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Two companies that changed the world

Mughal emperor Shah Alam granting the East India Company tax collecting rights. Benjamin West/British Library

Britain’s East India Company, and its Dutch equivalent, the Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie (VOC), were “two of the most powerful corporations the world has ever known”, says Caroline Elkins in Foreign Affairs. As Philip Stern describes in Empire, Incorporated, these two firms “possessed powers typically associated with sovereign states”, including the right to mint currency and wage war. They “generated incredible wealth”, fuelling the Dutch Golden Age of the 17th century and the British Industrial Revolution in the 18th and 19th centuries. At its height in 1637, the VOC was worth around $7.9trn in today’s dollars – greater than the combined valuations of “Alibaba, Alphabet, Amazon, Apple, AT&T, Bank of America, Berkshire Hathaway, Chevron, ExxonMobil, Facebook, Johnson & Johnson, McDonald’s, Netflix, Samsung, Tencent, Visa, Walmart, and Wells Fargo”.

In 1623, Dutch agents tortured and beheaded 10 English merchants on an Indonesian island for attempting to “usurp control of the region’s lucrative spice trade”. The Amboyna Massacre generated outrage in Britain and became part of the East India Company’s “origin story”. Warned off competing directly with the Dutch, the British firm “turned to cotton and silk textile trading with the Mughal Empire in South Asia”. Eventually it took over the entire Indian subcontinent – in the early 1800s, it had an army twice the size of the UK’s – before a “seismic rebellion” in 1857 spurred the British crown to assume direct control of the territory. “What began in the ignominy at Amboyna would end in the creation of a globe-spanning empire and the modern world as we know it.”

Empire, Incorporated is available to buy here.