Empire, Incorporated: The Corporations That Built British Colonialism 
by Philip J. Stern.
Harvard, 408 pp., £30.95, May, 978 0 674 98812 5
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In April​ 2022, Justin Trudeau watched Richard Baker, the 39th governor of the Hudson’s Bay Company, hand over ownership of its ornate department store in Winnipeg to the local First Nations. The ceremonial was Hanoverian, with Baker and Grand Chief Jerry Daniels trading pelts and a gold coin, but the rhetoric was that of postcolonial reconciliation. Though proud of his company’s longevity, Baker acknowledged it was time to repent for its ‘definitive role in the colonisation of Canada’.

This was putting it mildly. Incorporated by royal charter in 1670, at its mid-19th-century apogee the Governor and Company of Adventurers of England Trading into Hudson’s Bay controlled around a million square miles of territory in British North America, with trading rights that extended to the Pacific. It persuaded Indigenous trappers to swap beaver pelts for firearms and tobacco, drawing them into transatlantic capitalism. In the first two-thirds of the 18th century alone, trappers provided the HBC with nearly three million waterproof pelts, which it shipped to the European hat makers who had denuded their own continent of beavers. The HBC wasn’t just a business concern but an instrument of monarchical ambition. Its first governor was Prince Rupert, the famous cavalier, after whom the bay’s vast watershed was named; for decades the company exercised quasi-sovereignty there on behalf of the Crown. When Elizabeth II visited its former territories in Manitoba, the HBC governor presented her with the gift its charter mandated for visiting sovereigns: two live beavers, which promptly copulated in front of her.

The HBC resembled its prey in being an elusive, amphibious animal. Does it belong to an economic history of imperialism, which emphasises the insatiable appetite for resources? Or a political one, in which the projection of sovereign power and ideology was the driver of overseas expansion? Philip Stern’s commanding history of British corporate imperialism suggests that the question is poorly framed. In an earlier book, he influentially presented the East India Company as a ‘company-state’, a hybrid uniquely successful in making government its trade. In this new synoptic synthesis, Stern argues that the HBC and EIC were only the most dominant members of an ecosystem centred on Westminster and the City. In the centuries between the reigns of Elizabeth I and Elizabeth II, hundreds of chartered companies sought to profit from and extend the empire. Although few came close to the HBC or EIC’s durability or profitability, they lumpily but inexorably advanced British sovereignty all the same. As an intellectual historian, Stern isn’t much interested in measuring the relative economic performance of the companies against their foreign competitors, or in describing the havoc they wrought on other peoples and lands. Instead, he traces their persistence and malleability from Tudor times to 20th-century decolonisation. By paying close attention to the intricate overlap between greed and the public good, he avoids the polemicism that has dominated recent public discussion of British imperialism, showing that overseas expansion was at its most dynamic when it was ramshackle and atavistic.

Chartered companies owed their rise to the mounting ambitions of the Tudor and Stuart monarchy. Sovereigns had created corporations such as universities for centuries. Yet they learned from Spanish, Portuguese and Dutch ventures that by franchising their sovereignty they could project it abroad, granting patents and charters which gave companies of merchants exclusive rights to trade and settle contested areas of the globe. The tactic was used most intensively closest to home: before launching ventures in North America and the West Indies, adventurers had sought patents to establish military settlements in Ireland. Monopolies were unpopular and rights to make war or acquire territory could infringe on the sovereign’s dignity. Yet the merchants, and the courtiers who supported them, tirelessly justified the activities of companies.

Their argument was partly about incentives: those who bore the risk and expense of creating a market were entitled to its profits. But they also advanced a religious rationale. Outside Christendom, trade was a diplomatic act, which succeeded only when animated by common purpose and backed by the sovereign. Josiah Child, an early governor of the EIC, wrote that it would be ‘madness’ to let ‘raw and private persons’ haggle with Indians. The same went for settling the New World, where it seemed vital to group colonisers together in defensible cities, rather than allowing individuals to strike their own deals with the indigenes and fan out across country.

Many charters went to joint stock companies – a decisive if far from universal innovation. The merchants of the Levant Company pooled the costs of operating in the Eastern Mediterranean. Some colonies in North America, such as Pennsylvania, were simply proprietary enterprises, with an individual, for instance William Penn, receiving huge land grants from an indebted Crown. Yet even these colonies soon encouraged joint stock companies to establish towns or generate commerce. Joint stocks allowed merchants to become ‘portfolio colonialists’, who could entrust the capital amassed in one trade to proxies acting in parts of the world they knew little about. Because most joint stocks were similarly structured, with boards to ensure good governance, a cluster of City people soon accrued multiple roles in initially unrelated enterprises.

