The world's first multinational
December 10, 2004 9:07 AM   Subscribe

The world's first multinational I found this informative piece via Arts&Letters. "Corporate greed, the ruination of traditional ways of life, share-price bubbles, western imperialism: all these modern complaints were made against the British East India Company in the 18th century. Nick Robins draws the lessons...
posted by Postroad (12 comments total)
Interesting article. Thanks!
posted by Boydrop at 9:51 AM on December 10, 2004

I saw David Cobb speak at UW Madison (as part of the National Lawyers Guild), on corporate personhood.

It was fascinating, the first time I'd heard about (or honestly really thought about) what it meant.
posted by LavaLady at 10:16 AM on December 10, 2004

Truth has no expiration date.

The corporate personhood finding was about the third or fourth worst ever Extreme Court decision. Basing a decision on vapor, kinda like the Bush vs Gore decision in 2000. Time to re-examine corporate personhood.
posted by nofundy at 10:48 AM on December 10, 2004

Tsk, tsk, tsk, you Britons always claiming to have invented the wheel. As a matter of fact, the first multinational corporation, as well as the first public corporation and first corporate coloniser was the Dutch United Company of the East Indies (Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie or VOC). Although as such it was founded in 1602, 2 years after the British East India Company, the VOC was the result of the merger of several earlier Dutch companies going back to the "Compagnie van Verre" ("Company of Far-Away") founded in 1595 and was well-established by the time (1606) the British East India Company managed to send its first expedition.
It was, of course, no less devoid of scruples than its British version and also had perpetrated its share of colonial exploitation and stockmarket manipulation. Funnily enough, just as it was the British Company that made tea a common staple in England, the VOC made coffee popular, well, just about everywhere else...
posted by Skeptic at 11:35 AM on December 10, 2004

Skeptic beat me to it!

The VOC had many of the powers of a nation-state, minted its own coins, had the official capacity to wage war, and so on, partly due to the fact that it was several months by sea to get any communications from the Netherlands.

Actually, the VOC suffered from "mission creep": if they had stuck to their core competencies, notably monopolizing trade, they could have done much better well into the 1700s. It was when they got tangled up in supporting one local sultan over another that they went into red ink.
posted by gimonca at 12:00 PM on December 10, 2004

And we are talking about corporations with things like gunships and cannons here, keep in mind...
posted by gimonca at 12:09 PM on December 10, 2004

That's a long article, but well worth the entire read. Thank you.
posted by PossumCowboy at 12:20 PM on December 10, 2004

this is why the Revolution can be quite simply accomplished with the stroke of a pen.

If we truly need a new Constitutional amendment abridging the rights of people...maybe we should focus on the people that aren't really people, eh?
posted by wah at 1:19 PM on December 10, 2004

gimonca: corporations with gunships and cannons? Why does that sound familiar?
posted by Skeptic at 2:07 PM on December 10, 2004

In the linked essay, the British East India Company is called a multinational corporation, and its hard to argue. It was controlled by shareholders and had multinational reach, using political and military pressure to lower its costs (by stealing from the Bengali treasury) and raise its profits (cornering the rice market after a dry monsoon season in India. Millions starved.)

But in terms of management structure and operation, if you plopped a modern MBA down in the middle of it, I'm not sure he know what to do, or where he was. (Of course, judging from the recent struggles of my fellow software engineers to pound even a meager morsel of information into those thick little managerial skulls the last time I was in a boardroom, I'd say this circumstance is not unique.)

Anyway, usually the american railroad, and then standard oil is pointed to as the birth of the modern corporation. See The Visible Hand: The Managerial Revolution in American Business. Basically the familiar specialties of a modern corp, i.e. production, marketing, sales, accts payable, accts receivable, and of course management- these things only sprung into existance once production problems had been overcome by the industrial revolution and distribution problems had been overcome by the railroad. The big problem that was left was how to manipulate demand and maximize advantage. I.E. strategic marketing, planning, etc. In short the things management does.
posted by ludflu at 2:14 PM on December 10, 2004

Another early "multinational" was the Hudson's Bay Company. Founded in 1670, it once controlled (or at least lay claim to) most of what is now Canada as well as some bits of the US. It is now "Canada's department store". Assuming that neither the East India Company nor the VOC are still in existence in some form, the HBC is now the oldest surviving multinational corporation.
posted by e-man at 10:53 PM on December 10, 2004

The Schouten expedition from the Netherlands in 1615-16 was the first to sail around Cape Horn, at the southern tip of South America, on their way to circumnavigating the globe.

When these Dutch ships arrived at Batavia, Jan Pieterszoon Coen, head of the VOC, had them jailed. Why? Because their expedition had been sponsored by the Dutch West India Company, and they were violating the VOC's monopoly on East Indies trade.
posted by gimonca at 10:06 AM on December 11, 2004

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