Dr. Sebouh Aslanian puts legendary ship’s story in historical context
by Emil Sanamyan
Published: Thursday June 18, 2009
Earlier this month, Armenian Reporter's Washington Editor Emil Sanamyan wrote about the recent discovery of a 17th-century Armenian ship, the Quedagh Merchant, off the coast of the Dominican Republic. The rare find, which has excited archeologists and historians, has also highlighted the lesser-studied periods in Armenian diaspora history in Iran, India, and elsewhere in the 17th and 18th centuries.
One of few experts on this subject is Sebouh Aslanian, a historian of the early modern Indian Ocean who will be teaching at Cornell University next year as a Mellon Foundation post-doctoral fellow in world history. Dr. Aslanian's book, From the Indian Ocean to the Mediterranean: Circulation and the Global Trade Networks of Armenian Merchants from New Julfa, Isfahan, 1605–1747, is coming out next year from the University of California Press. He is writing a second book, "The Santa Catharina: Voyages from a Ship's Floating Archives to the 18th Century History of the Indian Ocean," as well as an essay on the Quedah Merchant (Quedagh Merchant).
On June 16 Dr. Aslanian responded to Mr. Sanamyan's questions by e-mail.
Armenian Reporter: How did Armenians become involved in maritime trade?
Sebouh Aslanian: The earliest references to Armenian maritime trade can be traced back to Cilician Armenia, a kingdom on the Mediterranean. After the fall of Cilicia in 1375, Armenians ceased being a maritime people and were largely landlocked until the Safavid ruler, Shah Abbas I, forcibly resettled the population of Julfa on the Aras River (Araks in Armenian) to his imperial capital of Isfahan in 1605.
Julfan merchants work with the English
Shortly after their relocation to Iran, the Julfans, with Safavid backing, became important merchants in the Indian Ocean arena. Roughly until the second half of the 17th century most of their trade was dependent on overland caravan routes both to the commercial centers near the Mediterranean where they sold Iranian raw silk to European merchants, as well as east toward India where they traveled to engage in the textile trade of the subcontinent.
In 1622 the strategic gateway of the Indian Ocean from the Persian Gulf at Hormuz passed from Portuguese control to Iranian rule, thus allowing a greater number of Julfans to fan out into the Indian Ocean basin.
In 1688 another event paved the way for Julfan-Armenian participation in Indian Ocean maritime trade. On June 22 of that year, an eminent Julfan merchant residing in London, Coja Panous Calendar (khwaja Panos Ghalandarian), acting on behalf of the larger Julfan community of merchants, signed an agreement with the English East India Company in London, whereby the Julfans agreed to transport their silk and other merchandise using English company shipping and were granted a number of privileges, such as equal rights with "Englishmen freeborn" in residing in the company's settlements in such places as Madras, Bombay, and later Calcutta.
Thus, soon after signing the 1688 agreement, many Julfan Armenians began using English company ships to transport their goods and themselves across the Indian Ocean.
Armenian ships on the Indian Ocean
AR: Did Armenians own and operate their ships?
SA: Around the same time, some wealthy Armenians became ship owners in their own right and began to operate their trade using their own ships. In most cases, the nakhudas, Persian for pilot or captain of a ship, were Europeans or Indians. In a number of cases, however, we see Julfans who were also nakhudas. There are several famous Julfan nakhudas that we know of.
Some Julfan merchants, such as Khwaja Minas of Surat, were famous shipping tycoons and operated a merchant fleet that plied the waters of the Indian Ocean and traded as far a field as the Red Sea, Southeast Asia, and Manila as early as the 1680s. Much of the shipping between India and Spanish-controlled Manila [in the present-day Philippines] was done on Armenian ships.
So there are about a dozen cases of Armenian-owned ships sailing the Indian Ocean in the late 17th and early 18th centuries.
Another common practice among Julfan merchants was to freight ships from other merchants in order to load their cargo on board and participate in what was known as the "country trade" (or intra-Asian port-to-port trade) in the Indian Ocean.
This was the case with a Julfan-freighted ship called the Santa Catharina carrying merchandise (including about 2,000 pieces of family and mercantile correspondence that later ended up in a British archive where I discovered them) on a return trip between Bengal and Basra when it was intercepted by the British navy in 1748 on the pretext that it was a French vessel and could therefore be legally confiscated as a wartime prize (Britain and France were at war at the time and both sides were engaged in taking the enemy's ships as prizes).
