Merchant Kings When Companies Ruled the World, 1600--1900

Stephen R. Bown

Thomas Dunne Books




336 Pages


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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.

Merchant Kings looks at the rise and fall of company rule in the centuries before colonialism, when nations belatedly assumed responsibility for their commercial enterprises. A blend of biography, corporate history, and colonial history, this book offers a panoramic, new perspective on the enormous cultural, political, and social legacies, good and bad, of this first period of unfettered globalization.


Praise for Merchant Kings

"[Merchant Kings] offers an easily digestible overview of the period and its major figures."—The New York Times
"A chronicle perfectly relevant to our own time—and ultimately shows us that a market is free only when those who live and consume within it are protected from the powerful."—New York Journal of Books
"A masterful read."—The Washington Times
"Engagingly written and refreshingly conversational, Merchant Kings brings a cohesion to such a large and unwieldy historical period, a period that both led directly to, and remains an integral part of, so many contemporary economic and political struggles. And he does so commendably."—The Post and Courier (Charleston, SC)
"Bown’s well-researched text brings these remarkable men to life, his eye for detail and infectious passion transporting readers through this passage in history. Battles and brawls, ruthless vision, despair, folly, grandeur are all woven into an exciting and gripping tale of men who would 'command the riches of the world, and consequently the world itself'. An excellent historical study and a very engaging read."—Liverpool Daily Post 

"Bown ably deploys biography to present the successes, costs, and legacies of an era’s commingling of private money and state sovereignty."—Booklist

"Bown has produced a magnificent description of the six great companies, and their leaders, that dominated the 'Heroic Age of Commerce.' ... Bown presents a fascinating look at the men who exploited resources and native peoples while laying the foundations of empires. 'Neither heroes nor angels,' Bown says, their global impact was as great as that of any king."—Publishers Weekly (starred review)

Reviews from Goodreads



Read an Excerpt

MERCHANT KINGS (Chapter one)First among Equals

Jan Pieterszoon Coen and the Dutch East India Company

·   1   ·

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. The commander of the squadron, one of the largest corporate fleets yet to depart the Netherlands for “the spiceries,” was Admiral Pieter Verhoeven (Peter Verhoef), a veteran not of trade

Read the full excerpt


  • Stephen R. Bown

  • Stephen Bown is the author of Madness, Betrayal and the Lash; Scurvy; and A Most Damnable Invention. He lives in Canada.

  • Stephen R. Bown
    Stephen R. Bown