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

 | 
Sushil Chaudhury
, 
Kéram Kévonian

III. Les Arméniens dans le commerce régional et inter-régional / Armenians in Regional and Inter-Regional Trade

10. Armenians in Bengal Trade and Politics in the 18th Century

Sushil Chaudhury

Texte intégral

1It is more or less well-known now, thanks to the pioneering researches of several scholars in the field in the last few decades (Sinha, 1956-1970. Husain, 1995. Chaudhury, 1995. Chatterjee, 1996), that the Armenians played a significant role in the commercial and economic life of India, especially Bengal which was the one of the most prosperous provinces of the erstwhile Mughal Empire in the 17th and the 18th centuries. By the early 18th century, the great Mughal Empire had already disintegrated, bringing in its train political chaos and economic decline in most parts of North India. But Bengal was a singular exception where trade, commerce and economy as a whole flourished under its almost independent Nawabs (tide of the rulers). It is to be noted here that it was Bengal textiles and silk, together with few other commodities, which were most sought after in the then world.

2There is little doubt that the Armenians were active in Bengal trade from at least the late 16th and early 17th century. As an important trading group, their presence was a common feature in all the prominent centres of trade and manufacture, cities and ports. But what was most striking about them was that if there was any possibility of profit in trade they would even go to rote places and deal in any commodity, unlike many other trading groups in Bengal. Through their commercial acumen, their thorough knowledge of markets and products, a chain of connection with the important producing and consuming centres maintained through their own agents who were most often than not their own family members or kinsmen, their low overhead cost and capacity to thrive on low profit margin, the Armenians could compete successfully with not only the Indian and other Asian merchants but also with the European companies trading in Bengal.

  • 1 London, British Library, India Office Records [henceforth IOR], Despatch Book [henceforth DB], vol (...)
  • 2 IOR/DB, vol. 93, fol. 38, 18 October 1690.

3It is significant to note that while writing to Bengal, the Court of Directors of the English Company in London observed in 1689: “Those people [the Armenians] are a thrifty, close, prudent sort of men that travel all India over and know almost every village in the Mughal’s dominions and every sort of goods with such a perfect skill and judgment as exceeds the ancientest of our linen drapers.”1 The Directors of the Company noted again in 1690 that the Armenians “are diligent, frugal and very experienced merchants” and asked their employees in Bengal to try to procure some fine Bengal piece-goods through the Armenians as they would “know how to buy better than you can.”2

  • 3 IOR/DB, vol. 92, fol. 25, 15 February 1689. See also Chaudhury, 1975,131.
  • 4 Patna in Bihar was the most important trade centre in that province and was famous for production (...)
  • 5 IOR, Home Miscellaneous Series [HM], vol. 36, fol. 81-82.

4It was obviously the commercial expertise of Armenians in Bengal that prompted the Directors of the English East India Company to enter into an agreement with Khoja Phanous Kalantar in London by which the Armenians were to provide Bengal goods for the Company’s investments in Bengal with their own capital and at their own risk at a certain profit.3 A few years later, the Company made another agreement with the same Kalantar which provided that the Armenians would provide specially Patna4 goods for the Company with their own money and deliver them to the Company either at Hughli or Calcutta for which they were to be allowed 15 percent upon the prime cost and necessary charges.5 Again it was in recognition of the economic and political importance of the Armenians that Khoja Surhaud Israel was made a member of the famous Surman embassy which was despatched from Bengal to Delhi by the English East India Company in 1715 and which obtained the controversial farman (imperial edict) from the Mughal emperor Farrukhsiyar in 1717 (S. Chaudhury, 1975, 41-43). This Surhaud was the nephew of Phanous Kalantar with whom he went to England in 1688 (Seth, 1929, 2).

  • 6 While Saidabad was an exclusive Armenian colony, founded around 1665, Kasimbazar, another suburb o (...)

5Thus it is not surprising that there were many important Armenian merchants and traders in the flourishing Armenian settlements of Saidabad,6 a suburb of the capital Murshidabad, Hughli, Calcutta, Kasimbazar, Dhaka (Dacca) and Patna with their own localities and churches. Though it is not known when exactly did the Armenians settle in Bengal, there can be little doubt that they were in Bengal at least from the early 17th century. In the Armenian church in Calcutta which was built in 1724 on the site of the old Armenian cemetery, there is a grave of an Armenian lady bearing the date 1630 (Seth, 1929, 1). It is said that the Armenians settled in Saidabad in 1665 under a farman from the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb. and there they built a church in that year (Walsh, 1902, 75. Majumdar, 1905, 233). Among the Armenians in Bengal, however, it was Khoja Wajid [Wazid, Wazeed] who played the most significant role in the commercial economy and political life of Bengal in the forties and fifties of the 18th century.

I

  • 7 For Jagat Seth, the greatest banker of the then India and possibly Asia: Chaudhury, 1995, 109-116. (...)
  • 8 That the Armenians of Bengal had links with New Julfa is evident from the fact that after the deat (...)
  • 9 Memorie of Alexander Hume: Antwerp, Stadsarchief Antwerpen, General Indische Compagnie, 5768.
  • 10 Memorie of Louis Taillefert: The Hague, Algemeen Rijksarchief [henceforth AR], Verenigde Oust Indi (...)
  • 11 IOR, Mayor’s Court Records [MCR], Calcutta, Range 155, vol. 24, fol. 30 b, 7 May 1741. Wajid/Wazee (...)

6Wajid was one of the three merchant princes—the others being the Jagat Seths and Umichand7—who collectively dominated the commercial life and hence, to a great extent, the economy of Bengal in the last three decades of the first half of the 18th century. He operated his extensive business empire from Hughli, the then commercial capital of Bengal. Like several other Armenians of Bengal at the time, it is possible that he too had links with New Julfa.8 According to Zamia-i-Tadhkira-i-Yusufi, though Wajid was born in Azimabad (Patna), his forefathers belonged to Kashmir and that he settled in Hughli (Subhan, 1978, 17). The early career and activities of Wajid are not very clear to us as yet. But we know this much from the Memorie of Alexander Hume9 and those of the Dutch Directors that Wajid was the son of “Coja Mahmet Fazel”, an influential Armenian merchant in the 1730s and the early 40s. The Dutch Director Louis Taillefert wrote in 1755 that Khoja Wajid’s father was “Choja Mhamet Fazil” and the previous Director, Jan Kerseboom, also mentioned Wajid as “Choja Wasit Fazil;”10 However, it is known from Calcutta Mayor’s Court Records that around the early 1740s, Wajid obtained a foothold at the darbar (court) of the Hughli faujdar (an administrative official in the Mughal set-up) as the representative (vakil) of the Armenian community of merchants. It was deposed in the case of Tenesuse vs. Khoja Manuel that there was move by many of the Armenian merchants at Hughli in 1741 to replace Khoja Petruse by “Coja Avid” as their vakil.11 From then onward, there was no looking back for Wajid who rose in power and position throughout the 1740s to be reckoned not only as a merchant prince, but by the late 40s also as one of the most important figures in the commercial and political life of Bengal.

  • 12 IOR, Factory Records [FR], Kasimbazar, vol. 7, Consultations, 24 December 1748; 9 January 1749; 12 (...)

7It is to be noted here that in the first half of the 18th century, politics and commerce were closely intertwined in Bengal. The main prop of the prosperity of the three important merchant princes was their close connection with the darbar. Thus Wajid too seems to have consolidated his position through political connections and extended his influence to the court at Murshidabad. Through subtle diplomacy and judicious financial support to Nawab Alivardi Khan, he built up a powerful position at the darbar. It seems that by the mid-forties, he had developed from being a “creature” of the Hughli faujdar’s darbar to one of the central figures at the Murshidabad court. In the late forties, he began to reap the fruits of his darbar connections and managed to gain the virtual control of the economy of Bihar. It is significant that he was not only the leader of the Armenian merchants but also of the community of merchants in Hughli. This is borne out by the fact that when the English fleet captured two ships of the Hughli merchants including the Armenians, the merchants comprising “Syeds, Mogulls, Armenians &ca.” had an audience with the Nawab through Wajid and it was he who spearheaded the protest against the English.12

8Khoja Wajid operated his business empire from his main base at Hughli. He was actively engaged in the inland trade of Bengal both on his own account and as a supplier to the European Companies. He had extensive business transactions with the French and the Dutch, and through Umichand, another merchant prince, with the English. Robert Orme, the official historian of the English East India Company and who lived in Bengal in the early 1750s, observed that “Coja Wazeed managed the greatest part of the French trade in Bengal with great profit to himself” (Orme, 1803, II-1, 138). Extremely devious as he was, he had a passion for extending his commercial hegemony at any cost and was ready to swing his allegiance at the slightest prospect of commercial advantage. Utilizing his close connection with the darbar, he tried to operate his business with a monopolistic design.