The dense prosopographies with which Stern loads his chapters read like an early modern LinkedIn: the same names recur as governors, directors and stockholders. By giving shares to the Crown and its courtiers, ‘projectors’ also gained political cover. In the run up to Charles III’s coronation, the Guardian flourished its discovery of a document recording Edward Colston’s grant to William III of shares in the Royal African Company, which shipped more enslaved people across the Atlantic than any other organisation. It was an embarrassing but hardly revelatory find: the king was the company’s titular governor and historians have long known of his shareholding. But it vividly illustrates the fact that the elite had a stake in the seamiest forms of overseas expansion.

Because companies landed in unmapped and poorly understood societies, their spread was more anarchic than strategic. The Crown’s habit of granting multiple charters for the same regions led to interminable clashes over jurisdiction between rival companies, especially in North America. Monarchs skilled at wielding sovereignty at home struggled to control entities that claimed to act for them abroad. The tyranny of distance challenged a reliance on medieval expedients such as writs of quo warranto, which challenged or revoked a company’s original charter. An attempt by the royalist governor of Maine to invade Massachusetts and seize its uppity company’s charter ended in farce when his ship fell to pieces after its launch. Corporations were soon writing their own charters, as when the Massachusetts Bay Company formally incorporated the president and fellows of Harvard College in the confusion that followed the execution of Charles I.

Later Stuart monarchs were more energetic in bringing colonial companies to heel, insisting that corporations could not engender other corporations and downgrading their charters to mere licences held at the Crown’s discretion. But Americans stubbornly responded by saying that charters were a ‘sacred’ form of property. After the War of Independence, the new federal government retained this understanding of colonialism as an enterprise shared between a government and its capitalists, rolling over many charters and allowing states to create new companies for speculation in Indigenous land.

Joint stocks, which tapped passive investors, were also a paradise for grifters. Scribblers, pirates and mystagogues wrote their prospectuses. They preferred stunts to the publication of accounts, as when the Virginia Company sent Pocahontas on a tour of England to advertise the biddability of the Powhatan people. Privateers such as Francis Drake or Humphrey Gilbert covered their costs by raiding Spanish ships (which they passed off to the monarchy as a deniable form of warfare), or schemed to gain title to as much Indigenous land as possible before selling it off to subsidiaries. They were better at creating such Russian dolls of speculation than at locating profitable or even useful commodities. Elizabeth I pledged a thousand pounds to Martin Frobisher’s Company of Cathay, a mining outfit whose ships brought back a thousand tons of worthless rocks from the New World, and which then collapsed before its charter had even been issued. Yet these calamities did more to advertise companies as investment vehicles than to quell their appeal. Wild optimism prevailed, as when some adventurers who had failed to thrive in chilly Newfoundland set up the Amazon Company to colonise steamy Guiana instead.

The best examples of such tenacious brazenness come from the Restoration, which Daniel Defoe described as a ‘projecting age’. Stern’s bravura account of the Sword Blades Company reveals its ingenious methods of creative accounting. After William III had routed James II in Ireland, the Crown sold off confiscated rebel estates to its soldiery. What if a company could persuade these men to swap their new lands for shares? They would be relieved of managing distant assets and gain a rising stock. The architects of this wheeze avoided the bother of obtaining a new charter by taking over a company originally chartered to encourage the manufacture of weapons. They turned swords into ploughshares – but mainly into shares. The Sword Blades Company became the seventh-largest joint stock in England and one of Ireland’s biggest landowners, only to face collapse when it could not extract rents from its tenants.

Yet it bounced back. It ran a coffee house. It started a Sword Blade Bank. In 1711, its members persuaded Queen Anne’s ministry to charter the Governor and Company of Great Britain Trading to the South Seas and Other Parts of America. By swapping government debt for stock, it yoked the state to activities that ranged from procuring slaves for New Spain to Arctic whaling. (In a similar way, the Darien Company and John Law’s Mississippi Company had seduced the Scottish and French states into backing failed colonies.) The ‘Bubble Act’ of 1720 neither prevented the bursting of the South Sea Company’s bubble when its overvalued shares collapsed in price nor stopped the expansion of the East India Company’s activities. The South Sea Bubble exploited a basic ambiguity in the nature of share prices: were they a judgment on current value or – like imperialism itself – a bet on the future? Like today’s bad banks, the South Sea Company even survived its implosion, thrumming along as a manager of government debt until it was finally wound up in 1853.

The South Sea Company may have proved an embarrassing liability, but other companies generated the transoceanic flows of information on which imperial strategy increasingly depended. To talk up their contributions to the Enlightenment might seem like praising BP or the Sacklers for their patronage of the arts. Yet their cupidity generated commitments to intelligence-gathering of all kinds. One by-product of their operations was scientific discovery. As the historian Simon Mills has shown, the chaplains sent by the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge to the Levant Company’s factories in the Eastern Mediterranean returned with books for Bodley’s Library and a mummy for the Ashmolean. Edward Pococke brought back not only Arabic manuscripts, but seeds of fig trees and cedars of Lebanon, which still flourish where he planted them in Oxford.

