Corporate Sovereignty and the Early Modern Foundations of the British Empire in India
University Press 2011
‘Traders to rulers’ is an enduring caption insofar as the English East India Company is concerned. But were they ever just traders to start off with, and they eventually morph into mere temporal rulers unconcerned with the dynamics of the global economy? Philip Stern‘s book, The Company-State: Corporate Sovereignty and the Early Modern Foundations of the British Empire in India (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011) explores just this: the changing boundaries and demarcations between corporate bodies and sovereign states, and the ‘rightful’ spheres of action of each. This is not to suggest that the English East India Company was a sort of half-way house, or that it occupied a zone of hybridity; it was merely that, in those days (as is perhaps increasingly the case again), the ‘business of government’ was often assumed by ‘corporations and non-state actors’; and they went about their job just as well as any political government with sovereign powers.
So it was that the East India Company’s factors, based in coastal entrepots, built forts, codified law, brought in settlers, collected taxes, waged war, and generally laid down a framework for the governance of the environs they operated in- and carried on trade. The Company-State couldn’t carry on for ever though; as Stern points out, it eventually became a casualty of the ‘evolving definitions’ of what constituted an economic body and what constituted a political body, and eventually ceded all political space to the British Crown, even as its economic avatar just celebrated a quatercentenary of existence.