Things come a full circle when an Indian buys the East India Company, of which the Times, London, said in 1874: “It accomplished a work such as in the whole history of the human race no other company ever attempted and as such is likely to attempt in the years to come.” Technically, of course, ‘John Company’ was wound up in 1873. But even the tombstone comes cheap at $15 million. Sanjiv Mehta intends to stay faithful to the charter Elizabeth I conferred on the Governor and Company of Merchants of London Trading into the East Indies to sell the good things of life. Then, as now, these include tea, coffee and chocolate.
More than the blood and gore that surrounds its 273 years of incredibly profitable existence, the Company Bahadur’s enduring legacy is it spawned a system that empowers the underdog Indian to buy Britain Inc’s crown jewels. The way the world conducts commerce is based in large measure on the limited liability the Company came to epitomise. The British monarchs, like their Spanish counterparts, knew how to hedge their bets — the only condition for which the East India Company’s charter could be revoked was if it posted losses for three years running. Not very likely if you have a monopoly to do business with half the world.
The historian has to yield to the businessman in Mr Mehta. The company he is resurrecting plans to be in profitable lines of trade. “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,” is how Mr Mehta’s retail company describes itself. There is Brand Recall and then there is Total Recall.