  • 13 IOR, Bengal Letters Received [BLR], vol. 22, par. 18, fol. 410. IOR/BPC, Range 1, vol. 26, fol. 11 (...)
  • 14 Memorie of Jan Kerseboom: AR/VOC, vol. 2849, fol. 103b, 14 February 1755.
  • 15 Memorie of A. Bisdom: AR/VOC, vol. 2849, fol. 498a-301b, 10 January 1756. IOR, Clive Mss., Vol. 26 (...)

9The main props of Khoja Wajid’s extensive operations in Bengal’s internal trade were the monopoly of saltpetre and salt trade. Through his influence with the Bengal administration, he actually gained a virtual monopoly of the trade of Bihar from at least the late 1740s. He secured the monopoly of saltpetre, one of the most important commodities in the export list of the European companies, in 1753.13 Of course he was involved in saltpetre trade even long before this through his close association with Umichand and his brother Deepchand who was the faujdar of Chapra, the main saltpetre producing centre of Bihar. The Dutch Director Jan Kerseboom noted that in 1747 the Dutch company bought 21,000 sacks of saltpetre—42,000 mds., each sack weighing 2 mds. (1 maund = 40 seers or 78 lb)—sent from Bihar by Deepchand to his authorized dealer (gemagtigden) Khoja Wajid in Hughli. In his Memorie, he also refers to the fact that Wajid later obtained the “privilege” of monopoly trade in saltpetre from the Murshidabad court. He further comments that as a result “this trade [in saltpetre] has fallen entirely in his hands and completely under his control.”14 Wajid’s monopoly of the saltpetre trade was a great irritant to the European companies who were the main buyers of the commodity. Hence the next Dutch Director in Bengal, A. Bisdom, dwells at length on the mechanism of Wajid’s operations in saltpetre trade in Bihar. He mentions that Wajid obtained a parwana (letter patent) from the Bengal Nawab Alivardi Khan by which he got the “special privilege” to deal in saltpetre for which he paid only a paltry sum of Rs 25,000 to the Nawab. He operated the saltpetre trade through his agents Mir Afzal and Khoja Ashraf (his brother) who were based in Bihar.15

  • 16 IOR/BPC, Range 1, vol. 29, fol. 133, 18 July 1757.
  • 17 Ibid., fol. 170b, 2 September 1757.
  • 18 Ibid., fol. 245, 31 October 1757.
  • 19 Ibid., fol. 285, 24 November 1757.
  • 20 The Dutch Director Louis Taillefert also mentioned that the English company obtained the saltpetre (...)

10The European companies no doubt tried every means to get out of Wajid’s stranglehold on the saltpetre trade but only in vain. So immediately after the British conquest of Bengal at Plassey in 1757, the English factor Mr Parkes at Patna wrote to the Council at Calcutta to “apply to the New Government to set aside Coja Wazeed’s exclusive parwannah for saltpetre.”16 But the Company’s resident representative at Murshidabad wrote back to Calcutta that “they cannot with propriety apply to the Darbar for abolishing Wazeed’s monopoly or regulate the Patna trade.”17 Wajid managed to obtain a parwana from the new Nawab, Mir Jafar Khan, “for the entire possession of the saltpetre trade at Patna” of which the English were informed by the Dutch Director at Hughli in October 1757.18 Wajid however did not live in a fool’s paradise. He knew that it would be almost impossible for him to continue the monopoly trade in saltpetre under the vastly altered circumstances after the British became the virtual ruler following their conquest of Bengal at Plassey in 1757. So he was quick to assure the English representative at Murshidabad that he would use his power to the utmost to assist the English in procuring saltpetre at the cheapest rate, provided they “assisted him in return to make the Dutch purchase from him.”19 That was the last straw to which he desperately hoped to cling and save at least part of his commercial empire. But that was not to be. He lost his saltpetre monopoly in 1758 which was now grabbed by the English company.20

  • 21 IOR, Orme Mss., OV, 134, fol. 13.

11The most important of Wajid’s trading empire, however, was the more lucrative monopoly of salt trade which was farmed by him in 1752 for a mere Rs 25,000 to Rs 30,000 a year. Writing as late as 1763, Batson, an English factor, noted: “Coja Wazeed of Hughli had the salt farm of Bengal for many years for an inconsiderable sum;”21 The anonymous author of an English manuscript Historical Sketches of Taxes on English Commerce wrote the following under the year 1752:

  • 22 IOR, Eur. Mss., D 283, fol. 22.

“Salt on account of Coja Wazeed is exempted from [...] duties and pays only
Import per 100 md. One rupee which is Rs 0.8 percent
Export per 100 md. One rupee which is Rs 0.8 percent
Total: per 200 md. Two rupees which is Rs 1.00 percent.”22

  • 23 IOR, Orme Mss., OV, 134, fol. 21-22.

12When an estimate made in 1773 of the annual proceeds of salt production and sale in Bengal put the value at Rs 1 million, one can easily guess how much Wajid earned from the virtual monopoly of salt trade in the 1750s.23

  • 24 Memorie of Huijghens: AR/VOC, 2763, fol. 458, 20 March 1750; ibid., 2732, fol. 9-10, Hughli to Bat (...)

13The extent of Wajid’s deep involvement in the inland commerce of Bengal is evident from the fact that he also tried to monopolize the opium trade of Bihar through his close link with the Murshidabad darbar. Though the detailed mechanism of his operations in the opium trade is not very clear, it is known from the Dutch records that Wajid managed the opium trade through his brother Khoja Ashraf at Patna. The Dutch Director Huijghens reported that the Company could buy only 1,479 mds. of opium in 1749-1750 because Khoja Ashraf had already bought or contacted for all the opium in December 1749. Drabbe, the Dutch factor at Patna, however, managed to influence the administration (actually the diwan) by giving a bribe of Rs 1,000 who prevented Ashraf from sending the opium out of Patna and thus the Dutch were able to procure the said amount.24 It seems that as the Dutch, who were the principal buyers of opium in Bihar for export to Batavia, and the English did not have much liquid cash to contract for or buy opium in the proper season, Wajid through his brother cornered (of course, with the assistance of the Bihar administration) most of the produce with ready money and later sold the commodity to the Dutch, English and Indian merchants (the last two having only marginal interest during the period) at a high premium.

II

  • 25 For details, see, shipping lists in the AR/VOC records.
  • 26 Peter Marshall’s assertion (1976, 54-58; 1987, 65) that by the 1720s Hughli was completely oversha (...)
  • 27 IOR/BPC, Range 1, vol. 17, fol. 702, 3 October 1745; fol. 706b 14 October 1745; fol. 717, 24 Octob (...)
  • 28 AR/VOC, 2661, fol. 163.
  • 29 AR/VOC, 2689, fol. 136,140.
  • 30 AR/VOC, 2862, fol. 837, 1079,1080.
  • 31 AR/VOC, 2661, 2689, 2862: shipping lists in these volumes.
  • 32 AR/VOC, 2849, fol. 105b, 14 February 1755. Cf. Hill, 1905, II, 87.

