“A State in the Disguise of a Merchant”
The Introduction explores the nature of corporations, states, sovereigns, and imperial power in the early modern period. It argues that early modern “commercial” companies, like the English East India Company, must be seen not just as economic firms but, like other forms of urban, educational, religious, and other corporations and associations, as political and social bodies unto themselves, especially as in the context of overseas trade and empire. Insisting that early modern sovereignty was not confined to a system of singular, territorially-bounded state, but was hybrid, fragmented, layered, and composite in nature, this chapter challenges the understanding of the East India Company as having transformed from a commercial into a political body only with its acquisition of territory in the middle of the eighteenth century, and of its early history as being categorically distinct from that of its contemporaries in the European Atlantic and Asia. It maintains instead that the East India Company’s political constitution rested in a complex mixture of grants and rights from both European and Asian sources, as well as its own active behavior and institution-building, and must be approached as a subject of political and intellectual history in its own right and on its own terms.
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