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

Sushil Chaudhury
Kéram Kévonian

I. Les Arméniens dans le commerce international et intercontinental / Armenians in International and Inter-continental Trade

2. Participation of Iranian Armenians in the World Trade in the 17th Century

Vahan Baibourtian

Texte intégral

1The Turkish conquest in Asia Minor, the Balkans and North Africa in the 15th and 16th centuries and especially the subjugation of Constantinople in 1453 along with the decay of the Byzantine Empire complicated international trade between Europe and the East to a great extent. Meanwhile a steady economic growth that began in European countries made the provision of rich sources of raw materials and steady markets for sale a must.

2In such a situadon the services of merchant middlemen in conducting trade between the East and the West became essential. This very role was taken up by the Armenian trading community which rapidly began to get stronger and develop successfully. It is pertinent to point out in this context that in the sphere of international trade between the East and the West were involved not only the merchants from Armenia but also from Armenian colonies that grew in different parts of diaspora, in Asia and Europe. Most noticeable among them were the Armenian colonies that developed on the Iranian territory, the most important of which was that of New Julfa (Nor Djugha), in the suburb of the capital of the Safavid dynasty, Isfahan. The colony of New Julfa became a very important centre linking Eastern markets with the West. The Armenian merchants of Iran played an important role, especially in exporting Iranian raw silk to international markets. As testified by European contemporaries (Jean-Baptiste Tavernier, Gabriel de Chinon, Adam Olearius and others), the trade in Iran in the 17th century was carried on by two main streams: the domestic trade carried on by the Muslims, Jews and Christians; and the international trade almost exclusively by the Armenians.

3Indeed, there was an intertwining of interests between the Shah government and the Iranian Armenian merchants, kind of an union profitable for both sides: the government was creating favourable trade conditions for merchants, and the latter brought great profits to the Shah’s treasury. In the 15th and 16th centuries, the Iranian Armenian merchants conducted active trade, first of all in the Levant, where they were already active not only as trade agents of the Europeans, but also as independent merchants. The presence of prosperous Armenian colonies in the trade centres of the Levant, considerably facilitated the activity of Iranian Armenian merchants, and enhanced their competitive abilities. The most prominent centres of Armenian trading activities in the Levant were Aleppo, Brusa, Constantinople and Smyrnia. The main international trade route between Iran and the Levant was the Tabriz-Smyrnia route, parallel to which there were several other secondary routes too. The numerous trade centres of western Armenia—Karin (Erzerum), Akn, Amid (Diyarbakir), Baghesh (Bitlis), Baberd, Van, Ardchesh, Khlat, Mush, Kharberd and other cities—played an important role in Iranian Armenians’ Levant trade, and being situated either on the main or secondary trade routes, directly participated in international transit trade. The presence of Armenian colonies in the whole of Asia Minor, from western Armenia to the west of the Ottoman Empire, created a chain which connected each other by trade and economic ties.

4The Armenian traders in the Levant had serious trade competitors and adversaries in merchants and trading companies of the European countries. It is known from the trading treaties (the capitulations) concluded by the end of the 16th century, that the penetration of European capital was complete in the Near East, and thus Near Eastern markets had become a battle-field among the western European nations, namely France, England and the Netherlands. In its turn, the Turkish Empire, that exercised control over Iran-Levant trade route, also had its great share not only from the trade of Iranian raw silk, but also from the trade exchange with Central Asia, India and China. As a result, the east-Levant trade seemed to be very restricted for Armenian merchants and, hence, they began to look for other greater and more reliable markets in the West rather than in the east-Mediterranean ports.

5Reviving the medieval Armenian sea-trade traditions, the Armenian merchants loaded their wares—Iranian, Turkish, Central Asian, Indian, Chinese, etc.—on European ships, and crossing the Mediterranean, exported those goods of various and rich assortments to Europe. One of the main articles of eastern origin was Iranian raw silk, because of its growing demand in European markets due to the rapid growth of the silk industry in Europe. In the 16th-17th centuries, parallel to the development of trade in the Mediterranean, the number of Armenian shipowners also increased. Naturally the number of ships owned by the Armenians could not be so large as to fully satisfy the great demand for trans-shipment of the export goods. Consequently they were obliged to make extensive use of the European ships, especially those of England, France and the Netherlands, because they could provide more reliable guarantees for the safe delivery of goods. It is important to remember that in the 16th-17th centuries, piracy was inseparable from sea trade. It is not accidental that contemporaries called piracy “the curse of Mediterranean sea trade”. To avoid the attacks of pirates, Armenian ship-owners very often hired warships from European powers to escort their ships. The trade of Armenian merchants with European countries through the Mediterranean increased further due to the intensification of trade competition in the Levant. It acted as a stimulus for the Armenian merchants to seek new free markets. To withstand the severe competition from the powerful European trading companies, the Armenian merchants were constantly obliged to display exceptional flexibility. For example, they united themselves sometimes into something like “trade companies”, and were forced to assimilate the trade forms that existed in Europe, study languages, learn local modes of life and traditions, follow local practices of securing loans and credit, familiarize themselves with the European market conditions and the demand of oriental goods in those markets, establish ties with the ruling groups of European countries, and so on.

