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Monday, June 7, 2010


The website of the Company reads :

It’s not a new beginning,
It’s a connection to heritage
It’s a continuation of a long tradition
It’s always been in our time

- to understand this to some extent, one needs to travel down the annals of history. The southern part of India has not witness much of battles as did the Northern part and hence the understanding of trials and tribulations tend to be different. One of the significant battles is the one that took place at Arcot (yes, near Vellore in Tamil Nadu) when British forces defeated the French Indian combine with a small contingent. A young soldier who had come to India at the age of 18 as a writer in the civil services of the then East India Company was the spearhead.  Robert Clive born on 29-9-1725 was instrumental in rewriting the history of India by establishing military supremacy of the East India Company in Southern India and spreading its tentacle to Bengal and other parts of India; the traders who struggled for a toe hold became the aggressors and secured this country in a very big way is history.
The dynamics of the modern industrial world and business conglomerates is rather complex. There are few rich industrialists and business baron who rule the roost by their wealth, industry and hard work. They belong to a different class and have little or no barriers.

The modern take-over, control of management, buying of shares and consolidation of business empires are far too complex for common man and the achievement of a particular Company or an individual entrepreneur may not represent the fortune of a Nation or its people; yet there are some news which would instantaneously bring out cheer to a large majority of uninformed people and this news is perhaps one amongst them.

As we travel back in the history to the start of 17th century, a time when British was trying to break the monopoly of spice trade of Dutch, Portugese and French and slowly out vying others to take control of administration of the country by annexing many princely States and forming laws and policies of their own. The East India Trading Company, a joint stock company formed initially for pursuing trade with the East Indies ended up trading with the Indian subcontinent and China. The Company had been granted English Royal Charter in 1600. As is the way of companies, there was merger subsequently. They mainly was to trade in cotton, silk, indigo, saltpetre**, tea and opium. In some ways the exercise of military power and assumption of administrative functions became blatant with the Battle of Plassey; after the First Indian Rebellion of 1857 (cheaply referred as Sepoy Mutiny by the British authors), the Crown assumed direct administration of the India. The East India Company reportedly was dissolved in 1874 going by the East India Stock Dividend Redemption Act. This Company had had all privileges and had special rights – some trade monopolies and exemptions and remained a potent force for over 200 years in India. The history of this Company is traced to a petition by London merchants to Queen Elizabeth I for permission to sail to the Indian Ocean. In 1600, they gained Royal Charter of a monopoly of trade. One of its earliest entry point was Machilipatnam in the coromandel coast near Vijayawada. In the earlier days, they faced hostilities from Dutch and Portugese. It established trading bases at Goa, Chittagong, Bombay, Surat, Madras and Calcutta.

Many of us would not even imagine that the Fort St George which housed our Assembly till recently was a bastion built by the British East India Company which succeeded in purchasing a piece of coastal land from a chieftain named Chennappa Naicker which became a hub of all activity later.

The Trading Company immensely benefitted by the imperial patronage and by the bickering chieftains all over the place and soon established its military bases. There was an enactment in 1773 by which he Parliament of Britain imposed administrative and economic reforms and took control over the company. It was under this provision, the Governor of Bengal Warren Hastings became the Governor General having administrative powers over all of the Britsh India. Then came the Pitt’s India Act in 1784. slowly Indian princes became vassals of the Company.

After many years the industrial revolution and the market factors brought the economic ideology of laissez-faire which removed the trade monopolies slowly divesting all commercial functions.    The British forces could easily quell the vastly outnumbered China by strategically exploiting and growing opium and exporting them to China for buying tea. The war of 1839-42 was popularly known as First Opium War.

With this lengthy background of history, the news of an Indian owning the present day East India Company does give great sense of pride.   Recently (widely reported in Press during Feb 2010), a mumbai born entrepreneur Sanjiv Mehta had strenuously acquired shared in the firm (East India Company) that once ruled India.

It was reported that with a $15 million investment and inputs from a range of experts, from designers and brand researchers to historians, Sanjiv Mehta planned to open the company store in Conduit Street of the main Regent Street in the heart of London.

Describing it as an achievement, Mehta said "I have this huge feeling of redemption, this indescribable feeling of owning a company that once owned us." Mehta said he travelled around the world, visiting former East India Company trading posts and museums, reading up records and meeting people who understood business of that time. "There was a huge sense of responsibility. I did not create this brand, But I wanted to be as pioneering as the merchants who created it," he said.

It certainly is a long, emotional and personal journey not only Sanjive Mehta but also for many Indians.

The 'relaunched' company, with its headquarters on Conduit Street in Mayfair, is set to open a diverse line of high-end, luxury goods in London and later in India which will include fine foods, furniture, real estate, health and hospitality.

With regards – S Sampathkumar.

** saltpetre is stone salt is nitrate of potash i.e., potassium nitrate – a chemical compound used in fertilizers, rocket propellants and fire works. Also used as a food additive.

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