14It is no wonder that the Armenian merchant prince setded in Hughli with its rich tradition of handling Bengal’s maritime trade ventured also in intra-Asian and coastal trade. In the shipping lists of the Dutch records there are many instances of Armenian merchants sending their trading vessels to different parts of India and West Asia with rich Bengal commodities and bringing back bullion and other cargoes from those parts in the first half of the 18th century.25 The rapid growth of Calcutta notwithstanding, Hughli was as yet the traditional Asian port, which was frequented by most of the Asian ships besides those of the Dutch, French and other Europeans except the English.26 It seems that after consolidating his position in the inland commerce of Bengal, Wajid started venturing in overseas trade. In the beginning, in all probability, he was engaged in seaborne trade in partnership with other Hughli merchants. This is evident from the fact that the ship Chandernagore captured by the British navy in 1744-1745 on its return voyage from Basra and Mocha on the pretext of its flying French colours was owned by Wajid and other Hughli merchants. The merchants led by Wajid made a strong complaint to the Nawab Alivardi Khan who directed the British to compensate the merchants.27 Soon after, however, he began his own venture in overseas trade and we find in the lists of the Dutch records that his first ship Salamat Ressan left Hughli in 1746 for Surat with a considerable cargo of rice, sugar, textiles and silk.28 In July 1747, his ship Salamat Manzil returned from a successful trading voyage to Surat with cotton, rosewater, coral, almond, porcelain, etc. and it left Hughli in January 1748 with large cargo for Surat again.29 Unfortunately there is a gap in the shipping lists of the Dutch records from 1748 till the end of monsoon in 1754 and hence we cannot enumerate the total strength of Wajid’s trading fleet. But there is little doubt that by the early 1750s Wajid had acquired a fleet of trading vessels, which dominated the Asian maritime trade of Hughli. Between 25 November 1754 and 28 January 1755, his ships were engaged in five voyages—two inbound from Basra and Jeddah; three outbound to Masulipatnam and Jeddah.30 The gap in the shipping list notwithstanding, we come across six ships owned by Wajid namely, Salamat Ressan, Salamat Manzil, Mobarak, Gensamer, Medina Baksh and Mubarak Manzil.31 These ships operated from Hughli to Jeddah, Mocha, Basra, Surat and Masulipatnam. Significantly Wajid had a trading house at Surat which was referred to by the Dutch Director Jan Kerseboom and also by the Fort William Council.32

III

  • 33 AR/VOC, 2763, fol. 467, 20 March 1750.
  • 34 IOR/BPC, Range 1, vol. 26, fol. 131b-132b 3 may 1753.

15It is interesting to note that Wajid, like the two other merchant princes of his time, also played a significant role in the crucial period of the 1750s. As has been pointed out earlier, all these merchant princes owed their prominence and rise to great height of wealth and power mainly because of their closeness to the Nawabs of Bengal (Chaudhury, 1995, 109-123). The Persian chronicler, Yusuf Ali (Subhan, 1978, 17), wrotes that a “favourite personal friend” of Nawab Alivardi, Wajid flourished as a great merchant of Hughli and that his “business prospered so well that he built up a vast amount of wealth and affluence.” He also states that Wajid was commonly known as Fakhru’l-Tujjar (Pride of the Merchants). That Wajid had already become a key figure in the Bengal politics by the late 1740s is evident from the fact that the Dutch Director Huijghens wrote in his Memorie in early 1750 that the Dutch should maintain good relations with Wajid because he was held in high esteem (groot aanzien) at the Murshidabad court.33 In the early 1750s, Robert Orme (1803, II-1, 58) described him as the “principal merchant of the Province.” Wajid’s close connection with the ruling elite is clearly reflected in numerous references in the Dutch and English records. In the course of Fort William (Calcutta) Council’s debate in 1753 whether the contract for saltpetre should be made with Wajid or Umichand, Wajid’s link with the government comes out clearly. Most of the Council members referred to him either “as an officer of the government” or “intimately connected with it.”34 That the merchant prince Wajid was also a political heavyweight in mid-eighteenth century Bengal is abundantly clear from Jan Kerseboom’s Memorie of 1755:

  • 35 AR/VOC, 2849, fol. 128b, 14 February 1755.

“While mentioning those persons whose friendship would be very useful to your honour I cannot neglect Coja Mahmet Wazit, recendy honoured with the title of Faqqur Tousjaar meaning the supporter of the treasure because he is truly the maintainer of the riches of the rulers. He gives them a lot willingly rather than under compulsion.”35

16In that very year Louis Taillefert, who succeeded Kerseboom as Director in Bengal, significantly remarked while commenting on the residents of the Company’s village, Chinsurah, that the Company should not have admitted

  • 36 Taillefert’s Memorie: AR/VOC, 2849, fol. 264, 27 October 1755. It is obvious from this reference t (...)

“respectable persons of so high standing as the Moorish merchant Coja Wazeed who trade overseas or who have such internal trade that in some respects they can be considered as competitors of the Company and who deem themselves to be on an equal footing with the Directors of the Dutch Company if not their superiors.”36

  • 37 IOR/BPC, Range 1, vol. 25, fol. 229b, 31 August 1752.
  • 38 Ibid., vol. 17, fol. 429b, 24 December 1744; vol. 22, fol. 126b, 13 February 1749.
  • 39 Ibid., vol. 28, fol. 122,12 May 1755.

17By the early 1750s Wajid had emerged as an extremely powerful political figure and seems to have tied his fortunes with the heir-apparent Sirajuddaula. Along with the Hughli faujdar, he seems to have virtually forced the English Council at Hughli to pay obeisance to Sirajuddaula upon his investiture as heir to Nawab Alivardi Khan.37 But the relation between the English and Wajid soured by the early 1750s mainly because of Wajid’s monopoly of saltpetre and his virtual domination of the Bihar economy, both of which were hampering the cheap investments of the Company. The relation was further strained because of a dispute between the English and Deepchand, Umichand’s brother and ex-faujdar of Chapra in which Wajid was involved as security for Deepchand. The case was referred to England but Wajid made repeated demands on the English Company for payment of his security deposit of Rs 78,000.38 As he had now considerable political influence, Wajid threatened the Company in 1752 to have its business stopped if he was not satisfied and in 1755 he blundy told the English that if he was not paid, he would not use his good offices to stop the Hughli merchants from raising a serious complaint against them at the darbar.39

  • 40 Karam Ali states that Wajid told Nawab Alivardi Khan that if the latter drove the English out of C (...)

18It is against the backdrop of these circumstances that the crucial role played by Wajid assumes great significance. The assertion of Karam Ali, the author of near-contemporaneous Persian chronicle Muzaffarnamah, that Wajid instigated both Alivardi and Sirajuddaula against the English is nothing but an echo of the English attitude (including that of Robert Clive, the conqueror of Bengal later) and can hardly be relied upon (Sarkar, 1952, 56, 63).40 Wajid knew well his own interest and that he would hardly gain much by turning out the English. His saltpetre and salt monopoly, exclusive trade in opium and his maritime ventures would have benefited little from their removal. True, he was more inclined to the French and the Dutch than the English. But his relations with the former two vis-à-vis those with the latter were not mutually exclusive. As Jean Law, the chief of the French factory at Kasimbazar (a suburb of Murshidabad), pointed out Wajid “wanted to be on good terms with everybody” (Hill, 1905, III, 190). Governed by a strong passion to extend his commercial empire at any cost, he, however, tied with fortune with Sirajuddaula probably because he knew that the main prop of his commercial prosperity was the darbar backing. Thus he soon became an important member of the inner circle of Siraj’s advisers.

19That Wajid was a key figure at the Murshidabad darbar is evident from the fact that Sirajuddaula appointed him as his emissary to negotiate with the English soon after his accession and before his march against them in Kasimbazar and the subsequent attack on Calcutta. Wajid’s diplomatic mission came to nothing, but for that he was certainly not responsible. The chief of the English in Bengal, Governor Drake, treated him with ignominy and turned him out of Calcutta (Chaudhury, 1986-1987, 111-134. Cf. Hill, 1905, I, 58). Thus it is amply clear that Wajid bore special enmity towards the English and that he was eager to bring about a rapprochement between the English and the Nawab. The expeditionary force, which came from Madras in the wake of the fall of Calcutta, realized well the influence of Wajid in Bengal economy and politics. So Colonel Clive and Major Killpatrick, the two in charge of the expedition to Bengal, wrote to Wajid, among a few others, to mediate between the Company and the Nawab (Gupta, 1962, 89-90). Meanwhile, however, the English after the recapturing Calcutta from the Nawab, sacked the premier port of Hughli on the ostensible ground of avenging the Nawab’s earlier attack on Calcutta. This severely jeopardized the commercial fortune of Wajid, as Hughli was the principal base of all his business operations. But it appears from available evidence that even after that he was eager for a negotiated settlement between the English and the Nawab. He wrote to Clive:

  • 41 IOR/HM, vol. 193, fol. 14, Wajid to Clive, 10 January 1757.