The chartering of the Royal Society of London in 1662, to extend ‘not only the boundaries of empire but also of the very arts and sciences’, created a corporate sponsor for knowledge-gathering. One of its founding members, Robert Boyle, a Hudson’s Bay Company shareholder as well as an Irish plantation owner and an EIC director, wrote questionnaires to guide the RSL’s factors, who eagerly supplied the society and other metropolitan institutions with travelogues, dictionaries of indigenous languages and natural specimens. Jessica Patterson and Joshua Ehrlich have demonstrated that scholarship and corporate ambition were just as inseparable in India. One reason scholarly members of the EIC studied what they called Hinduism was that it enabled them to present the corporation as the saviour of India’s primordial religion from the supposed tyranny of the Muslim Mughals.

Stern sinks a prevailing view that the power of the companies had peaked by the mid-18th century. They certainly faced heightened scrutiny from that time, with Parliament proving more determined than the Crown in holding them to account. The periodic renewal of their charters became perilous occasions, with their enemies rehearsing Adam Smith’s scathing criticisms of their tyranny over Britons and foreigners, as well as their inefficiencies. The complaints of these anti-mercantilists often make weird reading today. The Royal African Company’s critics argued that it attacked the liberties of freeborn Englishmen by shutting them out from the trade in enslaved Africans. The company’s counterattacks on the brutality of unlicensed traders ironically supplied early abolitionists with ammunition. Stern suggests that mounting unease over the rapacity of empire actually generated many more charters than it eliminated, as missionaries and philanthropists turned themselves into imperial corporations too. In 1791, Granville Sharp got Parliament to vote a royal charter for his Sierra Leone Company. Its remit was not to trade with or settle in Sierra Leone but to govern it, creating an ‘English territory’, a demonstration to all that virtuous commerce paid better than slaving.

Thisnew vision of corporations as devoted to doing good rather than making profits forced even the stateliest to recalibrate their activities. By the later 18th century, the EIC was at once an extension of the monarchy in its global struggle against France, a gang of officials trading on their own account, and a parasite on the Mughals, who still nominally ruled much of the subcontinent. But this canny hybridity looked disreputable: it had turned the Crown into a mere ‘appendix’ to its merchants. Worse, the swapping of EIC stock for government debt suggested that it was a new South Sea Company, whose collapse could capsize the British state. Although a quarter of MPs held its stock, this merely pushed shareholder disagreements about its future into Parliament. The EIC had to accept supervision by the Crown’s governors general and a Board of Control. Parliament whittled down its trading rights, then eliminated them when renewing its charters in 1813 and 1834, rephrasing its purpose as governing ‘in trust’ for the Crown.

Yet although the EIC finally forfeited the government of India to the Crown after the 1857 Rebellion, it had evolved a ruling manner with a long future. Its obsessive accumulation of written information about Indian societies supposedly evidenced its commitment to their ‘improvement’, leading John Stuart Mill to claim that it had attained a pitch of utilitarian excellence. He would say that: like his father before him, he was one of its employees. Yet the new Indian Civil Service also ruled the Raj as an arrogant technocracy steered by despots – the despots being the viceroys created at Queen Victoria’s insistence to preserve the monarchy’s sway over India.

The Hudson’s Bay Company also changed to survive. For many decades, its reticent directors had granted full freedom of manoeuvre to the men on the ground, since sea ice cut them off from London for months at a time. The HBC had sat out Britain’s wars with France in North America, made loans to the government to get its charter renewed, and come down hard on interlopers. Though its factors sometimes punished and sometimes provided for ‘home Indians’ who settled around their factories, they did not aspire to Christianise or civilise their trading partners. The company abandoned its lucrative inertia only in the 1820s, when Parliament merged it with a rival firm and chartered it to manage trade and settlement west of the Rockies. It robustly defended this Pacific slope against Russian and American competition.

With imperial responsibilities came a new hauteur towards Indigenous peoples. Sir George Simpson, the HBC’s governor in North America, turned against the custom of factors taking ‘country’ wives, dismissing them as ‘bits of copper’. In 1846, the settlement of the American border at the 49th parallel forced the HBC to retreat northwards, but the Colonial Office then chartered it to create a colony of English settlers on Vancouver Island, in a bid to stop ‘the encroaching spirit of the United States’. In this new venture, the HBC emulated companies which had promised to undertake the ‘systematic colonisation’ of Australasia by facilitating the emigration of rural labourers. The HBC never understood farming as well as furs. Unable to lure enough yeomen to such a remote place, it surrendered Vancouver Island to the Crown, which merged it with its mainland colony of British Columbia. Yet it had done enough to make Western Canada British.

