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Merchant Kings: When Companies Ruled the World, 1600 - 1900

3.78  ·  Rating details ·  348 ratings  ·  34 reviews
Commerce meets conquest in this swashbuckling story of the six merchant-adventurers who built the modern world, as told by Steven Bown, .Canada's Simon Winchester. (Globe and Mail).

Through the Age of Heroic Commerce, from the 17th to the 19th centuries, a rogue's gallery of larger-than-life merchant kings ruled vast tracts of the globe and expanded their far-flung
Hardcover, 314 pages
Published 2009 by Douglas & McIntyre
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Average rating 3.78  · 
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Mar 02, 2015 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I realized recently that I hadn't even realized that the Dutch and British East India Companies were two separate entities, so I decided I needed a book to explain the whole thing to me and I settled on this one. This proved an excellent choice. "Merchant Kings" is a very readable survey of six great national monopolies, companies chartered not only to expand their nations' reach but even to rule territory and wage war in their name. The focus is specifically on the six notable and highly ...more
Mar 02, 2016 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction
This a mini biography of six individuals who spearheaded the greatest merchant companies from 1600-1900.
These individuals/company are namely:
Jan Pieterzoon Coen - Dutch East India Company
Pieter Suyvesant - Dutch West India Company
Sir Robert Clive - British East India Company
Aleksandr Baranov - Russian American Company
Sir George Simpson - Hudson Bay Company
Cecil John Rhodes - British South Africa Company

What was interesting that most of these men were not gentleman, but just very ambitious,
An interesting look at informal imperialism through the biographies of leaders of six chartered companies (Dutch East India Company, Dutch West India Company/New Netherlands, British East India Company, Russian America Company, Hudson's Bay Company, and the British South Africa Company). I don't know that this is the most effective way to tell this story, as it frequently feels disjointed and without much overlap. Moreover, Bown's idea of the "Age of Heroic Commerce" is nonsense. The "Age of ...more
Karl Rove
Through the personalities of the big men that ran them, a Canadian historian examines five government-sponsored monopolies that governed as dictatorial machines over vast swatches on the fringes of an expanding world between 1600 and 1900. These companies raised their own armies, ruled the lives of employees and native peoples, and ruthlessly squeezed profits to send to absentee investors back in their homelands. These trading enterprises included the British East India, Russian American, Hudson ...more
Bill Tress
Dec 04, 2019 rated it liked it
Shelves: history
My desire to read about the Dutch East India Company (VOC) was the motivation to read this book. To my surprise the book took me from the West Indies, spice wars, to the English East Indies Company that went to India, The Dutch West India Company that went to America, the Hudson Bay Company that went west following the beaver to the Pacific Coast, the Russian American Company that went to Alaska in quest of gold and sea otters, to the British South African Company and finally a short biography ...more
Oct 12, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I had been searching for a very long time to find a book which filled in this historic gap that is the “East” and “West” “India Compan(ies)” of the world. This is a fantastic read giving so much more depth and story around the leaders of the merchant trading companies which colonized regardless of (and sometimes on behalf of) the European powers whose flags they flew. The earliest form of capitalism with all its fault, stories of glory, and, unfortunately, many acts of genocide and disregard for ...more
Catherine Gentry
Excellent history of the various companies which were instrumental to colonizing much of the world, but far too depressing. I only read the first two chapters. I may go back and read more eventually, but it's emotionally difficulty for me to read of the brutalities of the colonizers who much of the modern world has come to deify as if might makes rights ever.
Catherine Woodman
Interesting book about the role of merchants in worl politics--and instead of going over the entire history, it follows the lives and influence of 6 specific merchants, 17th-19th century figures, and looked at the local and global impact they had.
Stephen Bown explains the "Age of Heroic Commerce" through the lives of six "merchants kings", the managers of the six biggest trading companies of that period - Jan Pieterszoon Coen (Dutch East India Company), Peter Stuyvesant (Dutch West India Company), Robert Clive (British East India Company), Aleksandr Baranov (Russian-American Company), George Simpson (Hudson Bay Company) and Cecil Rhodes (British South Africa Company). While enriching their shareholders in Amsterdam, London and Saint ...more
Feb 13, 2020 rated it liked it
I wanted to learn more about the Dutch East India Company and the Hudson’s Bay Company, and this book did the trick. It tells the stories of these and other statist companies, which are sort of interesting. It could have been a better book if the author had reflected more on what it means for a company to act like a state—with police forces, standing armies, the capacity to write and sign treaties. It’s a major historical anomaly! I was hoping for a deeper explication of that organizational ...more
Aaron Bernstein
Sep 06, 2019 rated it really liked it
I’d of course heard about the Dutch East India Company, Hudson’s Bay Company, and several other companies but didn’t truly grasp their scale, influence, and how profoundly they changed the course of world history. I’m a big fan of this author, having really enjoyed this one and his book about Norwegian adventurer/explorer Amundsen (The Last Viking). Highly recommended if you are a fan of literary non-fiction!
Ivan Barona
Nov 15, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Really entertaining history on corporativism