I am now in the process of writing my second book where I will attempt to write the history of the Indian Ocean during the 18th century using the Julfan documents stored in Santa Catharina's hold.
Cannons and European dominance
AR: What were relations like between Armenian and European merchants on sea?
SA: The Europeans, including the Portuguese, English, and Dutch, were dominant on water from the first arrival in Calicut of Vasco Da Gama in 1498.
Some Asian merchants (including the Julfan Armenians) also had a share of the maritime trade but they were progressively edged out as the European East India Companies came to dominate the trade of the Indian Ocean and impose their state-chartered monopolies there.
Asian merchants had to be careful of European power. European ships dominated the sea lanes of the Indian Ocean because they had better guns and sails. Cannon on ships was a European innovation and among the principal reasons for European dominance.
Before the arrival of the Portuguese, trade in the Indian Ocean was mostly peaceful and merchants were unaccustomed to seeing ships armed with cannons, as no Asian power had thought about controlling and monopolizing an entire body of water as the Portuguese and, following them, the Dutch and English did.
Enter Captain Kidd
AR: How did the encounter between Quedagh Merchant and Captain Kidd in 1698 come about?
SA: Captain William Kidd began his career as a privateer and was hired by the British Crown in the 1690s to capture pirates. Kidd arrived in the Indian Ocean traveling from New York in 1696 and had little luck in capturing any pirates. It was then that he turned his sights on capturing merchant vessels, plundering several small vessels but without significant cargo.
Then, on January 31, 1698, Kidd came across his greatest prize. A 400-ton vessel much of whose freight belonged to Julfan-Armenian merchants residing in Surat, the Quedah Merchant was on its return voyage from Bengal where it had sold its cargo and was returning with large quantities of raw silk, cotton, muslins, calico, opium, saltpeter, iron, and many chests filled with silver.
According to a court deposition given in London on 17 July 1701 by Coji Babba, one of the Julfans invested in the ship's cargo, the Julfan stakeholders of the Quedah owned "1200 Bayles of Muslins raw silk and Callicoes of all sorts fourteen hundred baggs of brown Sugars 84 Bayles of raw silke and eighty Chests of Opium besides iron and other goods," including diamonds, rubies, gold bars, and so on.
The vessel had just rounded the southern tip of India and was sailing north, with its Armenian colors, when two of Kidd's ships, The Adventure Galley and November, both flying French colors (a typical ploy used by pirates to deceive their unsuspecting prey) intercepted it near Cochin.
Off to Madagascar
Upon seeing the Adventure's flag, the Quedah's English captain, John Wright, hoisted his French flag and sent over one of his French officers who showed Kidd the Quedah's French pass. Kidd then boarded the vessel and, showing the Captain his English letter of marque authorizing him to seize French ships, confiscated the vessel.
At this point, Coji Babba Sulthanoom, one of about seven Julfans traveling on the ship, confronted the English pirate and offered him 20,000 rupees to set the ship free, but Kidd spurned the offer. He took the Quedah to the nearby port of Quillon where he sold some of its cargo at an estimated price of 7,000 to 8,000 pounds. He then sailed the Quedah to Madagascar, a famous pirate outpost in the Indian Ocean.
As Kidd's flagship vessel, the Adventure, was badly leaking and unable to make the long journey back to North America, Kidd refitted the Quedah, renamed the Adventure Prize.
In the fall of 1699, Kidd's crew sailed to the Caribbean island of Hispaniola with The Adventure Prize, whence Kidd sailed on another vessel to New York harbor, where he was hoping to get a pardon from the Earl of Bellomont, his erstwhile friend and business partner and the governor of New York and Massachusetts, who had influential friends in London.
But instead Kidd was arrested and shipped to London (along with some of the Quedah's cargo that had not yet been sold) to face trial on charges of piracy and murder.
AR: Why was there such a tough verdict against Kidd in a British court?
SA: Part of the reason for this sea change in English policy with regard to piracy has to do with events unfolding in Surat, one of the most important port cities in Mughal India.
