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

Sushil Chaudhury
Kéram Kévonian

IV. Les Arméniens dans l'Océan Indien / Armenians in the Indian Ocean

14. Up from the Watery Deep The Discovery of an Armenian Gravestone in the South China Sea

Susan E. Schopp

Texte intégral

1In 1997, the excavation of the recently-discovered wreck site of a European sailing vessel on the southern edge of Thitu Reef in the South China Sea yielded no cargo of precious commodities, but rather a variety of items related primarily to the vessel’s defense and to daily life at sea: musket shot, cannon balls, guns (cannon), anchors, iron ingots, ship’s fittings, several dozen loose and badly corroded coins, several shoe buckles, eating utensils, spigots and glass decanter stoppers. The site also yielded bas-reliefs and fragments of a stone pillar from a Hindu temple, and three gravestones. These heavy items were undoubtedly carried as ballast. The ship, which I identified as the East India Company vessel Earl Temple, was en route to Manila to be refitted when she struck the reef; she was to have called at Canton after being repaired (Schopp, 1999, 41-72).

2It is one of the gravestones that merits our particular attention, for the stone belongs to Sultan David (1697-1754), also known as Baron Sultanum [trslParon Sowlt'anowm]. A textile merchant who settled in Madras in the 1700s, Sultan David was the patriarch of a family of Armenian patriots who were active in the movement to liberate Armenia in the 18th century. He was the father of Agha Shameer (Shamir, 1723-1797), also known as Shahamir Shahamirian(ts) or Shamir Sultanumian, a prominent resident of Madras and a well-known philanthropist.

  • 1 A stone with a cross represented on.

3Sultan David’s gravestone is the most recently discovered example of a small but highly distinctive group of Armenian gravemarkers notable for their symbols and inscriptions. Several characteristics distinguish Sultan David’s and other stones in our study from both the khachkar1 gravemarkers of Armenia and the stones typically found in cemeteries of Europeans in Asia. These characteristics include the symbolic motifs and composition of the surface carving and the presence, in most cases, of two inscriptions, one of which is in Armenian. This chapter will introduce Sultan David [trslSult’an Davit’], examine his gravestone and compare it to others in the group.

Sultan David

4Sultan David was born in 1696 or 1697 in New Julfa, Persia. His family was originally from Julfa in Armenia; they left the town only when Shah Abbas destroyed the region and forced the population to resettle in New Julfa, a newly created suburb of Isfahan, in 1605. Like many others from Julfa, the family was in the textile trade. Sultan David married Anna Hakobian, also of New Julfa, and by 1726 the couple had two children: a son, Sha(ha)mir (Agha Shamir), and a daughter, Perinaz [trslP'erinaz].

5Sometime between 1723 and 1740, a period of renewed persecution of Armenians in Persia, the family emigrated to Madras. The town owed its existence to the Honourable (English) East India Company, which in 1640 purchased a desolate strip of land on the Coromandel coast and on it, built Fort St. George. The first Armenians to settle permanently in Madras arrived twenty-six years later. By the time Sultan David’s family appeared in the second quarter of the 18th century, Madras was the centre of the busy chintz trade as well as the most important of the East India Company’s three Presidencies, having jurisdiction over Company settlements stretching from southern India to China.

6The Armenians’ considerable success as merchants made them rivals of the Company, and nowhere was this more so than in eighteenth-century Madras, where their trade grew spectacularly (Arasaratnam, 1986, 200). They dominated the trade of precious stones and expensive fabrics and were major participants in the “Manilha trade” of luxury products between Madras and Manila. Sultan David’s business activities flourished. In the early 1740s, he inherited properties in New Julfa and Madras from Coja [khoja] Nazar Jacob Jan [= Hakobjan], a wealthy Armenian merchant who had settled in Madras in 1702. The first of the two inheritances must have been of considerable importance, for Sultan David sent his son back to Persia to attend to it. The second property was eventually taken over by the British, who turned it into Admiralty House, the residence of the British governor of Madras. Robert Clive, “the architect of British India,” was one of its occupants (Seth, 1937, 588-589).

7In the 1740s, following the outbreak of the War of the Austrian Succession (1740-1748) in Europe, the rivalry between France and Britain to dominate European trade in India escalated significantly. The center of French operations in India was Pondicherry, only 110 kilometres south of Madras, and military skirmishes between the two nations occurred repeatedly in south India during the period from 1740 to 1760. In 1746, the French successfully laid siege to Fort St. George. Soon after the victory, the governor of Pondicherry, Joseph, Marquis de Dupleix, invited wealthy merchants from Madras to settle in Pondicherry; he intended to strengthen his town’s economic base by attracting trade. Sultan David evidently moved to Pondicherry soon afterward, though there may be other factors that influenced his move. In Pondicherry, he became one of a group of prosperous Armenian merchants (Labernadie, 1936, 219-220. Racine, 1972, 6).

8Madras was returned to the British in 1749, but Sultan David evidently remained in Pondicherry until his death in the autumn of 1754. On the day he died, he renounced his religion and converted to Roman Catholicism (Martineau, 1919-1920, II, 209). The Armenian community in Pondicherry had been granted permission to build a church and to maintain its own cemetery, but neither was ever realized. In the absence of an Armenian cemetery, conversion to Catholicism allowed Sultan David, a member of the Armenian Apostolic Church, to be buried in one of the city’s Catholic (consecrated) burying grounds.

9His gravestone would undoubtedly have remained in India had it not been for an accident of history. In 1760, the competition between France and Britain in India reached the crisis point. In May of that year, the British set up a blockade of Pondicherry and slowly starved the French garrison into submission Eight months later, on 15 January 1761, the French surrendered. British troops subsequently razed the town’s European sector (Labernadie, 1936, 315. Racine, 1972, 35). Such was the devastation that when the new French governor, Jean Law de Lauriston, arrived from France nearly four years later to take charge of the city, the town was still in ruins:

  • 2 « Trois ans et plus s’étaient écoulés depuis le sac de Pondichéry, les herbes, les ronces, les épin (...)