The author manages to paint an interesting picture of the intricate relationship between capitalism and colonialism between 1600 and 1900. It also depicts the personalities of the leading men of these enterprises
Daniel Smith
Oct 14, 2017 rated it really liked it
Author was forthright that book was a bit topical and not focused so much on the corporations. Focused on the central figures that ushered the massive rise in each of the main mercantile trading companies.
May 13, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Very good high level view of some of the chartered companies that shaped the modern world.
Mar 27, 2019 rated it it was amazing
This is my second book by Stephen R. Brown, the first was "1494" and I have loved them both. They are popular, narrative history at its best.
Jun 10, 2019 rated it liked it
Well written, well researched, and with enough asides and historical context to keep me interested.
Daniel Frank
Oct 06, 2018 rated it liked it
A series of essays on interesting men working for fascinating companies that shaped the modern world.

Pedro A. Ribeiro
Jun 16, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Bought this book on a whim, but it revealed to be totally justified.
A great insight of several historical figures, that through their power, derived solely from their skills as merchants, managed to leave a footprint in History, and even change its course.
Recommend it for people that love History. There's a lot to learn on these pages.
Josiah Coffey
Oct 10, 2012 rated it liked it
Shelves: misc-history
In this somewhat brief overview of mercantilism during the 17th,18th and 19th centuries Brown focuses in on the six leading figures of the six most dominant merchant companies of this period. He tells the story of Jan Coen of the Dutch East India Company, Pieter Stuyvesant and the Dutch West India Company, Sir Robert Clive of the English East India Company, Aleksandr Baranov of the Russian American Company, Sir George Simpson of the Hudson’s Bay Company, and Cecil Rhodes of the British South ...more
Keita Teranishi
Sep 03, 2014 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Interesting analysis of historical figures (merchant kings) who lead the chartered companies in the age of colonialism. They were brilliant, heroic and charismatic but ruthless and unscrupulous to achieve their goals for monopoly, territorial expansion and making profit (to please his share holders). The author addressed a spectrum of each figure (personal trait, economics, politics and war in Europe to depict, and ingenious society) to depict the nature of the colonialism that can be seen as a ...more
Mar 03, 2011 rated it it was ok
Ok book. John Cecil Rhodes was a racist jerk, a product of him time with all the supercilious airs of British superiority. The main point of the book was that Merchant kings mixed politics with business. The states would grant monopolies to the companies to profit in the new world/spiceries. Away from the law and order of their sponsoring Nation, these men created their own law and destiny to deal with the challenges ahead. The author does a great job of referencing Adam Smith in the end, who ...more
John Weiler
Jan 11, 2017 rated it liked it
This book is: well written; gives the facts surrounding a half-dozen, less-than-savoury people; but, other than the Adam Smith quote: "Monopoly ... is a great enemy of good management," it fails to provide any insight into what underpins those people or their stories. The book is kind of like a joke with no punch line.

I wonder how and why Spain's plundering of Mexico and South America for gold and silver escaped the author's attention. Ditto that comment for the first great "Merchant King"","
Julian Haigh
Feb 19, 2014 rated it liked it
Decent book. Bown looks at 6 different monopolies and how and why they were granted such broad powers to create empires in new lands. I had not even heard of the Russian America Company that began populating Alaska, but otherwise these were generally heard stories. What I had been hoping was a little more compare/contrast between the different approaches and while there were some incidental points made, there was a lack of an over-riding narrative that I expected from a book. It's more a ...more
Sep 01, 2012 added it
I am getting into history and thought that the book provide mediocre, wrote, insight on situations at the respective conquistador's time. It was written to a more fluid textbook with information being loaded onto pages versus providing a more analytical approach to what was happening and why. Again, just getting into history and perhaps books are written as such. Breeze right through it in a day.
Dec 26, 2011 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: secret-histories
Very general. I suppose that a through examination of all six merchant companies would have taken a much larger book, but all the same from what I know of the Dutch East India Company, this was a short, almost cursory history and I suspect the images I now have of the organizations I did not know of beforehand are limited if not inaccurate.
Mohamed Islam
Jun 09, 2011 rated it it was amazing
Background information for those who would like to read late Victorian Holocaust and Chruchill's Secret War. Enjoying it so far.
6/14/2011- Eye opening. Learned the history of the famed Rohdes Scholarship. Not a pretty picture. End should never justify the means.
Greg hook
Sep 20, 2011 rated it liked it
didn't finish Ipad went away
Feb 10, 2014 rated it liked it
Mostly good. This isn't Simon Winchester. I can't really warm up to any of the stories and featured characters.
Feb 04, 2012 is currently reading it
A little blunt but then again so was the VOC
Apr 25, 2012 rated it really liked it
A fantastic, thorough history of the great mercantile monopolies. Very fluid writing, and excellent storytelling.
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I am a critically acclaimed author of nine literary non-fiction books on the history of science, exploration and ideas. I take a biographical and narrative approach to my writing, using the techniques of fiction writing – strong storytelling, creative language, emphasizing people, their decisions, actions and motivations – to tell factually and historically accurate stories.