Merchant Kings: When Companies Ruled the World, 1600 to 1900 is a 2009 non-fiction popular history book by Stephen R. Bown, which discusses the age of “heroic commerce” through biographical profiles of six of the leading “merchant kings” of the great chartered companies which held colonial trade monopolies: Jan Pieterszoon Coen of the Dutch East India Company, Pieter Stuyvesant of the Dutch West India Company, Robert Clive of the English East India Company, Alexander Baranov of the Russian American Company, George Simpson of the Hudson’s Bay Company, and Cecil John Rhodes of the British South Africa Company.
Each of these companies blurred the line between corporation and state, taking on certain roles of civil government over its employees, customers, and native peoples and settlers within their domains. The men who ran them operated with impunity, far from the oversight and control of their home countries’ governments and their companies’ directors (many of whom never set foot on the territories whose commerce they profited from). These men, often from humble beginnings, grew fantastically wealthy and powerful through the activities of their companies, while serving as quasi-official representatives of their home government—roles which were often at odds. They achieved their successes as much through military conquest and treachery—against their competitors, their employees, and native peoples—as through equitable trade. Though each helped to shape the modern world, their reputations are largely tarnished by their moral failings.