“...Three years and more had passed since the sack of Pondicherry. Weeds, brambles and thorns partially covered the city, presenting a view of confusion and of the greatest horror. Pondicherry was nothing but ashes, stones and dust.”2

10“Ashes, stones and dust [cendres, pierres et poussière].” Among the stones were the gravemarkers toppled by British soldiers in the Catholic cemeteries when they destroyed the city early in 1761. When, later that spring, Britain’s East India Company needed ballast for its merchant vessels calling at Madras, Pondicherry offered an abundant source of stone rubble. It is thus that Sultan David’s gravestone most likely found its way aboard the Earl Temple.

The gravestones

11The ten gravestones that constitute the focus of this study were produced between 1736 and 1834. All are rectangular in shape and feature two, or, more usually, three bands of canting on the face. The uppermost band is reserved for ornamental motifs, while the middle and lower bands contain inscriptions in Armenian and, with two exceptions, one other language. All but one of the stones in the group are framed by a border of either floral motifs or lozenges (diamond-shaped dots). For the most part, floral motifs are used on the women’s stones and lozenges on the men’s. But there are three exceptions; the stones of Sultan David, Tarkhan and Ioannes “Donacao” (sic) all have floral borders.

12The gravestone of Sultan David measures 210 cm in height, 104 cm in width, and is 24 cm thick. It weighs 1135 kg. Despite having been exposed to sea water for nearly two-and-a-half centuries, the carving is in remarkably good condition, largely because the stone came to rest face-down at the wreck site in relatively shallow water. In this position, the carving was protected from exposure to the current, which washed over the upward-facing back side of the stone and left the under side, the face, relatively unharmed. Some slight local damage occurred on the upper left-hand and lower right-hand sides of the face, probably when the stone hit the reef at the time of the wreck. As a result, some letters and parts of several symbols have been destroyed, but it is possible to determine the missing elements (fig. 8).

13Examining the surface composition in greater detail, we see that the uppermost band is the narrowest of the three bands. It occupies approximately one-fifth of the stone’s surface, and is divided into three sections: left, center and right. An elaborately carved wreath of floral motifs fills the center section. The motifs are patterned after those which featured in the enormously popular chintzes produced on the Coromandel coast in the mid-eighteenth century and they constitute a direct reference to the deceased’s profession of textile merchant.

14In the centre of the wreath appears a collection of small items: a pair of scissors, a measure, a pair of scales, a quill pen and an inkwell, and six small weights, appropriate for weighing precious stones, arranged in a pyramid. These are symbols of the merchant’s profession and are used in Sultan David’s family crest. With one exception, they also appear, in slightly modified versions, on all the gravestones that have been found to date of other members of his family.

Fig. 8. Gravestone of Sultan David, son of Davutkhan, Pondicherry, 1754. National Museum of the Philippines, Manila (By courtesy of the author)

15The wreath-filled compartment is flanked on its left and right by rectangular sections containing a mask-and-crossbones motif. Like the related skull-and-crossbones, this is an image that is associated in the Western world with mortality. The bones cross at an angle to form an X. Into the open space at the top of the X descends the zigzagged lower edge of the mask. The top of the mask extends almost to the floral border at the top of the stone.

16A simple horizontal line extending across the width of the stone marks the end of the uppermost band and the beginning of the middle one, which contains an inscription in Latin. This is the largest of the three bands and it occupes half the surface of the stone. I am indebted to Professor Jean-Pierre Mahé of the École pratique des hautes études, Paris, who provided the missing letters (enclosed below in brackets) as well as a translation into French (Schopp, 1999, 54):

[Ci]uis Sultan David,
[nati]one armenus, ex
[pers]ica Ciuitate Espaham
oriundu[s], aetate quinqua-
ginta Septem annorum
prouectus, famigeratus
mercator, Pudicheri Supremum
diem dedit 30 Septembris

17This may be translated:

citizen Sultan David
of the Armenian nation,
originally from the Persian city of Ispahan;
having reached
the age of fifty-seven years,
a famous merchant,
he gave his last day
at Pondicherry the 30th of
September 1754.

18“He gave his last day” signifies that he died. It is the literal Latin translation of an Armenian expression indicating that the deceased was eligible to receive the last rites of the Roman Catholic Church.

19A second inscription follows the Ladn, from which it is set off by another horizontal line carved across the stone. Written in Armenian, it is seven lines long and forms the third or lower band of carving. While including much of the same information as the Latin, it also provides the Armenian name of the deceased, which may be transcribed as Baron Sultanum. The Armenian also notes the date of death according to the Julian calendar and includes a reference to Sultan David’s parentage, identifying the deceased as the son of Davutkhan [trslDavowt’xan]:

20A translation of the Armenian inscription reads as follows:

Beneath this tomb rests
the son of Davutkhan, Baron Soolthanoom, of the Armenian nation,
an honorable merchant, born in the country
of Persia in the city of Ispahan. He stayed in this
world for fifty-seven years. He died in fine reputation in
Pondicherry on the 19th September
of the year 1754.

21Framing the surface of the stone is a border that runs around all four sides. It features the same chintz motifs that form the wreath.

Stones of individuals unrelated to Sultan David

22Let us now consider, in chronological order by date of death, the other stones in our group. The first three were erected in Malacca and belong to persons unrelated to the Shahamiriants family: Ioannes “Donacao” (sic); Tarkhan, son of “Ovanjan” (= Hovhanjan); and a fragment belonging to an unidentified individual. The stones were included in Robert N. Bland’s Historical Tombstones of Malacca, mostly of Portuguese Origin (1905) as well as in Frédéric Macler’s “Note sur quelques inscriptions funéraires arméniennes de Malacca” (1919, 560-568). The first of these stones belongs to the man whom Bland erroneously identified as Ioannes “Donaco” (Bland, 1905, 29; Macler, 1919, 565-566 [“Donacao”]). As we shall see shortly, Donac(a)o is not the deceased’s surname. Ioannes was an Armenian who died in Malacca in 1736. The stone is bordered on three sides by floral motifs that are considerably simpler in design than those we have just seen on the gravemarker of Sultan David. They bring to mind a type of painted décor seen on Persian faience of a slightly earlier period. There is no border across the bottom of the stone, which remains uncarved.

