For one hundred years until 1856, the British East India Company ruled over 25% of the world’s population beginning at a time when India controlled almost 20 percent of the world’s GDP (according to economic historian estimates). Its power inspired books such as “The Corporation that Changed the World” and based on monopoly powers to trade with India, it enjoyed power that today’s Exxon-Mobile and Wal-mart can hardly dream about. It’s leaders, such as Robert Clive amassed great wealth that makes Ken Lay and Bernie Madoff seem like two-bit burglars.
The remnants of this storied, corrupt and powerful trading company survived as nothing more than paper since 1874 when the British Crown took away most its power (and began ruling India directly via a Viceroy).
This month, Indian-born diamond merchant Sanjiv Mehta is opening a store in London’s ritzy Mayfair district, under the name East India Company. Mehta acquired the rights to the name in 2004 “from 30 or 40 people who owned it” and plans to sell luxury goods. Mehta intend to start with fine foods — coffee, chocolate, marmalade — mainly sourced in the UK, and tea which will come from India. He says he will add linen, chintz, other fabric, furniture and books over time and if things go well, he plans to open several additional stores in multiple countries.
To us this is just a litle sidenote. But to many in India, the symbolism of an Indian emigrant owning the rights to the name that was both revered and despised so much, is almost greater than the occasion when India’s Tata Steel made the $12 billion acquisition of the former British Steel, now known as Corus.