Exhibitor : Simon Blackman
Merwanjee Nanabhoy Mehta (M. N. Mehta) was born into a parsi family on 1 October 1857. He studied in Bombay until the age of 13 when hard times fell on his family, and they were forced to move to Navsari – a town in Gujarat some 130 miles away. He and his brother Dorab continued their studies at the Sir Cowasji Jehagirji Madrasa in Navsari. When he was 17 years old, his uncle, Edulji Navroji Mehta, at the time an established businessman in China, came to Navsari from China. Edulji was impressed with the young Merwanjee and sent him to Calcutta where he studied at St Xaviers College for a further 3 years.
After graduating he joined a small trading company at a modest salary. An ambitious man he did not remain at the firm for long. Instead, he asked his uncle Edulji to call him to China, in the hope of starting his own trading business. In reply his uncle sent him 13 crates of gold-plated bangles worth Rs 4000. These were very popular in India at the time. In 1879, using his own capital, he started his own business. Initially, he imported glass bangles from the Qing empire to the Raj. His business flourished and he began to diversify his portfolio. Soon he was importing goods from Austria, Germany, Great Britain and Japan as well. With the money he made, he attempted to set up manufacturing businesses in India.
He established a glass works in Calcutta called the M.N. Mehta Glass Works and a match-making establishment in Ooty. (Ooty also known as Ootacamund is a city in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu.)
Unfortunately, the manufacturing businesses did not flourish, and he soon abandoned them, preferring to focus instead on the import trade. His success in the international trade was truly unparalleled.
In 1897 he travelled to China and set up offices in Canton. Later, in 1915 he opened offices in Kobe, Japan. By the end of the Great War his business empire stretched across the globe.
It is also known that his connection with match manufacture did not end at Ooty. In the Indian Tariff Board investigation of the Match Industry in 1928 there is further detail of another match factory owned by M. N. Mehta. It commenced manufacture on 15 November 1925 at 80 and 104 Ultadingi Main Road in Calcutta.
Producing half and full-size boxes its output was 2,500 gross per day and was fully mechanised – equipped with the best German and Japanese equipment available at that time. Evidence was also provided in person to the Indian Tariff Board by his son Pirojshah on 7 February 1928.
The Mehta labels illustrated here are all from Calcutta. Until recently I did not even know of the existence of the Ooty (Ootacamund) factory : Mehta’s son did not mention it, and it does not appear in R.S Troup’s book “Indian Forest Memoirs, 1908”. I have never seen a label from Mehta bearing Ooty, or any other label bearing the location Ooty.
End of the family business
When Merwanjee Nanabhoy Mehta died on 14 July 1928 at the age of 71, he was one of the wealthiest men in the Raj. By that time however, the networks of international trade that had evolved since the late nineteenth century were also in the process of being radically transformed. A combination of new economic policies pushed through by local manufacturing interests such as the Birlas, with support from the powerful new nationalist politicians, and the effects of the Great Depression, led to the demise of many of the international networks of trade that businesses such as his depended on. Upon his death, his son Pirojshah inherited the massive empire, but not one that was well placed to survive in the new, more nationally oriented commercial age that was emerging. Unfortunately, Pirojshah was not able to replicate his father’s success in this rapidly changing environment and the Mehta enterprise began to collapse with remarkable speed. The massive, multinational business empire that the enterprising Merwanjee had established from scratch did not even survive a decade under Pirojshah’s stewardship. By 1935, a mere seven years after Merwanjee’s death, the entire business was finally wound up.
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