The Company Men

What we can learn today from the British East India Company

Captain Hawkins was the father of all account managers. His expense account totaled an annual sum of £3,200 (~$0.5M in 2020 USD) paid from the treasury of the Mughal Empire. His knowledge of Turkish allowed him access to Emperor Jehangir’s intimate drinking circle, where, after several years, he succeeded in obtaining for his employers at the British East India Company the concession of a warehouse in Surat. In 1609, when Hawkins undertook his duties as account manager, the East India Company was still largely focused on the spice trade, particularly nutmeg from the Banda Islands in present-day Indonesia. The purpose of the concession was to exchange wool, iron, lead, and tin for cotton goods in India which could be traded for spices with the inhabitants of the ‘Spiceries’.

The British East India Company had been granted a royal charter to monopolize the most profitable and dangerous trade of the 17th century: importing spices from the islands at the remote edge of Asia. All-out wars were fought between the Dutch, the English, and the Portuguese, and countless lives were lost. Forts went up all over the Indian Ocean, magnificent fleets of galleons prowled the seas and murder followed in their wake. And all because of spices.

Hawkins belonged to a generation of men who had emerged from England’s voracious maritime ambitions. He served under Francis Drake in his piratical circumnavigation of the globe, commanded the Griffon against the Spanish Armada, and achieved fluency in Turkish and other languages as a trader in the East. Any present-day organization would kill to have a man of Hawkins’ ability in its leadership. Yet, like many others of that generation, he died in obscurity — on the last leg of a return journey to England — survived by his wife, Mrs. Mariam Hawkins, a Christian Armenian he had married at the court of Jehangir who was left destitute with the passing of her remarkable husband.

What drove men like Hawkins to work for the British East India Company? Wages frequently went unpaid, and a third of crews would drop dead from scurvy before even passing the Cape of Good Hope? The simple answer is the possibility of extraordinary profits. Merchants in London were accustomed to making 60 000% returns on their spice expeditions. A small sack of nutmeg was enough to retire on. Ten pounds of nutmeg in Banda could be purchased for a penny and sold for £2.10 in London. The ability to amass a huge private fortune while at the service of the East India Company was a powerful motivator for a society that had overproduced mariner elites – and the honors showered on returning crews by the Crown was the icing on the cake.

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Is there a sector today that produces 60000% returns on investment in just a few short years? The merchants of London leave present-day venture capitalists in the dust both in terms of their appetites for risk as well as their appetites for returns. We simply do not have investors with the same level of risk profile — at least in any significant numbers. Seasoned merchants from well-established commercial families in London were willing to risk fortunes on the off-chance to access the East Indies. 

Commerce was a grand adventure whose purpose was to marshall the most dynamic forces of an ascendant power such as England and reconcile loyalty to the Crown, greed for riches, thirst for adventure, and recognition. England had been a wealthy society since the middle ages combining technical sophistication with practical statecraft. But when Chaucer, who came from a family of wealthy wine merchants, depicted a vibrant and colorful England in his Canterbury Tales, Marco Polo’s travels to Cathay were already a century old. It would take until the age of the Elizabetheans to transform this ‘precious stone set in a silver sea’ into a thalassocratic dynamo capable of enveloping the ‘World-Island’.

When I was studying Elizabethan literature and theater at university, I remember being struck by the extent to which the Elizabethans offered a glimpse into a world before ideology. In Royal intrigues, bloody religious conflicts, the threat of Spain and rivalry with Holland the realm of the political was merely a stage on which the great human tragedy could run its course unhindered. Political and even tribal concerns were subordinate to the profundity of human experience. Loyalty, friendship, courage, self-sacrifice, guile and daring, and a love of achievement superseded ideological exigencies. Rather than Edward Said’s “Orientalist” academic theories, the Elizabetheans had Hawkins, fluent in the languages and cultures of Asia, and a guest of the Mughal emperor of India for many years. Instead of the Vagina Monologues the Elizabetheans had John Donne — “Mark but this flea, and mark in this, // How little that which thou deniest me is;” Instead of the modern ideologically-charged language of “empowerment”, they had Shakespeare’s Richard II — “Infusing him with self and vain conceit // As if this flesh which walls about our life // Were brass impregnable.”

Lacking ideological constraints, the Elizabethans had a wider horizon. When the East India Company was formed, the merchants recognized immediately the need for a monopoly under the protection of the Crown. Without the ideological scaffolding of modern economics which holds free trade, competition, and minimal government intervention as laws of nature, the merchants of the East India Company solved one of the longest-standing problems plaguing modern economies: fragmentation. Recognizing that a large pool of resources, free from the distractions of domestic competition, consequently translated to a large pool of protected profits, the merchants and mariners of the EIC could focus on the herculean tasks of building a trade empire without the paralysis imposed by a modern ideological apparatus. Three centuries before the fact, they had invented the national champion to carry their ambitions in a supreme act of business realpolitik.

Shah Alam II, Mughal Emperor, Conveying the Grant of the Diwani to Lord Clive, August 1765

We also do not have the captains of Hawkins’ caliber. History has remembered the name of Sir Francis Drake — the son of a farmer who was sent to learn seafaring as a child — but he was just the most prominent in a generation of mariner elites such as David Middleton — who was the Captain on the Hawkin’s ill-fated return voyage and Nathaniel Courthope — who resisted a siege on the island of Run by a Dutch fleet with only 39 men for over 1,540 days. Courthope’s resistance allowed the English to continue their de jure claim on Run which was then traded for Manhattan in the treaty of Breda in 1667. Some valiant, hard-headed but unknown factor had changed the course of history forever.

