Superprofits and supervillains
A review of Merchant Kings: When Companies Ruled the World 1600-1900, by Stephen Bown.
It was an era of war and conquest. The objective was to colonize new territories, and seek monopolies to build a massive financial empire. They called it the Age of Heroic Commerce, although the phrase was not at all indicative of the true atrocities taking place. Surprisingly, today’s world is not all that different, according to historian Stephen Bown’s latest publication, Merchant Kings: When Companies Ruled the World, 1600-1900.
Any reader the least bit familiar with the legacy of colonialism knows the term is all too imbued with irony: “heroic” really meant brutal, and “commerce” actually the subjugation and exploitation of indigenous lands. Bown's Merchant Kings paints the picture even darker, detailing the journey of six colonial players who would carve out the foundations of what we know today as modern enterprise. Accessible but careful not to dilute, Bown’s prose is sharp and potent, and refrains from the habit of stylistic emptiness that plagues too many history biographies. In tracing the past of these six businessmen, he draws out not so much contrasts as the eerie parallels to our present-day economy, where greed, corruption, and market monopolies are so poignantly shared by the likes of institutions like Enron and the U.S. banking crisis.
Commerce in the 1600s, however, was marked by Dutch merchants struggling in competition against one another for access to the Asian trade. On the other hand, uniting under one umbrella would bring the ultimate payoff: monopoly. The Netherlands, under pressure to overthrow competitors like the Portuguese and mitigate high costs of global trade and exploration, chartered the Dutch East India Company (VOC). The company would be granted full sovereignty—free from any control by the Netherlands, but funded by and able to act in the name of the government. It became the first joint stock company of its kind, forming a national conglomerate with unregulated freedom and ruthless ambition to defeat the competition Bown begins his series of profiles with Jan Pieterszoon Coen, the head of the VOC. With securing the world supply of spices in Indonesia, he dreamt not only of taking over all European trade, but dominating entire Asian markets. Unfortunately, for Indonesia’s natives, Coen’s activities meant the destruction of over thousands of lives, depopulation of prized islands, and bloody clashes resulting in torture and slavery.
Bown studies another Dutch merchant, Pieter Stuyvesant of the Dutch West India Company. Stuyvesant became the governor of New Amsterdam (later renamed New York), taking over for William Kieft after Kieft massacred thousands of natives during his bid to monopolize North American furs, leaving a trail of “rubbish, filth … dead animals or anything like it.” Stuyvesant was sent by the Dutch government to clean up the mess, and he ran a dictatorial regime that muffled citizen rights over corporate ambitions, favouring the financial benefit of distant shareholders and consumers. For Stuyvesant, citizens were a second-tier concern. His treatment of his workers strike a modern chord: note just our countless clothing companies, many of them outsourcing to sweatshops with histories of labour violations, driving the eternal push for the cheapest wages for the benefit of select profiteers.
Bown’s portrait of Robert Clive of the English East India Company is equally disheartening. Clive schemed to secure a crumbling India through corrupt bribes, violent wars, and the slaughter of more than 10,000 people. He was trialed by the English parliament for corruption. Aleksandr Baranov, of the Russian American Company, headed his company to the slaughter and exploitation in Alaska like his colonial neighbour, and also faced trial for his deeds.