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Les Arméniens dans le commerce asiatique au début de l'ère moderne

Sushil Chaudhury
Kéram Kévonian


Sushil Chaudhury

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1No comprehensive study has yet been made on the role of the Armenians in the long-distance trade in Asia in the 16th to the 18th century. But this is a very important subject in trade history, especially in view of the fact that the Armenians were one of the most active groups, perhaps the most dominant, in overland trade in the early modern era. Moreover a study of the theme is all the more essential for a proper understanding and clarification of some the crucial issues and the on-going debate on the relative importance of the traditional overland trade vis-à-vis the seaborne European trade as also the characterization of the Asian trade in the 16th through the 18th century.


2One of the major issues concerning the long-distance trade in the Eurasian continuum in the early modern era is whether the advent of the Europeans resulted in the ultimate demise of the Asian overland trade. It has been held for long that with the advent of the Europeans in the Indian Ocean region, first under the Portuguese in the 16th century, followed by the English and the Dutch East India Companies in the 17th century, the overland trade was doomed and from then onward, especially from the early 17th century, the oceanic trade of the Europeans ruled supreme in the long-distance trade. The most eminent protagonist of this theory is Niels Steensgaard who in his seminal work, The Asian Trade Revolution of the Seventeenth Century, propounded that the Companies succeeded in breaking the caravan’s hold over the overland trade of Asia from the early 17th century, though he somewhat qualified his position in two later essays (Steensgaard, 1974; 1987; 1999, 55-73).

3It is true, no doubt, that the discovery, and hence the opening of the direct maritime route from Europe to Asia by Vasco da Gama around the Cape of Good Hope in 1498 brought about a "commercial revolution" and resulted in the integration of trade on a global scale between the 16th and 18th centuries. The huge profit earned by the Portuguese from the spice trade with the eastern archipelago lured the North Europeans to venture in the East, and as such the English East India Company was formed in 1600, followed by the Dutch East India Company (Verenigde Oostindische Compagnie, VOC) in 1602. In this connection it is well to remember that the inflow of silver from the Americas made it possible for the Europeans to have trade with Asia with ease. A part of the silver that came to Europe from the “New World” could be used for commerce with Asia and this along with the silver that was brought in from Japan enabled the Europeans to buy commodities in Asia for export to Europe (Chaudhury, Morineau, 1999, 1, Introduction).

4However, even before Steensgaard, William H. Moreland, one of the pioneers in the field of Indian economic history, emphasized the role of the Europeans in the Indian Ocean trade in the 16th century. He held that the advent of the Portuguese in the Indian Ocean in the 16th century ushered in "a new era" in the region. Though he acknowledged that the Asian ships were active in some parts of the Indian Ocean during this period, he however maintained that the important routes of maritime trade in this area were dominated by the Portuguese. He was also of the opinion that India’s traditional overland trade in the 17th century was of little importance and that the important development took place at sea (Moreland, 1920, 186-188, 192-209, 218; 1923, 58). The idea was so much entrenched that Kavalam M. Panikkar, writing almost forty years after Moreland, talked of the "Western dominance" in the Indian Ocean with the coming in of the Portuguese (Panikkar, 1959).

5A second issue that comes up in connection with the discussion on long-distance trade in the early modern era is the characterization of Asian trade as "peddling trade" and Asian merchants as inferior to the Europeans in regard to commercial organization and techniques of trade. In his classic work, Indonesian Trade and Society, Jacob C. van Leur, despite an anticolonialism iconoclastic for his day while discarding some aspects of the Eurocentric approach to Asian history, could not break out of a Weberian dichotomy between European capitalist trade and an unchanging “Oriental trade” and hence characterized Asian trade as a "small-scale peddling trade" (van Leur, 1955, 63-79, 133). As is known, “peddling” is a term to describe an archaic form of commercial activity and as such, an ineffective method of trading. Later on, Steensgaard reiterated van Leur thesis of peddling trade even while admitting that the peddling trade could make use of fairly sophisticated commercial methods, such as “commenda, bottomry, partnerships, and combined credit and transfer transactions by means of bills of exchange.” He tried to compare the commercial organizations of the caravan, i.e., peddling trade and those of the European trading companies, and demonstrate the organizational superiority of the Companies over the caravans (Steensgaard, 1974, 24-59. See also Baladouni, Makepeace, 1998, xxxiv-xxxv).

6Thirdly, the issue is also concerning the characterization of the Asian merchants as peddlers. Here again it is van Leur, later on reiterated by Steensgaard, who stressed that the Asian merchants were mere peddlers compared with their European counterparts in the 17th and 18th centuries. Steensgaard (1974, 30) wrote that “the ordinary [Asian] entrepreneur operates on the pedlar level, and there is nothing in the sources to indicate the existence of comprehensive coordinated organizations—of an Armenian, Turkish, Persian version of a Fugger, Cranfield or Tripp.” Fourth, the Asian trade is characterized by van Leur as an exchange of luxury goods, small in bulk but high in value. In other words, that it was a trade distinguished mainly by luxury goods, rather than in mundane commodities for daily use.

7Again, yet another issue comes up in the discussion of long-distance trade in the early modern era. It has been held for long that as the European export trade by oceanic route was the dominant factor in the commercial life of Asia, especially India and for that matter Bengal which was the largest supplier of export commodities like textiles and raw silk, they were the major exporters from Bengal, and as such they were the main importers of bullion into Bengal, especially in the first half of the 18th century (Chaudhuri, 1978, 247. Marshall, 1987, 65-67. Bayly, 1988, 49-50). As a corollary, it has been maintained by historians that the inflow of precious metals in the wake of the European trade resulted in "marked and sustained" increase in prices in Bengal in the first half of the 18th century (Marshall, 1975, 65; 1987, 73, 142-143, 163-164. Chaudhuri, ibid., 99-108). One of the noted scholars on trade history even went to the extent of asserting that:

“The development of European trade with Bengal in the late 17th century had the effect of shifting the balance radically in favour of the seaborne trade. During the first half of the 18th century Europe was unquestionably Bengal’s chief trading partner and its textile industry had not only expanded at a rapid rate to keep pace with the increased demand but had also fully adjusted its output to the special specifications required for selling in Europe” (Chaudhuri, ibid., 24; emphasis added).