“Though I have always been a well-wisher and an old friend of the English Company, yet no person has been so great a sufferer in the last disturbance [meaning the British sack of Hughli] as I am. Notwithstanding this I still look upon your interest as my own. I will use my utmost endeavour with the Nawab for the success of your affairs.”41

  • 42 Ibid., fol. 15, Wajid to Clive, 17 January 1757.
  • 43 Ibid., fol. 25-26, Clive to Wajid, 21 January 1757. Hill, 1905, II, 125 126.
  • 44 Clive to Watts, 4 August 1758: IOR, Orme Mss., India X, fol. 112b.

20A few days later he wrote to Clive again to “consider and weigh [...] the consequences of continuance of the present disturbances” and whether it would not be in the interest of the Company “to put an end to these troubles by an amicable composition.” He assured Clive that he would “not be wanting in my endeavours in conjunction with Juggutseat to adjust matters” to the advantage of the Company.42 On his side Clive replied to Wajid that he could safely rely on the “integrity and friendship” of Wajid, and expected that Wajid and the Seths would act as mediators between the Nawab and the English,43 though he always suspected Wajid to be a French agent.44

  • 45 William Watts’ letter to the Select Committee: IOR, Select Committee Consultations, Orme Mss., Ind (...)
  • 46 IOR, Bengal Secret and Military Consultations [BSMC], Select Committee Consultations, Range 1, vol (...)
  • 47 Robert Orme to John Payne, 3 November 1756: IOR, Orme Mss., OV, 28, fol. 52.

21In all probability, Wajid got scared by the prospect of his commercial empire after the British onslaught on Hughli and had suggested to Sirajuddaula regarding an alliance with the French against the British. The report of William Watts, the English chief at Kasimbazar, following the fall of French Chandernagore at the hands of the British in March 1757, that the Nawab was “very angry with Coja Wazeed for telling that the French were superior in everything and that we should be able to do nothing against them” suggests that Wajid’s hope of survival was pitched on the French.45 Even so he was the last one to join the bandwagon of the Indian conspirators who joined hands with the British to bring about the downfall of the Nawab leading to the British conquest of Bengal. In fact Wajid was a serious obstacle to the success of the coup until May 1757. It was in recognition of his power and influence in Bengal polity and economy that Hazari Mal, Umichand’s vakil (representative) at Murshidabad, reported in Novenber 1756 that Wajid was obstructing the British interests in opposition to the Jagat Seths.46 Though he was outside the “revolutionary movement,” there should be little doubt that several of the influential persons at the darbar were involved in the conspiracy. Umichand, one of the main conspirators, as Robert Orme points out, was “the friend and most trade his partner”47 and sure to have divulged it to Wajid. Besides, in view of his close link with the darbar officials and his network of agents throughout the country, it is unlikely that Wajid was in the dark about the conspiracy. But extremely shrewd and calculating as he was, Wajid took the final leap when he saw no hope of the Nawab’s survival. He joined the conspiracy as late as late as May 1757 as he badly needed a revolution to restore the political backing for his commercial empire and as by then with the expulsion of Jean Law from Murshidabad, the chances of French intervention on behalf of the Nawab had already vanished. At the same time with the bankruptcy of his policy—the suggestion to the Nawab of an alliance with the French—the Nawab’s confidence on the Armenian merchant prince ended and he was discarded like a broken toy. By early May his position at the darbar had deteriorated so much and he felt so insecure at the court that he apparently took refuge in the English factory at Kasimbazar (Hill, 1905, II, 379). Unfortunately for him, as for other merchant princes, Wajid’s gamble in joining the Plassey conspiracy failed. Plassey brought about the downfall, sooner or later, of all the three merchant princes. With Plassey went the foundation of their commercial empires—court backing for monopolies of various sorts and contracts for investments with the European companies.

IV

  • 48 IOR/BPC, Range 1, vol. 29, fol. 173, 5 September 1757.
  • 49 AR/HRB, 246, fol. 274, 17 November 1763.

22The fall of Wajid was no less spectacular than his rise. As we have seen he had taken energetic steps to avoid a commercial crash and joined the Plassey conspiracy at the last moment. But the British dealt a great blow to his fortune in January 1757 when they sacked Hughli burning his salt warehouses and destroying his commercial headquarters. Soon after Plassey, he suffered a further blow from the piratical activities of the British naval squadron off the Bengal coast when one of his trading vessels with rich cargo was captured in September 1757 on the pretext of its flying French colours.48 In the completely altered political situation after Plassey, he was unable to turn to the darbar for redress, which he had successfully done from about the mid-1740s till the mid-1750s. Of greater consequence for his doom was the destruction of his control over much of Bengal’s internal commerce. The main props of his commercial empire—the darbar backing and investments for European companies—were either swept away or undermined after Plassey. The domination of the English Company at the Murshidabad darbar led to the loss of his saltpetre monopoly in 1758.49 More disastrous for his commercial supremacy was the open flouting of his control over the salt trade by Company servants, which was soon to become the Company monopoly. At the same time, his position as a supplier to the European companies faded away with the destruction of the French and decline of the Dutch Company in Bengal. His ruin was completed by 1758 when he bitterly complained that the English had destroyed his commerce and had driven him to the brink of ruin.

  • 50 Clive to Watts, 4 August 1758: IOR, Orme Mss., India X, fol. 112b.
  • 51 Clive to Miran, 27 November 1759: IOR, Clive Mss., vol. 269, n° 982.
  • 52 IOR, Eur. Mss., G 37, Box 22.

23There is little doubt that the fall of Wajid was a logical conclusion to the English victory at Plassey and hence it is difficult to subscribe to Jean Law’s observation that Wajid “finally fell a victim to his diplomacies, perhaps also to his imprudences” (Hill, 1905, III, 190, n. 1). If any single factor accelerated his doom, it was the wrath of Clive who wanted to ruin the Armenian merchant prince whom he considered to be “villain” for his support to the French. Clive had a strong suspicion that Wajid was connected with the plan for French intervention in Bengal in 1757 and wrote to William Watts: “There is among the papers one to Coja Wazeed, mentioning these matters. I wish you could effect the ruin of that villain who is a Frenchman in his heart.”50 The opportunity for the British to complete Wajid’s destruction came in 1759. By then it must have dawned on Wajid that with the British at the helm of affairs in Bengal, he had absolutely no chance of rescuing his crumbling commercial empire. In desperation he gambled again, perhaps realizing that he had nothing to lose but everything to gain if he could succeed in his venture. So he now plotted with the Dutch for them to invade Bengal and act as a counterpoise to the British. Like Plassey, his second gamble failed and that too miserably. With the failure of the Dutch expedition, his doom was beyond succour. Clive described, as if joyfully, the destruction of the great Hughli merchant: “As I know that rascal Coja Wazeed was the principal cause of our late troubles at Calcutta, and was even now doing his utmost to set the Dutch and us at variance, I thought proper to lay hold of him that he might not attempt to break the firm friendship which subsists between his Excellency (Mir Jafar, the new Nawab), you (Miran, Mir Jafar’s son) and myself.”51 On his capture Wajid was jailed where he conveniently poisoned himself.52 With Wajid’s death, his rival in the 1740s and one of the early Plassey conspirators on the side of the English, Khoja Petruse, took his place as the leader of the Armenian community in Bengal.

V

  • 53 IOR/MCR, Range 155, vol. 24, fol. 30b: Coja Manuel Azarmall vs. Coja Tenesuse, Calcutta, 7 May 174 (...)

