The merchant kings of the Age of Heroic Commerce were a rogue’s gallery of larger-than-life men who, for a couple hundred years, expanded their far-flung commercial enterprises over a sizable portion of the world. They include Jan Pieterszoon Coen, the violent and autocratic pioneer of the Dutch East India Company; Peter Stuyvesant, the one-legged governor of the Dutch West India Company, whose narrow-minded approach lost Manhattan to the British; Robert Clive, who rose from company clerk to become head of the British East India Company and one of the wealthiest men in Britain; Alexandr Baranov of the Russian American Company; Cecil Rhodes, founder of De Beers and Rhodesia; and George Simpson, the “Little Emperor” of the Hudson’s Bay Company, who was chauffeured about his vast fur domain in a giant canoe, exhorting his voyageurs to paddle harder so he could set speed records.
Stephen Bown is the author of Madness, Betrayal and the Lash; Scurvy; and A Most Damnable Invention. He lives in Canada.
Jan Pieterszoon Coen and the Dutch East India Company
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The thirteen heavily armed ships sailed towards the East Indies’ remote Banda Islands in the spring of 1609, after nearly a year’s voyage from Amsterdam. The heady, sweet scent of flowering nutmeg trees filled the humid air.