A transnational megacorporation that exerts near total monopoly, mints its own currency, fields its own armies, negotiates treaties, and executes convicts. This is not the stuff of dystopic cyberpunk novels, but history books. Founded in 1602, the Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie (often referred to in English as the Dutch East India Company, but self-styled as the VOC) was the first publicly-traded company, established the first stock exchange, became the first multinational corporation, and boasted the first globally recognizable logo. At the height of its valuation in 1637, the VOC was worth roughly $8.28 trillion in 2021 dollars—more than Apple, Microsoft, Google, Amazon, Facebook, and fifteen more of the world’s most important modern companies combined (or, if you prefer, roughly the GDP of modern Germany, the UK, and France added together). Yet, by the mid-1790s, the VOC was bankrupt. On December 31st, 1799, the Company dissolved entirely. The principal reason for this collapse was no secret: a popular joke at the time said that VOC actually stood for “vergaan onder corruptie” (“perished under corruption”).
How did the world’s wealthiest and most powerful corporation “perish under corruption” in just a handful of decades? And what lessons can be learned from such a failure?Continue reading