8Similarly, other noted historians on the subject were of the same opinion (Prakash, 1985. Marshal], 1987, 65-67. Bayly, 1988, 450). Marshall (ibid., 64-65) wrote :

“Through their [merchants’] enterprise Bengal maintained a favourable balance of commodity trade with areas like the Middle East, the Philippines and above all Europe which settled their deficits in bullion. The European companies were the main importers of bullion” (emphasis added).

9The main reason for these sort of assertions stated above might be due to the lack of evidence on overland trade, compared with the abundance of qualitative as well as quantitative data on European oceanic trade in the different Company archives. There is no denying the fact that the Europeans were dominant in seaborne export trade in the 17th and 18th centuries but that does not necessarily imply that they were ahead of the Asian merchants in the export trade as a whole. For, the above does not take into account the export trade by overland route which had always been extremely significant during the period under review. However it appears that the Eurocentric view of some of the historians working in the field was also responsible to some extent for such assumptions noted above.

10But whatever evidence we have now regarding overland trade which admittedly is not yet as exhaustive as in the case of European seaborne trade, it can be asserted, especially after a detailed analysis of the Armenian merchants’ overland trade as has been done in this volume, that the traditional (caravan) overland trade competed successfully with the English and the Dutch East India Companies in the 17th century and well into the 18th. Indeed, it can be maintained now that the traditional overland trade was not doomed at all with the advent of the Companies and for that matter of fact it was no less important than the oceanic trade of the Europeans even in the 18th century. It is generally assumed that with the fall of the three great Muslim empires – Mughal, Persian and Ottoman – and the consequent decline of important ports like Surat, the overland trade was doomed. Again, it may be possible that fascination for the sea and preoccupation with the European market as well as the nature of surviving evidence have obscured the significance of the overland trade from Asia. It may also have been due to the Eurocentric approach of the scholars working in the field.

11In the backdrop of the above assertions it is pertinent to have a fresh look at the long-distance trade in the early modern era in the light of new evidence found in the last few decades. And it is in this connection that an investigation into the role of the Armenians in Asian trade, especially in the overland trade, in the 16th to the 18th centuries becomes extremely relevant since they were one of the major groups participating in this sector during the period under review.

12However, it should be noted that there had already been quite a few refutations of the above theories which need to be mentioned here. J. C. van Leur (1955) first challenged the proposition that the Portuguese were the dominant influence in the Indian Ocean in the 16th century. He pointed out that the Asian maritime trade continued to be of great importance even in the 16th century, and argued that the Portuguese in fact failed to control even the vital pepper and spice trade. Steensgaard (1974, 95-103, 157-169) also has demonstrated that there was no dramatic change in the volume of the pepper and spice trade reaching Europe before the participation of the English and Dutch companies in this trade in the early 17th century. Similar were the conclusions of Luís Filipe Ferreira Reis Thomaz (1981, 101) and Michael Pearson (1987a, 90) from their respective studies. Pearson (ibid.) has argued that in terms of total Asian spice trade—not just the small amount which went to the Red Sea and Europe—the role of the Portuguese was rather quite "limited". He is of the opinion that the Portuguese were "irrelevant for most part of the time in most areas of Asia"—from the Middle East to East Africa—over the huge amount of spices consumed in Asia. In fact, most of the historians now hold that the European influence in the Indian Ocean was only marginal, at least up to the mid-eighteenth century (Steensgaard, 1987, 132. Pearson, 1987 b, 2-3, 77-79). It has also been suggested that any picture of Asian trade in the early modern era must emphasize continuity rather than change (Pearson, 1987a, 9).

  • 1 Steensgaard (1974) refers to Hovhannes’ journal which indicates only small scale transactions of t (...)
  • 2 Banjaras were grain merchants who traded in Indian villages while moving from one part of the coun (...)
  • 3 For Virji Vohra and Cassa Verona: Chaudhuri, 1978, 138, 258, and Mehta, 1991, 51-64. For Mulla Abd (...)

13So far as the characterization of the Asian trade as peddling trade and the merchants as peddlers is concerned, this has also been effectively discarded by a number of scholars. As has been rightly pointed out by Kirti N. Chaudhuri (1978, 135-139), the activities of the Armenian, Turkish or Persian merchants have not yet been studied in depth from original sources to believe uncritically in such a categorical statement. It has been demonstrated now with adequate evidence that though there were numerous small merchants with meagre capital in different parts of Asia in the early modem era, there also existed many wealthy magnates who with their huge capital and well-organized trading enterprises played a vital role in the trading world of Asia (Chaudhury, 1995, 4). The famous Hovhannes Jughayetsi, made so by Steensgaard as the model of Asian peddler, was not really a peddling merchant working on his own but a cog in a very large commercial wheel operated by the wealthy merchant families of New Julfa.1 It can be proved from the available evidence that the existence of a man like Hovhannes or the banjaras2 does not justify the conclusion that trade in India or the Middle East/Central Asia was carried on only at the peddling level. In India the true peddlers were those who were engaged mostly in local trade. They went from village to village with their pack bullocks collecting wares and selling them in a similar way. But there were also merchant princes in Asia, like Virji Vohra in early 17th century Surat, Mulla Abdul Goffur and Cassa Verona in late 17th century Surat and Madras respectively, the Jagat Seths and Khoja Wajid in early 18th century Bengal,3 the Shareemans, the family of Khoja Nazar and Khoja Safraz, etc. in early 17th century Persia-to name a few among the Asian merchant princes-who with their varied and extensive operations could easily be compared with the most successful and prominent merchants of Europe.