23The uppermost band consists of a single large section featuring a large five-lobed arch of leaves. Just above the center of the arch floats a small star-shaped flower; on each side of the flower are carved arabesques of leaves and small blooms. Two large blossoms anchor the upper left-and right-hand corners of the band. Under the five-lobed arch, and echoing its shape, a bifurcated branch bears leaves and bunches of grapes. Centered beneath the branch is a heart; the point at its bottom turns slightly toward the left. We will see an almost identical symbol, turned toward the right, on the gravestone of Perinaz, Sultan David’s daughter (infra).

24The middle band is devoted to a five-line inscription in Armenian. Below it, filling the lowermost band, is an eight-line inscription in Portuguese. The Armenian identifies the deceased as the young Hovanes [= Hovhannes: trslYovanēs = Yovhannēs] of Erevan, the son of Sarkis or Sargis, a well-respected merchant, and states that he died at the age of 30 in 1736. It also provides the era and date of death according to the Armenian calendar: 5 aram 121 in the Azarian era.

  • 3 Erevan is the name of a quarter in New Julfa, Isfahan.
  • 4 The entire Portuguese inscription reads as follows:
    Hic Iacet Ioannes Donacao Ar menio Filho Decoia (...)

25The Portuguese recognizes the deceased as loannes, an Armenian, the son of Coja Sarquis [= Khoja Sarkis] Meliian (Melijan?), of Erevan,3 in Ispahan, in the kingdom of Persia, and who died at the age of 30 on 31 December 1736.4 The inscription begins:


  • 5 Bland (1905, 28) gives the following translation of the Portuguese: “Johannes Donaco /an Armenian o (...)

26Bland read “Donaco” (= Donacao) as one word and thought it was his surname, when, in fact, it is part of the phrase “do nação Armenio”, meaning “of the Armenian nation,” i.e., of Armenian nationality.5 The Portuguese phrase appears elsewhere on Armenian gravestones in Asia; Mesrovb J. Seth provides an example in his History of the Armenians in India... (1937, 305). On the gravestone of Joâo Marcos at Chinsurah, he notes the Portuguese inscription as follows:

  • 6 Ioannes’s stone preserves the original Portuguese spelling of “nação”. The “nassao” on the Marcos g (...)


27Our next stone dates from 1746 and was found just outside Malacca (Bland, 1905, 27. Macler, 1919, 564-565). The deceased is identified as Tarkhan. Neither of the inscriptions mentions his birthplace. The floral border is somewhat reminiscent of the Ioannes stone, though the flowers are simpler in design and are more widely spaced. The floral imagery that fills the upper band also vaguely recalls that of the Ioannes marker. The forms branch gracefully and symmetrically upward and outward, and may likewise have been inspired by painted motifs ornamenting Persian faïence.

28The middle band is devoted to a four-line inscription in Armenian that identifies the deceased as Tarkhan [trslT’arxan], son of Hovanjan Shukronts or Shukurents [trslYov(h)anǰan Šowk’ŕonc' / Sowk’owrenc], who died in the Lord, in the year of Christ in 1746, 8 aram. In his article, Macler does not recognize the surname of the deceased as Armenian; he notes that it may have been of Arabic origin, passing into Armenian via Persian. But in fact, the name Shukran, which comes from the Arabic word meaning “gratitude”, was indeed known to Armenians, who from the 14th through the 17th centuries used it as a first name for both girls and boys. We do not know if this Tarkhan is a relative of “Satoor Tarkhan of the well-known Shookhoorean family of Surat,” the son-in-law of Khoja Panos Kalantar’s daughter, who died in Calcutta in 1761 (Seth, 1937, 243-244).

29The lower band is almost as large as the upper and middle bands combined, and occupies nearly half the face of the stone. It contains an inscription in Portuguese indicating that Tarkhan, son of Ovanjan, who died on 8 January 1746, is buried there. The letters of the inscription are large and somewhat awkward, and the spacing between words is uneven.

30Our third stone is a fragment that was once the upper part of a gravestone. The border and uppermost band have survived but the middle and lower bands, which would have contained the inscription(s), have been lost. It is impossible to identify the deceased, but the symbols leave little doubt that the person was Armenian.

31The border consists of three rows of diamond-shaped dots or lozenges, a motif that we will also see on several stones in Sultan David’s family. Indeed, it also appears on gravestones in Armenia, where it figures repeatedly on the classical burial monument known as the khachkar. On the khachkar, however, the motif is used to frame not the exterior border, but the center field of the composition.

32The lozenge may be derived from a much earlier motif also used in a funerary context: it occurs on mortuary couches from the Northern Qi dynasty (A. D. 550-577) of North China. On these limestone slabs, two of which may be seen at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, round “beads” or “pearls” serve not only to provide a border around the edge of the panel, but also to divide the composition into sections or registers, and the narrative into separate scenes. The scenes feature Sogdians, a people of Central Asia who were prominent in sixth-century trade along the Silk Road; the towns of Bukhara and Samarkand both lay within their territory. The motif may later have become familiar to Armenians.

33In the upper band of the fragment we see a combination of familiar and unfamiliar elements, including the tripartite composition that we first saw on Sultan David’s stone. The right-and left-hand sections flank a larger center compartment and contain the symbol of mask-and-crossbones. However, in contrast to Sultan David’s marker, where the three sections were nearly equal in size, the center compartment on the fragment is significantly taller and wider than the two sections that flank it. As a result, the two end sections have been reduced considerably in width. The change in proportions not only forces the bottom edge of the mask to hover just above the bones instead of penetrating the space between them, but also notably increases the impact of the entire motif. We shall see a similar rendering of this motif on the gravestone of Sultan David’s grandson Hakob Sha(ha)mir (Macler, 1919, 565. Cf. infra).

34The broad centre section of the fragment features an immense oval whose upper half is nearly filled by a peacock, above which several small, lambrequin-like elements hang gracefully. The bird is shown in a highly stylized frontal view. It peers out boldly at the viewer, its wings spread wide to each side and the feathers of its tail clearly visible beyond its head. It rests on its belly atop the upper edge of a heraldic shield that occupies the lower half of the oval.

35Within the shield, directly below the peacock, appears a second bird, this one a two-headed eagle. The heads are shown in profile and the chest, straight on. The wings and feet are outspread; the tail, flattened, points downward. Since ancient times, the two-headed eagle has served as a symbol of power and victory, and it has been used over the centuries by a number of rulers and nations, including the Byzantine emperors. It was a familiar symbol to Armenians. The use of the peacock or the eagle in a funerary context is not limited to this fragment; a similar motif adorns a gravestone in the Armenian Church in Madras belonging to Tamas [trslT'amas], son of Mirzakhan, and dated 16 hamiray (December 1st) 1778 (fig. 9, plate).

