The rebirth of the East India Company: buy who you want to be

Intrigued by East India Company shops appearing in contemporary London, artist Laura Malacart shows that an Indian businessman buying the East India Company doesn’t yet constitute a final victory over empire.

Sara de Jong
20 November 2017
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Still from Speak Robert 2017. All rights reserved.Did you recently walk by an East India Company shop in London? Were you confused? Indifferent? Disturbed? Did you feel you had travelled back to the imperial era? You shouldn’t be. Sit back, relax and take a sip of imperial nostalgia with a fine cup of English tea. Everything is for sale. Even the East India Company. Even in 2005. In fact, that was when Indian entrepreneur Sanjiv Mehta bought the company, including the right to use the name and the trademark of the coat of arms.

London-based artist Laura Malacart was intrigued by this case and started digging through some historical archives to connect the entrepreneurial history of the East India with its present day reincarnation. This research formed the basis of her interactive installation ‘I am Robert’ shown in the Tate Modern as part of the 2017 Tate Exchange ‘Who Are We?’ programme. Triggered by the East India Company’s rebirth, she decided to follow in the footsteps of Robert Fortune, the Scottish botanist who was tasked with stealing China’s precious tea plants for transport to India. Laura’s journey instead set to explore how history has impacted on the here and now, as she inhabits one of the most capitalist cities in the world, London. In a nutshell, her answer to the question of who we are is that economic forces are the overriding factor in the creation of identity: identities are created through consumption.

Some might want to believe that an Indian businessman now buying the East India Company is a final victory over empire.

So how do empire and global trade relate when it comes to sociopolitical identities? How can we make sense of the sale of luxury coffee, biscuits, or tea in contemporary East India Company shops across the globe? Yes, you can find exquisite East India Company branded products in Hawaii, Qatar, and Hong Kong… Not yet in China where the tea plant originally came from. Nor in India, the country to which the Scotsman Robert Fortune transported the tea plant, as Laura Malacart found when she traced through the archive. You shouldn’t be surprised, however, if the contemporary East India Company soon branches out to China and India.

Some might want to believe that an Indian businessman now buying the East India Company is a final victory over empire. This is what seems to be suggested when The Guardian quotes the owner Sanjiv Mehta as saying, “the negative has become a positive”. They even framed the purchase of the East India Company by an Indian businessman as “the final triumph of David versus Goliath”. But to which David and which triumph did they refer? Global capital winning over imperial capital?

Even Sanjiv Mehta himself doesn’t quite grant us this feel-good story. As he explained in the same Guardian interview: “the East India Company – those three words have a commercial value like no other… I saw a commercial opportunity in that, and that’s why I bought it. I'm not a philosopher”. We witness from the part of capital a denial of history – as if history could be laundered by the fact that a (London) Indian businessman owns the company. This imperial tea cannot get rid of its bitter aftertaste, in spite of sweetening by colonial sugars. We remain tainted by history, we don’t manage to keep it at a safe distance. The present is its product. So, let us better confront history head on.

I went back to Foucault’s homo economicus... I went as back as far as 1600 with the birth of one the first corporations in the West.

This is exactly what Laura Malacart does in her art installation. As Laura explained in a conversation before the opening of the Tate Exchange show: “To respond to the question ‘Who Are We?’ with my work, I went back to Foucault’s homo economicus, and the origins of neoliberal capitalism. I went as back as far as 1600 with the birth of one the first corporations in the West. The Honorable East India Company started with £72,000 and a group of merchants set to exploit the ‘Indian subcontinent’ with an exclusive mandate signed by Queen Elizabeth. Its history is significant and bears certain parallels to the present in terms of how powerful a corporation can become to the extent of imposing legislation and influencing military actions.

"One discovery I made was... the figure of Robert Fortune, a botanist and expert in Chinese culture, hired by the East India to penetrate China and ‘obtain’ the secret of tea, which indeed he achieved in what has been considered the first instance of industrial espionage: he obtained 20,000 plants and seedlings that he shipped directly to the Darjeeling plantations in India and that became the locus of the great British tea industry."

Since Fortune’s story emblematises the range and complexity of Empire - and since he ‘dressed up’ as a Chinese person to accomplish his mission of industrial espionage – at the Tate Modern ‘Who Are We?’ event, Laura chose to teach a short syllabus in Chinese to introduce a sense of incongruence. A Mandarin teacher taught the visitors to say “Hello I am Robert”, “Hello I am Robert too”, “I/we love Robert”, “May you have Fortune!”.  The public was intrigued by this lesson, its information scrolling across a large blackboard with a minimalist flower logo of the tea plant that persisted in many guises in the video work.  

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Still from Speak Robert 2017. All rights reserved.‘Speak Robert’ developed further when Laura was commissioned by Artquest to realise the Artists’ Pavilion at the Venice Biennale. This time she worked with different media and realised a vinyl window installation that was viewable 24/7, while the interior contained 12 ‘objects’ or props that functioned as prompts to an interactive lecture.

As Laura’s art work shows, her answer to ‘Who Are We?’, the question posed by the Tate Exchange programme, is that questions of identity are intertwined with those of economics. Economics seems to override everything else: race, class, gender, sexual identity: all become secondary to capital. This makes it possible for an Indian entrepreneur to buy, market and make profit with the East India Co. brand.

In these volatile times, we could tell ourselves the nostalgic story that Britain is still the commercial centre of the world. Sipping our cups of tea, we should remind ourselves that the essence of Britain as a nation is represented by a commodity. Stolen and imported tea representing Britishness brings us full circle – we are subjects structured by economies, which led to the first corporation. When the first very controversial corporation was reborn from its ashes in 2010, ‘purified’ of history by using history exclusively to signify longevity as a marker of quality, this clearly proves that a brand can deny history its role.

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Speak Robert (Venice Biennale) window door detail. All rights reserved.By the way, The East India Company has recently released a new set of gold coins for purchase: the Guinea Bicentenary Collection. Ever wondered why ‘Guinea’? The name of the coin refers to the Guinea region of West Africa where The Royal African Company did its mining of silver and gold. Buy who you want to be. Just don’t forget history! Some tea with your order?

This article is published as part of an editorial partnership between openDemocracy, The Open University and Counterpoints Arts to reanimate the Tate Exchange project in which academics and artists together ask who – during a time when the lines marking out citizens, borders and nations are being redrawn, or drawn more starkly – 'we' are, and who gets to decide.

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