14However, one of the protagonists of peddler thesis, Ashin Das Gupta, regards even the wealthy merchant Mulla Abdul Goffur, who had a complete hold over the hinterland trade of the Mughal port of Surat as also the export trade from Surat to the Red Sea and Persian Gulf with a fleet of seventeen vessels which even the Companies envied, as a peddler since he was an “insecure man” made so by “limitation of information and vagaries of commerce.” He holds that the development of a sophisticated institution of credit and brokerage was an attempt to facilitate “trade of atomised men” (Das Gupta, 1979, 11-13). If that be so, how is one to distinguish Asian and Indian trade from that in western or central Europe? The fact that the Red Sea and not the Cape of Good Hope remained the main outlet of India’s foreign trade in the 17th century shows that, as has been rightly argued by Irfan Habib (1991, 397-398), given the possibility of free and open competition, the “atomised commerce” was by no means less efficient than the trade of the English or Dutch companies. This view was earlier propounded emphatically in the volume edited by Denys Lombard and Jean Aubin (French version, 1987; English edition, 2000). The Weberian paradigm, espoused by scholars of the expansion-reaction framework, that the chartered European trading companies were institutionally superior form of organization to the Asian mode of operations was strongly refuted in the said work. It has been pointed out that the family firm, merchant community, and the networks of capital-raising and investment based on kinship, affinity, and sociability were no less efficient than the organized Companies. In this context one is reminded of Jack Goody’s observation that the traditional forms of mercantile operation were no less economically competent than the supposedly modern ones (Goody, 1996).

  • 4 See also Verelst, Letter to the Court of Directors, 2 April 1769: London, British Library, India O (...)

15Be that as it may, the issue that the Europeans were the major exporters from Asia, especially from Bengal, and as such they were the main importers of bullion into the country rather than the Asians, it has already been shown with qualitative as well as quantitative evidence that it was the Asians and not the Europeans who were the major exporters from Bengal, and hence the principal importers of bullion into the province. The Asian merchants had a definite edge over the Europeans in the export of the two principal export commodities from Bengal, namely textiles and raw silk. The average annual value of the Asian export of textiles around the mid-eighteenth century would have been around Rs. 9 to 10 million while the total European export of the commodity from Bengal could not have been more than Rs. 5 to 6 million a year (Chaudhury, 1995, 202-211; 1999, 300-320). In the case of raw silk exports, the Asians were far ahead of the Europeans. While the export by Asian merchants stood at around Rs. 4.8 million a year in the mid-eighteenth century, the average annual value of the total European export of the commodity was Rs. 1 million at the most (Chaudhury, 1995, 249-258; 1999, 306-309). So computing the total value of the exports from Bengal in the mid-eighteenth century, the Asian share comes to around Rs. 13 to 14 million a year while that of the Europeans would have been only Rs. 8 to 9 million. As everyone, whether Asians or Europeans, had to bring in silver/cash to Bengal for buying the export commodities, there can be little doubt that the Asians, and not the Europeans, were the major importers of bullion to Bengal in the first of the 18th century (Bolts, 1772-1775, I, 200. Scrafton, 1763, 20).4 Similarly, in the 17th century Persia, the Armenians of New Julfa were the principal sources through whom a huge amount of silver was imported into Persia in exchange for Persia’s raw silk, and this helped Shah Abbas I in reorganizing his army and creating a strong and stable state (Baghdiantz McCabe, 1999).

16So far as the characterization of the Asian trade as trade in luxury goods, high in value but small in bulk, this has been refuted sometime back by Marie Antoinette P. Meilink-Roelofsz (1962) and Ashin Das Gupta (1974). There is no denying that luxury goods were important items of Indian Ocean trade and that India’s prime import was bullion. But at the same time the fact remains that mundane goods for use in daily life were actually the principal items of trade. Textiles were one of the major items of export. Some of them were undoubtedly-expensive and fine stuff but the overwhelming majority was cheap, course piece-goods for everyday wear. Another commodity that was quite dominant in the export list was staple food items like rice, wheat, oil, sugar, etc. (Chaudhury, Morineau, 1999, 4-5).

  • 5 London, British Library, IOR, Despatch Book, vol. 94, fol. 197, 17 April 1699.

17The above refutations notwithstanding, it will be prudent to have a fresh look at the question, and for this it is important that the role of the Armenians in long-distance trade should be investigated in as much details as possible. This is bound to throw new light on the subject since from the very ancient times, they were perhaps the most important group involved in overland trade in the Eurasian continuum. The very geographical location of Armenia, situated strategically in the trade route from Europe to Asia, was of great help in this respect. It was because of this reason that for a long period till the close of the early modern period, “international trade has assumed a central place in the economic life of the people of Armenia” (Baladouni, Makepeace, 1998, xvi). They not only went out of their home, and established colonies in various towns and trade marts in different parts of Europe and Asia, but also created the necessary infrastructure for successful participation in long-distance trade. This is perhaps why the Directors of the English East India Company wrote in 1699 that the “Armenians are the ancientest merchants of the world5.” That the Armenians were engaged in long-distance trade over a vast area in the Eurasian continuum even in the early 18th century is attested by Malachy Postlethwyat who wrote:

“They [the Armenian merchants] are not only masters of the trade of the whole of the Levant, but have also a great share in that of the most considerable towns in Europe; for it is very common to meet with some Armenians at Leghorn, at Venice, in England, and in Holland; whilst on the other side they travel into the dominions of the Grand Mogul, Siam, Java, the Philippine islands, and over all the east” (Baladouni, Makepeace, 1998, xiii).