36To the left and right sides of the shield—that is, in the space between the shield and the edge of the oval—are ornamental forms that echo the smaller lambrequin-like elements above the peacock. It is worth noting that although the heraldic shield appears explicitly only in the lower half of the oval, elements characteristic of heraldic imagery appear in both the upper and lower halves of the oval.

Gravestones belonging to relatives of Sultan David

37Now let us consider the gravestones belonging to relatives of Sultan David. They are, in order of their decease, his daughter, Perinaz; his wife, Anna Hakobian; his eldest grandson, Hakob Sha(ha)mir; his middle grandson, Hovhannes Sha(ha)mir; his son, Agha Sha(ha)mir; and his youngest grandson, Eghiazar Sha(ha)mir. I wish to thank Mr. Michael Stephen, the assistant manager of Calcutta’s Armenian College and formerly the caretaker of the Armenian Church, Madras, for providing photographs of the gravestones.

  • 7 Ohannes Marcar evidently outlived his wife by nearly 30 years. The List of Tombs and Monuments of E (...)

38Sultan David’s daughter, Perinaz [trslP’ērinaz] (1726-1759), died only five years after her father. Younger than her brother Agha Sha(ha)mir by three years, she married “Johannes” (= Ohannēs, trslOhannēs < Yovhannës) Marcar, an Armenian merchant in Madras.7 Her gravestone features a border of floral motifs that are identical to those on the gravestone of her mother—and nearly identical to those on the border of the Ioannes marker.

  • 8 Pulicat (Paleacat in Latin), a town about 40 km. north of Madras.

39The uppermost band of ornamental carving is followed first by an inscription in Armenian and then by one in Latin. The Armenian identifies the deceased as Perinaz. It also furnishes the surname of her father and the first name of her husband, and indicates that she died at Phaligath8 on 20 December 1759 at the age of 33. The date of death has been erroneously reported in other sources as 1739. The Latin epitaph provides similar information and calls her “Domina Perinas”. In addition, it gives the name of her mother and identifies her husband as Joannes Marcar (cf. Seth, 1937, 609).

40It is the uppermost band that most distinguishes Perinaz’s stone. It consists of just one compartment, not three, and lacks the symbol of mask-and-crossbones—distinctions that Perinaz shares with only one other member of the family, her nephew Hovhannes. The compartment runs from border to border, stretching the width of the stone.

41For reasons not yet known, Perinaz’s gravemarker is the only one in the entire family that lacks the family crest. It is also the only stone in our group in which the name of the deceased appears in the upper band, as well as in the inscriptions.

42The one compartment of that band contains a five-lobed arch resting on two columns. In shape, it recalls the lobed arch on the gravestone of Ioannes, though here it is much simpler in design. In the upper left-and right-hand corners above the arch, there appear two angels, each of which blows a horn. Inside the arch, two pelicans pecking their breasts flank a heart in flames. On the heart is written, in Armenian, a single word: “Perinaz” (fig. 10, plate).

43Our next stone is that of Perinaz’s mother, Anna Hakobian. Anna survived her daughter by just five years and her husband, Sultan David, by ten. The border of her stone is composed of floral motifs, but they are not the chintz-inspired flowers that graced Sultan David’s gravemarker. Instead, they are somewhat less ornate. They are, as we have already noted, identical to those that form the border on her daughter’s stone. More surprisingly, they are nearly identical to those of the border of the Ioannes stone in Malacca.

44The upper band of the composition on Anna Hakobian’s gravemarker is divided into three sections. The large rectangle that forms the center compartment is only slightly wider than it is high. It contains what appears to be a loosely drawn heraldic shield growing out of a simplified chalice. Enclosed within the outline of the shield are a scale and a set of weights, a pair of scissors, a measure and a quill in an inkwell. Though the placement of the items differs from that on Sultan David’s stone (supra), there is no doubt that we are looking at a form of the Sha(ha)mir family crest. The heraldic shield is ringed by floral motifs that are unique in design to this stone. They are spiky in form and comparatively few in number. Flanking the centre section, though not quite as tall, are two narrow rectangles. They contain only a pair of crossbones; there is no mask.

45The middle band consists of an eight-line inscription in Armenian. It identifies the deceased as Anna Khatun [trslXat’own], or “Lady Anna”, the wife of the late Sultanum Sha(ha)mir, and notes that she was of the Armenian nation. It also informs us that she was born at julfa in the city of Ispahan; that she lived to the age of 64, was much respected, and that she died at Madras on 20 February, in the year of our Saviour Christ 1764.

46A seven-line inscription in Latin follows. It notes that Anna Jacobyan (= Hakobian, trslYakobean) was the beloved wife of Sultan (Sultaun) David, that she was very dear to her Armenian countrymen and especially to her relatives, that she was born at Julfa in Persia and that she died at the age of 64 on 20 February 1764 (cf. Seth, 1937, 610). A small stretch of smooth, uncarved stone separates the last line of the Latin inscription from the floral border along the bottom of the stone (fig. 11-a-b, plate).

47The next Sha(ha)mir stone dates from 1774. In July of that year, Hakob(os) [trslYakobos], who was Sultan David and Anna Hakobian’s eldest grandson and the eldest son of Agha Sha(ha)mir, died at the age of 29 in Malacca, nearly 2 800 kilometres from his birthplace in Madras. Hakob, too, was a merchant, and shared his father’s passionate interest in the liberation of their homeland.

48Situated prominendy on the sea route between India and China, the two great markets of the pre-modern world, Malacca prospered as a major international port and was the home of a flourishing Armenian community. Its location facing the strait leading to the fabled Spice Islands made the European powers trading in Asia covetous: the Portuguese seized the city in 1511, and the Dutch seized it from them in turn in 1641. Malacca was still in the hands of the Dutch at the time of Hakob’s death.

