Review of Philip J. Stern, Empire, Incorporated: The Corporations That Built British Colonialism. Cambridge (MA): Harvard University Press, 2023.
Munich (Special to Informed Comment) – After the death of British monarch Elizabeth II in September 2022, then president of Kenya Uhuru Kenyatta ordered 4 days of national mourning. The president’s decision was not well-received among many sectors of the Kenyan population. Elizabeth II was already queen during the Mau Mau Uprising, a rebellion against British colonial rule in Kenya in the 1950s that was suffocated at the cost of 11,503 official deaths but up to three hundred thousand dead and missing according to historian Caroline Elkins in her book “Britain’s Gulag: The Brutal End of Empire in Kenya.”
Last October, Elizabeth’s son and current monarch Charles III visited Kenya. While in the Eastern African country, King Charles offered no direct apology or reparations. The closest he came to condemning British colonialism in Kenya was saying that “there were abhorrent and unjustifiable acts of violence committed against Kenyans” during their fight for independence.
The territory we now know as Kenya moved to British hands after the creation of the Imperial British East Africa Company in 1888. By the point the Imperial British East Africa Company was created, the company represented nothing but a short chapter in Britain’s centuries-long history of combining private capital and royal prerogatives to expand its imperial designs around the world. This is a history whose origins and development are covered in depth by Philip J. Stern in his recently published book “Empire, Incorporated: The Corporations that Built British Colonialism.”
Stern, an Associate Professor of History at Duke University, explains that British corporations, whose origins lay between the end of the 16th century and the beginning of the 17th century, represented the foundations of British colonialism. The corporation emerged as a particular legal entity funded by the joint stock of its members who, upon being granted the power by a royal charter, were allowed to engage in “overseas trade, exploration, predation, and settlement,” writes Stern.
The men behind these corporations were a mixture of entrepreneurs, explorers, and dispossessors of natives, although not necessarily in this order. Whereas many of those who pushed the corporations further never left Britain and their contributions were merely financial, others came to settle and live in lands stolen from the native populations. The corporations first set their sights not far away from home, in Ireland, but they were soon securing royal charters to depart for Russia, Western Africa, or Northern America.
Some of these charters still help understand the political geography of the United States. In 1632, for instance, King Charles I granted a charter to Cecil Calvert, 2nd Baron Baltimore. The new colony established by Cecil Calvert was named Maryland after the wife of Charles I, Henrietta Maria of France. In the US State of Maryland, Baltimore is the most populous city.
British corporations expanded their reach around the world through a process that was neither linear nor free of complications. Instead, it was a complex dynamic dominated by competition against the companies and imperial projects of other European countries and between British corporations themselves. The royal court became an arena for different corporations to challenge each other’s rights over certain economic activities and geographical areas. As Stern explains, this was somehow inevitable because overseas charters given to corporations “were not terribly well-written ones. They were remarkably ambiguous, aspirational, and open to interpretation.”
New corporations were constantly founded while others disappeared, sometimes to re-emerge under a different name and supported by a new royal charter. The political uncertainty of 17th-century England, with its Civil War and the Glorious Revolution in 1688, led to unease among those invested in the corporations. Nevertheless, the process of further intermeshing between British corporations and imperialism continued unabated.
There is probably no greater exponent of this sometimes-uneasy alliance than the East India Company (EIC), to which Stern dedicated a book in 2011 aptly titled “The Company State.” Because the EIC became indeed the perfect hybrid between the commercial and the political. The Anglo-Irish politician and philosopher Edmund Burke famously described the EIC as “a state in the disguise of a merchant.”
When the British first arrived in India in the early 17th century, the Mughal emperor Jahangir presided over one of the largest empires in human history. By 1815, the EIC had assembled an army of a quarter of a million men and claimed hegemony in the Indian subcontinent. The company’s trajectory was not without its setbacks, however. In 1772, the EIC had incurred enormous debts, and the directors of the company asked the British government for a £1.4 million loan, an extraordinary sum at the time. The government obliged as the EIC was so closely intertwined with the British domestic economy that it had become “too big to fail”, explains Stern.
In Empire, Incorporated, Stern always remains in the realm of history. However, the enormous economic power of the EIC at that time, together with the company’s practice of bribing British parliamentarians to secure a favorable political environment, can only bring to mind the 2007-2008 Global Financial Crisis and its strong connection to the governmental deregulation of financial markets. The EIC survived its biggest crisis thanks to the government’s bailout but, in exchange, the British parliament enforced “a new principle of government oversight” on the EIC. The company would finally be nationalized after the Indian Rebellion of 1857 against the EIC.
Around the time India was put under the direct rule of the Crown, corporate imperialism, which had previously already shown its adaptive capabilities, underwent a process of formalization. With the passing of new legislation by the British parliament, “incorporation had now become a bureaucratic process not a political one.” It was this new/old corporate imperialism that would fuel the expansion of the British Empire in Africa and Australasia and put Britain, at the end of the First World War, in control of around a quarter of the world’s population and territory.
It would take another world war for the formal dismantlement of the empire to begin. Stern describes how “there was no single corporate reaction to the impending end of empire.” Many corporations lobbied against de-colonization. Others waited until the emergence of politically independent countries to engage in the recolonization of the newly nationalized companies seeking capital and commercial partners. And, in a good number of cases, “formerly colonial corporations still endured in some shape or form.”
Unilever, the modern British multinational behind many household brands, built its Western Africa business after the acquisition of the United Africa Company, which in turn was founded in 1929 as a result of the merger between different companies, among them the Royal Niger Company, which played a fundamental role in imposing Britain’s rule over what is today Nigeria.
“Empire, Incorporated” is the result of painstaking research by a historian who impressively explores how Britain’s empire and its corporations became almost undistinguishable. And yet, as Stern himself explains in the introduction, there are no clear historical turning points in the book. The history of the British Empire, for all the suffering it caused, was not the result of any grand design, and there is more messiness than order in it. This is obviously not Stern’s fault, but it helps explain why the book is not an easy read and might be more appealing to historians than to the general reader.
The book could also have benefited from a more comparative perspective, for instance in regard to the Dutch East India Company, founded in 1602. We are left to wonder how unique the British alliance of corporation and empire was as compared to other European imperial projects. If we are to focus on one key insight of the book that advances our general understanding of the British Empire, this is that the British Empire as we know it was “an incorporated empire, built in no small part by absorbing and assimilating those corporations and other forms of non-state enterprise that often laid the foundations of the colonial enterprise.”
 Philip J. Stern, Empire, Incorporated: The Corporations That Built British Colonialism (Cambridge (MA): Harvard University Press, 2023), p. 7.
 Ibid, p. 177.
 Ibid, p. 183.
 Ibid, p. 256.
 Ibid, p. 315.
 Ibid, p. 10.