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Armenians, The


Armenians, The had played significant role in Bengal trade and commerce in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Their assertive presence, however, began to decline from the beginning of British rule. Even now there are Armenians in Dhaka, but the community is insignificant in number and influence. The Armenian diaspora began when the Safavi rulers of Persia conquered their homeland - Armenia in Central Asia - in the sixteenth century. To achieve political and commercial objectives, Shah Abbas transplanted in Ispahan and New Jalfa about 40000 traders specialised in inter-Asiatic trade. It was from these two trade cities that the Armenians first came to Bengal following the footsteps of the Persian adventurers. Initially they did business in Bengal on behalf of their Persian masters and in course of time they had formed their own community in Bengal.

The European maritime companies were keen to enlist their partnership locally because they had business skill and capital; but the most important factor was their close association with the ruling classes. All European Companies used to engage Armenian vakils to represent them and their cause to the court. They played a very significant role in Bengal trade and politics from at least around the early seventeenth century. Their presence was a common feature in all the important centres of trade and manufacture, cities and ports. Unlike other groups trading in Bengal they would even go to remote places and deal in any commodity if there were any possibility of profit. Through their commercial acumen, their knowledge of markets and products, their chain of connections with the producing and consuming centres maintained through their own agents who were more 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 East India Companies trading in Bengal.

There were many important Armenian merchants and traders in the flourishing settlements of Saidabad (a suburb of the capital Murshidabad), Hughli, Calcutta, Kasimbazar, Dhaka and Patna with their own localities and churches. Calcutta still bears the name of a locality named after the Armenians (Armanitola - meaning the habitat of the Armenians), an Armenian church and a place called Armanighat on the banks of the river Ganges where the goods of the Armenians were on-loaded and off-loaded.

Khojah Phanoos Kalandar of Dhaka was the earliest noted Armenian who is found to have had large-scale dealings with the Europeans. In 1688 he entered into an agreement with the east india company for trade to be carried on in English shipping by himself and other members of his community. It was his nephew Khojah Israel Sarhand who helped the English to secure the Company's Calcutta zamindari from Subahdar azim-us-shan in 1698. Sarhand was, again, the vakil of the Company's Surman Embassy to the Mughal Emperor farrukh siyar. The grand imperial farman of 1717 granting extraordinary privileges to the company was the result of Sarhand's negotiations with the emperor on behalf of the company. From the late seventeenth century the Mughal government had begun to treat the Armenians as a distinct community trading in Bengal. They were mostly engaged in export trade for which they were required to pay a duty of 3.5% to the government. All the nawabs are known to have engaged Armenian merchants to transact their personal businesses openly or clandestinely. Khojah Petrus Nicholas, the leader of the Armenian community, was a financier and court advisor to alivardi khan.

Among the Armenians in Bengal, however, it was Khojah Wajid who played the most significant role in the commercial economy and political life of Bengal in the forties and fifties of the eighteenth century. All the negotiations with the East India Company during the stormy days of Sirajuddaulah's regime were conducted by this Armenian merchant who was a monopolist in the most profitable saltpetre trade. Wajid was one of the three merchant princes (the others being the jagat sheth and Umichand) 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 eighteenth century. He operated his extensive business empire from Hughli, the then commercial capital of Bengal.

Like several other Armenians of Bengal, it is possible that he too had links with New Julfa. The early career and activities of Wajid are not very clear to us as yet. He was the son of "Coja Mahmet Fazel", an influential Armenian merchant in the 1730s and the early 40s. It was around the early 1740s that he obtained a foothold at the darbar of the Hughli faujdar as the representative (vakil) of the Armenian community of merchants. From then onward, there was no looking back for Wajid. He rose in power and position throughout the 1740s to be reckoned not only as a merchant prince, but by the late 1740s also as one of the most important figures in the commercial and political life of Bengal.

Through subtle diplomacy and judicious financial support to Nawab Alivardi Khan, he built up a powerful position at the darbar. 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. He 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, the Dutch and the English. Extremely dubious 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. Utilising his close connection with the darbar, he tried to operate his business with a monopolistic design.

The main props of Khojah 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 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. The European companies no doubt tried every means to get out of Wajid's stranglehold on the saltpetre trade, but their attempts failed.

Even after the Battle of palashi, he managed to obtain a parwana from mir jafar, the new nawab, 'for the entire possession of the saltpetre trade at Patna'. He, however, 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 in June 1757. So Wajid 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'.