49The border on Hakob’s stone is composed of lozenges and is almost identical to that of the fragment described above. The same border and a number of other elements on Hakob’s stone will feature on the stone of Agha Sha(ha)mir—Hakob’s father—twenty-three years later. We recognize the tripartite composition of the uppermost band and, in the center section, the familiar tools of the family crest that identify the young man as a Sha(ha)mir: the scissors and measure, the pair of scales, the quill and inkpot and the pyramid of weights. They are enclosed not in a wreath but in a heraldic shield whose outline is somewhat thicker than that seen on the gravemarker of his grandmother, Anna Hakobian. Hakob was engaged in the trade of spices, not textiles; the wreath motif with its reference to chintzes that appeared on Sultan David’s stone was therefore not appropriate. The shield is surrounded by a profusion of flowers, leaves and bunches of grapes, while the chalice out of which the shield emerges is squat and rounded in shape.

50The mask-and-crossbones in the sections flanking the shield are long and narrow in shape. They are compressed into rectangles that do not extend the full height of the central section. The masks float just above the bones rather than descending into the space between them, as we have already seen on the fragment (supra).

51The middle and lower bands, as might be expected, contain two inscriptions, one in Armenian and the other in Dutch. The Armenian is placed first, just as it was on the stones of Hakob’s grandmother, Anna, and his aunt, Perinaz, as well as on the stones that we have examined from Malacca. And it is this Armenian inscription, which occupies a generous third of the surface, that distinguishes Hakob’s stone from all the others of his family. Its style and content are unlike those of any inscription that we have seen previously. All of the other epitaphs, including Sultan David’s, set forth the basic facts of the deceased’s life and are written in straightforward, factual prose. In contrast, Hakob’s epitaph is long; it is poetic; and it is the only one in our group to give voice to the emotions of the Armenian patriot yearning fervently for his homeland.

  • 9 Translation from Bland (1905, 6), taken from Seth (1895), but Bland transposed us, in line 3, to th (...)
  • 10 The French translation is from Aghassian and Kévonian (1987, 169). A first translation into French (...)

52The best-known English version of the inscription is that provided by Mesrovb J. Seth, but it is not a strict translation. Robert N. Bland used Seth’s text and made one significant error in copying it.9 The following translation into English is based on a close French rendering of the Armenian inscription as the latter appears in the photograph in Macler (1919, 562)10:

Hail to thee who reads the epitaph of my grave!
Give me the news of my nation’s freedom, that I’ve keenly desired.
Has anyone risen among us as a saviour and leader,
Such as I have long so hoped for in this world?
I, Jacob, a descendant of my ancestors from Armenia,
And heir, as their son, to the name Shamrshaments [a variant of the family name],
Was born in a foreign land, at New Julfa, a town in Persia.
When I reached the age of 29, I was put into the ground, [henceforth] my empire.
In this Malaka [Malacca], the 7th of July, I came to the end of my life.
In the year of the Saviour 1774, I lay down in this grave of which I am the buyer.

53A scant four lines in Dutch follow the Armenian. They identify the deceased as “Heer Jacob Shamier,” an Armenian Merchant (”Armenische Koopman”), who was buried at the age of 29 on 7 July, in the year of Our Lord 1774. The Dutch makes no mention of Hakob’s Madras birthplace and occupies less than half the space of the Armenian inscription. The remaining surface of the stone is unornamented except for the border.

54The next gravestone in the family belongs to Hakob’s brother Eghiazar (trslEliazar = Eleazar) Shamirian, the second of Agha Sha(ha)mir’s three sons. Like Hakob, he was only 29 years old when he died in Madras in 1787. The lozenge border and the tripartite upper band, with its mask-and-crossbones, family crest, plant motifs and chalice, are virtually identical to those that will appear on the stone of his father, Agha Sha(ha)mir, ten years later.

55In the upper band, two mask-and-crossbones motifs flank a center section containing the now familiar family crest. The latter is surrounded by a profusion of botanical forms: grapes, leaves and flowers.

56The middle band contains an eleven-line inscription in Armenian; the space below it, where a second inscription would have been placed, is blank. Only one other gravemarker in the family bears a single inscription: that of Agha Sha(ha)mir (fig. 12, plate).

  • 11 Books printed on this press bear the Shahamiriants or Shamir family crest. The crest also appears b (...)

57Agah Shameer or Shahameer (Agha Sha(ha)mir, 1723-1797) grew up to become a well-known pearl merchant in Madras and an important figure in the eighteenth-century Armenian liberation movement in India. He was a member of the “Madras Group,” a commercial organization founded by Armenians in Madras for the dual purpose of providing charity and promoting trade. Significant for their contribution to the beginnings of Armenian socio-political theory, the members were active in the cause of Armenian liberation, seeking independence for their homeland. The group had already experimented, on a very small scale, with drafting a constitution and putting it into practice; in 1773, they published a set of rules, in effect a miniature constitution, for the Armenian community in Madras. The document was printed on the press that Shahamir Shahamirian(ts), i.e. Agha Sha(ha)mir, had set up only two years before.11 In 1789, the same year that the French Revolution began, the Madras Group published its plan for a constitution that was intended as a model for use in an Armenian republic of the future (Abrahamian, 1964, i, 471-481. Trap, 2002).

58The border of Agha Sha(ha)mir’s stone is composed of three rows of lozenges. It is nearly identical to the border on the stones of his two dead sons as well as to that of the nameless fragment (supra).

59As we might expect, the upper band is divided into three sections. As on Anna’s, Hakob’s and Eghiazar’s stones (and also on the fragment), they align along the top, though not across the bottom; the left-and right-hand compartments, containing the mask-andcrossbones, are shorter in height than the centre section. The masks do not descend between the bones but float above them; otherwise they are virtually identical in design to those on Sultan David’s stone. As we have already noted, the ornamental motifs of the wide center compartment—the family crest and the leaves, flowers and bunches of grapes—are virtually identical to those on the gravemarker of Agha Sha(ha)mir’s son Eghiazar. We shall see that they are also close to the stone of Agha Sha(ha)mir’s second son, Hovhannes (infra).

