Keywords: East India Company, corporate accountability, Adam Smith, Edmund Burke, market power, shareholder speculation, duty of care, global justice, globalisation, multinational corporations, MNCs, history
The imperial corporation: the English East India Company and the lessons from the first age of globalisation
For as long as there have been commercial corporations, the social performance of business has been continually contested. In spite of this, the corporate citizenship agenda of the 21st century continues to have a surprising lack of historical depth. This article investigates the conduct of the English East India Company (1600?1874), probably the most powerful multinational corporation in world history. Starting out as a marginal importer of Asian spices, the company became the agent that changed the course of economic history, combining financial strength with military muscle to conquer India and break open China's closed economy. Its rise and eventual fall highlighted to contemporaries ? notably Adam Smith and Edmund Burke ? three fundamental flaws in the corporate metabolism: first, the corporate drive to market domination and monopoly; second the inherent speculative dynamic of shareholder-owned businesses; and, third, the absence of effective mechanisms for bringing companies to account for malpractice overseas.