Abstract: An Early Global Business in a Colonial Context: The Strategies, Management, and Failure of John Palmer and Co. of Calcutta, c.1800 to 1830

Tony Webster


From the 1780s until 1834, British commercial activity in India and the East was dominated by the agency houses, mercantile organizations that combined banking, shipping, trade, and speculative investment in commodity production. Mostly based in Calcutta, they conducted business on a global scale, with Britain, the Dutch East Indies, China and the United States. Wars in Europe and India and trade liberalization in the East created a difficult business environment that contributed to the demise of the houses by 1834. Dominating the scene was Palmer and Co., led by John Palmer, whose wealth and reputation for liberality and generosity earned him the informal title "prince of merchants." This paper examines the management, business strategies, and weaknesses of the firm, as it strove to adapt to the difficult circumstances of the period. The reasons for the firm's failure are analyzed, focusing particularly on shortcomings and erroneous practices that contributed to the extinction of Palmer and Co. and the other houses.