60The middle band on Agha Sha(ha)mir’s marker occupies slighdy more than half the surface and consists of a twelve-line inscription in Armenian. Translated into English, it reads: “Here lies interred the body of the noble Shamir Sult’anumian [trslŠamir Sowlt’anowmean] of the Armenian nation, who was born at New Julfa on the fourth of November one-thousand-seven-hundred-twenty-three, and died here at Madras on Saturday, the thirteenth day of June, one-thousand-seven-hundred-ninety-seven, having attained the age of seventy-four years” (cf. Seth, 1937, 592). As on his son Eghiazar’s stone, Agha Sha(ha)mir’s contains just the one inscription with no further carving below it except for the border (fig 13-a-b, plate).

61Our last stone is that of Hovhannes [trslYovhannēs], the youngest of Agha Sha(ha)mir’s three sons and the only one to survive his father. Like his brothers, Hovhannes was born in Madras; he died there at the age of 77 in 1834. His stone bears all the hallmarks of a Sha(ha)mir, but it is unique in our group in that it has no border. It is also the only one to contain an inscription in English.

62The upper band consists of just one section: a rectangle that is barely wider than it is high. The space to its right and left—reserved on all other Sha(ha)mir gravestones except that of Perinaz for the symbols of mask-and-crossbones—is here left smooth and blank. The family crest and its surrounding grapes, leaves and flowers, however, closely resemble those on Agha Sha(ha)mir’s stone.

  • 12 The epitaph of Hovhannes indicates clearly that he died in 1834 at the age of 77. This would make h (...)

63A fourteen-line inscription in Armenian fills the middle band, which occupies approximately half of the surface of the stone. Below it, in the lower band, appears the following inscription in English: “Sacred to the memory of Johannes Shamier Sultanum, who departed this life 25th September 1834, aged 77 years”12 (fig. 14, plate).

Sources of ornamental motifs

64In examining the Armenian gravestones from both Madras and Malacca, the question arises: What were the sources for the ornamental motifs? The answers are often surprising. They extend as far back in time as classical antiquity; they stretch wide distances across the globe; they incorporate religious as well as secular symbols; and they borrow from non-funerary as well as from funerary art.

65Surprisingly, perhaps, the sources do not lie in the funerary traditions of the deceased individuals’ homeland. The stones bear little resemblance to the khachkar, the traditional Armenian funerary monument, which from the 11th century onward has most often consisted of a thick rectangular stone set vertically on a flat base (Jacobson, 1981, 156-163. Treasures, 1984, passim. Khatchkar, 2000, passim). Generally, a horizontal band ornamented by figurative or geometric-architectural motifs runs across the very top of such stones, while the two long sides are bordered by a narrow frame. Below the horizontal band, a lancetshaped frame containing a large cross is carved out of a rectangularly-shaped central field. Running around three of the four sides of the central field is a carved border from which interlaced motifs project in moderate relief. Despite the abundance of intricate patterning, the careful proportioning of motifs and the different depths of relief ensure that the entire surface remains easily legible despite the complexity of the interlacing and the density of composition.

66The stones of Sultan David’s group have little in common with these khachkars. They are thinner and flatter, and they may either stand vertically or lie flat on the ground. Their vocabulary of ornamental motifs features neither the cross nor the interlacing and geometric patterns so synonymous with the khachkars, and their bas-relief carving is far less plastic and much less complex.

67So we must look elsewhere to find our sources, the earliest of which appear in the ancient Mediterranean. There the use of the mask as a funerary symbol dates back to the theatre of classical antiquity. By the third century of our era, it was being used in Christian communities, where it figured in funerary painting and on sarcophagi. Later, the mask acquired a skull-like appearance, and indeed, when shown with crossbones, was often replaced by the image of a skull (Leclercq, 1932, cols. 2646-2649). The use of the mask or skull with crossbones on the stones in our study may represent an influence from Western Europe, where these symbols often appeared in a funerary context. In the 17th and 18th centuries, they frequendy figured on gravestones in France. It may also be possible that the motif derives from a single distinctive source: a lodge of Armenian freemasons. In their study of Armenian trade in the Indian Ocean during the 17th and 18th centuries, Aghassian and Kévonian (1987, 172, n. 35) have noted that a number of the unexpected ornamental elements (including the mask-and-crossbones) that distinguish some of the stones in our group can be associated with the Scottish-rite lodge “All Armenia in the East Indies.”

68Like the mask, three more of the motifs found on our stones were familiar in antiquity: the peacock, the pelican and the chalice. As symbols, the first two owe their origin to legend, but as we shall see, all three acquired religious significance.

69Every year, as winter approached, the peacock lost its magnificent plumage, only to gain new feathers the following spring. Among early Christians, the bird thus became a symbol of the resurrection of the body. According to one legend, its flesh was so hard, it did not decay. St. Augustine (De civitate Dei, I, 21, IV) notes the belief that the peacock’s flesh was immortal (Leclercq, 1937, cols. 1075-1081). The use of the peacock symbol was not limited to gravestones, however. Portuguese visitors to São Tomé, an old Portuguese town within the the limits of Madras, saw a decor of crosses and peacocks in plaster in a small edifice near the shore. Sighificantly, the visitors, who came from Malacca, had been told of the building by Armenian merchants in Pulicat.

  • 13 Dante Alighieri, Paradiso, 25, 112-113.

70The pelican was believed to pierce its own breast with its beak to obtain blood to feed its young. For Christians, the bird became a symbol of Jesus’sacrifice on the cross. In the Divine Comedy Dante makes reference to Jesus as the “true Pelican.”13

71Unlike the peacock and the pelican, the chalice owes its symbolic value not to legend, but to its use in celebrating the Eucharist. Originally an ordinary drinking cup that was available in a variety of materials and shapes, the chalice was used by early Christians when they celebrated the Eucharist in their homes (Baudot, 1924, cols. 1595-1601, 1646-1650). With the formalization of the sacrament of the Eucharist, the chalice became the vessel of choice to hold the consecrated wine; subsequendy, it was often made of gold or silver.

72The chalice figures in Christian funerary contexts from antiquity onward. Often it is shown in conjunction with other imagery, including peacocks and plant motifs. In Byzantine art (especially mosaics) of the 5th to 7th centuries, the chalice frequently appears with a grapevine growing out of it. That this theme was familiar to Armenian artists is demonstrated by an Armenian mosaic dating from this same period and preserved in Jerusalem (Arakelian, 1978, 6-9, 14-17). The mosaic shows a chalice from which a grapevine emerges and then branches out to form medallions. Flanking the chalice are two peacocks.

