Commerce meets conquest in this swashbuckling story of the six merchant-adventurers who built the modern world
It was an era when monopoly trading companies were the unofficial agents of European expansion, controlling vast numbers of people and huge tracts of land, and taking on governmental and military functions. They managed their territories as business interests, treating their subjects as employees, customers, or competitors. The leaders of these trading enterprises exercised virtually unaccountable, dictatorial political power over millions of people.
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.
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. 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
“Stephen Bown has ingeniously whittled this multinational history down to vignettes of six of its more notorious figures. . . . These characters are as familiar to us as evil storybook characters, yet as foreign to contemporary business standards as Genghis Khan.”
—Timothy Brook, author of Vermeer’s Hat on Merchant Kings
“Stephen Bown tells a fascinating story, one that provides a very different perspective on the colonial period than that which is to be gleaned from the usual grocery list of significant events.”
—The Right Honourable Paul Martin, former prime minister of Canada, on Merchant Kings
“[Bown]’s particularly good at penning provocative theories that link seemingly modest events to monumental changes in the course of history. . . . Bown also has a good eye for the unintended consequences, ironies, and contradictions that are the product of social and technological forces of great magnitude.”
—Publishers Weekly on A Most Damnable Invention
“A spirited, stimulating account of how the cure for the feared disease was found, lost, and found again. Splendid, popular history.”
—Kirkus Reviews on Scurvy
When Companies Ruled the World, 1600--1900
Stephen R. Bown