at 13:34
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    You could say that the "novelty" (since the fall of the Roman Empire) are military forces under public control; it was "the army of the King" or "the regiment of the Duke" – SJuan76 Jul 5 '16 at 16:06
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    Basically, any feudal system would qualify. The lord is operating his lands for profit, and commands military forces in wartime (partially financed by the profits, partially levied from the people working on his lands). – DevSolar Jul 7 '16 at 6:54

It can be hard to draw the lines between a corporation (or similar entity) which is hired to use force on behalf of a nation state and a corporation that is allowed to use force by a nation state.

Consider the Hanseatic League in medieval times. They raised forces and fought wars. Companies which ruled towns or towns ruled by their merchant class?

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In recent years, states (countries? Nations?) have had a monopoly on the use of force and violence to maintain power. States only recently (1800's) became the prime segment of governance, and states didn't truly have a monopoly on the use of force until the post WWII order.

Prior to this, nearly every segment of the population had the ability to use force and violence to resolve conflicts. The western genre of movies are a great case and point. Another example of this is the Mormon war in Missouri in 1838; which was essentially a violent struggle between two religious groups, with little government involvement. Other examples are the Johnson County War and the Aroostook War. These 3 incidents featured a government that tolerated use of weapons by the general populace. Compare this with the recent stand off in Oregon where the government quarantined and quickly ended the civil use of weapons.

An interesting example of a corporate army is the Pinkertons in the 1800's. This was essentially a corporate paramilitary organization in the US that was used to break strikes, unions, and enforce the will of business elites. In its prime, the Pinkertons acted much like the FBI does today, with government approval. The Pinkertons still exist as a detective agency, but the responsibility to use violence has since been given to government forces.

So are far as precedents go, between 1400 and the 1950's, violence was used by a variety of organizations for a variety of purposes. So yes, the British East India Company's army had many precedents.

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    Agree that development of limited liability is huge. Quibble - in most Law degrees around the world - limited liability is taught as originating in England in the 17thC. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Limited_liability#History – hawkeye Jul 6 '16 at 5:00
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    @hawkeye Ha! Same link as me for limited liability – axsvl77 Jul 6 '16 at 6:22
  • from Wikipedia: "The company was incorporated by English royal charter in 1670 as The Governor and Company of Adventurers of England trading into Hudson's Bay and functioned as the de facto government in parts of North America before European states and later the United States laid claim to some of those territories." Otherwise now known as The Hudson's Bay Company, it is most definitely a limited liability company, and has been so since its founding charter. The "Governor and Company of Merchants of London trading into the East Indies" dates still further back, to 1600. – Pieter Geerkens Jul 7 '16 at 1:42
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    @PieterGeerkens I just found a sources showing that you are correct - thanks, I have removed that blurb. – axsvl77 Jul 7 '16 at 5:22

Cecil Rhodes, the founder of South Africa's DeBeers Diamond Company, and the British South Africa Company maintained an "army" of 600 cavalry under Dr. Leland Starr Jameson that helped bring about the Boer War.

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