The dirty little secret of the Tatas
Monday, 30 April 2007
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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