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Book Review: Merchant Kings

Book review of Albert Schrauwers' Merchant Kings: Corporate Governmentality in the Dutch Colonial Empire, 1815–1870 (2021)

Published onDec 16, 2022
Book Review: Merchant Kings

Merchant Kings: Corporate Governmentality in the Dutch Colonial Empire, 1815–1870, by Albert Schrauwers (2021). Oxford and New York: Berghahn Books.

In Merchant Kings: Corporate Governmentality in the Dutch Colonial Empire, 1815–1870, historian Albert Schrauwers describes the mid-nineteenth century co-emergence of the nation-state and the corporation via a comparison of the Dutch colonial empire at home in the Netherlands and in Java. Through a close historical analysis of the royal corporations that oversaw the trades in cotton, cloth, and sugar in King Willem I’s and II’s economic empire, Schrauwers argues that governmentality and the social control and management of populations were inherent to the corporate form at this time. The book develops the concept of “corporate governmentality,” expanding on Foucault’s idea of governmentality, to consider how corporations function as quasi-state enterprises and manage populations via economic means. To do this, Schrauwers shifts his focus from the state to “those corporations that contributed to the governmentalization of society” (p. 2), attending to how corporate strategies, programs, and relations contributed to state formation in the mid-nineteenth century.

In the introduction, Schrauwers contextualizes corporate governmentality and sets up his methodology for undertaking a historical sociology of Dutch corporate power. Key to this method is the author’s distinct conceptualization of assemblage, merging Foucault’s dispositif (1991) – which refers to the institutions, practices, and tactics that result in the exercise of power – and Tania Li’s emphasis on the practicing of how institutions and their constituent parts are assembled (2007). This dual analytic of assemblage provides insight into how corporate-state alignments are forged, focusing on the institutions and individuals who exercise power as well as the corporate tactics and practices that uphold this power. Through the concept of assemblage, Schrauwers traces the political and class processes of how the Dutch governing elite maintained its hereditary right to rule via the creation of an economic sphere outside of that of royal sovereignty.  

The first part of the book, “State Formation in the Greater Netherlands,” traces the unique structure of the Dutch state and government from the late seventeenth century to the early nineteenth century. Chapter 1 describes the construction of the royal trade empire, focusing on the role of the sovereign in selecting a political class of aristocrats to rule Java and the distinct anti-revolutionary policies of Willem I. Through a comparative analysis of state formation and corporate governmentality both in the metropole (the Netherlands) and in the colony (Java), Schrauwers elucidates the patrimonial nature of the renewed aristocracies established by Willem I, which were characterized by close relations between rulers and corporate elites. 

The second part of the book, “Corporate Governmentality in the Realm of the Merchant King,” attends to the assemblage of projects that made up the Dutch colonial trade—specifically the production and management of commodities. Chapter 2 examines how Johannes Van den Bosch, Willem’s appointed minister of state, created the disciplinary space of the “benevolent colony” in Java as a supposed corporate solution for poverty. The colony was discursively framed as a development project to instill in poor Javanese the productive virtue to reform their “moral weakness” via the production of cash crops. In Chapter 3, Schrauwers examines Van den Bosch’s disciplinary techniques for managing “unruly” populations, such as Dutch paupers and Javanese natives – thus creating productive workers through a part-state, part-market assemblage that Schrauwers terms the “cultivation system,” which was then organized into closed corporate village units.

In Chapters 4, 5, and 6, Schrauwers analyzes the cultivation system of cotton, sugar, and cloth in Java. Examining commodity chains that link the metropole with the colony, he traces the particular form of disciplinary biopower that transforms the aforementioned paupers and natives into laborers. In doing so, Schrauwers develops the concept of corporatization – which spans “the economizing discourses that frame the internal market of the corporation” (p. 103) and the “legal and political processes through which the corporate form is strategically used to solidify or fix in place the disparate elements of [an overall] messy assemblage” (p. 6) – in an effort to show how corporate governmentality is secured. He demonstrates how corporatization encompasses two key tools, accounting and contracts, to develop and maintain this cultivation system.

The final part of the book, “The Credit Mobilier and Corporate Assemblages,” considers how credit mobiliers and finance banks facilitated the inclusion of corporations into larger state roles. According to Schrauwers, this happens through the addition of regent capitalists onto corporate boards and the management activities that they subsequently undertake, which are akin to those of the Crown. Chapter 7 explores the ideological frames that shaped relations among the Dutch state, society, and economy during the nineteenth century, specifically examining liberal conceptions of development, in contrast to utopian or socialist ideologies. In Chapter 8, Schrauwers considers the cultural processes through which corporations re-imagined the separation of state and enterprise in the wake of the liberal and democratic Revolutions of 1848. In this moment, credit mobiliers completed the ideological transition “from state agent to ‘private’ economic firm” (p. 208). This production of a corporate-management culture, Schrauwers argues, laid the roots for the “gentlemanly capitalism” that existed at the end of the nineteenth century, which resulted in an expansion of Dutch imperialism beyond Java. Chapter 9 shows how this transformation took place in the colonial railway industry and reveals how it emulates earlier forms of corporate governmentality.

Schrauwers concludes the book by emphasizing how corporate management and state administration in the Dutch colonial empire were shaped by liberal economic theory, resulting in an assemblage characterized by biopower that both securitized the poor and fostered their “productive virtue.” He details how contracts and accounting enabled the corporate form to become a state-like entity imbued with disciplinary power. Underscoring the version of “benevolent colonization” that motivated economic development and state formation in the Dutch colonial empire, Schrauwers shows how the cultivation-system assemblage was a unique expression of this form, and how it paved the way for a social order of “gentlemanly capitalists” to take shape later in the nineteenth century.

In sum, Merchant Kings effectively analyzes the relationship between the corporation and the state in the Dutch colonial empire – arguing that corporations, as well as the colonial state, exercised biopower, which in turn laid the foundations for further state formation. Schrauwers adds new theoretical insights into studies of governmentality through the concepts of corporate governmentality and corporatization as well as his unique conceptualization of assemblage. In this light, Schrauwers’ book will be particularly useful for anthropologists, historians, and sociologists who study governmentality, capitalist modes of production, political economy, and colonial-trade history.


Foucault, Michel. The Foucault Effect: Studies in Governmentality. University of Chicago Press, 1991.

Li, Tania Murray. The Will to Improve: Governmentality, Development, and the Practice of Politics. Duke University Press, 2007.


Author Biography:

Tamar Law is a PhD student in Development Studies at Cornell University, with research interests in political ecology, the financialization of climate change, and feminist science studies. In 2020, she earned an MPhil in Human Environmental Geography from the University of Oxford, where she researched the growing interest in soil as a climate solution and carbon sink. Her current research focuses on the scalar politics of climate mitigation in Indonesia.

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