You get an odd mix of a book. The historical details seem accurate and detailed, and learning some of the facts and stories are interesting. But other times, it’s like there’s this cranky old man peering through the pages at me, and he wants to make sure I see the stories as he does, along with his own morality on top of it. It’s not often that in the introduction to a historical nonfiction book, I get a list of the Seven Deadly Sins and the Seven Virtues. He’s also a little lost in his own sense of time, and doesn’t really care if he tells the story in chronological order. This book is interesting, over all, but a little scattered, and a very opinionated view of the world.
Commerce meets conquest in this swashbuckling story of the six merchant-adventurers who built the modern world
It was an era when 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 hundred years, expanded their far-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; Alexandr Baranov of the Russian American Company; Cecil Rhodes, founder of De Beers and Rhodesia; and George Simpson, the “Little Emperor” of the Hudson’s 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. A blend of biography, corporate history, and colonial history, this book offers a panoramic, new perspective on the enormous cultural, political, and social legacies, good and bad, of this first period of unfettered globalization.