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We used to live in a world in which the only certainties were death and taxes. In the 17th century, Europeans added two more: states and corporations.

States were not new, of course, especially in Asia, where Mughal and Chinese courts for centuries had run bureaucratic operations that dwarfed their European contemporaries. But states as organizations intent on mobilizing private finance to fill coffers and enlarge sovereignty were something rather new.

The joint-stock corporations they patronized were even newer. These groups or "companies" of merchants were formed at the behest of states to pursue the costly venture of long-distance trade. The Dutch and English states got in early, obliging merchants locked in ruinous competition with each other to unite in order to compete more effectively against their real rivals, the Portuguese and Spanish. If merchants agreed to sacrifice competition, it was because states were prepared to provide them with a talisman to turn their high-risk ventures into pure gold: monopoly. Refuse to join the Dutch East India Company and you locked yourself out of access to the trade with Asia. It was a powerful incentive for Dutchmen and an affront to anyone who wasn't, which is why the history of corporations and states since 1600 has been so spectacularly violent.

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Calgary historian Stephen Bown ( Scurvy: How a Surgeon, a Mariner and a Gentleman Solved the Greatest Medical Mystery of the Age of Sail and A Most Damnable Invention: Dynamite, Nitrates, and the Making of the Modern World) has ingeniously whittled this multinational history down to vignettes of six of its more notorious figures: Jan Coen operating in what is now Indonesia; Pieter Stuyvesant in New York; Robert Clive in India; Aleksandr Baranov in Alaska; George Simpson in Canada, and Cecil Rhodes in Africa. Excellent biographies exist for them all, and Bown does not repeat that work. Rather, he uses (and fully acknowledges) these biographies to distill their complex life stories into six sharply etched portraits.

And what a rogues' gallery of atrociousness we find ourselves in. These characters are as familiar to us as evil storybook characters, yet as foreign to contemporary business standards as Genghis Khan. Their loyalty to their companies was exceeded only by their hubris, avarice and contempt for the welfare of others on a scale that is truly breathtaking.

Each acts out roughly the same dreadful script: Jan Coen depopulating the Banda Islands at a cost of 10,000 lives to monopolize nutmeg production for the Dutch East India Company; Robert Clive waging war on Indian rulers to the tune of another 10,000 dead so that the English East India Company could control the subcontinent; Aleksandr Baranov enserfing Aleuts and murdering Tlingets for the Russian American Company, a favour the Tlingets returned; George Simpson blocking indigenous peoples throughout the Canadian West from having any say in their political future as he stripped their land of resources for the Hudson's Bay Company; and Cecil Rhodes concocting wars against African rulers to increase the profits of the British South Africa Company.

Pieter Stuyvesant, who ran New Amsterdam for the Dutch West India Company until the English seized it and renamed it New York, is the partial exception. He appears to have been guilty of little more than the arrogance, intolerance and bad temper that went with profitable enterprise.

Though Bown focuses on individuals, he does not leave states and companies to plead innocence. The windfalls of violence enabled both to accumulate capital in amounts too vast to be consumed, so the older princely model of spending gave way to the newer entrepreneurial model of investing. Everyone from the crowned heads of Europe to small-time speculators got on board. With every fraud, every war and every expropriation, shareholders and politicians back home winked and benefited enormously. Somehow, the companies hung like a veil of immunity between merchant kings and the atrocities they committed. Working for these companies seemed to release them from compunctions they might otherwise have felt as individuals.

Without this mayhem, it is difficult to imagine how the European colonial order could ever have come into being. Colonies were not necessary for trade, as the existence of peaceable Chinese and Indian merchants throughout Asia attested at the time. But they were necessary for superprofits, which is what company shareholders in Europe came to demand and states to expect. Catherine the Great, resisting the idea that Russia should become an imperial power, noted early on, "It is one thing to trade, but quite another to take possession." Most Europeans lost sight of this distinction, to enormous costs that are still be paid today wherever European and North American armies are stationed beyond their national jurisdictions.

By the same token, without this mayhem, it is difficult to imagine how corporations could have amassed the wealth and power they continue to enjoy today. In a thoughtful epilogue, Bown invites the reader to consider this history not as the natural creation of trade, but as the product of monopoly: a "nightmare of unscrutinized and unchallenged power combined with ideology - in this case, controlling whole civilizations and societies for the maximum gain of distant shareholders." These companies were anything but expressions of the market. They were vehicles of states intent on building empires.

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We like to congratulate ourselves that trade is no longer this deplorable in conduct or consequence. We may think that someone like "Clive of India … ever free from self-doubt," as Bown nicely describes him, simply could not do now what he did then. Yet the tight alliance between states and corporations is still with us. Hardly surprising, then, that ideals of free trade and responsible government fail to get much purchase on the sheer slope of money and power that dominates the international order. With death and taxes still going up, states and corporations may be only stable verities after all.

Timothy Brook is the principal of St. John's College at the University of British Columbia, and most recently the author of Vermeer's Hat: The Seventeenth Century and the Dawn of the Global Age.

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