The dirty little secret of the Tatas

I am admirer of the Tata family in their contribution to the industrialisation of India and in making the really big investments that were needed in steel, transport, power that India needed in the early to mid 20th century. They were also widely seen to be less dependent on government handouts and to possess higher ethical standards as opposed to the other large business houses of the day. Potential employees saw them as being more modern and empowering in their treatment of professional managers many of whom were trained via their home grown Tata Administrative Services graduate intake. (I was a candidate for TAS in the eighties after I finished my education, and though I got through the initial selection rounds in Delhi and was called to Bombay House for the final rounds, I was not selected).

So I was more than a bit surprised- and disappointed- to read about the apparent fact of them having been involved in the Opium wars of the late 19th century, when the British East India Company forced China to allow and expand the import of opium from India. Andrew Leonard whose blog, How The World Works, appears to have uncovered evidence in the form of official records released by the legislative Council of Hong Kong.

Included there are the minutes to a Legislative Council meeting held on Friday, March 25, 1887.

During the meeting a group of Hong Kong-based merchants, among whom were included Shellim Ezekiel Shellim, “of the firm of David Sassoon,Sons & Co,” and Ruttonjee Dadabhoy Tata, “of the firm Tata & Co.,” presented a petition “for and on behalf of the Opium Importers and wholesale Opium Merchants of the said Colony.”

They had come to complain about a Bill before the council, titled “An Ordinance for the Regulation of the trade in Opium,” which they believed “would prejudicially affect their trade.”

That while fully recognizing the necessity of carrying out the object aimed at by the said Bill, namely, the prevention of Opium smuggling into China, and while sympathizing with its spirit, your petitioners submit that the means by which it is proposed to effectuate such object would inflict serious injury upon the Opium trade, and especially on the aforesaid Opium Importers and wholesale and retail Opium dealers, and prove a blow to the general commerce and prosperity of this Colony.

Ruttonjee Dadabhoy Tata was J.N. Tata’s first cousin, and the father of J.R.D. Tata, who helmed the family business well into the 20th century, before giving way in 1991 to Ratan Tata, his nephew, the current CEO.
As primary source documentation of (legal) drug dealing activity goes, the LegCo minutes strike me as fairly definitive.

Quite amazing. And disturbing. I guess technically the opium trade was ‘legal’ at the time but there is no doubt that it was a form of imperialism that was being conducted against the wishes of the Chinese emperor. If this is true, it certainly dims the halo the Tatas have long worn, at least in my eyes.

While Leonard’s post does cover many of the positive things that the Tatas are associated with, there is a link to another site that does not view the Tata legacy quite so charitably.

The other company mentioned above is one David Sassoon, Sons & Co. and I wonder if this family was also from India. I have known Sassoons in Australia who are descendants of jews who fled from Iraq and landed mainly in India and Singapore. Isn’t there a Sassoon dock in Mumbai’s port? Hmmm.

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4 comments

  1. Like the Salon commenter nomogen, I found Leonard’s ramble fairly disconnected. And his rebuttle

    “sometimes I just find the interconnections inherently interesting, especially on a Friday afternoon”

    would justify an article

    – titled “Exploiting Squid Stocks,”
    – opening with “Fish eating Indians have yet to discover calamari,”
    – followed by a discourse on “oil from the Arabian Sea,” and
    – concluding that “Bombay squid prices should rise in the next 3-5 years.”

    Okay, I got away from myself with that analogy, but it still demonstrates that his article’s Tata links are tenuous (at best) :)

  2. Update: On revisiting Andrew’s post and the comments left by readers, I find that an anonymous poster says that the Sassoons referred to are indeed from India (and originally from Baghdad) and that partiarch Sir Albert Abdallah David Sassoon build the Sassoon dock in Bombay.

    This comment has more on this as well as a link to their family history:

    http://letters.salon.com/tech/htww/2007/04/20/tata/permalink/8cd297807465805d0189d42ca637393e.html

    Another comment there by WeikuBoy talks about other Persian or Iraqi jewish families (Hardoons, Kadoories) who also got rich off the opium trade in Shanghai.

  3. sachin singh · · Reply

    so if prostitution is “Legalised” and so is slave trade…should we be less distressed by the acts of these corporate sharks!!
    So many people fawn upon the powerful, forgetting how it would feel to be at the receiving end of that same power.
    There is no way to become rich in this sordid capitalist world, other than by robbing, cheating, murdering and pillaging the world. That is what colonial was all about and that is what 1857 was all about. The entire range from the Scindias to every bloody maharaja we have today, were those whose families sided with the British, betrayed their own people and there after were rewarded for their unflinching loyalty to the crown.
    Read American history on the murderous tales of how the Red Indians were driven to genocide by distributing blankets infected with small pox.
    The idea, apparently, came from Lord Amherst, in a letter of orders to Col Bouquet, saying “Could it not be contrived to send the Small Pox among those disaffected tribes of Indians? We must on this occassion use every stratagem in our power to reduce them”. Bocquet replied that he would try and use infected blankets as a means of introducing the disease among the Indians, but was wary of the effects that it would have on his own men. Bouquet then proposes using- in “the Spanish method”- a combination of hunting dogs, rangers and light horsemen, in an effort to “effectually extirpate or remove that vermin” at little risk to his own men. Amherst readily agreed, hoping that the use of smallpox infested blankets, as well as any other method be used that “can serve to extirpate this execrable race”, although he did not think that the hunting dog idea was practical.
    Or Agent Orange in Vietnam, Pizarro in Soth America, or the European barbarity in Africa…and the list is endless. Capitalism in all its forms only spawns hatred hatred and even more hatred.

  4. Most Stupid & Educated Indians will argue in favor of Tata’s pointing out that Opium was not illegal at that time (Mid-19th Century). But they will also not want to listen to the fact that Opium was illegal in Europe at that time.
    The East India Company left the dirty work to these hoodlums (Sasoon, Tata, Birla) so that in later in retrospect the Chinese will be more pissed off with its deceptive neighbors than Hong Kong the cunning Brits. Also the Tata’s had enough nerve to go and argue with the Hong Kong council for repealing the ban on Opium.
    So Tata’s were patriotic and good for India, but for those poor Chinese…..
    Amar Chitra Katha’s comic book on J.R.D Tata (Issue number 735) also mentions the opium trade of Tata’s. The famine during that period in India was mainly due to the fact that the poppy seeds (Opium) were preferred over regular crops in most parts of India which resulted in severe food shortage. Also all Railway lines were laid straight to ports (In British India all tracks led to ports) to efficient logistics.
    Also if one goes through the Tata story, it simply starts with a humble journey from Navasari, Gujrat as a son of humble Zoroastrian priest and by the time he is old BOOM…he has enough money to build a kick-ass hi-tech Steel mill, buy/establish a whole town Power whole Mumbai by building a Power Station near Pune and dream of a world class Intuition.
    Going by this story TATA’s are no different than any other robber barons of India. If fact even Reliance are a tad better in comparison. Remember it was Ratan Tata who recommended Nira Radia to Mukesh Ambani.
    Moral of the story – Rob people Blind, and do charity for its following Generations. Ha ha how nice.
    Indians have very short memory span. God save the country (India) & it’s People.

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