When the British government brokered the sale of the HBC’s rights over Prince Rupert’s Land to the new Dominion of Canada in 1870 – not least to stop the US purchasing them instead – chartered companies appeared to be finished as imperial actors. It’s true that many piratical companies were still awarded royal charters to confer respectability on their shady acquisition of territory; imperial thinkers cheered this strange revival in ‘Charterland’, which stretched from the Falkland Islands to Rhodesia, hailing their promoters as Elizabethans redux. Nonetheless, the ‘rogue empires’ stitched together by such adventurers as Cecil Rhodes or Sir George Goldie of the Royal Niger Company struggled to be viable and were reluctantly bought out by the state.

Yet while companies made poor colonisers, they remained indispensable auxiliaries to imperialism. In India, the Raj continued the EIC’s long-standing practice of spinning off companies to build the railroads and irrigation networks which seemed to advance social progress. They were just as vital to the integration of the Canadian West. The Grand Trunk Pacific Railway got federal guarantees and Crown land to connect Atlantic Canada with a deepwater port on the closest ice-free harbour to Asia, in remote British Columbia. A competition was launched to name it. From five thousand entries, Eleanor MacDonald of Winnipeg won the $250 prize with ‘Prince Rupert’, which appealed to the company president’s belief that he was reviving the spirit of the HBC. Charles Hays never lived to see his hopes pan out: he sank with the Titanic. A depression and changing geopolitics meant that Prince Rupert never became a gateway to Asia; it had to make do with becoming the halibut capital of the world. Only now is it thriving by importing containers of Asian consumer goods – an ironic vindication of Hays’s vision.

Companies underwired the whole empire as well as its component states. They operated steam ships and laid down the telegraph cables that eventually formed a British ‘All Red Line’ around the globe and facilitated the rapid exchange of information on which the cultural cohesion of settler colonies depended. Felix Waldmann, Michael Taylor and Timothy Twining’s recent study of John Ellerman, Edwardian Britain’s richest man, notes that he viewed himself as a ‘modern Francis Drake: a cynosure for the extension of British rule across the globe’. Edward VII made Ellerman a baronet after his Leyland Line vessels took volunteers to the Boer War for free – a perfectly Elizabethan act, which proved quite compatible with selling out the firm to J.P. Morgan soon afterwards.

The companies which sprang up to service the empire often outlived it. When the air became as important to imperial security as the sea in the 1920s and 1930s, the state bundled together new aviation firms as the British Overseas Airways Corporation, a move soon emulated by Dominion governments. BOAC’s first chairman was Sir John Reith, who as the founding director general of the British Broadcasting Corporation had justified its chartered monopoly as vital to ‘maintaining a consolidated British empire’. Recent controversies over the renewal of the BBC’s charter often read like parochial echoes of past debates over imperial corporations. In due course, corporations made decolonisation safe for capitalism. Concessionary companies created to exploit colonial resources often continued to operate, though they faced nationalisation by successor states. Officials in surviving or former colonial outposts tweaked taxation and regulatory regimes to encourage multinational corporations to headquarter themselves there. Such offshoring later leached onshore, as countries around the world tired of their attempts to control multinationals: the balance of power between what were now post-imperial states and corporations had shifted once again.

Stern avoids a trite parallelism that reduces chartered companies to the forerunners of modern multinationals. The East India Company didn’t just bow out to Apple or Tesla; instead, it has undergone a sort of resurrection. Although it was dissolved in 1874, a Mumbai entrepreneur claimed to have purchased its name and associations in 2005: his East India Company Limited now flogs posh teas on New Bond Street – a brand, rather than a government. But it’s also possible to finish this book convinced that the British Empire has been just one phase in the pragmatic imagination of Anglophone capitalism.

Once, corporations advanced the glory of queens and emperors; now, like the HBC, they denounce ‘entrenched racism’ and other sins of empire. But their leverage of political influence for profit, or at least rent, remains the same. The HBC’s sacrifice in Winnipeg makes the point. Despite his quaint title, the present governor is a private equity investor from Connecticut. In the later 19th century, the HBC converted itself from a trader and imperial administrator into a retailer. ‘The Bay’ became a Canadian Marks and Spencer, whose successive owners failed to modernise before Baker bought it. He transferred its department stores to a portfolio company, freeing him to plan their redevelopment as high-end office blocks. The listing of the HBC’s flagship store ruled out such a move in Winnipeg; Baker lost money on it. While Trudeau described its state-backed transformation into a First Nations community centre as an ‘inspired act of reclamation’, it has also eased HBC’s transformation into a heritage front for rentier capital.

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