When he left his native India to set up a business in London in the 1980s, Sanjiv Mehta never dreamed of returning home one day with the East India Company in his pocket. By 2005 he had bought the entire company, which gave him the rights to trade using its name, and its coat of arms as a trademark.
Now he has set out to redefine the legacy of the company that once ruled the country of his birth and enslaved his people. This week will mark 160 years since the Indian Mutiny – what Mehta and many Indians call the first war of independence. The anniversary commemorates a revolt by Indian soldiers which kickstarted the freedom struggle against British imperialism. To Mehta, the anniversary has a special poignancy – his own story seems the final nail in the coffin of the colonial East India Company, finishing off what those rebellious soldiers started in Meerut in 1857.
The company started as a ragtag group of sailors and adventurers in 1600 who set out to import spices, tea and exotic items to Europe from India. Eventually the merchants had set up trading hubs around the world, ousted kings and princes from power, and turned the company into a mechanism through which Britain controlled its empire. After the 1857 revolt, the East India Company was dismantled and replaced with the India Office in London, housed in Westminster, in the building now called the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. For years the company remained dormant, stuck in memories and history books.
In India, and other former possessions of Britain, the historic East India Company is a symbol of oppression and humiliation. Mehta first learned about it as a schoolboy in newly independent India. His family had fought alongside Gandhi for India’s independence.
At school, morning assemblies started with songs celebrating India’s freedom, songs that to this day Mehta listens to every morning on his commute to work. “Those songs make up the fabric of my thinking,” he says. “Though I have left India, India has not left me. I don’t have a British accent, I go to Bombay every six weeks to see family for at least a weekend. Not a day goes by where I don’t speak to at least one person in India. I have not left the country.”
Mehta first came to London as a 27-year-old in 1989 to set up an export business. “It was a £100 company which I ran from my home,” he says. He started putting advertisements in newspapers, selling everything from Casio watches to garden furniture. One of his products, hot water bottles which he branded as the “Huggie”, were a particular hit. Mehta sold the business quickly, making £80,000, capital which he used to set up his next ventures.
After the Berlin wall fell in November 1989, Mehta saw an opportunity to start selling to the former Soviet bloc, quickly setting up offices in Warsaw, Berlin, St Petersburg, Azerbaijan and even Yugoslavia. “I was a merchant by nature,” he says. Eventually, he grew his business and started supplying major brands, including Unilever and Nestlé.
In 2003, a group of shareholders who owned the East India Company were attempting to revive it as a business selling tea and coffee and approached Mehta to supply them.
“When I met the people who owned the company, I realised that they did not understand what the East India Company means around the world. Not a single one of them was from a former colony. I knew what meaning those three words have everywhere from St Helena island, to Singapore, to Madras. I could feel it in my bones.”
Mehta started buying shares of the company in 2003. For the next four years, he spent every weekend and spare hour studying the company’s history in the British Library and archive of the Victoria and Albert Museum.
“Every ship record, every cartographer’s map, every mixologist’s recipe, every design from the first bathroom sink designed for Indian heights, to instructions on what to do if a crocodile jumps on your boat. It’s all there,” he says.
His studies inspired trips around the world, from Boston to Brisbane, even war-torn Afghanistan in 2005. “I wanted to go everywhere that the East India Company had ever set foot. I wanted to walk those streets, to see the buildings, to feel what it meant to be part of the world the company existed in.”
After his purchase of the entire company in 2005, Mehta devised a 25-year plan to turn it into a luxury products brand. Now, his London shop features a plethora of products, all inspired by the East India Company’s history, selling everything from tea and jam to gold coins and books.
He conjures up his ideal customers: “An Indian-born woman who works as an investment banker, who has a Chinese-born boyfriend who is working at a start-up in the city. They want to buy a table that is inspired by their shared history. That table signifies where we want to be.”
Mehta’s vision of the world is based on a sense of interconnectedness, one which seems somewhat misplaced after the Brexit vote, and its verdict on immigration in the UK. “I don’t think politics can stop us growing closer together, especially now because of the worldwide web. The East India Company was the Google of its time. It connected people like never before.”
Convincing investors and employees of the commercial value of the brand has been Mehta’s biggest challenge. “Usually, a brand is built around a product. I had the opposite thing. Here was a brand that everyone has heard of, but which had no products.
“No one has attempted something like this before, no parallel to this exists. How do you convince a designer for Cartier to leave his well-paid job and come and design for you instead? How do you convince an investor that you can sell tea and also become a successful jewellery brand? Most people with money are not those with ideas or romance.”
As a self-appointed custodian of the East India Company’s history, Mehta now wants to use his brand to promote his own ideals, running events about the life of Mahatma Gandhi, whom he refers to as Gandhiji, adding the suffix as a mark of respect.
He knows that his Indian heritage means the brand can finally be reimagined with a new spin – the company’s story can now be cast as the ultimate victory of the immigrant over his colonial past, the final triumph of David versus Goliath.
“The fact that an Indian now owns the East India Company, means that the negative has become a positive.
“The historic East India Company built itself on aggression, but today’s East India Company is about compassion,” he says. “It belongs to the entire Commonwealth of nations, to millions of people around the world. It is part of our shared history.
Though he is a dreamer, when it comes to his own story, Mehta prefers a less romantic retelling.
“It’s not some soap opera, like how you’re telling it. The East India Company – those three words have a commercial value like no other. They mean so many things to so many people throughout the English-speaking world. I saw a commercial opportunity in that, and that’s why I bought it.
“I’m not a philosopher. I’m just interested in the commerce of the game.”
1600 The Governor and Company of Merchants of London Trading into the East Indies is created by the granting of a charter from Queen Elizabeth. It is given a monopoly on English trade to Asia and goes on to control 50% of world trade.
1757 Company rule over parts of the Indian subcontinent begins. Eventually the company controls large parts of India with its own armed forces.
1857 Soldiers of the Bengal army shoot their British officers and march on Delhi. The incident leads to a major uprising and poses a real threat to British rule, but is unsuccessful.
1858 The British government nationalises the company and the crown takes over its administrative powers and armed forces. The company continues to exist as a small trading name dealing in tea and coffee.
2005 Sanjiv Mehta, an Indian entrepreneur, acquires the company, which he relaunches as a luxury consumer brand.
How the East India Company became a weapon to challenge UK’s colonial past – The Guardian