Philip J. Stern


The English East India Company was first chartered in 1600, endured until the late nineteenth century, and, in a clever act of corporate resurrection, has even recently returned as a global, upmarket retail outlet selling fine foods and commemorative coins. It has also endured in the popular imagination and culture, churning out heroes and villains alike in film, television, and video games. The script writer for a forthcoming BBC miniseries, in which the East India Company stars as the prime antagonist, even noted recently that the Company was like “the CIA, the NSA, and the biggest, baddest multinational corporation on earth” wrapped into one corporation. All of this attention of late to one of the largest and most enduring corporations of its time, which managed a commercial and political system separated by half a world at upwards of a year and half’s distance, is perhaps unsurprising given the great legal, political, and economic conundrums surrounding the modern multinational corporation, from questions about global management to controversial issues such as tax inversions, monopoly, state-owned corporations, as well as the corporate person’s rights to free speech, religion, and so on. However, from outlandish film productions to the most sober of scholarship, the connections between the Company’s past and our present seem to have become all things to all people, stretched almost to the point of breaking. Though it would be impossible to be exhaustive, this Article nonetheless seeks to outline the various ways in which the East India Company’s legacy has been drawn upon in a range of fields, but especially legal and business scholarship, for a wide range of purposes. In so doing, it proposes that the sheer diversity of uses to which the Company’s history has been put, as well as the lack of any agreement about the meaning and nature of such comparisons, might suggest that the lessons the East India Company can offer to the financial, commercial, and organizational history of the modern corporation, while inherently interesting and heuristically instructive, must necessarily be limited, cautionary, and entertained at one’s own risk.