In London, Mumbai man awakens slumbering East India Company

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An Indian entrepreneur is relaunching the East India Company with the opening of a store in London Saturday, after buying the remnants of the British trading giant that once ruled much of the subcontinent.

The company took control of large swathes of the region during the 1700s as it expanded rapidly on the back of its trading activities, before power over India was formally handed to London in the 19th century.

But the firm, which had grown so huge it boasted its own currency and army, was dissolved in 1874.

A tiny rump of the company lived on, however, consisting of its trading name and a small tea and coffee concern.

This shadow of the former global trading power was acquired in 2005 by Indian businessman Sanjiv Mehta, who has transformed it into a consumer brand focused on luxury foodstuffs.

"I was born and grew up in Bombay (Mumbai), so for me to acquire a company which once owned us is a tremendous joy," Mehta told AFP, as workmen put the finishing touches to the shop in London's upmarket Mayfair district.

But the entrepreneur, who moved to Britain around 20 years ago, insists he is not driven by a desire for vengeance - rather, he says his plan is based on carefully thought-out commercial considerations.

In reawakening the slumbering giant, Mehta has bought into a 400-year-old brand already known to millions of people around the world.

At its peak, the company employed a third of the British workforce and was responsible for 50 percent of global trade.

"It's impossible to build a luxury brand like this," the 49-year-old said. "You can spend billions of dollars and not reach where the East India Company is already starting from."

The sheer size and reach of the original EIC is hard to overstate, he said.

"It controlled the waters of the world, it controlled trade, it controlled movement," he went on.

"To control that, it had its own army, its navy, its treasury, its land."

Although his ambitions are much more modest, he hopes the EIC will once again spread its tentacles across the globe. The company is already in talks about taking the brand to Japan and the Middle East.

Mehta also expects the EIC to make a return to India at some point to tap the market for luxury goods in one of the world's fastest expanding economies.

"The East India Company is a name which every Indian knows," he said.

But the revival of the name in India, where the EIC was responsible for ushering in decades of foreign rule and Indian subservience, may prove controversial.

The company was created by the granting of a charter from Queen Elizabeth I in 1600 and given a monopoly on English trade to Asia, and its early activities focused on cotton, silk and tea.

These concerns gradually became of secondary importance to taking military and administrative control of parts of India, however.

In the second half of the 18th century, the trading behemoth increasingly used its military might to suppress local rulers. After the Indian Rebellion of 1857, the country finally came under the direct control of the British government.

Mehta - who used to be in the diamond trade and has worked in Russia and the Middle East - played down concerns that he was prising open old wounds, insisting he had been inundated with messages of support from his compatriots.

"They love the idea of an Indian owning the East India Company," he insisted.

The Mayfair store, which measures around 2,200 square feet (200 square metres), is designed to remind customers of the East India Company's heritage.

The EIC's coat of arms hangs on a wall, and ancient Indian coins are scattered across one of the sales counters.

Metal tea trays are decorated with patterns of criss-crossing straight lines, representing the EIC's trade routes across the globe.

It is stocked with 350 high-end products, developed by the company and using ingredients sourced from across the world.

They include more than 100 varieties of tea, in a specially designed "tea bank", many varieties of mustard and biscuits, and decorated gift boxes of chocolates.

Mehta hopes the business will be in profit by 2012, and predicts it could be worth 100 million pounds (150 million dollars, 120 million euros) in the next four to five years.

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