6In view of their apprehension for lack of security for persons and goods in the Orient, the Armenian merchants usually kept their money in European banks. It is known, for example, that they had huge money deposits in the well-known Venice Banco Dolfin bank. The city republics of Italy, such as the Republic of Venice, Genova, as well as trade centres of Leghorn, Lucca, Bologna, Naples, Milan, Florence, Torino and others, used to be old trade partners of the Armenian merchants in Europe.

7The trade of Armenian merchants with France was also expanding during this period. The port of Marseilles served as the most important base for them and, through it, the Armenian merchants carried on their trade also with Spain, Italy and Africa. The trade marts situated on the Atlantic coast of France, especially Bordeaux, Nantes, Le Havre, were also very important in the Armenian trade network. This was because of the fact that, in the beginning of the 17th century, the Iranian Armenian merchants obtained the right from the king of France to settle themselves in all the big cities of France. As a matter of fact, though the French government had already promulgated several protective laws for the protection of French trade that concerned all foreign competitors in France, a special patent was issued on November 23, 1629, by Louis XIII and the cardinal de Richelieu by which the Armenian merchants had been allowed to have free access to the port of Marseilles. Cardinal Mazarin and Colbert helped greatly to promote the trade of Iranian Armenian merchants in France. Colbert provided Armenians with such privileges and rights that no single oriental nation had enjoyed before. Despite the fact that Colbert implemented the policy of mercantilism, protectionism and active trade balance in its relations with Armenian merchants, the French authorities did not stricdy follow those policies. Colbert also encouraged printing in Armenian in Marseilles. Armenian trade and its close economic ties with France continued throughout the 18th century.

8The Netherlands was also one of the largest trade partners of the Iranian Armenian merchants in western Europe. Amsterdam was their main base. The Netherlands served also as the base for trans-shipment for Armenian merchants’ exports to some of the European markets. From here, the Armenian merchants sent their goods by ship to the North, the Baltic ports and brought back several commodities from there, especially amber. The Dutch were inclined to cooperate with Armenian merchants with the objective of acquiring not only Oriental goods, but also because the latter distributed Dutch goods from the Levant ports through the Mediterranean to European countries mainly by Dutch ships. There exists remarkable data showing that the Armenians had ships that navigated between the ports of Levant and the Netherlands under Dutch flag. The Dutch government periodically granted privileges to the Armenian merchants during the second half of the 17th century.

9In their search of profitable markets for selling their goods, Iranian Armenian merchants penetrated also into other countries of western and northern Europe namely: Spain Portugal, England, Germany and the Scandinavian countries. Africa was also not an unknown world for them. It must be said that in the most well-known commercial centres of Europe and Asia, the trade centres of the Armenian merchants served not only their own commercial interests, but also as centres of their cultural activities. Besides this, along with the export of European goods to eastern countries, great was the role of the Iranian Armenian merchants in the dissemination of the values of the European culture in various countries of the East. It is known that the books first published in Europe were taken by the Armenian merchants to the East and that European painting, art and theatre also penetrated and disseminated through them. It is not accidental that the first printing houses in Turkey and Iran were opened by the Armenians or through their active support.

10The Iranian Armenian merchants carried on trade also with Russia, and through it with western countries, using the Caspian Sea-Volga route. The so-called “Armenian Trade Company” of New Julfa was granted the rights to trade from Moscow by the trade agreements of 1667 and 1673. The said agreements paved the way for shaping the character of Armenian merchants’ relations with Russia as solid, lasting and based on large-scale trade relations. Thus, by altering the policy of mercantilism and of its own protectionism, the Russian government granted the monopoly of considerable part of trade in the eastern part, and the transit trade through its territory to the Iranian Armenian merchants.

11It is interesting to note that, though in the Iranian-Russian trade, besides the Armenian traders, Iranians, Tatars, and others were also involved, the transit trade through Russia’s territory with western Europe was exclusively the privilege of the Armenian merchants. Thus, through and due to the initiatives of Iranian Armenian merchants, the Caspian Sea-Volga trade route acquired international importance, and it became possible for Russia to get into direct trade and economic relations with Transcaucasus, Iran, and through the latter, with other countries of the East. It is natural that, in Peter the Great’s oriental policy, one of the most important goals was to develop trade relations with the countries of the East, especially with Iran and India through the Armenian merchants. It is also worth mentioning that, through the Russian territory, the Iranian Armenian traders enjoyed close commercial ties not only with the economically developed western European countries, but also with some countries of eastern Europe, namely with Poland, Romania, etc.

12The Armenian merchants played an important role in the development of trade in Asia from almost the ancient times. From then on, they had established trade relations with India. Armenia was located on the great route of Indian trade and, due to this, the Armenians were acquainted with all the routes leading to India from the very early times. Even before the arrival of the Europeans, they had developed extensive commercial networks with the neighbouring and remote countries, through overland trade, carried on mostly by caravans. The Armenians played a significant role in the Indian overland trade. Before the discovery of the sea route to India, the Armenians had already penetrated into the well-developed trade centres of that country and carried on large-scale trade through overland caravan routes. They were going to Kabul and, from there, further to India through Qandahar-Lahore-Dehli-Agra caravan trade route.

