A vivid popular history of the great commercial monopolies that helped shape the modern world.
For three centuries, beginning in the early 1600s, European powers granted monopoly trading rights to joint-stock corporations, such as the Dutch East India Company, as a way to bankroll colonial expansion. Bown (Madness, Betrayal and the Lash: The Epic Voyage of Captain George Vancouver, 2009, etc.) relates the rousing story of a half-dozen of these companies and the “larger-than-life merchant-adventurers” who led them. Beginning as traders, these leaders, many with their own armies, were not subject to the laws of their home nations or of local governments. With authority to pass laws, collect taxes and wage war with foreign princes, they did as they pleased, “with free rein to indulge their impulses, impose dictatorial power and plunder rapaciously. They were competitive and ruthless, often battling companies from other European nations to gain trading footholds. Most readers will be familiar with Peter Stuyvesant (Dutch West India Company), the stern, one-legged ruler of New Amsterdam; and the arrogant, racist Cecil Rhodes (British South Africa Company), who made his fortune operating in Rhodesia for England. But Bown portrays others as well, including strongman Jan Pieterszoon Coen (Dutch East India Company), who had 150 merchant ships and 40 warships, controlled the global spice supply and believed that violent force alone ensured profitability; Robert Clive (English East India Company), who carefully cultivated his heroic image after military victories in India; Aleksandr Andreyevich Baranov (Russian American Company), whose aggressive 28-year rule over Russian Alaska delivered profits from sea otter furs to investors in St. Petersburg; and the “sexist, racist, domineering braggart” George Simpson (Hudson’s Bay Company), who traveled in a canoe, wearing a top hat, as he built an empire of beaver furs that helped give rise to Canada. Hardly a pleasant group, these manipulative leaders’ companies grew so large and indispensable to their home nations that they sometimes required government bailouts.
An absorbing tale of unfettered commerce.