24Among other prominent Armenian merchants in Bengal was Khoja Petruse who joined the bandwagon of the conspirators led by the British against the Bengal Nawab Sirajuddaulla (Chaudhury, 2000, 94, 97, 106). He along with his two brothers Khoja Gregory, popularly known as Gurgin Khan, and Barsick Aratoon came to Bengal from New Julfa. Petruse was the vakil of the Armenian merchants in Hughli but was replaced by “Coja Avid” around 1741.53 After this most probably he moved down to Calcutta where he came in close contact with the British. It may be noted that Khoja Petruse built the Armenian Church at Saidabad in 1758 at a cost of Rs. 0.236 million near the ruins of the old Church, built in 1665 (Majumdar, 1905, 233). He also repaired and embellished the Armenian Church of Calcutta in 1763 (Seth, 1929, 15). As noted earlier Barsick Aratoon was engaged in salt trade in Saidabad (Seth, 1937, 360-370). But it was Khoja Gregory or Gurgin Khan who played a vital role in the trade and politics of Bengal, especially in the 1760s. He is said to have begun his career as a cloth merchant in Hughli and perhaps that is why Gholam Hossein Khan, the author of the near-contemporaneous Persian chronicle, Seir Mutaqharin (1975 [1789], II, 389, 422, 447, 455) wrote about him with a sneer, describing him as a “cloth seller by the yard” and “who knew nothing of military affairs.” Perhaps Gregory was introduced to Mir Qasim by his elder brother Petruse. Soon he became a close confidant of Mir Qasim and when the latter became the Nawab of Bengal he appointed Gregory the commander-in-chief of his army. It was at the instance of Khoja Gregory, renamed Gurgin Khan by Nawab Mir Qasim, that the Nawab’s army was reformed and re-modelled after the European fashion for the first time. Indeed, Khoja Gurgins’s elevation to the top position was the cause of jealousy for many and surprise for others. It did not escape the attention of the Dutch Director in Bengal, Louis Taillefert, who wrote:

  • 54 AR/HRB, 17 November 1763, fol. 285.

“Armenians play a big role in Bengal since the revolution of 1757. They have not only assisted the English in fomenting treason against Sirajuddaula as a result of which Bengal has been enslaved to the English [...] but also have been able to (I do not know how) acquire a fame among the Muslims as good soldiers. Consequendy, Mir Qasim has chosen Choja Gregory, brother of the famous Choja Petrus, the chief commander of his army.”54

  • 55 Fort William Council to the Secret Committee, 11 March 1762. Seth, 1929, 12.

25The officials of the English Company in Bengal too were much concerned with the eminence acquired by Khoja Petruse and Khoja Gregory in Nawab Mir Qasim’s darbar. The Fort William Council wrote to the Secret Committee in London in 1762 that “Armenian Ministers of the Revolutions,” Khoja Petruse and Khoja Gregory, “are in the highest degree of favour with the Nabob,” and that the “latter has posts of greatest trusts near the Nabob’s person”. It also noted that with the help of these two, the Armenians were “setting up an independent footing in the country and are carrying on a trade greatly detrimental to our investments in all parts.”55 Mesrovb Seth, the historian of the Armenians in India, was of the opinion that Gurgin Khan who was assasinated by an unknown assailant in 1763 would have become Bengal Nawab in course of time which is perhaps an exaggeration. He wrote:

  • 56 More generally, about Gurgin Khan: Seth, 1937, chap. XXXI, 383-418. Transl. of this chapter into w (...)

“Had he not fallen a victim to the sword of an unknown assasin [...] [Gurgin] who for three years (1760-1763) was the virtual ruler of Bengal, Behar and Orissa, would, in time, have become the Nawab of Bengal with the help of the well-disciplined and powerful army at his command” (Seth, 1937, 385).56

VI

  • 57 IOR/HM, vol. 456 F.
  • 58 AR/VOC, vol. 2849, fol. 245b.
  • 59 The evidence of Sadananda Bandopadhyay, Board of Trade—Commercial, West Bengal State Archives, Cal (...)

26The extensive trading network of the Armenians in Bengal will be apparent from the fact that their presence not only in the various trade marts but also in the numerous production centres even in the remote villages, especially of textiles and raw silk, of Bengal throughout the 17th and first half of the 18th century is well borne out by documentation in European records of the period. Their prominent role in the silk and textile trade of Bengal is beyond any doubt. Though we are not in a position as yet to make any estimate, in quantitative terms, of the Armenian involvement in Bengal’s export trade in silk and textiles, there is no dearth of qualitative evidence indicating a significant role played by them in these sectors of Bengal’s commercial economy. The extraordinary diffusion of silk and textile industry, especially the textile industry, in Bengal was perhaps best matched by the Armenian diaspora and their extensive network which made them one of the most important groups of merchants in Bengal, often competing successfully with even the most powerful local merchant groups, not to speak of the Europeans. As the textile industry in Bengal was basically a rural domestic handicraft industry (Chaudhury, 1995, 135-144), the natural corollary was its extreme diffusion which suited the Armenians with their extensive networks throughout Bengal. That was why they could become formidable rivals of the local/Indian merchants, let alone the European trading companies, in procuring textiles for export markets. In an estimate of the textile export from Dhaka in 1747, the Armenian share, among the Asian merchants, is said to have been as large as 23 percent, the exact figure as given by Taylor in his estimate of Dhaka cloth production in 1747 as Rs. 0.5 million.57 As a matter of fact, Taillefert writes in his Memorie in 1755 that the Armenians, Greeks and other minor trading groups generally export textiles from Dhaka to Surat, the Red Sea and Persian Gulf on an average of Rs. 0.7 to 0.8 million every year.58 Considering that the Greeks and others were only marginal in the textile export from Dhaka, the share of the Armenians could well have been Rs. 0.5 to 0.6 million, which tallies well with the estimate of John Taylor. In the silk market too, they along with other Asian merchants (mainly Gujaratis and North Indian merchants from Lahore, Multan, Delhi, Agra, etc.) were the dominant buyers, often responsible for pushing up prices with their heavy purchases with little concern for even high prices and to the detriment of the European companies (Chaudhury, 1995, 228-236). There were quite a few independent Armenian traders like Agha Seat and Agha Gregory in Saidabad in around the mid-eighteenth century who were engaged in exporting raw silk to Surat. Their joint exports amounted to 1,000 maunds. They shared this trade with the Gujarati merchants.59

  • 60 Case “Coja Hajee Ahmed vs. Juggut Seat Cossaul Chand”, 19 July 1799: Row, 1911-1916, 1, 162, quote (...)

27The above scenario prevailed till the mid-eighteenth century after which the British, with their victory in the battle of Plassey in 1757 and their consequent mastery over Bengal polity and economy, tried to eliminate their Asian competitors, including the Armenians, from Bengal trade. William Bolts, one of the important officials of the English Company in Bengal in the 1760s, wrote that, as the Company tried to establish monopoly over the export of piece-goods to Basra, Jeddah and Mocha especially, and its attempt to force the Armenians to send their goods as freight in English ships, “by all which circumstances there have been in Bengal many instances of families of Armenians, principal traders in this branch [of trade] to Persia and Arabia, who have been totally ruined” (Bolts, 1772-1775, I, 196-197). But still, one of the dominant ethnic groups among the merchants in Murshidabad, one of the most important centres of silk and textiles production and trade, even in the second half of the 18th century was the Armenians in Saidabad. Many of them, however, acted as agents of the Armenian merchants of Calcutta and purchased cloth for them in lieu of small sums. At the same time it is true that there was no dearth of rich Armenian traders, though perhaps only few, operating in Bengal during this period as will be borne out by the case of Agha Hajee Ahmed. This Hajee Ahmed sold and delivered jewels to the value of Rs. 50 lakhs (5 million) to the father of Jagat Seth Kushalchand (one of the descendants of the famous banking house of the Jagat Seths) in good faith without any bond. Later Kushalchand failed to pay the amount to Hajee Ahmed because “he possessed himself of a very low sum.”60

  • 61 IOR/HM, vol. 212, 289-291.
  • 62 IOR/BPC, Range 1, fol. 12b, 2 Jan. 1750; fol. 22b, 9 January 1750.

