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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A lament for Air India

Saturday, 20 January 2007

Three things happened this week to remind me of good old Air India.

Just the other day at a backyard barbeque dinner, I met an ex-Air India pilot and we were talking of the old days when I used to travel on (and he used to fly) the last remaining Boeing 707’s to Aden, Nairobi and Addis Ababa. These were the dying days of Air India as a credible international airline. By then it was well into government bureaucracy mode, sloppy, bumbling and uncaring. But this particular flight was a favourite of mine. Great meals were served on each sector, the crew were friendly and I got to know some of them over the years.

In cities such as Aden, the Air India office was a link to things otherwise not available in the then communist country- newspapers, magazines and books. In fact, one of the staff who worked there, a comely local girl of Indian origin, used to run an informal lending library for books that we could borrow and read. In return, we would leave with her the books we had brought in to add to the library.

Because I had got to know quite a few of the staff, I was often upgraded to business class.

Then I see Patrick Smith at Salon (subscription required) laments the changeover of Air India’s livery for its aircraft:

First, a sneak peak at the latest airline livery abomination. There’s been no shortage of these lately, but this one is particularly disappointing because it afflicts Air-India, until now wearer of my all-time favorite color scheme. Here’s the original, shown to gorgeous advantage on a 747. How can you not love it, from the Rajasthani palace window frames to the Nike-style fin flash? It’s exotic, classic, understated, refined. All airlines should be those things.

Now for the update, depicted here on what I believe is a pre-delivery Boeing 777 at the factory near Seattle. The window arches and striping look emaciated. That scrambled egg on the tail is a bastardized version of the carrier’s elegant Sagittarian centaur logo. He appears to have been electrocuted.

In an earlier post he also comments on why the airline chose the centaur from Greek mythology as its logo:

Air-India’s earliest long-range planes were Lockheed Constellations, the first one taking off in 1948. With the new planes came a new logo, and the plan was go with a constellation theme. The centaur, representative of Sagittarius, was a logical choice because it suggested movement, strength, and somewhat resembled the farohar, a Parsi heavenly symbol featuring a winged man, like a guardian angel. The Parsis are a Zoroastrian sect of the Subcontinent — of which Air-India’s founding family, the Tatas, were members — and their farohar is a sign of good luck. Furthermore, incarnation of the Sagittarius brings forth, in the mind of many Indians, images of the master archer Arjuna from the mythological epic Mahabharata. Whatever the exact reasoning, the emblem was adopted and has remained.

And lastly, I saw a recent documentary film about The Doors concerts in Europe in 1967-68. When they came to England they got off an Air India plane!

Alas, the Air India with the maharaja as mascot and the series of classic humorous ads the defined a carrier with some attitude is long gone, replaced now with younger brighter better airlines in India.

An article in a 1960 Time magazine relates how the club-footed ‘socialist’ politicians started hobbling the airline’s personality.

Here is a link to some of the older Air India ads and posters. And one to pictures of the covers of their timetables over the years, including the one pictured above.

And lastly, a link to some more recent ads.

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