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The East India Company redux

August 12, 2013

The tricks of history can be remarkable. The East India Company is hoping to return to India. As any subcontinental ought to know, the East India Company was instrumental in the colonisation of the Indian subcontinent by the British.

Contrary to how it is often misunderstood, the company did not represent the English government; it was not its concern in the first 100 years of being in India. It actually was just a company, created by the grant of a charter from Queen Elizabeth I in 1600. Shares in it were owned by wealthy traders and merchants, the government had only indirect control.

It was formed originally to trade with the West Indies but ended up in control of large chunks of India. It was given a monopoly of English trade to Asia, with business during the early years focusing on silk, tea and cotton.

At its strongest point, it was responsible for a huge proportion of global trade, and at one time it employed a third of the entire British workforce.

In India, it grew so big — as we know — that it virtually colonised the country, controlling large parts and running its own armies. The war of 1857, referred to as the revolt or the mutiny depending on who’s doing the telling, was against soldiers of the East India Company.

Soon after that, the Government of India Act, 1858, led to the sidelining of the East India Company and the British Crown assumed direct control of India.

Its functions here were absorbed into the government machinery of the British Raj and its administrative apparatus, and the Company’s private armies were nationalised. Some accounts say that the company was dissolved in 1874, while others say that a tiny portion of it lived on, a small tea and coffee concern that retained its trading name.

Now, Indian entrepreneur Sanjiv Mehta is set to re-launch it. He acquired it in 2005, and the concern opened as a luxury food store in London’s Mayfair on Saturday. It’s stocked with some 350 luxury products, including 100 varieties of tea, chocolates and spices from around the world.

Mr Mehta wants to turn what was once synonymous with colonialism in this part of the world into a consumer brand: in his view, he has acquired a 400-year-old brand that is already known to millions of people around the globe. And he hopes to eventually return to India, with its expanding economy and growing demand for luxury goods.

He acknowledges that there is an emotional connection, given the notorious history of the East India Company, but he told the BBC that he did not think that the reappearance of the company would open old wounds. In fact, he says, he’s received more 15,000 emails of support from Indians across India, and even other places from Barbados to Fiji or Canada.

For him, “It is a dream come true to build a business like this and to acquire a brand like this to own the company.”

The company’s website says, “When you hear our name you will probably already have a sense of who we are. Deep within the world’s sub-consciousness is an awareness of The East India Company, powerful pictures of who we are. You’ll feel something for us; you’ll have a connection to us, even if you don’t know us.”

There is something fitting, I must acknowledge, about the East India Company being in the hands of an Indian and even in it returning to the subcontinent perhaps, now under the control of someone whose ancestors it must once have lorded over — Mr Mehta moved to the UK about 20 years ago.

There is after all an allure in converting a name that once inspired awe, even fear, to one that invites you to keep up with the Joneses.

And yet. The name of the East India Company carries powerful weight, a symbolism that is far greater than the sum of its parts, perhaps.

Think of your favourite shopping area and now imagine the shop sign: from within waft exotic scents of coffee and spices, carrying a price tag that some will be tempted to leave on while serving the delicacies so that the world knows that their purse is well-lined.

I have little doubt that were such a store, carrying this particular name, to be opened in the upmarket areas such as Zamzama or M.M. Alam Road etc, it would prove profitable and become a fashionable talking point.

Only a few, pondering how very different the history of the subcontinent might have been had the Company never found a foothold in India, might be tempted to pelt eggs.

Is it the satisfaction of being able to take control over that which once ruled us? Or is it an opportunity to experience a tiny something of the feeling of power the colonists must have had? I wouldn’t want to comment on India, but about Pakistan I can say that the power differential between the wealthy and the poor is not too dissimilar to colonisation.

And what about emotions invoked amongst British customers? It might signal to them either power lost, or justice done, the latter because of the new proprietary rights.

Would those who might buy regularly from the East India Company spare a thought for the functions that the name invokes, about the rights of the people of the countries from where tea or coffee or spices are being imported?

I would like to think so, but I might be overly optimistic; the wealthy, people or nations, are loath to dwell too deeply on the misfortunes of those less advantageously situated.

The writer is a member of staff.