18It will be appropriate at this point to give an idea of the overland trade routes in the Eurasian continuum in the 16th to the 18th centuries. There were several routes of commerce traversing through many parts of Europe and Asia. First, trade originating in Europe moved to the ports in the Mediterranean and the Black Sea, then it moved eastward near or through Armenia to the southern borders of the Caspian Sea. From there one route passed in the northeastern direction to Central Asia and China while another continued in the southeasterly course to India and Southeast Asia. A third route took off from the Caspian Sea northward to Russia. The Armenian merchants were active in all theses routes as also in the maritime trade, though not so vigorously in the latter as in the overland trade, extending from the east coast of Africa through the Indian Ocean to the Philippines (Baladouni, Makepeace, 1998, xvi).

19It should be noted that though the Armenians were involved in commerce for centuries, it was only with the emergence of New Julfa as the nucleus of the Armenian trading networks that they were organized as one of the most dominant groups in the long-distance trade in the Eurasian continuum in the early modern era. Again, it is to be remembered that the emergence of New Julfa was an accidental as well as a historical development that took place in the early 17th century. Historical Armenia had fallen a victim to the rivalry between the Ottomans and Persians in the 16th century, and though the development of the country in different spheres suffered a lot, somehow it did not affect very much the commercial activities of the Armenians. In 1604 the Persian emperor, Shah Abbas I (1587-1629), conquered the Ottoman domains of Transcaucasia and forcibly moved the Armenians of Transcaucasian Armenia to Persia. In a clever move, he sent the peasants among them to the silk-growing areas of Gilan and Mazandaran while the professional merchants and artisans were settled in the outskirts of the capital, Isfahan, and this new township came to be kown as the famous New Julfa (Nor Jugha), after their town of origin, Julfa (Jugha), on the Araxes.

20The deportation of the Armenians and their rehabilitation in Persia was part of a well-considered economic and political plan for consolidating royal power. Shah Abbas intended to develop and extend the production of raw silk, and its export to Europe so that with the earnings from the export of silk to Europe in exchange mostly for Europe’s silver, he could raise a strong and efficient army, and lay the foundation of a strong and stable state. He was well aware of the expertise of the Armenians in commercial activities and their devotion to the cause of trade. He could foresee that with their ready and huge capital, their contacts both in the commercial world of Europe and Asia, and their thorough knowledge of the international markets, the Armenians would be able to help him in achieving his economic and political objectives. The Armenians did not disappoint the Shah—they were able to develop Persia’s foreign trade in raw silk, create new markets and products, and expand the scope of the trade routes (Ferrier, 1986, 453-456). Shah Abbas 1 is said to have told his Muslim subjects:

  • 6 Arakel Davrizhetsi (Arakel of Tabriz), in his Book of Histories (1669): quoted in V. Ghougassian, (...)

“Do not be offended or blame me for the little and frivolous love I express for them [the Armenians]. After spending fortunes, with great effort and many plots, I was able to transfer them to this country, not for their own sake, but for our own benefit, so that our country may develop and our nation may grow6.”

21However, it should be noted that it was a specific group that was involved in the trade of silk and silver, an organized group of merchant families who ran this worldwide commercial network of Persian silk exchanged for silver and European manufactured goods (Baghdiantz McCabe, 1999, 3-4). Unfortunately, the economic prosperity of the Armenians in Persia and that of New Julfa in particular lasted till the Afghan invasion of Persia in 1722 which resulted in great casualties and losses for the New Julfan Armenians in particular and forced many of the prominent merchant families to emigrate to India, Russia and various parts of Europe.

22Be that as it may, New Julfa became the hub of Persia’s silk trade and the centre of a vast commercial organization covering almost half the world, ranging from western Europe to India and Southeast Asia. The trading network of the Armenians was organized mainly around several very wealthy and powerful merchant families of New Julfa in the 17th century. There were about twenty such families who headed the well-organized trading houses in New Julfa (Baghdiantz McCabe, 1999, 4-5). They were popularly known as Khojas or sometime Aghas. They acted both as business financiers and entrepreneurs, and sent their factors to various parts of the world in different ventures. They “not only furnished the necessary capital for commercial ventures but also stood at the steering helm of their respective trading houses” (Baladouni, Makepeace, 1998, xxvi). Their factors went to great lengths to augment his profit of one-fourth by keeping the general profit high and operating overhead as low as possible. As such, these factors were renowned for their thrift and economy. Jean-Baptiste Tavernier, the French traveller, wrote around the mid-eighteenth century that the “Armenians were even better suited for commerce that they live with great economy and are very thrifty... either by virtue or because of avarice” (Baghdiantz McCabe, ibid., 211). John Fryer (1698), the English traveller, observed:

“On which account it is the Armenians being skilled in all the intricacies and subtleties of trade at home, and travelling with these into the remotest kingdoms, become by their own Industry, and by becoming Factors of their own Kindreds Honesty, the Wealthiest men [...]. They are kind of privateer in Trade, no Purchase, no Pay: they enter the theatre of commerce by means of some Benefactor, whose money they adventure upon, and on Return, a quarter part of the gain is their own: from such beginnings do they raise sometimes great Fortunes, for themselves and (their) Masters” (Crooke, 1985, 264).

23One of the crucial questions regarding the long-distance trade of the Armenians was the factors behind the fabulous success of the Armenians as exemplified throughout the early modern era. This has engaged the attention of even Fernand Braudel and Philip D. Curtin. It has been suggested in a recent study (Baladouni, Makepeace, 1998, xxxiv-xxxv) that the success of the Armenians was primarily due to “organizational form or arrangements” which seems to be quite tenable. Indeed, the Armenian enterprises, widely spread but highly interrelated, operated under, what might be called, the “ethos of trust” which served as a human capital which the Armenian community acquired through their “collective socio-political experiences” over centuries. Again, the structuring of their business enterprises, based as it was on family kinship and trusted fellow-countrymen, gave the Armenian merchants two significant advantages—organizational cost savings and organizational innovations. In all probability, the Armenians succeeded because they were able to create networks of trust, shared in formation and mutual support based upon the fact that they were a distinctive ethnic and religious minority. However, it may be true that some other diaspora people in the early modern era, especially the Jews, had all these characteristics but perhaps the Armenians were ahead of the others in these respects and hence their success was more pronounced than in case of the others.

