This paper breaks new ground by looking at the role played by merchant empires, such as the Dutch East India Company (VOC), in shaping European interactions with the non-Western world. It offers a critique of the English School’s state-centric narrative of the expansion of international society by looking to how the VOC and its expansion in Asia influenced developments within Europe. As a non-state actor, the VOC developed networks of trade and power, which were intertwined with the Dutch struggle against Iberian hegemony. As this paper shows, the development of international law, sovereign equality and European international society needs to be understood as being constituted through these colonial encounters. Looking to the VOC as a merchant empire presents a more nuanced approach to the expansion narrative that recognises that states, empires and early modern companies developed in a co-evolutionary manner. This critical approach calls for the recognition of international society as an ongoing process formed by the contestation of hybrid cultures.