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Merchant Kings: When Companies Ruled the World, 1600--1900 Hardcover – December 7, 2010
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From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. Bown (A Most Damnable Invention) has produced a magnificent description of the six great companies, and their leaders, that dominated the "Heroic Age of Commerce." Bown demonstrates how the corporations served as stalking horses for kings and parliaments while enriching shareholders and the powerful managers themselves. Jan Pieterszoon Coen of the Dutch East India Company was particularly noteworthy for cruel tyranny in what is now Indonesia. The English East India Company's Robert Clive, through genius and perseverance, rose to a position of near-absolute power in India. Aleksander Baranov of the Russian American Company, known as the "Lord of Alaska," was bound by ties of decency and responsibility to the company's men, but also had a deep strain of brutality. Cecil Rhodes of the British South Africa Company and of De Beers, the South African diamond monopoly, was dedicated both to the British Empire and to the success of his various enterprises. Bown presents a fascinating look at the men who exploited resources and native peoples while laying the foundations of empires. "Neither heroes nor angels," Bown says, their global impact was as great as that of any king. Illus.; maps. (Dec.)
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Monopolies, such as England’s storied East India Company, have inspired many popular histories and biographies. Bown synthesizes this material into a lively gallery of six men who built up their firms and enriched themselves. Motivations and character are in the forefront of Bown’s portraits, whose subjects viewed their employment as their main chance for ascending to status and wealth, manifesting traits of determination and ruthlessness along the way that posterity looked upon askance, to put it mildly. Take Cecil Rhodes, the racial-supremacist empire builder who organized a company to dispossess Africans from what is today Zimbabwe and Zambia. Bown compares Rhodes to Jan Coen, who in the early 1600s pitilessly monopolized the East Indies spice trade on behalf of the Netherlands and his company, the VOC, and counts Robert Clive in 1700s India as a comparable buccaneer of self-interest and imperial expansion. Additionally profiling Pieter Stuyvesant in New York, Aleksandr Baranov in Alaska, and George Simpson of the Hudson’s Bay Company, Bown ably deploys biography to present the successes, costs, and legacies of an era’s commingling of private money and state sovereignty. --Gilbert Taylor
Top customer reviews
I had read about and studied Robert Clive before and, of course, knew a fair amount Cecil Rhodes. But of the other men, I knew very little and this was an excellent introduction to their deeds and personalities. It is hard to pick a favourite because of the way the author neither venerates nor denigrates any of these men, but rather recognizes them as product of their age. Their energy and sheer opportunistic drive and passion for what they did, is certainly to be admired. But their shortcomings – some are racists, others ruthless and power-hungry - make it difficult to fully sympathize.
All in all this is a great read. One that makes you want to delve more deeply into each of the men at the centre of this study. An interesting epilogue too, which suggests that these companies are not too far removed from the multinationals of today!
The book was easy to read, providing a good overall perspective on a subject that could get complicated in refrence to all the historical facts that relate to it.
Personally I could have done without Mr Bown's pontifications around slavery, apartheid and the like, in favor of just reporting the facts. But I suppose he felt strongly about the abuses that occurred, or wanted to distance himself as much from them as possible. Regardless, it is a good read on a few/six interesting periods in the world's history.