Posts Tagged ‘sepoy mutiny

08
Jul
10

Aldgate, London

[For over three centuries, one company defined the fortunes, the miseries and the destinies of millions of people around the world ! Through a combination of raw ambition, exploration, ruthless diplomacy and technology……coupled with greed, deceit and military conquests, this company established itself as one of the largest, the most profitable and the most influential enterprises that the world has ever seen, or will ever see. This company was the East India Company and its headquarters once stood at Leadenhall Street in Aldgate, London]

Aldgate today is located within the central financial district of London, referred to as simply ‘the City’. However, centuries ago this area had marked the eastern-most entry-point into London and a gateway, from which Aldgate gets its name, stood here along the ancient Roman city walls. Since the past couple of centuries, ‘the City’ has been one of the leading centres of commerce and finance in the world, with millions of pounds worth of transactions passing through its square mile area every day. Aldgate has been at the forefront of this action and some of the leading Insurance Corporations of the world are located here. But what distinguishes Aldgate is perhaps its undeniable role in shaping the history and destiny of not just London or Britain, but of lands far and wide. For it was here that the East India Company was headquartered and from where, for over two centuries, much of its global ventures were governed.

The East India Company:

Contrary to popular belief, the East India Company was not owned or governed by the English/British government, but was a private enterprise subscribed by a few thousand shareholders in London and governed by 24 elected Directors. It was established in the year 1600, when a group of London merchants was granted a Royal Charter by Queen Elizabeth I, providing them with complete monopoly over trade with the far east. Over the next centuries, the Company went on to grow beyond every shareholder’s wildest dreams. It maintained its own armed forces, merchant fleet and factories, and enjoyed adminstrative and legislative powers in the colonies that it controlled. It was not until after the First War of Indian Independence in 1857, that the British government took control of the Company, and Queen Victoria, then Queen of Great Britain, assumed the title of ‘Empress of India’.

Needless to say, in its aggressive quest for profits and power, the company had employed many grossly unethical means. Ultimately, the impact it had on the world was unprecedented. The company dominated world trade for a few centuries and was instrumental in introducing new products and lifestyles into the society and establishing new mega-cities – from Calcutta, Mumbai and Chennai to Singapore and Hong Kong. The legacies left behind by the company – its legal and administrative codes, language, educational systems, transport infrastructure etc. continue to be used to this day in the erstwhile colonies.

Interestingly, earlier this year, there were reports in the media that the East India Company has been acquired by an Indian businessman. According to the reports, Mumbai-born Sanjiv Mehta bought the company from the 30 or 40 people who had still owned it…… and has now opened his flagship ‘East India Company’ store – trading in fine foods and luxury goods, in London’s upmarket Mayfair area.  No doubt the Company’s journey has come full-circle, but the way I see it, what Mr.Mehta claims to be an act of redemption is perhaps, more of a calculated business gimmick.

For one, the company had been dissolved following the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857, and had completely ceased to exist since 1874, when the East India Stock Dividend Redemption Act was passed in the British Parliament. So what Mr.Mehta bought was perhaps the rights to the name and the Coat of Arms of the erstwhile East India Company. It makes perfect business sense, as the name automatically comes with a 400 year-old history and a brand that can be recognised across the globe, thanks to the fact that much of the world was once controlled by the former company.

Until the original East India Company was dissolved, its impressive headquarters – the East India House had stood  at Leadenhall Street in Aldgate. Early illustrations of the building show how imposing and magnificent a structure it used to be.

East India House in the early 1800's (courtesy: Wikimedia)

But unlike the headquarters of the Company’s early rival – the Dutch East India Company, which still stand in Amsterdam […and I had the fortune of visiting two years ago as part of the New Amsterdam Walking Tour], the East India House survived for just over  a decade after the Company was dissovled, and was demolished in 1869 – the same year Gandhi was born. Today, the exact site is occupied by the Lloyd’s Building – home to Lloyd’s of London, one of the leading Insurance societies in the world.  Interestingly, some of the paintings, artefacts and furniture from the East India House now sit in the India House – the seat of the Indian High Commission in London.

Lloyd’s building:

The main factor that attracted me to Aldgate and the Lloyd’s building was that it where the East India Company’s headquarters used to stand. Nevertheless, the Lloyd’s building is an attraction in its own right, thanks to its bizarre ‘Inside-Out’ architecture, which makes it unlike any other in Britain. I had heard a lot about this peculiar design and wanted to check it out myself……and it didn’t disappoint. Turns out that the Lloyd’s building is perhaps the ‘Superman’ of all buildings ! Not that it was built using stones from Krypton, but like Superman, who wears his underpants over his tights, this building has all its internal essentials – namely water pipes, electrical power conduits, cables, elevators, air-conditioning ducts….all exposed on the outside 🙂 Frankly, I must admit that it does not make the prettiest of sights !

The 'Inside-Out' architecture

Lloyd’s of London itself has an interesting history behind it. The society had its origins in 1688, in a coffe-shop run by Edward Lloyd’s in London. This coffee-shop was frequented by sailors and ship-owners, who used the location to discuss insurance deals among themselves, in order to spread their risks. The society grew exponentially in the next century, insuring ships involved in the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Today it is one of the leading insurance societies in the world.

Aldgate also houses the offices of the Lloyd’s Register – the  reputed maritime classification society, which like Lloyd’s of London, had its origins in Edward Lloyd’s coffee-shop. Edward used to help the sailors exchange information by passing around a sheet of paper containing all the shipping-related news he had heard. Today, the Lloyd’s Register is the most respected source for shipping information and maritime classification in the world !

30 St.Mary’s Axe (the Gherkin) –

Situated just a stone’s throw away [depending on how strong your arms are ;)] from the Lloyd’s building is 30, St.Mary’s Axe, otherwise known as ‘the Gherkin’, due to its peculiar shape. [St Mary’s Axe is the name of the street and 30 is the building number] Completed just 7 years ago in 2003, this building is already among the most recognisable landmarks in London’s skyline. It is one of the most prestigious office addresses in London’s financial district and has even featured in many Hollywood and Bollywood movies.

30 St.Mary's Axe - The Gherkin

As I walked along the narrow streets and arrived at the base of the building, my initial thought was that up-close, it was not as larger-than-life as it had seemed otherwise [But then, I had felt the same about the Great Pyramid at Giza as well]. Standing at the circular base of the Gherkin and looking up, one cannot fully appreciate the shape of the structure as its apex is hidden from view. As with any masterpiece, one has to step-back a few feet [or in the case of the Gherkin, a few 100 metres] to fully admire the beauty of its design.

Close-up of the Gherkin

The Gherkin stands on the site where the former Baltic Exchange building used to be located. In 1992, an IRA bomb ripped the building apart, and the area was left undeveloped until the Gherkin took its place.

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