BOOK REVIEW: ‘Merchant Kings

MERCHANT KINGS: WHEN COMPANIES RULED THE WORLD

By Stephen R. Bown

Thomas Dunne Books, $26.99 308 pages

REVIEWED BY JOSEPH C. GOULDEN

For three centuries commencing about 1600, much of the world’s commerce was controlled by what one could call “privatized imperialism” in the form of six privately owned trading companies granted state monopolies and operating beyond any independent control.

From economic and political points of view, the private companies were inspired creations. England, Holland and Russia held effective sway over a good portion of the world but without the need for costly expenditures or the headaches of governance. As an observer said of the Russian American Company, whose holdings stretched from Alaska well into what is now California, “Of course, the whole enterprise was in the long run a scheme to enrich a few on the blood and guts of a subject people.”

Stephen R. Bown has crafted a masterful read in his study of the six major companies: The Dutch East India Company, the Dutch West India Company, the English East India Company, the Russian American Company, the Hudson’s Bay Company and the British South Africa Company.

Conventional history views these companies and the men who dominated them through often misty eyes. India in the 1800s under the English East India Company (“John Company”) is transformed by television into the “Jewel in the Crown” with languidly beautiful women lounging on the veranda and splendidly uniformed men strutting hither and yon. Left unnoticed is that the wealth they enjoyed (and sent back to London) came from subjugating an entire subcontinent.

Consider Robert Clive, who began as an unlettered clerk and whose military genius led a private John Company army (both English soldiers and Indian recruits) to victories over the rival French East India Company and numerous local rulers. (The battle of Plassey, in 1757, which saw him rout a vastly larger French-Indian army outfitted with “war elephants” that fled at the crack of musket fire, still draws the marvel of military historians.) Under him, the company eventually ruled about 30 million humans, and Clive became one of the richest men in England. During a rare inquiry by Parliament into possible corruption, Clive snorted with indignation, “I stand astonished at my own moderation.” (Clive died of suicide at age 49.)

Cecil John Rhodes built the British South Africa Company on the sweat and blood of black Africans whose lives were little better than slavery. His white-supremacist views are sickening, even on the printed page. Mark Twain thought he deserved hanging: “I frankly confess it, and when his time comes I shall buy a piece of the rope for a keepsake.” Yet the best and brightest from universities worldwide pant after the scholarships bearing his name.

The first great trading company was the Dutch East India Company (the VOC, by its Dutch initials) which in 1609 seized the archipelago of islands that is now Indonesia in 1609. The Dutch sought to control the lucrative trade in the spices grown on the islands. As Mr. Bown observes, spices were valuable in the era because “their aromatic properties were so powerful that minute amounts … disguised the stench of crowded cities and the reek of slightly rotten salt meats.” A single pouch of some spices could be traded for a herd of cattle.

The VOC came into full power under Jan Pieterszoon Coen, whose capacity for cruelty can be summarized by one example. He found his young foster daughter cuddled with a 15-year-old soldier. His first impulse was to drown the girl in a tub. On reconsideration, he let her off with a public flogging and ordered the lad beheaded. Torture was a valuable management tool for the VOC.

European wars eventually cost the Dutch most of their colonial outposts; one consolation prize they received when the Dutch West India Company ceded vast territories (including Manhattan) to the British was what Mr. Bown calls “a tiny and barren nutmeg island in Indonesia [now known as Surinam] and some North American slave-dependent sugar plantations.” The Dutch days of boasting of a colonial empire were at an end.

Despite the manifold evils he documents, Mr. Bown manages to put the companies into historic perspective. He writes, “These monolithic corporate entities were less the product of free-market capitalism than the commercial extension of European national war and struggles for cultural and economic supremacy. They occupied the muddy grey zone that exists between government and enterprise.”

As I read “Merchant Kings,” my thoughts flickered back to a long-ago sociology course at the University of Texas taught by the brilliant Clarence Ayres. The course was titled “cultural relativity,” and Mr. Ayres cautioned us to be chary of judging past actions against modern standards. I tried, but I could not always keep an open mind as I read a book that is at once intriguing and disturbing.

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