24It should also be noted in this connection that the Armenian trading houses, based mainly in New Julfa, were networks or alliances of organizations centred around the prominent merchant families and their heads, the Khojas, who financed the commercial ventures and also acted as entrepreneurs as opposed to the single, large, hierarchically organized joint stock companies of the north Europeans. This helped the Armenian trading houses to avoid the relatively rigid and costly operations pursued by the Companies. As K. N. Chaudhuri (1978, 137-138) has aptly pointed out:

“They [the Armenian traders] were a group of highly skilled arbitrage dealers who were forced through historical circumstances to develop very flexible and geographically mobile forms of commerce. They were prepared to deal in whichever commodity that offered the prospect of making a profit and their uncertain political and national status made it indifferent whether they resided in Isfahan, Madras, Surat, or Hughli.”

25But the Armenian merchant wherever he was based had regular contact with the main centre of the community in New Julfa.

26Among other factors that contributed to the success of the Armenians was their strong determination to improve their lot in exile and for this they learnt the local language and the customs of the people they were dealing with. This gave them a great advantage vis-à-vis the Companies whose employees were not generally equipped with such knowledge. Again, the flexibility of the Armenians enabled them to assume multiple identities according to the exigency of the situation and the advantage that might accrue to them (Baghdiantz McCabe, 1999, 358-359). At the same time, the Armenians had a high level of awareness of the international scene and the expertise to link up local and regional markets to intra-Asian markets. In this context the observation of Georges Roques is worth quoting:

  • 7 Cf. Sh. Moosvi, infra, chap. 7.

“These people are shrewder than the Indian sarrafs, because they do not work alone, when it comes to evaluating their merchandise and money. More enterprising among them deal with all that is there [to trade in], and do not ignore the price of any merchandise, either from Europe or Asia, or any other place because they correspond with all others and receive rapid information on current prices wherever they are. Thus they do not get cheated in their purchases, and are very economical, and work unbelievably hard to trade so as not to overpay on the merchandise. They spend very little towards living. They are by nature accustomed to living frugally” (Husain, 1994, 939).7

27Indeed, the ability of the Armenian traders to measure the risks of long-distance trade and a readiness to vary the size of commercial transactions, their capacity to thrive on low profit margin and move into remote producing centres, appointing their own kith and kin or people of their own community as their agents were some of the other important factors for their phenomenal success in overland trade from the 16th through the 18th century. Even in the late 18th century, J. John Bruce, the chronicler of the English Company, noted:

“The Armenians, of all people of the East, are the most remarkable for patience and sobriety. They are generally masters of most of the eastern languages, are of strong, robust constitutions; of all people, the most attentive to the beasts and merchandise they have in charge: exceedingly faithful and content with little” (Bruce, 1810, iii, 131).

  • 8 See also Curtin, 1984, 179-206.

28Lastly, but not the least, the present volume is a modest attempt to try to answer some of the important questions which were raised by, among others, Fernand Braudel: “How were these [Armenian] long-distance connections set up and related to each other? Were they linked by the huge headquarters at [New] Julfa and by this alone? Or were they, as I believe, subsidiary centres?” Further, what was “the compelling commercial or capitalist motive behind [their] trading network? What were the commercial techniques in use? How did the Armenian merchants tackle the problem of bookkeeping?” (Braudel, 1982-1984, ii, 157-158.8 Hopefully, the essays in this volume will be able to provide reasonably satisfactory answers to most of these questions. At the same time, this volume will help refute afresh and convincingly some of the Orientalist dispensations on the characterization of the Asian trade in the 16th to the 18th century: that the Portuguese, and not the Asians, were the dominant factor in the Indian Ocean trade in the 16th century, that the advent of the Companies in the early 17th century sounded the death-knell of the traditional overland trade of the Asian merchants, that the Asian trade was a sum total of peddling trade and the Asian traders were mere peddlers, that the Europeans were the major exporters and hence major importers of bullion, etc.


29The main contours of the essays in this volume are briefly set out in the following pages The contributions are grouped together in five parts on the basis of their thematic contents as far as possible. The first essay by Michel Morineau in the first part (Part I) under the theme “Armenians in International and Inter-Continental Trade” raises some pertinent questions about the presence, position and place of the Armenians in the economic system of the 17th and 18th centuries. He points out the contradictory views prevalent on the importance of the Armenians during the period under review, and the necessity to resolve the question. As to the presence of the Armenians, he maintains that the Armenians were dispersed in various parts of the West and the East in the 17th and the 18th centuries, and gives an idea of their composition in the total population of some countries and cities. He also examines the place and position of the Armenian traders in the contemporary diaspora. Moreover, he challenges the Max Weberian paradigm which emphasizes the superiority of the Europeans over the Asians as superficial and unacceptable. At the same time he discards the van Leur/Steensgaard thesis of Asian, including Armenian, traders as mere peddlers and insists that in Asia, as in Europe, there existed itinerant merchants along with merchant-entrepreneurs with huge capital and necessary infrastructure. He also refers to the inherent qualities of the Armenian traders and their zeal to adapt to the circumstances arising at a given time and place which go a long way to account for their success in long-distance trade in the early modern era. Though he acknowledges the importance of the Armenians, he cautions that they were not the whole, there were others as well and who should be taken into account for a comprehensive picture of the trading world of the early modern era.

