Empire, Incorporated: The Corporations That Built British Colonialism by Philip J Stern - review by Barnaby Crowcroft

Barnaby Crowcroft

World for Sale

Empire, Incorporated: The Corporations That Built British Colonialism


Belknap Press 408pp £29.95

When Empire, Incorporated comes out in paperback, it will be able to boast about providing the historical background to what we have recently come to know as one of the world’s most inept as well as most storied corporations. Founded in 1636 to cock a snook at King Charles I as he embarked on his era of ‘personal rule’, Harvard College won its incorporation by charter in 1650 – giving it rights of autonomy, property and self-governance – amid the constitutional chaos that followed the king’s execution. That it endured into the era of American independence a century later, despite calls to get rid of such chartered corporations as relics of the ancien regime, tells us much about how unrevolutionary the American Revolution really was. The result is that today, the Harvard Corporation, a shadowy, self-appointed governing body controlling a financial endowment larger than the GDP of many countries, is free to make the university a national laughing stock, diminish the coin of its degrees and preside over rates of return that would be the embarrassment of a children’s lemonade stand, and there’s little anyone can really do about it.

Philip J Stern’s book is a vast compendium of all kinds of colonial corporations, which may collectively be said to have made the modern world. In a previous book, The Company-State (2011), on British expansion in India, Stern showed how much companies in the early modern era operated like sovereign states. This one messes with the political scientists even more by showing how much of what we now view as the history of states was really the work of companies. It was not ‘Britain’ as such that built a globe-spanning empire, but British companies, private interests and entrepreneurs, in what Stern neatly calls ‘corporate’ or ‘venture’ colonialism. Britain’s empire was privately owned and operated over a longer chronological period and more comprehensively than we tend to assume. At the heart of all this was the humble joint-stock company, which should properly be regarded as one of the main ‘killer apps’ – in Niall Ferguson’s formulation – which, for better or worse, enabled the ascendancy of the West over the rest.

The great innovation of joint-stock colonialism was its democratisation of empire-building, making the imperialism racket available to the most home-bound and humble members of the English middle classes. Among the backers of your average ‘company of adventurers’ in the 16th century, we find not just the usual rollcall of aristocrats

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