In his new book, Empire Incorporated, Philip Stern argues that corporations drove the global expansion of the British Empire rather than provide a supporting role as commonly accepted in the literature. What follows is an excerpt from his book.

“Time was,” Leone Levi observed, also in 1870, “when the foreign and colonial trade of the country was, in a great measure, monopolised by chartered companies, such as the Russian and the Levant, the East and the West Indies Companies, the Hudson Bay and the African.” The Anglo-Italian economist and lawyer noted the evolution since: “All such monopolies have long ago been abolished, yet the reign of companies is as undisputed as ever.” The largely unregulated field of company formation inaugurated by repeal of the Bubble Act nearly a half-century earlier had predictably led to a flood of company promotion and, with it, growing anxiety about the company “promoter,” the nineteenth century’s answer to Daniel Defoe’s “projector.” To some, he was the embodiment of capitalist enterprise; to many others, he was embodied in a figure like Montague Tigg, the ne’er-do-well of Charles Dickens’s Martin Chuzzlewit, “burnished, lacquered, newly-stamped” into Tigg Montague after refashioning himself as the promoter of a pyramid scheme in the form of an “Anglo-Bengalee Disinterested Loan and Life Insurance Company.”

In 1844, the same year Dickens issued his final installment of the serial novel, Parliament passed the first of what turned out to be a string of joint-stock companies laws, culminating in (though not ceasing with) the Companies Act of 1862. These new laws formalized critical aspects of what it meant to be a joint-stock company, such as limiting shareholders’ liability, and introduced relatively streamlined mechanisms for both creating a company and “winding up,” or liquidating, one. Most importantly, these measures brought into being a new office, the Registrar of Joint Stock Companies, which would superintend this new system. In theory regulated by statute and a government agency, incorporation had now become a bureaucratic process not a political one. Companies and their promoters once again proliferated, perhaps even more than in Tigg Montague’s day. After 1862, there was apparently, as Goldbury touted to the Utopians, “no schemes too great and none too small For Companification.”

Dickens’s sardonic choice for the specific business in which Montague’s company engaged was no accident. Company speculation had thrived not only in India but across the Anglophone world since the 1820s and ever more so after the advent of the companies acts. Still, it remained an open question how much the 1862 Act obtained to companies formed in or by colonies themselves. Thus, through the second half of the nineteenth century, the legislatures or governing councils of many British colonies adopted some form of companies law of their own. The East India Company introduced registration in 1850 and limited liability in 1857; similar measures followed over the next decades in the Cape, Canada, Australia, and elsewhere. Along with complementary laws regulating taxation, banking, philanthropy, and trusts, the private registered corporation was over the later nineteenth century enshrined in colonial law as a primary means of public association not only for commercial companies but also a range of other forms of civic enterprise, from colleges and charities to chambers of commerce.

Yet, while they no longer needed patents to be protected in British or colonial law, registered companies could still acquire special privileges, grants, concessions, and contracts abroad, which continued to blur if not erase the line between commercial and territorial enterprises. For example, the mahogany logging interests of the British Honduras Company, Limited (registered 1858) led it to develop plantations and actively recruit settlers to work them; part of its outreach was in the United States where, in competition with two short-lived American companies, it advertised its proposed “Townships of Colored People” to entice emigrants from Black communities in the early days of the Civil War. The project faltered when the Lincoln administration failed to provide subsidies. Ironically, the company recruited much more successfully after the war by enticing former Confederate soldiers to settle instead. The Central Argentine Land Company, a subsidiary of the Central Argentine Railway, and the Santa Fe Land Company similarly facilitated immigration and the settlement of “agricultural colonies,” on the strength of Argentine government grants and guarantees. The 1888 Mexican Land and Colonization Company, Limited obtained its rights by buying the Connecticut-chartered International Company of Mexico and its concessions from the Mexican government in Baja California, and soon spun off a development company, a bank, and railway and telegraph companies.

Meanwhile, British charters had apparently not lost their value or prestige either. According to the modern Privy Council’s reckoning, between 1844 and 1914 the Crown approved at least 267 corporate charters to associations, just over seventy fewer than it had in the previous six centuries since the incorporation of Cambridge University in 1231. For charities, learned societies, and other as[1]sociations, charters still offered special privileges, protections, and a public imprimatur, including sometimes the “royal” name; the still flourishing Royal Society of 1662 was joined by several others with deep connections to colonial expansion: the Royal Asiatic Society (1824); the Royal Geographical Society (1859); and the Royal Colonial Society, incorporated in 1882 though originally established over a decade earlier to address the “want [of] some medium by which we may form our scattered colonies into a homogenous whole.” The commissions of the imperial exhibitions of 1851, 1862, and 1886 were likewise incorporated by charter.

Despite the introduction of registration, charters remained appealing for a wide range of overseas commercial enterprises, such as joint-stock banks, mining, and steamship companies, as well as the most globally transformative late nineteenth-century imperial business of telegraphy. Between 1846 and 1856, a Parliamentary Act, a Royal Charter, or both incorporated thirteen new British telegraph companies, six of which were simultaneously registered under the Companies Act. Like rail and steam, international telegraph companies called on British government agencies from the Admiralty to the Post Office for support in other ways, including subsidies, guarantees, contracts, diplomatic and political backing, maritime surveys, monopoly protections, and, above all, use of their services: by the dawn of the twentieth century, one report found that government had spent nearly £3 million over the years on telegraphy. Even as these companies turned to British charters with less frequency after the 1860s, they nonetheless continued to depend on agreements with colonial and foreign governments for rights to run lines through their territory, to acquire land and other property of their own, security, and for other forms of support. Such agreements were in turn often used as leverage to extract further backing from home. For example, once the Red Sea Telegraph Company had negotiated a concession from the Ottoman Government to connect Alexandria to Aden and Karachi, the British Treasury seemed compelled to support it with a 4.5 percent guaranteed return for its investors to keep the company from failing; the arrangement cost the British government £36,000 per year for a line that soon broke and never sent a single message.

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