Three ships plundered
The 1690s brought in a rich harvest of booty for pirates and privateers preying on Mughal shipping along the Red Sea–Surat corridor frequented by pilgrim and merchant ships alike. It was also the most taxing decade for the East India Company's factory (colony – Ed.) in Surat.
Three important ships belonging to Surat-based merchants were plundered in quick succession during that period. Genj-i-Sawai (known in European sources as the Gunnesway), the Fatehi Mohammed (The Great Mohhamed), and the Quedah Merchant were all ships with significantly rich cargos.
The first appears to have belonged to Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb (who ruled in 1658–1707) and was returning with pilgrims from Mecca when it was plundered by Captain Avery. The Fatehi Mohammed, also plundered by pirates on its return voyage from the Red Sea with a cargo of pilgrims and silver, was owned by the "merchant prince" Mulla Abdul Ghafur, the most influential Muslim merchant of Surat.
The plunder of these ships sent shock waves in Surat's mercantile community and even provoked the ire of the Mughal court. The British factory in Surat came under intense pressure from the Muslim Governor of the city to compensate for losses and provide secure convoys for Surati shipping.
The price of English business
Of these, however, the capture of the Quedah seems to have been the event that finally tipped the scale against the East India Company. The Quedah was no ordinary vessel. Mukhlis Khan, an eminent Mughal nobleman and a leading member of Emperor Aurangzeb's court, appears to have been heavily invested in the ship's cargo.
When news of the Quedah's capture reached Surat, an Armenian merchant who had a stake in the Quedah's cargo had immediately gone to Delhi to complain to the emperor. He had informed Mukhlis Khan of the events and the fact that he had seen the English pirate's letter of marque from the English Crown. This revelation further reinforced the Mughal Court's convictions that all pirates were Englishmen (so-called "hatmen") and that, moreover, they were operating with the blessing of the English government and the East India Company.
The news soon spread through the streets of Surat. The city's Muslim governor took strong measures to isolate the English factory. The mobs outside the compound began to whip up anti-European sentiment (already on the rise after rumors that pirates had violated Indian Muslim women aboard the Fatih Mohammed, returning from their hajj to Mecca). Faced with mounting opposition and violence to its presence in India, Company officials in Surat appealed to the Court of Directors in London to increase pressure on Parliament to pass strict legislation outlawing piracy.
It was in this context that the High Court of Admiralty in London issued an arrest warrant for Kidd. Though the Court had offered a general pardon for pirates that same year, Kidd was exempted from this amnesty since he had become notoriously implicated in the fate of the company's trade in India.
In a sense, he had come to symbolize English piracy in the Indian Ocean and as such was a liability for the continued success of the company's trade in India. His punishment was therefore a price the company was forced to pay to resume its profitable activities on the subcontinent.
Piracy or spoils of war?
AR: According to the French pass issued to the Quedah Merchant, the merchants involved in the ship's voyage were Khoja Owaness and Khoja Jakob, as well as Agapiris Parsi Kalendar and Cohergy Nannabye Parsi. What is the background of these individuals?
SA: During his trial, Kidd had vociferously claimed that the Quedah's capture (the principal charge for which he was hanged) did not constitute piracy in the technical sense, since the ship was traveling with a French pass or letter of safe conduct, and Kidd was empowered to take French vessels at a time when England and France were on opposing sides of a war.
The court had dismissed the existence of the pass in question and Kidd's inability to produce the pass before the court was a major factor in his guilty verdict.
Historians of piracy had also cast doubt on the existence of the pass until in 1910 an American researcher stumbled across the pass in the Public Records Office (PRO, now the National Archives of Great Britain) where it had been misfiled.
Who were the Armenian merchants?
As for the names mentioned in the pass and the actual ownership of the vessel itself, the present state of scholarly research on the Quedah Merchant, and the paucity of reliable archival documents regarding the ship do not permit us to have definitive views.
