January 20, 2011

Merchant King - by Stephen R Bown

Merchant King - by Stephen R Bown
When companies ruled the world from 1600 -1900

[It is quite intriguing to know that companies where controlling vast number of countries outside Europe. The book covers each of these six companies chieftain’s impact in the world]

From the early 1600 to the late 1800s, 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 of hundred years, expanded their flag-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. Alexander Baranov of the Russian American Company: Cecil Rhodes, founder of De Beers and Rhodesia and George Simpson, the Little Emperor of the Hudson 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.

“Whosoever commands the trade of the world, commands the riches of the world and consequently the world itself” Sir Walter Raleigh,1600.

Jan Pieterszoon Coen was the ruthless pioneer of the Dutch East India Company, a trading enterprise that within its first two decades was in conflict with nearly every maritime nation in the world. During his reign, the company became the foundation for the wealth of the Netherlands's golden age by supplying most of Europe with exotic spices. His famous line: “Your Honors should know by experience that trade in Asia must be driven and maintained under the protection and favor of Your Honors’ own weapons and that the weapons must be paid for by the profits from the trade, so that we cannot carry on trade without war, nor war without trade”

The one-legged Pieter Stuyvesant was the autocratic governor of the Dutch West India Company’s colony at Manhattan. For decades he resisted all attempted by the increasing numbers of non-employee citizens of the expanding colony to provide responsible government. He ultimately placed his company’s interest ahead of those his country, an approach that resulted in the loss of entire territory of New Netherlands to a foreign power (Britain), surrendered without firing a shot. His famous line: “We derive our authority from God and the West India Company, not from the pleasure of a few ignorant subjects.”

The English trader Rober Clive rose who despite having no formal training, was a military genius who transformed the company’s fortune’s with a series of astonishing military victories, using company troops, over French East India Company and various local rulers in India during the dying days of the Mughal Empire. When in 1772, he was questioned by Parliament about his possible corruption and the source of his wealth, he indignantly proclaimed: “I stand astonished at my own moderation”. His famous line: “Consider the situation in which the victory of Plassey placed me. A great prince was dependent on my pleasure; an opulent city lay at my mercy; its richest bankers bid against each other for my smiles; I walked through vaults which were thrown open to me open, piled on either hand with gold and jewels. Mr. Charmin, at this moment, I stand astonished at my own moderation.”

Aggressive and efficient, Aleksadr Andreyevich Barnov was an itinerant Russian merchant and trader who first migrated east of Siberia then to Alaska. In 1779 he assumed command of the Russian American Company, a semi-official monopoly colonial trading company chartered by Czar Paul I. He solidified his country’s territorial claims on the frontier and extracting vast quantities of sea otter furs for the company’s shareholders and directors in St. Peters-burg. his famous line: “Since my life is in constant danger not only form the hostility of wild tribes but from men often unwilling to submit to discipline, since my strength is exhausted and my health dissipated battling the hardships I have had to endure, I feel that natural time, the hour of my death, is for me more uncertain than for most men, and therefore I make my will.”

George Simpson was the financial and structural genius who steered the Hudson’s Bay Company to its greatest financial success and territorial domination in the early 19th century. Responsible for shipping hundreds of thousands of beaver furs to London every year. After he died in 1860, most of Simpson’s domain passed from the Hudson’s Bay Company’s power and became part of the new nation of Canada. His famous line:” I consider it quite unnecessary to indent for Sauces and Pickles on public account... I never use fish sauce in the country and never saw anyone use it or pickles either. From the quantity of Mustard indented for, one would suppose it is now issued as an article of trade with the Indians.”

Cecil John Rhodes, the British born South African mining magnate, politician businessman and racist promoter of British colonialism was the founder of the diamond company De Beers. In 1899 he secured British government support for the creation of the British south Africa company to operate in Rhodesia , a territory he created and ‘allowed’ to be named after himself. his famous line:” Great Britain is a very small island. Great Britain's position depends on her trade, and if we do not open up the dependencies of the world which are at present devoted to barbarism, we shall shut out the world’s trade. It must be brought home to you that your trade is the world, and your life is the world, not England. That is why you must deal with these questions of expansion and retention of the world.”

They were vested with enormous powers by both their companies and their countries, yet there was a clear conflict of interest between advancing the business interests of companies and acting as civil authorities. By making far reaching decision according to their conflicted consciousness, the merchant kings had a profound influence. Companies are not generally known for having sweeping political control, but trying to balance interests of their companies with the interests of their countries, the merchant kings changed history as significantly as the most celebrated military generals, political leaders and technological innovators did.

The seven deadly sins: pride, greed, sloth, lust, envy, wrath, and gluttony.
The seven virtues: humility, charity, diligence, chastity, kindness, patience and temperance.

Among the merchant kings, the seven deadly sins might seem overrepresented, but there was goodness in most of them too.

1 comment:

D.M. McGowan said...

And after 400 years we are all still paying for these merchant kings' actions. Here in Canada it's primarily with the Metis but also includes the full blood peoples (including some decendants of European imports). However, the story is the same all over the world where these Mega-companies existed.