13In India the Great Mughal Emperor, Jalaluddin Muhammad Akbar (1556-1605), in order to give an impetus to the domestic and foreign trade of his kingdom, granted the Armenians a number of rights and privileges, including the right to enter those regions of India, where the entrance of foreigners was strictly forbidden. It is known from reliable sources that, before the English came to India, a part of Indian domestic and foreign trade was in the hands of the Indians, Iranian Armenians and other Asian merchants. After the discovery of the sea route to India, most of the overland trade shifted to the Persian Gulf, the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean, and, because of this, the Levant Asian ports and the overland trade carried on through the Near East have lost their previous importance. As a result, the importance of the Persian Gulf as the international trade route connecting the East and the West increased considerably. It was through this route that goods and products from China, Malay-Indonesian Archipelago and India were to be exported. In the beginning of the 17th century, the economic and political interests of Safavid Iran necessitated that the direction of the country’s foreign trade through Turkish transitional caravan routes be transferred toward the south, to the Persian Gulf. Along with the use of overland caravan routes, the Armenian traders of Iran made sincere efforts also to make use of the sea route.

14Again, it was in the beginning of the 17th century, after several blows inflicted on the Portuguese by the English, the former’s monopoly in the Persian Gulf came to an end and this opened up the sea route to India and Europe to other nations. Thus the Isfahan-Shiraz-Lar-Bandar Abbas caravan route became a busy trade route through which the central regions of the country linked themselves with the Persian Gulf. Isfahan and its suburb, the Armenian settlement of New Julfa, became the most important international trade centre of Iran. Meanwhile the Armenian merchants of Iran had become the main link between the trading centres of the Persian Gulf and the Levant trade centres. There is evidence showing that the Armenian traders of Iran while carrying on their trade in the Persian Gulf and the western Indian Ocean made use mostly of the English fleet services, though they had their own ships too. It is interesting that in the absence of statehood and the lack of national flag, the Armenian ship-owners created their own red-yellow-red colour flag with a lamb embossed on it.

15The Iranian Armenian merchants in India did not limit themselves to only trade centres. They penetrated into the interior regions of that huge country on their ships through the river Ganges, thus playing an important role in the country’s internal trade. They also took a prominent part in India’s external trade. The Armenian merchants exported various products and goods of Indian origin – cotton and silk textiles, precious stones, spices, indigo and other colouring ingredients which were in great demand in Europe. The English East India Company, which was as yet far away from enjoying full monopoly in the East in the first half of the 17th century and in India itself, had to reckon with the local Indian and, among others, the Armenian merchants. Not being acquainted with the local languages, their characters and traditions, as well as with the commercial practices that differed so much from those in England and Europe, the English, in the early period, had to carry on their trade through local brokers.

16On June 22, 1688, a trade agreement was signed in London between the English East India Company and the Armenian traders represented by Khoja Panos Kalantar, by which the Armenian traders were granted several privileges, as enjoyed by other English adventurers or free merchants. The agreement also laid down that the Armenian merchants who used to drive a great trade from India to Turkey overland by way of Persia and Arabia can now do it by way of England, transporting their goods on English ships and, then, exporting these goods to Turkey, Venice or Leghorn. It is important to note that the agreement of 1688 was concluded in the spirit of the Navigation Act of 1651, and aimed not only at the might of the Dutch trade, but also against England’s another trade rival and adversary: France. The agreement of 1688 was strictly in the interests of the English East India Company, and it is not surprising that, up to the end of the 17th century, the English continued the policy of involving the Armenian merchants to enhance their commercial interests.

17But the facts testify that notwithstanding the efforts exerted by the English, they failed to compel the Armenians to carry on their trade exclusively through oceanic routes. The Armenians would not cut themselves off the Levant trade networks that had remained the major trade axis of intercontinental trade throughout the 17th century. Starting from the mid18th century, when their economic and political domination of Bengal was firmly established and became a reality, the attitude of the English East India Company towards the Armenian merchants underwent radical changes. Now the English were reluctant to share with the Armenians the high profits derived from the colonial trade, thus beginning to curtail the rights and privileges granted to them earlier and forcing them out. This sort of policy resulted in emigration of many Armenians from India to other countries.

18But despite all this, it is worth mentioning that for most part of the 18th century India was actually the main base through which the Armenian merchants traded also with Central Asia, Nepal, Tibet, China, South-East Asia, Malay-Indonesian Archipelago, Philippines and others countries. By the end of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th, the political and social changes that took place in the Asian countries had a negative impact on the destiny of the Armenian colonies, which in its turn resulted in the decay of the Armenian merchants, thus putting an end to the once glorious saga of the Armenian trading activities throughout almost the whole of Asia.



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Académie des sciences d’Arménie, Département iranien ; Université d’Érévan, Chaire des relations internationales, Érévan. (Arménie)

© Éditions de la Maison des sciences de l’homme, 2007

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