The few documents in our possession (including one from the PRO collection and another one from the manuscript collection from the Bodleian Library of Oxford University) suggest that a group of Julfan merchants including "Cogi Babba Sulthanum, Augau peree Callendar, Ovaness Sarkes[,] Fasali di Maruta, Cachig di Jodgar, Marcus di pocus [Poghos?], Marcus di Ovaness, Maranta Tasseler [?] Ovaness petros, Bagdasar Avetich Malin Bogoz, Gregore Agazar, Aga Perry Assator Comondore [?] Aga Mal Mirsa Mahomet, Hagi Mirsa Beg de Bagon, and others Armenian merchants Subjects of the King of Persia... did hire upon freight of one Coergi an inhabitant of Suratt the ship Quidah also Kary Merchant of which Ship he was then owner and John Wright was master to go from Surrat to Bengall and so back to Suratt." (see HCA 24/127 "High Court of Admiralty: Instance and Prize Courts." PRO)
So it seems that the ship itself belonged to a wealthy merchant in Surat and was leased or freighted by the Julfan merchants mentioned both in the French pass as well as in the above-cited document from the PRO containing Coji Babba's deposition to the court claiming some of the goods from the Quedah Merchant that had been brought back to London with Kidd.
We know next to nothing about the ship's owner ("Coergi" or "Cohergy Nannabye Parsi"), though his name suggests that he was a wealthy member of the Parsi community of merchants active in Surat at the time.
As to the "Augau peree Callendar" mentioned in the PRO document as well as a similar document preserved in a manuscript at Oxford there is no doubt in my mind that he was Aghapiri Calendar (Ghalandarian), a reputable Julfan merchant operating from Surat with solid connections with both the Mughal court and the East India Company, whose father Khwaja Panos Calendar of London had signed the famous "Agreement" of 1688 with the English East India Company.
In fact, both Aghapiri and Coji Babba (Khwaja Babba Sulthanumian) had been present at Kidd's trial in London and had pressed charges against him.
Flying Armenian colors
AR: What is the story of the Armenian merchant marine flag?
SA: The official court proceedings of Kidd's trial mention that the Quedah Merchant was indeed "flying Armenian colours" just before Kidd's ships had intercepted her.
This seems to have been a rather common practice with Armenian ships engaged in maritime commerce. In this connection, it is interesting to note that in the maritime trade between India and Manila, East India Company officials during the late 17th century occasionally used Armenian-owned ships flying Armenian colors as a cover for their trade with the Philippines. It was forbidden for the English to trade with Manila whereas no such restrictions existed for Armenian ships.
As for the Armenian flag itself, it is reported to have had three horizontal stripes (red, yellow, red) with the Lamb of God in the middle yellow stripe. That is the extent of our knowledge on this flag. Most of our evidence on the flag is scattered in Armenian and European sources and none of it sheds light on the history of how and when Julfans began to use it.
Armchair scholars and Armenian history
AR: From state-centric perspective, Armenian history of 16th to 17th centuries is sort of the "dark ages" after the fall of Armenian kingdoms and principalities and before the rise of the national movement for independence. How did you come to study this period?
SA: That is indeed true. Armenian history during the early modern period (roughly extending from the beginning of the 16th to the late 18th century) is one of the most understudied periods in Armenian studies.
It is sometimes referred to as the "black hole" of Armenian history on the grounds that we do not have sufficient primary-source documentation. This, of course, is far from the truth, and is probably a reflection of the unfortunate lethargic state of mind of many Armenian scholars who are more armchair scholars than historians who get their hands and feet dirty in archives.
I first became interested in this period at the beginning stages of working on my Columbia University dissertation in 2003. While conducting archival research in London at the time, I stumbled across 2,000 Julfa-dialect letters and other commercial documents stored at the PRO in London that had been confiscated by the British Navy from the Julfan freighted ship, the Santa Catharina. This discovery prompted me to study the obscure dialect of the Julfans and to conduct further research in quest of discovering more Julfa-dialect documents.
Since my initial discovery in London, I have traveled and worked in about 30 archives across 13 countries (including archives in New Julfa, over 15 archives across Europe, and even in the State Archives in Mexico City). The result has been the collection of digitized archives of about 15,000 or so pieces of Julfa-dialect documentation (amounting to over 100,000 pages of documentation when fully transcribed) that are not only important in shedding light on Julfan and Armenian history during the early modern period, but also important for the study of world or global history during this crucial period of history.
Many of these documents are mercantile in nature and as such are primarily useful for economic historians. But there are also other documents in my collection that include priceless travel accounts or itineraries written by Armenian merchants and travelers as well as various historical tracts whose value for scholars goes beyond the confines of the field of economic history.
