Users’ stories

This page will publish short accounts of research undertaken by users of the website.

Kolkata (Calcutta), India

By Régis Bonnan.

For many years, I searched online to know as much as I could about the cigarette trademark litigation between my grandfather Albert Bonnan, a small businessman with limited resources, and the Imperial Tobacco Company Limited, a powerful and large international corporate. The case took place in the 1920s in India before the Bombay and Calcutta High Courts, as well as before the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in London. The case lasted altogether seven years. There were two decisions of the Privy Council associated with the case, one in 1924 and the other in 1929.

My connection with and curiosity for the case was two-fold. As a lawyer, the case interested me to a different degree than most of my relatives because of my legal background. More important, however, was the personal motivation: I had never met my grandfather and only some of the court decisions were available online. Reading the case would allow me, I thought, to quell my curiosity, know more about him and his business at a time when he was young, in his late twenties, in British-ruled India, and dissect the case and appreciate the precise legal issues, arguments and outcome.

I travelled several times to India from 2012 and 2019, for reasons largely unrelated to my grandfather’s case, but I did visit the Bombay and Calcutta High Courts with the case at the back of my mind.

Albert Bonnan

With the passage of time, my interest grew further and I vaguely hoped that the entire court records might still be available. I asked lawyer friends of mine – and friends of friends – for their advice and assistance. The archives at the High Court of Calcutta were searched during the summer of 2019, but unfortunately with no success.

In January 2020, the idea finally sprang to mind. I remembered accessing the Privy Council Papers website which mentioned Indian-related court archives being stored in the British Library. My grandfather’s case – which contained two distinct phases – was appealed twice to the Privy Council. Could the court records not be found closer and faster in England? Indeed, this is what happened. Thanks to Prof. Nandini Chatterjee, her website and the British Library, I obtained the full court records in March 2020 after months of searching. This allowed me to read the numerous court decisions, various exhibits, and the more entertaining (and at times touching) transcripts of the court hearings.

The court records have given me an insight into a small yet significant part of my grandfather’s life and work in Bombay and Calcutta, and sufficient justification for a further visit to India, when the current pandemic subsides.

On a more studious level, the records have allowed me to study the case in detail and prepare a booklet which is being finalized and scheduled for publication in 2021.