28 In fact the Armenian diaspora and their trading networks were so extensive that it was really difficult to write them off. Despite some setback, the Armenians thrived in Bengal trade and their influence was quite significant even in the 1770s. The Supreme Court of Calcutta observed in 1775 that the Armenians were “a very rich body of people, whose extensive dealings and universal correspondence make them particularly useful in this country.” The Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Sir Eliza Impey, noted in the same year that “the greatest part of the foreign trade of this kingdom [Bengal] is managed” by the Armenians and English free merchants and that “except a little silver imported by the Dutch and French, the only resource for keeping up the currency of this country lies in the honesty, integrity and perseverance of the English and Armenian independent merchants residing in Calcutta.”61 In fact the importance of the Armenians and the benefits of their trade in Bengal was such that earlier, in the late 1740s, there was a proposal following a dispute regarding the compensation the Company had to pay to the Armenians of Hughli for the alleged seizure of two Armenian ships coming to Hughli from Jeddah and Basra by English ships, and the Company’s attempt to realize the money from the Calcutta Armenians, to expel them from Calcutta. But it was ultimately dropped in consideration of the fact that the French at Chandernagore would then give shelter to the Armenians and deprive the Company of the huge benefit the Company derived from the Armenian trade in the form of five percent tax paid by them in Calcutta for their imports and exports.62

29It would be interesting to note here the activities of a typical small Armenian merchant who were the majority in Bengal in the second half of the 18th century as reflected in the will of Aratoon Johannes dated 1791. He was considered “a leading merchant of Murshidabad” in those days. The relevant portion runs thus:

  • 63 Will of Aratoon Johannes, OW, 4522, Testamentary Section, High Court Records, Calcutta. Cf. Bhadra (...)

“I am indebted to nobody except first, I have an account subsisting between the deceased Ephrianes Isiah concerning Bassorah relating which I have diamond of seventy eight thomasses and some thousand of current diams [...]. I have sent a bale of cloths for the balance of which I have a demand of 280 sicca rupees. I have deposited with Mr. Nasir Shah one hundred rupees in a bag. I have a demand on Roop Chand Paramanic, my dellol at Sheerpore upon a bond the sum of three hundred and sixty rupees. I have a demand on Mr. Morat Khan of one hundred rupees for money lent to him [...]. I have a house in Saidabad near the church [...] and it is occupied by Ovsianna Pogosse who pays rent for the same. The rent for this year until the first theerah amounts to one hundred and eighty rupees [...]. Moreover I am indebted to the deceased Johannes Balthasaar on a bond of the sum of one thousand six hundred arcot rupees [...] altho, I am very much injured in this business but I leave to my executor to settle the matter and pay what is due from me [...]. Out of the amount sent by deceased Ephrianes Isiah for the purchase of piecegoods remained in my hands the sum of one thousand five hundred rupees of which I have purchased piecegoods and there are in Sheerpore in the possession of Mr. Chattoor Toman 100 pieces of superfine sonnas and 100 pieces of superfine baftas [...]. The purchase made by myself jointly with Mr. Chattoor Thoman this year [...]. My share of commission [...] should be deposited with my heirs.”63

30The above reveals some of the important characteristics of the Armenian traders in Bengal. First, the linkage between the markets for silk piecegoods in distant Basra and Murshidabad was established through a group of merchants, each of whom acted as a link for another at a given place. But none of the merchants in this case travelled far by himself. This can be termed “relay trade” in contrast to and existing side by side with the classical itinerant merchants travelling from one place to another and investing small capital in their business transactions. Secondly, it is apparent from Aratoon Johannes’s will that the Armenian merchants in Bengal were engaged in all sorts of mercantile and banking activities, right from lending money, renting house and supplying silk piecegoods to Basra. In other words no activity was too low or too high for him, so long as it has the prospect of a profit, how small it may have been. In this respect he resembles his predecessor a hundred year earlier, the famous Hovhannes Jughayetsi. Of couse, Murshidabad being the main production and trade centre of silk piecegoods, for most of the Armenian merchants there, dealing with silk piece goods was their main business. But this did not turn them into any kind of specialised traders as they were engaged at the same time in other mercantile activities as well. Third, trade on commission was not entirely absent, at least in Bengal, Steensgaard’s assertion (1974, 15-16) that this “is at any rate not demonstrable in the sources” notwithstanding. Aratoon Johannes received his commission alright from Chatoor Thoman for his services. Fourth, the Armenians tried to maintain mutual trust and understanding with their fellow community members, a feature which characterized the community in every part of the world. Though Aratoon was apparently unhappy with a fellow merchant’s transactions with him, yet he urged the executor of his will to repay his due. This kind of mutual dependence on the basis of clan solidarity was extremely vital for the success of the Armenian merchant community in different parts of the world in the 17th and the 18th century (Bhadra, 1976, 326).

  • 64 Letter of Captain Harper to Verelst, Faizabad, 14 March 1768: Verelst Papers, IOR, Fur. Mss., F 21 (...)

31Though the Armenians had close links with the English and often assisted them in their trade and procured commodities for them on commission, nevertheless there was no love lost between them. The English were often very critical in their observations about the Armenians which of course was a reflection of the former’s frustration arising out of their failure to make the latter subservient to them. Thus in 1768 a Company official observed that “it is well known how designing and intriguing a set of people the Armenians are” while the Bengal Council of the Company wrote to the Directors in London in 1771 of “the intriguing spirit of the Armenians.”64 However there is no denying the fact that the Armenians in general, as the Bengal case will bear out clearly, were driven by a strong passion for extending their commercial hegemony at any cost and were ready to swing their allegiance at the slightest prospect of commercial advantage.

  • 65 Letter from Robert Maddison to Verelst, 23 October, 26 November 1767: ibid., n° 67.

32The case of Khoja Wajid, as we have seen earlier, is a point in illustration. In the mid-eighteenth century, trade and politics were closely intertwined, and all the successful merchants tried to cultivate close relationship with the ruling authorities so that they could extract special privileges for themselves. Thus all the three merchant princes of the mi-deighteenth century Bengal, including Khoja Wajid, had developed close links with the ruling power and the main props of their business prosperity was the backing of the ruling court (Chaudhury, 1995, 92-131). Realizing this well, Wajid threw his lot with the heir apparent Sirajuddaula as soon as it was announced that the latter would succeed the old Nawab, Alivardi Khan. Soon he became one of the closest confidants of the new Nawab but later on when he saw that the young Nawab had little chance to survive in the face of the onslaught from the British who roped in some of the powerful courtiers of the darbar in their “project” of a revolution in Bengal, he deserted the Nawab and joined the bandwagon of the British who however ruined him after the revolution. Some of the Armenians of Calcutta joined the British side in the so-called Plassey revolution as they thought it would enhance their business prospects. Later on when the British had absolute sway in Bengal politics and economy, some of the Armenians shifted their place of operations from Bengal to the independent kingdom of Oudh, in North India, where they tried to cultivate the friendship of the Nawab there vis-à-vis the British.65

  • 66 Khoja Petruse’s petition to the Court of Directors, 5 February 1760: IOR/HM, vol. 68, fol. 937-939
  • 67 IOR/BPC, Range 1, vol. 11, fol. 410b, 6 September 1762.

33As noted earlier, the Armenians in Bengal were not dissociated from their mainstream in New Julfa. They had regular traffic with New Julfa. More interestingly, sometime the Armenians in India borrowed money from rich merchants in New Julfa by executing bonds.66 In a case concerning an unpaid bill of exchange (hundi’), an appeal for witness was addressed to the Armenian community (jumiat) in Saidabad so that the bill could be returned to New Julfa for settlement. This suggests that some cases at least were referred to New Julfa rather than being settled locally, or perhaps that the mother colony acted as a sort of court of appeal if local efforts in Bengal for judgement and arbitration failed. The Armenian merchants in Bengal transacted business with bills of exchange on such faraway places as Surat or Agra and Delhi.67 In fact Khoja Wajid had a trading house in Surat. The British Library Lansdowne Manuscripts (n° 1047, 1048) contain a number of bills of exchange between towns in Bengal arranged by Indian sarrafs for Armenian merchants. The vast networks of enterprises created by the Armenians in Bengal in the 17th and the 18th centuries is evident from the analysis of Bengal’s silk and textile markets made earlier. And we have seen that they were conspicuous by their presence even in the remote parts of Bengal whenever there was the possibility of good profit in mercantile activities. It is pertinent to point out that they did not enjoy any special concessions in Bengal as an ethnic and minority foreign religious group of merchants, and yet they were able to compete successfully with the local as well as the foreign group of merchants operating in the region.

34That the Armenians often acted as a group rather than individual entrepreneurs is because of the pride they took in their identity. That they had one language, one culture and one religion was the most crucial factor, which helped them in developing and extending their networks. Unlike other groups of Indian or foreign merchants, the Armenians had built their own colonies and setdements with their own churches in different parts of India which only underlines the strong ethnic and cultural overtones of the Armenian entrepreneurs and their enterprises. Thus we find that the Armenians had their exclusive setdement in Saidabad where they built their own churches. Similarly, they had their own localities with churches in Kasimbazar, Hughli, Patna and other important centres of trade in Bengal. Calcutta still bears the name of an area named after the Armenians (Armanitola: the habitat of the Armenians), an Armenian church and even a place on the banks of the Ganges where the goods of the Armenians were off-loaded or on-loaded (Armani Ghat).