30In the next essay of this part, Vahan Baibourtian examines the role of New Julfan Armenians in the trading world of the Eurasian continuum in the 17th century. He points out that while the internal trade of Persia was coducted by Muslims, Jews and Christians, the external trade, especially in raw silk, was exclusively the domain of the Armenians. They had collaborated with the Persian Shahs which was mutually beneficial to both of them: the Shahs created the favourable conditions for Armenian traders while the latter enriched the Shahs’ coffers with the silver imported from Europe in exchange for raw silk. The existence of Armenian colonies in the trade centres of the Levant considerably facilitated the trade of the New Julfan Armenian merchants. The intensification of the competition in the Levant acted as a stimulus for the Armenians who tried to seek new free markets and thus their trade with the European countries through the Mediterranean increased further. With their main base at Marseilles, they carried on trade with Spain, Portugal, France, Netherlands, Italy, Russia and also Africa. They were active in India’s overland trade long before the arrival of the Europeans. Baibourtian also points out that for most part of the 18th century, as in the 17th century, India was actually the main base through which the Armenians traded also with various other parts of Asia: Central Asia, Malay-Indonesian archipelago, Southeast Asia, Philippines, etc. But the political developments that took place from around the mid-eighteenth century through the beginning of the 19th century had a telling effect on the destiny of the Armenian communitites, resulting in the end of their dominance in the Asian trade.

31In the first essay of next part (Part II) under the title “Wealthy Merchants and Factors: the Legacy of Julfa,” Vazken Ghougassian tries to explore the social origin of the merchant families of New Julfa, the political and economic circumstances in which they emerged, their internal community structure and the system that governed their relationship with their factors who traded abroad on their behalf. He enumerates the various titles attached to the names of the most prominent merchant families which were mostly of old and hereditary origin from the days of Old Julfa, designating them as a group or class of particular rank. He also traces the close relationship between the New Julfa Armenian merchant families and the royal family of Persia which was one of the most important factors for the economic prosperity of these merchant families. He closely examines the internal structure of the Armenian community in New Julfa, emphasizing the role of the kalantar (Mayor) and the headmen of the wards. The kalantar, selected by the community and confirmed in his office by the Shah, was the liaison between the state and his community. As to the reasons behind the success of the New Julfan Armenian merchant families, the author points out that it was largely due to their vast wealth, the hard work of their factors, the practical training of the younger generation, but above all, the mutual trust and the traditional law, guiding the relationship between the wealthy merchants and their factors.

32In the next contribution of this part, Edmund Herzig deals, in the first section, with the judicial practice among the New Julfan Armenians in the context of the administrative arrangements as also the process of law and arbitration between Julfa merchants and merchants of diverse other communities. In the second section, he examines the sources of Julfa Armenian commercial law, especially in the context of the long-distance trade during the period. He comes to the conclusion that the Julfan Armenians were left to run their own legal affairs but they did not have any distinct judicial institution or a codified corpus of law and generally followed the Persian system. However, the Julfan Armenian community and its satellites did provide a judicial institution capable of administering commercial law, and of arbitrating and settling cases between Armenian merchants. But this was rather informal—more a matter of arbitration and negotiation. Herzig argues that the commercial law of the Julfa Armenians was a replica of that of other merchant communities and had much in common with them, especially with the Persian Muslim community. It also betrays influence of other merchant communities involved in trade in the Eurasian continuum. This indicates a high level of cultural exchange among geographically remote and culturally distinct trading communities.

33In the last essay of this part, on the architecture of New Julfa, Armen Haghnazarian examines how far the Armenian architecture in their new abode retained the old tradition of Julfa, and whether and how far it was influenced by the new environment as well as the external influences it was exposed to during the period. After a thorough analysis of the thirteen churches, out of twenty-four, that stand still now, he shows that their plans in broad outlines follow those of Armenia with domed halls, basilica compositions with four pillars, etc. which were the characteristic features of Armenian architecture. But at the same time they betray the influence of architectural styles and traditions of other countries with which the Armenian merchants came into contact through their commercial ventures. Thus one can see that the Armenians in New Julfa changed their traditional style which emphasized ornamentation of the exteriors of the buildings while the interior had to be austere and plain. They now built churches and other buildings in which the exterior was simple and plain but adorning the interior with ornaments and wall paintings. Similarly the Armenian paintings of New Julfa, though imbued with earlier traditions and maintaining their originality, were influenced quite a bit by European ideas. In fact these paintings exhibit a fusion of Persian and European art with that of the Armenians.

34The third part (Part III) entitled “Armenians in regional and inter-regional trade,” begins with Ina Baghdiantz McCabe’s analysis of the economic role of the New Julfan Armenians and the impact of their silk trade on the political economy of Persia in the 17th century. She concentrates on the importance of silver brought in by the Armenians in exchange for Persian raw silk, and their role as financiers and bankers to the Safavid Shahs. The silver imported by the Armenians greatly helped establish considerable Safavid power by creating a paid army which in no way was tied to the feudal lords by blood or loyalty. This enabled the Shah to consolidate his power against feudal rivals and centralise his administration. Indeed, the Julfan merchants were the central financial link which made the whole political and economic system based on exporting silk function. The author holds that after the mid-seventeenth century, the Armenians went directly to India bypassing Persian mints which resulted in a great loss for the Persian economy. In fact, Persia was like a corridor for bullion which ended up on the Indian markets as it had always a trade deficit with India which remained its preferred trading partner. Finally, Baghdiantz McCabe points out that the decline of New Julfa as a commercial and financial centre was more due to the changes in the power structure of the Safavid royal household rather than the religious tension which has often been invoked as the chief cause of it.