  • 14 Examples of floral motifs to note on stones outside our group include two gravestones from the regi (...)

73The chalice-and-grapevine motif eventually gave rise to a variant that depicts a large bouquet of flowers emerging from a vase.14 In the Sha(ha)mir family crest, the curvilinear outline of the heraldic shield is almost plant-like in its fluidity, and the shield itself rises out of a vessel that closely resembles a chalice in shape. It is possible that the Sha(ha)mir crest might represent yet another variant, in which the fluid outlines of the heraldic shield replace the grapevine.

74Thanks to trade, grape motifs traveled far beyond the Mediterranean region, reaching Persia and then China. The flowers, leaves and bunches of grapes carved on the gravestone of Ioannes in Malacca recall some of the painted motifs that ornament Persian faïence. Their exact sources are somewhat more difficult to trace, largely because there are still significant gaps in our knowledge of the location of kiln sites and of the chronology of Persian ceramic wares. Painted décor, the type of ornamentation most widely employed by Persian potters, embraced a considerable range of figurative, geometric and floral forms. The latter group includes leaves as well as flowers, and there are examples of underglaze wares bearing blossoms similar in shape to the flowers seen in the upper register of the tomb of Ioannes. Leafy branches, another motif seen on the same gravestone, were likewise a popular element in the ceramic painter’s repertory, and they, too, spread as far east as China. At the height of the Mongol Empire, when Mongol domination stretched from eastern Europe through Central Asia to China, the motif figured frequently on blue-and-white wares of the Yuan dynasty (1260-1367). They continued to appear into the early decades of the Ming (1368-1644).

  • 15 Examples from sixteenth-century France are given in Ariès, 1985, 44-45. Ariès also notes the appear (...)

75As we have already seen on Sultan David’s gravestone, the vocabulary of ornamental motifs in our group also includes secular, non-funerary imagery. Some elements, such as the scales and weights of the merchant’s trade, indicated the deceased’s occupation, while others were borrowed directly from contemporary life in the region in which the deceased had lived. Making reference to one’s profession on a gravemarker was not a new practice; examples occur in Europe from the latter part of the 15th century onward.15 What is so striking about the motifs derived from textile design on Sultan David’s tomb, however, is the specificity of the image, which is sufficiently detailed to enable us to recognize the type of textile evoked and its region of origin, and to link it to the very commodities that Sultan David traded.

76In conclusion, Sultan David’s gravestone is of interest for a number of reasons. In addition to providing a physical link to a historic personage, it clearly belongs to a group of Armenian gravemarkers that are distinguished by their unusual ornamentation. The vocabulary of motifs includes a number of elements that are not limited to members of Sultan David’s family, but include other Armenians living in Asia. The ornamentation is all the more interesting for its hybrid nature: the stones juxtapose emblems familiar to the deceased and to their particular Armenian community with images drawn from sources outside Armenian cultural and funerary traditions, while simultaneously incorporating references to specific aspects of contemporary trade. The stones promise the opportunity for further research.



Abrahamian, A., 1964. Image 10000000000001710000000FDB62FA17.jpg (Short Outline of the History of Armenian Communities), 2 vols., Erevan, Haypethrat.

Aghassian, M., Kévonian, K., 1987. “Le commerce arménien dans l’océan Indien aux 17e et 18e siècles”, in Lombard, D., Aubin, J., eds., Marchands et hommes d’affaires asiatiques dans l’océan Indien et la mer de Chine, Paris, École des hautes études en sciences sociales.

Arakelian, B. N., 1978. “Armenian Mosaic of the Early Middle Ages”, in Atti del primo simposio internazionale di arte armena (Bergamo, 28-30giunio 1975), Venice, Tipo-litografia armena (San Lazzaro) [Mekhitarist Printing House].

Arasaratnam, S., 1986. Merchants, Companies and Commerce on the Coromandel Coast, 1650-1740, Delhi, Bombay, Calcutta, Oxford University Press.

Ariès, Ph., 1985. Images of Man and Death [transl. Janet Lloyd], Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press.

Baudot, J., 1924. “Calice”, in Cabrol, F.; Leclercq, H., eds., Dictionnaire d’archéologie chrétienne et de liturgie, II-2, Paris, Letouzey et Ané.

Bland, R., 1905. Historical Tombstones of Malacca, Mostly of Portuguese Origin, with the Inscriptions in Detail, London, E. Stock.

Jacobson, A., 1981. Яковсон. A., “Искyсство кaчкapов, apомянских кpeстих кaмнeй” (“The Art of khatchkars, Armenian Cross-Stones”), in Image 10000000000001610000000FD375AB99.jpg Image 10000000000000850000000F90BDA00A.jpg 10-18 Image 100000000000004A0000000FFDA7B847.jpg 1978, Bmopoǔ межϧyныǔ cuмnoзuyм no apмянскомy uскссmвy Cϭpnнuк ϧoклaoв Epeвaн, 1978, 12-18 сенябpя. Second International Symposium on Armenian Art. Collection of Reports. Yerevan, 1978, September, 12-18. III, Erevan, Academy of Sciences.

Khatchkar, [2000]. Image 10000000000000320000000F27072F5B.jpg Xaчкap. Khatchkar [Edjmiatzin, Holy See Publications].

Labernadie, M., 1936. Le vieux Pondichéry, 1674-1815: histoire d’une ville coloniale française, Pondicherry, Impr. Moderne.

Leclercq, H., 1932. “Masques scéniques”, in Cabrol, F.; Leclercq, H., eds., Dictionnaire d’archéologie chrétienne et de liturgie, X-2, Paris, Letouzé et Ané.

Leclercq, H., 1937. “Paon”, in Cabrol, F.; Leclercq, H., eds., Dictionnaire d’archéologie chrétienne et de liturgie, XIII-1, Paris, Letouzey et Ané.

List, 1898. List of Tombs and Monuments of Europeans, &c., in the Madras District, Madras, Superintendent, Government Press.

Macler, F., 1919. “Note sur quelques inscriptions funéraires arméniennes de Malacca”, Journal asiatique, Paris, 12, mai-juin.