VII

  • 68 Van Leur, 1955; Steensgaard, 1974. For an opposing view: Chaudhuri, 1978; Chaudhury and Morineau, (...)

35While speaking about the entrepreneurial networks of the Armenians and their enterprises, the question that naturally crops up is whether the Armenians were mere peddlers as typified by the famous (made so by Niels Steensgaard as an example of Asian peddler) Armenian Hovhannes Jughayetsi who had travelled widely in India and Tibet for business transactions as factor of his masters in New Julfa (Khachikian 1966, 153-186). Though Jacob Cornelis van Leur was the first historian to challenge the Eurocentric view that the Indian Ocean trade in the 16th and the 17th centuries was dominated completely by the Europeans, his thesis of the Asian trade being the sum total of peddling trade, later reinforced by Steensgaard, can hardly be accepted now.68 Among the Armenian merchants, as among the Indians, there were small peddlers along with the wealthy and powerful merchants, with varied and extensive business operations, who can be easily compared with the Medicis, Fuggers or Tripps of Europe. Hovhannes was not really a peddler working on his own, as one may gather from a rather summary account of his activities by Steensgaard, but a cog in a very large commercial wheel operated by the wealthy merchant families of New Julfa.

  • 69 Case “Sarkes Johannes vs. Padri Aratoon,” 3 December 1794. National Library of Wales, Mss. 5476, 3 (...)

36It may be pointed out here that the peddler’s trade and the long-distance “relay trade” were by no means always mutually exclusive. At least in Bengal case there is evidence of a peddler transforming himself to a big “relay merchant” in the second half of the 18th century. Such was the case of Mathew Johannes who was born in New Julfa and came to Calcutta in the early 1760s and was engaged in silk trade between Calcutta and Murshidabad. He established contacts in Calcutta and it seems, after accumulating some capital for his business, he transferred his busines operations to Canton and Macau. After setting himself up as an established businessman, he revived his old contacts in Calcutta. While he himself stayed in Canton, through a network of earlier contacts, he was engaged in quite a longdistance trade between three centres—Macau, Calcutta and Canton. He is said to have invested fifty thousand rupees through his trading agents in Calcutta and used his connections there to augment his business operations.69 In fact, the way the networks of Armenian entrepreneurs functioned, the way the circulation of capital and commercial intelligence was effected will only reiterate that the Armenian entrepreneurs were no “insecure men,” made so “by limitations of information and vagaries of commerce” as Das Gupta (1979) would have us believe in the case of Mulla Abdul Goffur, the greatest merchant-trader of the Mughal Empire in the third quarter of the 17th century.

37The crucial question that remains to be answered, however, is what were the reasons for the fabulous success of the Armenian merchants vis-à-vis even the advanced organizational form of the European joint stock companies—a question which was raised earlier by Fernand Braudel (1982-1984 [1979]) and Philip D. Curtin (1984). It has been suggested recently that the success of the Armenians was primarily due to “organizational form or arrangements” which seems to be quite tenable (Baladouni, Makepeace, 1998). Indeed, the widely spread but highly interrelated Armenian enterprises operated under the “ethos of trust” which served as a human capital, accrued to the community as a result of their “collective socio-political experiences over many generations.” 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 information and mutual support based upon the fact that they were a distinctive ethnic and religious minority. This very characteristic differentiated them from other merchant groups in Bengal. There is no doubt that some of the other diaspora people like the Jews had all these characteristics but perhaps the Armenians were ahead of the others in these respects and hence their success was more spectacular than that of the others.

38However, the Armenian commercial system, based as it was on close family ties, was not something extraordinary. The well-known Italian merchant families are a European example of the same family system. This was a common trading pattern in the early modern period. The Indians, especially the Marwaris and Gujaratis as also the Parsis in India, had the same system of operations. And all of them were quite successful in their enterprises. In fact, one of the main factors that contributed to the fabulous success of the Armenians was their will to better their situation in exile, which gave them their knowledge of languages and of the custom of others. Their flexibility was an asset. They were capable of assuming multiple identities as and when required for the sake of their commercial prosperity (Baghdiantz McCabe, 1999, 358-359).

39At the same time the Armenians had a higher 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:

“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 amongst 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, 1995, 939).

40In fact the Armenian merchants, as has been rightly pointed out by K. N. Chaudhuri (1978), were highly skilled arbitrage dealers who were forced through historical circumstances to develop very flexible and geographically mobile forms of commerce. An ability to measure the risks of overland trade and a readiness to vary the size of commercial transactions were the special service which the Armenians brought to the trading world of the Middle East, India and even Europe, and this was one of the secrets of their tremendous success. Indeed, the ability of the Armenians to thrive on low profit margin, their readiness to deal in any commodity and move into even remote producing centres when there was the prospect of a profit, their ability to adapt themselves to the language and culture of their trading country without losing their own identity were some of the important factors behind their phenomenal success in inter-regional and international trade in the 17th and 18th centuries.

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Notes

1 London, British Library, India Office Records [henceforth IOR], Despatch Book [henceforth DB], vol. 92, fol. 25, 15 February 1689.

2 IOR/DB, vol. 93, fol. 38, 18 October 1690.

3 IOR/DB, vol. 92, fol. 25, 15 February 1689. See also Chaudhury, 1975,131.

4 Patna in Bihar was the most important trade centre in that province and was famous for production of saltpetre, opium and textiles in the 17th and the 18th centuries.

5 IOR, Home Miscellaneous Series [HM], vol. 36, fol. 81-82.

6 While Saidabad was an exclusive Armenian colony, founded around 1665, Kasimbazar, another suburb of Murshidabad, was the most important centre of silk production, and Dhaka was the most important centre of the finest and expensive textiles, especially the legendary muslins.

7 For Jagat Seth, the greatest banker of the then India and possibly Asia: Chaudhury, 1995, 109-116. For Umichand: ibid., 116-120.

8 That the Armenians of Bengal had links with New Julfa is evident from the fact that after the death of “Coja Avatook Cunnon and Coja Surhaud Cunnon,” their brother, ”Coja Turcawn Cunnon Armenian” came to Bengal from New Julfa to claim their ”effects” from Khoja Nazar Jacob of Calcutta. IOR, Bengal Public Consultations [BPC], Range 1, vol. 5, fol. 451, 16 March 1723. In all probability Khoja Surhaud was connected with one of the greatest merchant families of New Julfa, the Shareemans (or Surhaud?): Herzig, 1986.

9 Memorie of Alexander Hume: Antwerp, Stadsarchief Antwerpen, General Indische Compagnie, 5768.

10 Memorie of Louis Taillefert: The Hague, Algemeen Rijksarchief [henceforth AR], Verenigde Oust Indische Compagnie [henceforth VOC], 2849, fol. 164b., 27 October 1755. Jan Kerseboom’s Memorie:. AR/VOC, vol. 2849, fol. 103b, 14 February 1755.

11 IOR, Mayor’s Court Records [MCR], Calcutta, Range 155, vol. 24, fol. 30 b, 7 May 1741. Wajid/Wazeed is perhaps a form of “Avid” (Aved or Avet [trslAwet(ik‘)].

12 IOR, Factory Records [FR], Kasimbazar, vol. 7, Consultations, 24 December 1748; 9 January 1749; 12 January 1749. IOR/BPC, Range 1, vol. 22, fol. 49b, 19 December 1748; fol. 64b, 31 December 1748; fol. 96, 9 January 1749.

13 IOR, Bengal Letters Received [BLR], vol. 22, par. 18, fol. 410. IOR/BPC, Range 1, vol. 26, fol. 110, 2 April 1753.

14 Memorie of Jan Kerseboom: AR/VOC, vol. 2849, fol. 103b, 14 February 1755.

15 Memorie of A. Bisdom: AR/VOC, vol. 2849, fol. 498a-301b, 10 January 1756. IOR, Clive Mss., Vol. 269, n° 982.

16 IOR/BPC, Range 1, vol. 29, fol. 133, 18 July 1757.

17 Ibid., fol. 170b, 2 September 1757.

18 Ibid., fol. 245, 31 October 1757.

19 Ibid., fol. 285, 24 November 1757.

20 The Dutch Director Louis Taillefert also mentioned that the English company obtained the saltpetre monopoly from Mir Jafar in 1758. The second Memorie of Louis Taillefert: AR, Hoge Regering van Batavia [HRB], 246, fol. 174, 17 November 1763 (for the first Memorie, cf. supra, n. 10).

