“You know, my darling… I won't. The New World - too far. Too big. Too primitive. No, my place is here… corrupting the young.”
- Ben Jonson, 1602, on being offered the office of Proprietor in the East India Company.
The first decade of the 17th Century saw an explosion of new companies founded by the traders of London to exploit the new trade routes that were opening to the New World and Orient. The first to be founded was the Honourable East India Company – a venture originally designed to promote the exploration, colonisation and exploitation of the East Indies – which for a time completely dominated all foreign trade. The John Company as it was also known had some enormous successes in its early years; rescuing Dutch colonies taken by the Spanish and in its single biggest triumph funding the building of the Gerrard Canal between the Mediterranean and Red Seas.
The seeds of its decline were however the same as the source of its greatest power, for the company was granted a monopoly over the English gunpowder trade. When Civil War came it was found that the Company had been derelict in its duty and that the arsenals of England were largely bare; a vicious internal political game in the Company had succeeded in weakening the realm to an almost catastrophic degree. The East India Company was shorn of its powder monopoly and only the influence of its directors and proprietors saved it from liquidation. Worse the same backstabbing within the Company had soured the Mughal Emperor too, a situation which took a decade of delicate diplomacy by the Meredith Kendall, the Countess of Reading, to repair. Nonetheless even now the East India Company is the single largest Company in Albion.
At the same time a number of new companies rose to challenge the East India Company’s dominance; the NEC and MISC. For many years Queen Elizabeth II favoured these companies with new monopolies, particularly in the New World and their profits improved even as the EIC’s stagnated. The New England Company (NEC) took the lead in rebuilding the old English colony at Roanoke, destroyed by a Spanish raid from Florida, and has founded a string of other colonies in Virginia and New England. Though the profitability of the colonies has been reduced somewhat by the influx of potentially rebellious religious dissenters, the NEC has proven adept at playing their mutual hatred against one another.
The MISC (Molyneux Investment and Speculation Company, named for the legendary businessman Richard Molyneux) is not a trading company in the same way as the NEC and EIC. It doesn’t trade goods, not even precious spices and exotic items from distant lands, but instead pieces of paper. Most of Albion’s citizens are still mystified by how this converts into a ready stream of gold but the profits of MISC are reliable despite its traders rarely venturing outside the country on business.
By the time of the death of the Queen royal hostility to the John Company had largely faded away. The Prime Minister William Milton wisely promoted cooperation between the companies as well as competition. In the modern era the companies each retain their own monopolies but these are largely levied on ships when they reach Albion’s ports. In the colonies and foreign factories that buy and sell abroad the Companies promote a remarkable degree of amity, and in all but the most serious crises or worst personality conflicts the factors of one company can generally rely on the cooperation of another.
If you select to join one of the Merchant Companies you should select from the East India Company (specialising in the Orient and East Africa), the NEC (specialising in the Albion colonies of the New World and in West Africa) or the MISC (which specialises in the embryonic Oxford stock exchange). PLEASE NOTE that these are largely for flavour purposes - it may affect some relations with other companies or countries and some styles of play or attitudes.
After the example of the traitorous Lord Sherborne, and his crippling of the powder supply, the government takes a dim view of those who place their own profits or those of their company above the good of the realm. No-one makes it to the rank of director or better without demonstrating the same priorities; the Treasury takes an even keener interest in this than in the correct declaration of excise duties. In game terms this means that the Company a player belongs to is largely for flavour; the Companies cooperate to a sufficient extent that the most important trade news is shared between them and they can rely on each other politically and financially. (The players of the Companies will also receive collective briefings.)
The players will most typically represent the troubleshooters of the Companies and indeed may wish to not be attached to a single particular one. The troubleshooters are the individuals who solve the problems, whether through trade, diplomacy or extreme negotiation (using pointy objects) and are valued in the Companies' world. (Of course, feel free to play a straightforward trader if you wish!)
There is a slight bias towards female officers in the Company - not enough to prevent men from joining or advancing, but enough to give competent young women a slight edge over their sisters in the Earl of Essex's Regiment or Order of Sir Walter Raleigh. This is something of a relic of the days when the East India Company was controlled by its secretive and sadly murdered Directress.
Each Company employs a substantial number of Magicians of its own, though demand always outstrips supply; a resourceful young scientist with a commercial bent could probably go far in this organisation.
Membership in the Companies can be either Private or Public, at your choice.
You have recently joined the Company - or perhaps recently failed really badly at something and been broken down to this rank. You have few rights, but also few responsibilities; the Company will give you the opportunity to fulfil various trade missions, but if you choose not to accept you won't suffer many consequences.
You are a full Officer of the Company, and trusted to handle your tasks with some degree of autonomy.
At this level in the Organisation, many Traders choose to sit home and quietly have their minions within the Company do the actual dirty business of going out and negotiating with the savages. Some, however, still choose to operate their ships, outposts or caravans themselves.
You are one of the twenty-four Directors of the Company, and have control over a great deal of its internal and external policies. You will be expected to see to the running of an area of the Company's interests, and if you fall behind on your quotas you may be given a Talking-To, or even lose your Directorship.
At this level, the Company's health is your health - if you lose concentration Barbados might lose clean water for a week, and a mutiny in Calcutta could prove fatal. You will be expected to serve the Company's best interests at all times. In return, you have access to the resources of the Company - naval, military, logistical - and control over a great many eager and willing young men and women ready to do your bidding.
This rank is not available at game start, and requires the retirement or removal of the current Lord-Director (or directress) of the EIC, NEC or MISC. The directorship of a lesser company is only as impressive as proprietorship in those.
The Lord-Director of a Company commands more wealth than any three or four Dukes and has the means at his disposal to destabilise the Albion economy. For this reason though the Lord-Director is chosen by the Company’s Court of Proprietors it must be approved by the King, though the whole matter is largely unofficial.
The Companies employ various wondrous and imaginative ways of making their ships travel quicker to far-off destinations. These are not always safe and not everybody is permitted to take advantage of Company conjurers, sea serpents and bizzare inventions. When dealing with important Company matters however, these will usually be available (at your own risk) and nobody is exactly going to refuse a Proprietor.