35In the next contribution of this part, Shireen Moosvi explores the Armenian trade in the Mughal empire in the 17th century. She shows that the Armenians were trading in India at least from the late 16th century as is evident from an Armenian tomb found in Surat dated 1579 and from the travelogue of the Dutch traveller Linschoten. She points out that the Armenian trade in India was facilitated by two factors: first, the fall of Hormuz in 1622 and second, the consolidation of political power in India and Persia by the Mughal emperor Akbar and the Safavid Shah, Shah Abbas I in India and Persia respectively. She also explains how the prominent merchant families of New Julfa organized their trading networks by sending their factors, eighty to ninety by each merchant house, all over the trading world of the Eurasian continuum. She strongly refutes the Eurocentric view that the Asians merchants, including the Armenians, were mere peddlers as represented by Hovannes Jughayetsi. She emphasizes the fact that the Armenians were also engaged in maritime trade as will be evident from the exploits of Khoja Minas, one of the prominent Armenian merchants of Mughal India who with a fleet of four ships traded not only to the Persian Gulf ports, but to Siam, Kedah, Acheh and even to the Philippines. Interestingly, as noted by her, the Armenians in India made extensive use of the Indian commercial and financial practices, and utilized Indian credit network to their great advantage for trade in India. She also tries to identify the factors behind the success of the Armenians vis-à-vis other merchant communities and even the European companies.

36In the next two essays of this section, Emeri van Donzel and Richard Pankhurst examine the activities of the Armenian merchants in Ethiopia. Van Donzel explores the role of Khoja Murad, the Armenian merchant from Aleppo, who came to Ethiopia in search of fortune and ultimately settled there. He went to various places as the representative of the Ethiopian King in the beginning almost every year to Mocha for trading on latter’s behalf and with gifts for the agents of the English and the Dutch Companies there. He was also sent by the King as his envoy to the Mughal empire where he was received twice by Mughal emperor Aurangzeb. But the most interesting of his exploits were the three visits to the Dutch East Indies where he visited the Dutch agent as the representative of the Ethiopian King. But it does not seem that his visits were very fruitful because the Dutch failed to have much trade relations with Ethiopia. In his contribution, Pankhurst looks at the role of the Armenian merchants in the Ethiopian-Asian trade in the 16th through the 18th century. Being Christians and long isolated by Islam, and mostly ignorant of Arabic and with no expertise in commerce which they generally looked down upon, the Ethiopians left the trading activities to foreigners, many of whom were Armenians. Citing the example of the activities of one Matthew, an Armenian merchant from Cairo but based in Ethiopia and engaged in the country’s export-import trade, the author tries to show the Armenian involvement in Ethiopia’s on-going trade with India and the East in the late 15th and early 16th century. He also dwells in details on the exploits of Khoja Murad as a trader and an envoy of the Ethiopian King, and concludes that the Armenians as merchants on their own account and also as the agents of the Ethiopian Kings and their envoys played a significant role in linking the country commercially as well as politically with Asia where their compatriots were likewise active.

37In the last essay of this part, Sushil Chaudhury concentrates on the role of the Armenian merchants in Bengal trade and politics mainly in the 18th century. He shows, taking up the case study of Khoja Wajid, one of the most prominent merchants of Bengal in the mid-eighteenth century, how the Armenians not only were active in the internal and inter-regional trade of Bengal but also in the maritime trade, much to the chagrin of the English East India Company and its employees. They were also active in court politics. Chaudhury brings out clearly how these Armenian merchants allied themselves with the ruling power, realizing that the latter’s favour is the main prop of their commercial prosperity. But the most important consideration that weighed supreme in these merchants was their own business interests, and for the sake of it they were ever ready to swing their allegiance without the slighest hesitation as is illustrated by the case of Wajid who, a great supporter and confidant of the Bengal nawab from the very beginning, joined the bandwagon of the conspirators led by the British against the nawab at the last moment, hoping that thereby he would be able to save his commercial empire but only in vain. He points out that the Armenians in Bengal had always regular connections with their compatriots in New Julfa. He also takes up the case of another Armenian, Khoja Gregory (popularly known as Gurgin Khan) who starting as a cloth merchant rose to the position of the commander-in-chief of the Bengal nawab, Mir Qasim (1760-1763), and how he and his brother, another prominent merchant, Khoja Petruse, became most powerful during Mir Qasim’s reign with their anti-British stance in support of the nawab. With their influence on the nawab and his administration, these two brothers helped the Armenians in extending and improving their trade, much to the concern of the British. The author also tries to identify the factors responsible for the fabulous success of the Armenians in Asian trade.

38In the next part (Part IV) under the heading “Armenians in the Indian Ocean,” the first contribution by Dejanirah Couto examines the role of the Armenians in Portuguese intelligence networks in the Indian Ocean in the 16th century. She points out how the Armenians, employed by the Portuguese, played a vital role as merchants and diplomats in the Portuguese intelligence networks which helped the Portuguese greatly in building and maintaining of the Estado da India in the 16th century. She cited the instances of a few Armenians working as the agents of the Portuguese in the vast intelligence network throughout the Indian Ocean region. The important centres of this network were Aleppo, Hormuz and Goa. The network was extremely important for the preservation and defence of the Estado da India against the Ottomans as also for safeguarding Portuguese interests in the Indian sub-continent. The intelligence supplied by the Armenian informers helped the Portuguese to have a good knowledge of the region so as to enable them to meet the exigency if necessary.

39In the next essay, João Teles e Cunha examines, with great details, the role of the Armenians in the Portuguese trading networks in the western Indian Ocean in the 16th and 17th centuries. He holds that in the beginning, because of their close commercial ties with the Gujaratis, the Armenians regarded the new comers as enemies and avoided the official networks of the Estado da Índia. But gradually they began to use the most important networks of the Portuguese in the western Indian Ocean, namely the Persian Gulf and Arabian Sea. The reason was twofold: first, they were doing so even before the arrival of the Portuguese and secondly, the Portuguese were eager to maintain a steady commercial traffic for augmenting the revenue which was so essential for the preservation of the Estado. As fellow Christians, the Armenians were officially well accepted in the beginning but later on they were treated differently, sometime as friends, and enemies at other times depending on the change in the Portuguese policy. However in the early 17th century, because of the Portuguese-Safavid negotiations, the Portuguese policy was directed to attract the Armenians in their network. However, the importance of the Portuguese network in the Persian Gulf and the Arabian Sea diminished after the 1640s because of the competition from the European Companies and the reopening of the Quandahar route. But still the Armenians used it, though on a smaller scale now as the Portuguese ports like Daman, Diu, Bassein and Chaul provided access to other routes, especially to the Bay of Bengal and the Far East. After 1663, the Estado tried to regain its lost prosperity by adopting several measures to attract merchants to its ports, besides opening new routes and reorganizing the old ones, particularly those connecting Goa with Macau and Manila. This was an incentive for the Armenians. And in the late 17th century, the Armenians still used the official networks of the Estado in the Persian Gulf and Arabian Sea, though in a reduced scale.

