It was four years ago in 2010 that the East India Company made waves across the world. It had been bought by an Indian. Many were surprised. Not just by the fact that it now had an Indian owner, but that it was still in existence.
In June, the company grabbed headlines again: it issued limited-edition gold coins to honour cricketer Sachin Tendulkar’s illustrious career.
But how did a company that colonised half the world, including and especially India, transform itself into one that now retails the world’s finest gourmet foods and beverages, publishes books and has a bullion business? Not to mention that an Indian calls the shots now.
It’s a story right out of a fairytale. It’s common knowledge that East India Company ceased to exist in 1874, hit hard by India’s first war of independence (or Sepoy Mutiny, as the Britishers called it) in 1857. Its army, navy, the treasury, factories, etc, were all transferred to the crown, to Queen Victoria.
It was only in the 1980s that a group of British merchants went back to the crown to the present Queen Elizabeth II and sought permission to trade using the company’s name. They consequently took ownership of all the intellectual properties of the company, which were sitting idle with the crown or the British government. They traded in, among other things, tea and coffee. In the early 2000s, they approached London-based, India-born businessman Sanjiv Mehta to build a teabag business.
Mehta, who comes from a family of jewellers and diamond traders, and who had in the past collaborated with Hindustan Unilever to export India-made toothpaste, tea and coffee to Russia, realised that there was a lot of scope in the East India Company brand.
“When they came to me, only Englishmen owned the business and there wasn’t a single man from the ‘colonies’, as I would call it, associated with it, so the emotional connect that a person from, say, India, Australia, Singapore or Hong Kong would have with it, that wasn’t there,” says Mehta, who now owns the business. “The company was owned by around 33 shareholders. Over a period of 18 months, I negotiated with them. Finally, on October 2, 2005, 100% ownership of East India Company was shifted from their hands to mine.”
In the following two years, Mehta travelled to those parts of the world wherever East India Company had ever set foot in its original form, including Kabul,