At the beginning of global capitalism, was the formation of a professional class. The mariner elites of Elizabethan England derived their legitimacy from professional skill rather than their breeding or their bloodlines. Despite being professionals skilled in navigation, trade, geography and languages, they were the farthest thing from mandarins. The latter role fell to the nobility who made a real mess of it when given the chance, so much so that when the Privy Council tried to wrest control of the expeditions by putting one of their own in charge in exchange for a Royal Charter, the merchants of the EIC stared down the threat and replied that they had decided “not to employ gentlemen in any place of charge.” The rising bourgeoisie of early global capitalism ruthlessly swept away cultures accustomed to sinecures in favor of cultures infused with ability. They preferred the Middletons, the Hawkins’ and the Courthopes to the liabilities of courtiers even if their influence might have helped the company escape the number of disasters it suffered. They chose profits over prestige.

Commerce tends towards polymathy rather than specialization, and it is precisely in this that we are lacking. Merchant and statesman, sailor and soldier, explorer and cartographer, patriot and cosmopolitan, wine-drinker and opium-addict, missionary and harem procurer, judge and executioner were some of the conflicting roles that the early company men had to reconcile to create a trade empire spanning the globe. Luckily, there are some last strongholds of the inheritors of this tradition.

Throughout my career in Asia, I had the fortune of meeting and working alongside 21st-century Company Men. You can find them in executive meeting rooms and private expat clubs all over Southeast Asia — middle-aged men dressed in formal blue shirts, dark woolen pants and tennis shoes, shuffling about from one airport to another in the tropical heat. A cross between Victorian gentleman and Marlon Brando’s Capt. Kurtz in Apocalypse Now, outside of office hours, you can often catch them in safari jackets in the bush photographing wildlife for National Geographic, delivering food to Burmese refugee children on the Thai-Myanmar border or conducting research on Khmer Empire ruins in remote areas of Cambodia as scholar-gentlemen in their own free time.

There is a standard profile to this crowd — typically British, but also includes many American ‘Imperials’. They’re all ex-something — ex-British Army, ex-Special Forces, ex-Kosovo, ex-Afghanistan, ex-British Hong Kong residents, along with a ‘colorful’ early career where line cook and pharma executive follow each other on their CVs. They’re there in places where no one else dares or wants to be: running Myanmar investment funds under international sanctions, creating logistics networks from East Africa to Malacca, expanding Asia’s massively profitable MNCs in places like Laos and the rural Philippines consequently bringing hundreds of millions of Southeast Asians out of poverty.

I sometimes discuss Middleton’s voyages with them as a case study in ‘muscular’ market penetration. They state invariably: “Had I lived in the 17th c. I would have been on that ship.” They’re absolutely sincere. They share with their earlier counterpart a set of values that runs opposite to the logic of what commentators term ‘late-stage capitalism’. Instead of a slow climb from sinecure to sinecure through deft office politics and aping of organizational newspeak, they instead engage in pissing contests over who is the most daring and enterprising in the most challenging, dangerous business environments. Prestige is acquired not through secure, official institutional roles, but by bracing and succeeding in inhospitable regions at great personal risk.

Oneupmanship, friendly competition, and pride over the exoticism of their projects are common factors. An investor once recalled to me an emergent markets investors conference where the introductions turned into a pissing contest over who takes on the most personal risk in their investment activities. Thinking the civil war in Myanmar to be his winning stake, he was one-upped by a bruised-looking colleague who introduced himself by apologizing for his appearance stating that he had just been released from a two-day stint in a Sudanese prison.

Like their earlier incarnations, there is an alignment between prestige, risk, and commercial success – an alignment that the modern West has largely lost. What there also tends to be is agreement on the problems, so that discussion is focussed on finding solutions. If a city, district, or region in Asia has a sewer problem, everyone will agree on the issue and plans are made to lay new pipes. The same problem in the West gets confounded in endless reports drafted by armies of the sinecured about whether there is an actual sewer problem or if it is the result of underlying societal factors that cannot be fixed, how sewage systems unfairly disadvantage sexual and racial minorities, and whether we shouldn’t instead reduce our water consumption as an environmentally sustainable alternative to laying some pipes in the ground.

The great commercial adventure of a more direct way of thinking consists of providing simple, elegant solutions to wider societal problems. Execution might not be easy, but the solution itself is easy to grasp. When Europe faced a shortage of spices for food preservation and medicine due to various geopolitical shifts in the Near East, everyone agreed on the problem and equipped ships to go to the Orient and get more spices. Not easy, but simple and direct. 

This line of expedient thinking is the key to shattering the stranglehold that the modern status economy has come to exert on the productive economy. Accordingly, it is extremely dangerous to the modern liberal democratic regime. If we decide that clean streets and fast subway service are things worth having, producing armies of analysts in think tanks becomes less of a priority. Ultimately, a deep cultural shift reinfusing society with commercial thinking and commercial values has to occur. We need to learn to fall in love with commerce and to commit ourselves to building new commercial institutions as the last remnants of the great colonial enterprises are dying along with the generations they produced.

Avetis Muradyan is a Chief Technology Officer and emergent markets expert based in Singapore. He is a graduate of the University of British Columbia in Computer Science and English Literature. He can be followed @AvetisMuradyan.


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