“[A] landmark book…[a] bold reframing of the history of the British Empire.”
—Caroline Elkins, Foreign Affairs
An award-winning historian places the corporation—more than the Crown—at the heart of British colonialism, arguing that companies built and governed global empire, raising questions about public and private power that were just as troubling four hundred years ago as they are today.
Across four centuries, from Ireland to India, the Americas to Africa and Australia, British colonialism was above all the business of corporations. Corporations conceived, promoted, financed, and governed overseas expansion, making claims over territory and peoples while ensuring that British and colonial society were invested, quite literally, in their ventures. Colonial companies were also relentlessly controversial, frequently in debt, and prone to failure. The corporation was well-suited to overseas expansion not because it was an inevitable juggernaut but because, like empire itself, it was an elusive contradiction: public and private; person and society; subordinate and autonomous; centralized and diffuse; immortal and precarious; national and cosmopolitan—a legal fiction with very real power.
Breaking from traditional histories in which corporations take a supporting role by doing the dirty work of sovereign states in exchange for commercial monopolies, Philip Stern argues that corporations took the lead in global expansion and administration. Whether in sixteenth-century Ireland and North America or the Falklands in the early 1980s, corporations were key players. And, as Empire, Incorporated makes clear, venture colonialism did not cease with the end of empire. Its legacies continue to raise questions about corporate power that are just as relevant today as they were 400 years ago.
Challenging conventional wisdom about where power is held on a global scale, Stern complicates the supposedly firm distinction between private enterprise and the state, offering a new history of the British Empire, as well as a new history of the corporation.
[A] landmark book…[a] bold reframing of the history of the British Empire.
British colonialism…Stern says, was conceived by investors, creditors, entrepreneurs, and, lest we forget, parvenus and embezzlers. This cast of men-on-the-make flourished alongside sovereigns and their ministers and produced what Stern calls ‘venture colonialism’—a form of overseas expansion that was driven by a belief that ‘the public business of empire was and had always been best done by private enterprise.’ The history of British colonialism is really the history of the joint-stock corporation.
Remarkable…The richness of detail and evidence that Stern…brings to his subject is [new]—as is the lucidity with which he organises his material over six long chapters that stretch from the mid-16th century almost to the present.
Empire, Incorporated offers a refreshingly new take on British imperialism…[It] is a remarkably comprehensive account of how—from the reigns of Elizabeth I to Elizabeth II, and from some of the earliest plantation projects in Ireland to the Falklands War—corporations have played a defining role in the British Empire.
[A] commanding history of British corporate imperialism…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…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.
The genius of Empire, Incorporated lies in weaving a coherent narrative that is at once solid and lucid, explaining how corporations are structured and how they ended up ruling the world, creating empires…Scholarly, engaging, and entertaining.
Stern is a tireless researcher and an accomplished explainer of geopolitical and financial matters. This is a consequential reconsideration of the history of colonialism.
Brilliant, ambitious, and often surprising. With great clarity and remarkable archival reach, Stern convincingly argues that it was joint-stock ‘venture colonialism’ that financed and drove the earliest attempts at establishing Tudor and Elizabethan colonies from Ulster to Spitsbergen, Virginia to ‘Cathay,’ and even a Puritan republic of the Bahamas. A remarkable contribution to the current global debate about empire and a small masterpiece of research and conceptual reimagining.
This is an extraordinary book of great erudition and vast scope. Stern has written the definitive work on how the British Empire was driven by the joint-stock company and the legal device of incorporation. This remarkable account of a dizzying number of corporations that drove imperial expansion will be unrivaled for many years to come.
Stern has written the most important book on the history of the company in the English-speaking world in over a century. Empire, Incorporated is a gift for historians and general readers alike. Lawyers and investment bankers—always looking for the next clever idea to structure a deal or a new commercial entity—will delight in all the examples this book provides, and profit from the cautionary tales that abound.
- 408 pages
- 6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
- Belknap Press
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