40In the third essay of this part, Vahan Papazian tries to examine the various economic and fiscal measures adopted by the Safavid state in the 16th century which helped the growth and development of long-distance overland trade during this period. He maintains that the policies pursued by the Safavids made the trade routes in Persia considerably safe for the transit of merchant caravans, especially when compared with the caravan routes in Ottoman Turkey. But at the same time it is true that despite strict royal instructions as to the amount of taxes to be collected on various items, the farmers of road taxes often collected more amount than stipulated, ignoring the said orders. In the last contribution of this part, Susan Schopp analyses the art of a small but distinctive group of Armenian grave-markers living in Madras and Malacca in the 18th century as reflected in an Armenian gravestone recovered from the South China Sea. This gravestone belongs to Sultan David, a rich textile merchant in Madras and the father of the famous Armenian resident of Madras, Agha Shammer. The motifs in David’s tombstone resemble those of Coromandel chintz and indicate his profession as a cloth merchant. The vocabulary of motifs followed by Armenians both in Madras and Malacca as reflected in the said gravestones, as Schopp says, suggests that images were borrowed not only from cultures other than their own but also from sources other than funeray art, such as Indian textiles and Persian faïence. Sultan David’s gravestone belongs to a group of Armenian grave-markers which are distinguished by their unusual ornamentation charactarized by hybrid nature: juxtaposing emblems familiar to the Armenian community with images drawn from sources outside Armenian cultural and funerary traditions.

41In the last part (Part V), the two essays under the title “Armenians and Finances” by Shushanik Khachikian and Kéram Kévonian examine the financial institutions and some commercial techniques of the Armenians in the early modern era. Khatchikian deals with one of the forms of credit current among the Armenian merchants. While retaining their traditional usurious principles, the Armenians developed a new system of crediting and money transfer, based on bills of exchange known variously as avak, barat, or bundi (or hndvi) in the 17th and 18th centuries. Khachikian gives the details of the model of these bills wherein first comes the name of the borrower, then the name of the lender, next the amount of the bill, then the place and time of payment, etc. The payment period was fixed taking into account the distance, the condition of the route, and the means of transportation. However, there was another type of bills in which the period of payment was not fixed. A number of bills also stipulates the steps to be taken in case the lender refused to make the payment. The bills also indicate the rate of fine to be levied if payment is delayed. In short, the essay provides a broad outline of the main forms and principles of drawing these bills of exchange, of the different types of credit and money transfer as also the charges for money transfer and the rate of fine for delaying the payment. In his contribution, Kevonian explains the Armenian system of numeration and makes a survey of their accounting methods. He holds that double-entry bookkeeping was widely used in the 18th century; it was, of course, prevalent earlier also. In fact, it has been a tradition for long in accounting in the East, which the Italian accounting system itself has probably drawn on. The author shows that the Armenian alphanumeric numeration at the beginning additive, then hybrid, follows the numeration systems generally used in the East. It evolves from 36 signs to 9 (+0). In the 16th and 18th centuries, we can find a canonical system of 20 signs. The nine-signs system was due to the assimilation with Indian numeration as well as with the Indian and Arabic cyphers, the use of which was restricted to logistics (arithmetical operations). The combination of numeral writings with base 10 and fractional parts of base 4 (written with numeral strokes) expresses an adaptation of metrological constraints, as well as an anchoring in the Indo-Iranian and perhaps even to Far Eastern geographical space. Kévonian concludes that the mastery in the art of calculation and accounting is a strong evidence of the existence of sophisticated techniques which in addition to the organization of a network and highly developed credit system, similar to the Indian practice, enabled the Armenians to build up such a huge trade. At the same time, the improvement in the Armenian accounting system observed in the 17th and the 18th centuries is indicative of the great backward pressure of a larger and larger trade carried on by the Armenians in the Eurasian continuum.



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1 Steensgaard (1974) refers to Hovhannes’ journal which indicates only small scale transactions of the Armenian merchant, but actually he was a factor operating in India and Tibet for his principals in Isfahan.

2 Banjaras were grain merchants who traded in Indian villages while moving from one part of the country to another and were involved in small retail trade.

3 For Virji Vohra and Cassa Verona: Chaudhuri, 1978, 138, 258, and Mehta, 1991, 51-64. For Mulla Abdul Goffur: Das Gupta, 1979. For Jagat Seths and Khoja Wajid: Chaudhury, 1988, 91-103; 1995, 120-123; and Chatterjee, 1996, 71-78, 102-106, 117-120, 196-197.

4 See also Verelst, Letter to the Court of Directors, 2 April 1769: London, British Library, India Office Records, Bengal Public Consultations, Range 1, vol. 44, fol. 324, § 6.

5 London, British Library, IOR, Despatch Book, vol. 94, fol. 197, 17 April 1699.

6 Arakel Davrizhetsi (Arakel of Tabriz), in his Book of Histories (1669): quoted in V. Ghougassian, infra, chap. 3.

7 Cf. Sh. Moosvi, infra, chap. 7.

8 See also Curtin, 1984, 179-206.

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