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Thursday, December 11, 2014

“Merchant Kings: When Companies Ruled the World, 1600 – 1900”, by Stephen R. Bown


336 pages, Thomas Dunne Books, ISBN-13: 978-0312616113

Merchant Kings: When Companies Ruled the World, 1600 – 1900 by Stephen R. Bown is a centuries-spanning survey of six corporations that were virtually sovereign governments unto themselves:

  • The Dutch East India Company (Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie, VOC, “United East India Company”) was chartered in 1602 by the States General of the Netherlands and granted a 21-year monopoly to carry out trade activities in Asia and, as such, possessed a vast array of quasi-governmental powers, including the ability to wage war, imprison and execute convicts, negotiate treaties, strike its own coins, and establish colonies – but within 200 years the VOC was gone - bankrupt, unable to pay dividends, corrupt and the victim of changing tastes, which made spices less profitable.
  • The English East India Company (EIC, “Governor and Company of Merchants of London trading into the East Indies”) was joint-stock company chartered by Elizabeth I in 1600 to pursue trade with the East Indies, but that ended up trading mainly with the Indian subcontinent, Qing Dynasty China, North-West Frontier Province and Baluchistan. The company rose to account for half of the world’s trade, particularly trade in basic commodities that included cotton, silk, indigo dye, salt, saltpeter, tea and opium. The company also ruled the beginnings of the British Empire in India.
  • The Dutch West India Company (Geoctroyeerde Westindische Compagnie, GWIC, “Chartered West India Company”) was chartered in 1621 and granted a trade monopoly in the West Indies (meaning the Caribbean) and given jurisdiction over the Atlantic slave trade, Brazil, the Caribbean, and North America. The area where the company could operate consisted of West Africa (between the Tropic of Cancer and the Cape of Good Hope) and the Americas, which included the Pacific Ocean and the eastern part of New Guinea. The intended purpose of the charter was to eliminate competition, particularly Spanish or Portuguese, between the various trading posts established by the merchants. The West India Company suffered a long agony, finally succumbing in 1674.
  • The Hudson's Bay Company (HBC, “The Governor and Company of Adventurers of England trading into Hudson’s Bay”), is the most successful; of all the companies surveyed here as it is the only one that is still extant. Founded in 1670 as a fur trading business, today Hudson’s Bay Company is owns and operates retail stores throughout Canada and the United States, including Hudson’s Bay, Home Outfitters, Lord & Taylor, Saks Fifth Avenue and three Zellers liquidation stores.
  • The Russian-American Company (RAC, “Russian-American Company Under His Imperial Majesty’s Highest Protection”) was chartered by Tsar Paul I in 1799 and was expected to establish new settlements in Russian America while simultaneously carrying out an expanded colonization program, yet is remembered mainly for virtually decimating the sea otter population of the Pacific Northwest.
  • The British South Africa Company (BSAC) was established in 1889 following the amalgamation of Cecil Rhodes’ Central Search Association and the London-based Exploring Company Ltd. which had originally competed to exploit the expected mineral wealth of Mashonaland but united because of common economic interests and to secure The company’s Royal Charter was modeled on that of the British East India Company.
Besides their quasi-governmental roles that made them both the civil government and the mercantile class, they had other factors in common, including charismatic and larger-than-life leaders: The VOC’s Jan Pieterszoon Coen, the British East India Company’s Robert Clive (“Clive of India”), The Russian-American Company was led by Alexander Andreyevich Baranov who not only played an active role in the Russian-American Company, but was also the first governor of Russian Alaska, the British South Africa Company was led by Cecil Rhodes, as ambitious and ruthless a man who ever headed a corporation, while the Hudson’s Bay Company was led George Simpson, “The Little Emperor”.

When a book attempts to profile any number of interesting individuals and situations, the highest compliment is to say it encourages you to go out and read more about those people and events. That is exactly what happened here with Mr. Bown’s book, as he gives interesting insights into the times and the background and characters that shaped much of the world as we know it today. For all their faults, these corporations can be said to have opened up the world to commerce, shaping the international trade we have today. While I could have done without Mr. Bown’s pontifications around slavery, apartheid and the like, in favor of just reporting the facts, I suppose he felt strongly about the abuses that occurred, or wanted to distance himself as much from them as possible. Regardless, it is a good read on an interesting period in the world history.

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