A global Armenian network
AR: How did the Julfan merchant network stretching from Amsterdam to Manila come about? Other than business interests, did it project a kind of sense of common, national mission?
SA: I have dealt extensively with the expansion of the Julfan network in my various publications and in my forthcoming book, so I won't go into it in detail now.
Suffice to say here that shortly after their forced resettlement in the suburbs of the Safavid imperial capital of Isfahan, Julfan merchants came to preside over one of the greatest trade networks of the early modern period, with settlements stretching from London, Amsterdam, and Cadiz in the west to Mughal India, Canton in China, and Manila in the Philippines in the east.
There is also evidence that some intrepid Julfans were not content with reaching Manila and had ventured further by crossing the Pacific Ocean using the Spanish fleets known as the Manila Galleon to travel and trade in New Spain (Mexico). Documents from the archives of Mexico City that I discovered testify that several globetrotting Julfans were trading with Acapulco in the 1720s and at least one merchant (a certain "Don Pedro di Zarrate" Agha Petros vordi Sarhati?) was a resident of Mexico City for about ten years in the 1720s.
The flow of information
Many of the Julfan settlements across their far-flung network where traveling merchants resided were connected to each other and to the center of the network in New Julfa through the circulation of various subjects and objects including merchants (all of whom were young men working for wealthy merchants known as Khwajas in New Julfa), capital, women, information (in the form of family and mercantile correspondence), and priests. The circulation of these objects and subjects and especially that of information glued the network together and was responsible for maintaining the structural integrity of the network for over a century.
As for your question relating to the "sense of common, national mission" above and beyond the projection of "business interests," it is difficult to say one way or another. Talking about a "national" mission in the absence of the nation-state is a complicated and difficult issue.
In the absence of a state of their own, Julfans relied on various "techniques of survival and prosperity" some of which can be seen as forms of "stateless power." One technique was for these merchants to rely on the state institutions of their "host societies" to achieve ends that were in the interest of the larger Julfan network.
The case of the Quedah Merchant is illustrative of this form of stateless power, since the Julfans who had lost significant property on the ship relied on the Mughal state to apply pressure on the East India Company to restitute the Julfan owners of the ship's cargo.
The Julfans invested in the Quedah also appealed to the Safavid state to intervene on their behalf. A letter from the last Safavid ruler Shah Sultan Husayn (ruled 1694–1722) addressed to King William III of England asking the English Crown to render justice to the Shah's Armenian subjects has been preserved both in the British Library as well as the PRO.
Similarly when the Santa Catharina was confiscated by the British navy in 1748, the ship's Armenian merchants appealed to the court of Bengal's governor, Aliverdi Khan (r. 1740–1755) who went so far as to wage a small war against the East India Company in Bengal in order to have the property of his Armenian and other merchants restored.
Imagining a larger Armenian nation
In all these cases what Julfan merchants did to retaliate against their more powerful state-backed rivals was in some ways similar to what we would today call "diaspora lobbying." The cases mentioned above illustrate that when push came to shove, Julfans were indeed resourceful at finding ways to defend the larger collective interests of the Julfan network and its Julfan members. This is not the same thing as pursuing a "national interest," since the latter would have to involve the interests of other Armenians who were not members of the Julfan network and its community of merchants.
We should keep in mind that Julfan identity was place- and culture-specific. It was defined by one's family and cultural ties to the suburb of New Julfa in Iran. There was a strong tendency among Julfans to define themselves as a "diaspora within a diaspora" and this meant that the identity in question was more specific and regional than a larger collective Armenian "national identity."
To be sure, the Julfans came to radically "re-imagine" and re-invent themselves not only as Julfans but as members of the larger Armenian nation mostly in the late 18th century when a small group of Julfan neo-intellectuals in Madras (India) including Shahamir Shahamirian began to formulate republican ideas and wrote constitutional treatises for a future republic of Armenia that would not exist on the map for another 140 years or so.
But this shift from a strictly regional Julfan identity to a national Armenian one did not occur until the Julfan network along with the hayrenik (homeland/patria) of the Julfans in New Julfa had collapsed in the second half of the 18th century, compelling the Julfans to re-invent themselves as members of a larger and modern Armenian nation.