21 IOR, Orme Mss., OV, 134, fol. 13.

22 IOR, Eur. Mss., D 283, fol. 22.

23 IOR, Orme Mss., OV, 134, fol. 21-22.

24 Memorie of Huijghens: AR/VOC, 2763, fol. 458, 20 March 1750; ibid., 2732, fol. 9-10, Hughli to Batavia, 27 January 1750.

25 For details, see, shipping lists in the AR/VOC records.

26 Peter Marshall’s assertion (1976, 54-58; 1987, 65) that by the 1720s Hughli was completely overshadowed by Calcutta port, is not beyond doubt. The lean period of the 1720s and the 1730s was only a temporary phase for the Hughli port which recovered from the late thirties and the early forties with considerable increase in the French and Asian shipping. Chaudhury, 1995, 24-25, 314-319.

27 IOR/BPC, Range 1, vol. 17, fol. 702, 3 October 1745; fol. 706b 14 October 1745; fol. 717, 24 October 1745. Ibid., vol. 18, fol. 165b, 9 April 1746; fol. 318b 6 August 1746.

28 AR/VOC, 2661, fol. 163.

29 AR/VOC, 2689, fol. 136,140.

30 AR/VOC, 2862, fol. 837, 1079,1080.

31 AR/VOC, 2661, 2689, 2862: shipping lists in these volumes.

32 AR/VOC, 2849, fol. 105b, 14 February 1755. Cf. Hill, 1905, II, 87.

33 AR/VOC, 2763, fol. 467, 20 March 1750.

34 IOR/BPC, Range 1, vol. 26, fol. 131b-132b 3 may 1753.

35 AR/VOC, 2849, fol. 128b, 14 February 1755.

36 Taillefert’s Memorie: AR/VOC, 2849, fol. 264, 27 October 1755. It is obvious from this reference that Wajid lived in Chinsurah for some time. But this must have been for a short period because in early 1750, in a letter from Bengal, Wajid was referred to as “the merchant who was removed” (from Chinsurah): AR/VOC, 2732, fol. 9b, Hughli to Hereen XVII, 11 February 1750. It is of interest that in the Dutch records, Wajid was frequently referred to as “Moor Merchant” (Moors Koopman). There can be hardly any doubt that Wajid was an Armenian and there is no evidence that he was ever converted to Islam. It might have been possible that because of his close connection with the Muslim rulers, the Dutch referred to him as “Moor Merchant” or “Coja Mhamet Wazid”. There is evidence that the Armenian merchants changed their names often for the sake of convenience in trade. Thus in the second half of the 17th century, Khoja Philippos of New Julfa was known as Philippo de Zagely, Philip von Zagely, Philip de Zagly in Courland, as Philippe de Saghli in France, while in Persia his name was Imam Kuli Beg (Gulbenkian, 1970, 361-399). So it might be possible that Wajid also added Muhammed to his name, perhaps like his father, Khoja “Mhamet” Fazel, to enhance his business prospects.

37 IOR/BPC, Range 1, vol. 25, fol. 229b, 31 August 1752.

38 Ibid., vol. 17, fol. 429b, 24 December 1744; vol. 22, fol. 126b, 13 February 1749.

39 Ibid., vol. 28, fol. 122,12 May 1755.

40 Karam Ali states that Wajid told Nawab Alivardi Khan that if the latter drove the English out of Calcutta, he would have gained Rs 3 crores (Rs 30 million). He again asserts that Wajid who “bore enmity” to the English instigated Sirajuddaula to attack the English (Sarkar, 1952, 163). As Siraj dismissed Karam Ali from the office of the faujdar of Ghoraghat and imprisoned him later in Purnea (Bihar), he had every reason to be biased against young Nawab Sirajuddaula and also against Wajid who belonged to the inner circle of the Siraj’s advisers (ibid., 70). That Karam Ali echoes the sentiment of the English is evident from the fact that even Robert Orme and Clive thought that Wajid was behind Siraj’s attack on Calcutta. IOR, Orme Mss., OV, 28, fol. 52, Orme to John Payne, 3 November 1756. For Clive’s attitude: IOR, Clive Mss., vol. 269, n° 982, Clive to Miran, 27 November 1759.

41 IOR/HM, vol. 193, fol. 14, Wajid to Clive, 10 January 1757.

42 Ibid., fol. 15, Wajid to Clive, 17 January 1757.

43 Ibid., fol. 25-26, Clive to Wajid, 21 January 1757. Hill, 1905, II, 125 126.

44 Clive to Watts, 4 August 1758: IOR, Orme Mss., India X, fol. 112b.

45 William Watts’ letter to the Select Committee: IOR, Select Committee Consultations, Orme Mss., India V, fol. 1210; OV, 170, fol. 215.

46 IOR, Bengal Secret and Military Consultations [BSMC], Select Committee Consultations, Range 1, vol. 1, 23 November 1756.

47 Robert Orme to John Payne, 3 November 1756: IOR, Orme Mss., OV, 28, fol. 52.

48 IOR/BPC, Range 1, vol. 29, fol. 173, 5 September 1757.

49 AR/HRB, 246, fol. 274, 17 November 1763.

50 Clive to Watts, 4 August 1758: IOR, Orme Mss., India X, fol. 112b.

51 Clive to Miran, 27 November 1759: IOR, Clive Mss., vol. 269, n° 982.

52 IOR, Eur. Mss., G 37, Box 22.

53 IOR/MCR, Range 155, vol. 24, fol. 30b: Coja Manuel Azarmall vs. Coja Tenesuse, Calcutta, 7 May 1741. Cf. supra, n. 11.

54 AR/HRB, 17 November 1763, fol. 285.

55 Fort William Council to the Secret Committee, 11 March 1762. Seth, 1929, 12.

56 More generally, about Gurgin Khan: Seth, 1937, chap. XXXI, 383-418. Transl. of this chapter into west. mod. Arm. by S. Mgrditchian: Sethian [= Seth], 1930, 1-39.

57 IOR/HM, vol. 456 F.

58 AR/VOC, vol. 2849, fol. 245b.

59 The evidence of Sadananda Bandopadhyay, Board of Trade—Commercial, West Bengal State Archives, Calcutta: 13 March 1789. Bhadra, 1976, 325.

60 Case “Coja Hajee Ahmed vs. Juggut Seat Cossaul Chand”, 19 July 1799: Row, 1911-1916, 1, 162, quoted in Bhadra, 1976, 320.

61 IOR/HM, vol. 212, 289-291.

62 IOR/BPC, Range 1, fol. 12b, 2 Jan. 1750; fol. 22b, 9 January 1750.

63 Will of Aratoon Johannes, OW, 4522, Testamentary Section, High Court Records, Calcutta. Cf. Bhadra, 1976, 325.

64 Letter of Captain Harper to Verelst, Faizabad, 14 March 1768: Verelst Papers, IOR, Fur. Mss., F 218, n° 67. Fort William Council to the Court of Directors, 17 April 1771: ibid., n° 68.

65 Letter from Robert Maddison to Verelst, 23 October, 26 November 1767: ibid., n° 67.

66 Khoja Petruse’s petition to the Court of Directors, 5 February 1760: IOR/HM, vol. 68, fol. 937-939.

67 IOR/BPC, Range 1, vol. 11, fol. 410b, 6 September 1762.

68 Van Leur, 1955; Steensgaard, 1974. For an opposing view: Chaudhuri, 1978; Chaudhury and Morineau, 1999; Baghdiantz McCabe, 1999.

69 Case “Sarkes Johannes vs. Padri Aratoon,” 3 December 1794. National Library of Wales, Mss. 5476, 398, quoted in Bhadra, 1976, 326, n. 1.

Auteur

University of Calcutta, Chair of Islamic History and Culture, Calcutta. (Inde)

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