Martineau, A., 1919-1920. Résumé des actes de l’état-civil de Pondichéry. I. De 1676 à 1735. II. De 1736 à 1760. III. De 1761 à 1784, Pondicherry, Société de l’histoire de l’Inde française.

Racine, J.-L., 1972. “Esquisse d’une histoire commerciale de Pondichéry jusqu’en 1954,” Revue historique de Pondichéry, Pondicherry, 10.

Schopp, S. E., 1999. “L’épave trouvée près du récif Thitu”, Monuments et mémoires publiés par l’Académie des inscriptions et belles-lettres, Paris, 77.

Seth, M., 1937. History of the Armenians in India from the Earliest Times to the Present Day, Calcutta, P. C. Ray & Sri Gouranga Press.

Thierry, J.-M., 1989. “Voyage archéologique en Turquie orientale, II”, Image 10000000000000600000000F05B202BA.jpg / Handes Amsorya, Vienna, 1989,103.

Trap, 2002. Image 100000000000005B0000000FED5BC862.jpg (The Trap of Glory), Erevan, Hayastan [Ed. and transl. into east. mod. Arm. by G. Harutiunian and G. Safarian from Image 10000000000000470000000FB80716B2.jpg./ sic: Image 10000000000000100000000F23C3C163.jpg (Shahamiriants, H./ sic: Sh.), Image 10000000000000510000000F39C09FB0.jpg Image 100000000000005E0000000FD57E234E.jpg (Book Entitled The Trap of Glory), Madras, Shahamiriants Printing House, 1773 (sic: 1787-1789)].

Treasures, 1984. Image 100000000000005A0000000F06019822.jpg Coкpoвuщa Эчмuaϧ϶uнa. Treasures of Etchmiadzin, Edjmiatzin, Holy See Publications.


1 A stone with a cross represented on.

2 « Trois ans et plus s’étaient écoulés depuis le sac de Pondichéry, les herbes, les ronces, les épines avaient recouvert en partie les ruines de la ville, ce qui offrait à la vue un objet de confusion et de la plus grande horreur. Pondichéry n’était que cendres, pierres et poussière » : Labernadie, 1936, 323.

3 Erevan is the name of a quarter in New Julfa, Isfahan.

4 The entire Portuguese inscription reads as follows:
Hic Iacet Ioannes Donacao Ar menio Filho Decoia Sar quis Meliian Natural Deerevan emIspahan no Reyno Dapersia Opval Fa leceo DeidadeDe 30 Anns Aos31 DedezembroDe 1736.
I have reproduced both the use of large and small capital letters and the spacing as it appears on the stone. The P in “Opval” is reversed and the S in “Aos” is written on a slant, as though it were italicized. Macler, who reproduced Bland’s English translation, preserved Bland’s error with, however, a sic. Macler’s translation of the Armenian inscription, is correct.

5 Bland (1905, 28) gives the following translation of the Portuguese: “Johannes Donaco /an Armenian of Erevan, in Ispahan, in Persia, /who died at the age of 30, / on the 31st December, / 1736.”

6 Ioannes’s stone preserves the original Portuguese spelling of “nação”. The “nassao” on the Marcos gravestone could be an anglicized spelling that preserves the Portuguese pronunciation. Seth provides this translation: “Here lies Joao Marcos, an Armenian by nationality, 1697.”

7 Ohannes Marcar evidently outlived his wife by nearly 30 years. The List of Tombs and Monuments of Europeans, &c., of the Madras District names him as Johannes Marcar and notes that he died on October 4, 1786, at the age of 68, and that he was buried at the Armenian Church in Madras (List, 1898, 45).

8 Pulicat (Paleacat in Latin), a town about 40 km. north of Madras.

9 Translation from Bland (1905, 6), taken from Seth (1895), but Bland transposed us, in line 3, to them. He also rendered Julfa (line 6) as Inefa.
“Hail! thou that readest the tablet of my tomb wherein I now do sleep.
Give me the news, the freedom of my countrymen, for them I did much weep;
If there arose among them one good guardian to govern and to keep.
Vainly I expected in the world to see a good shepherd come to look after the scattered sheep.
I, Jacob, grandson of Shameer, an Armenian of a respectable family whose name I keep,
Was born in a foreign town in Persia, new Inefa, where my parents now for ever sleep.
Fortune brought me to this distant Malacca, which my remains in bondage doth keep.
Separated from the world on the 7th July in the year of our Lord 1774, at the age of 29.
My mortal remains were deposited in this spot in the ground which I had purchased.”

10 The French translation is from Aghassian and Kévonian (1987, 169). A first translation into French may be found in Macler (1919, 563).

11 Books printed on this press bear the Shahamiriants or Shamir family crest. The crest also appears beneath the portrait of Shahamir Shahamiriants published by Harutiunian and Safarian. The identifying text seems to have been added posthumously. The words “London 1790” appear, in English, between the border of the portrait and the square containing the family crest. On the two sides of the crest is written, in Armenian, “This is Shahamir, an Armenian, the son of Sult’anum, 1723” [the year of Shahamir’s birth] (Trap, 2002, 8-9, plate).

12 The epitaph of Hovhannes indicates clearly that he died in 1834 at the age of 77. This would make his date of birth 1757—a year before that of his brother Eghiazar (born in 1758), who died in 1787 at the age of 29. However, the Armenian inscription explicitly states that Hovhannes was the youngest and last son of Agha Shameer Sultan (Shahamir Shahamiriants).

13 Dante Alighieri, Paradiso, 25, 112-113.

14 Examples of floral motifs to note on stones outside our group include two gravestones from the region of Salmast that date from the 17th or 18th centuries; they may be seen in the Ghala church in Tabriz. The image of flowers in a vase occurs on a stone in Madras belonging to Hanna, the daughter of Aghavali, and dated 1778. Another example, dated 1793, appears in Thierry, 1989, 47. I thank Kéram Kévonian for bringing these stones as well as some references to my attention.

15 Examples from sixteenth-century France are given in Ariès, 1985, 44-45. Ariès also notes the appearance of heraldic imagery on European gravestones, beginning in the late Middle Ages (ibid, 45, 48).

Table des illustrations

Légende Fig. 8. Gravestone of Sultan David, son of Davutkhan, Pondicherry, 1754. National Museum of the Philippines, Manila (By courtesy of the author)
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Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, MA. (États-Unis)

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