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. However, the most important prop of Wajid's trading empire 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. An estimate made in 1773, put the annual proceeds of salt production and sale in Bengal at Rs I million. From this one can easily guess how much Wajid earned from the virtual monopoly of salt trade in the 1750s.

The marked presence of the Armenians in not only the various trade marts but also in the numerous production centres, especially of textiles and silk, throughout the seventeenth and the first half of the eighteenth century is well borne out by the European records of the period. Their active participation in silk and textile trade is beyond any doubt. Though their involvement in Bengal's export trade cannot be estimated in quantitative terms, there is no dearth of qualitative evidence indicating a significant role played by them in Bengal's silk and textile trade. In an estimate of the textile export from Dhaka in 1747, one of the most important centres of textile production in Bengal, the Armenian share, among the Asian merchants, was said to have been 27 per cent. In the silk market, there are clear indications that the Armenians, along with other Asian merchants (mainly Gujaratis and North Indian merchants from Lahore, Multan, Delhi, Agra, Benares etc), were the dominant buyers. They were often responsible for pushing up prices with their heavy purchases with little concern for even high prices and much to the chagrin of the European Companies who had little control over the market. This scenario prevailed till the mid-eighteenth century after which the British with their victory at Palashi and their consequent mastery over Bengal polity and economy almost eliminated the Asian competitors, including the Armenians, from Bengal trade.

Wajid naturally settled in Hughli which, with its rich tradition of Bengal's maritime trade, also ventured in intra-Asian and coastal trade. In the shipping lists of the Dutch records in the Algemeen Rijksarchief, the Hague, 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 eighteenth century. The rapid growth of Calcutta notwithstanding, Hughli was 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. It seems that after consolidating his position in the inland commerce of Bengal, Wajid started venturing in overseas trade. In the beginning he was engaged in sea-borne trade in partnership with other Hughli merchants. 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. He at least owned six ships namely, Salamat Ressan, Salamat Manzil, Mobarak, Gensamer, Medina Baksh and Mubarak Manzil. These ships operated from Hughli to Jeddah, Mocha, Basra, Surat and Masulipatnam.

By the early 1750s Wajid had emerged as an extremely powerful political figure and seems to have tied his fortunes with the heir-apparent sirajuddaula. Though he was more inclined to the French and the Dutch than the English, his relations with the former two vis-a-vis those with the latter were not mutually exclusive. Jean Law, the chief of the French factory at Kasimbazar pointed out that Wajid wanted to be on good terms with everybody. Governed by a strong passion to extend his commercial empire at any cost, he, however, tied his fortune with Sirajuddaulah 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.

But Wajid got scared about the prospect of his commercial empire after the British onslaught on Hughli (March 1757) and had suggested to Sirajuddaulah regarding an alliance with the French against the British. 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 fall of the nawab leading to the British conquest of Bengal in June 1757. In fact Wajid was a serious obstacle to the success of the coup until May 1757. Wajid took the final leap when he saw no hope of nawab's survival. He joined the conspiracy 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 that he apparently took refuge in the English factory at Kasimbazar. Unfortunately for him, as for other merchant princes, Wajid's gamble in joining the Palashi conspiracy failed. Palashi brought about the downfall, sooner or later, of all the three merchant princes including Wajid.

In general terms the fall of Wajid was a logical conclusion to the English victory at Palashi 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'. If any single factor accelerated his doom, it was the wrath of robert 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. 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. He now plotted with the Dutch for them to invade Bengal and act as a counterpoise to the British. Like Palashi his second gamble failed and that too miserably. With the failure of the Dutch expedition, his doom was beyond succour. He was captured and jailed where he poisoned himself.

With Wajid's death, his rival in the 1740s and one of the early Palashi conspirators, Khoajah Petruse Aratoon took his place as the leader of the Armenian community in Bengal. Khojah Gregory, popularly known as Gurgin Khan and said to be the brother of Khojah Petruse also played a conspicuous role in Bengal politics. Starting as a cloth merchant, Gurgin rose to the height of his power and eminence under Nawab mir qasim. He was not only the Commander-in-Chief of the Nawab but his Minister and adviser as well. Gholam Hossein, the author of siyar-ul-mutakhkherin, states that Gurgin was the head of Mir Qasim's artillery and that he was the principal man in the nawab's service. An assassin killed him, under mysterious circumstances, a few days after the battle of Giria (August 1763). After his death, one fails to come across any prominent Armenian who played any significant role in Bengal trade and politics, though the Armenian community in Bengal carried on their trading activities but not as vigorously as they did in the pre-Palashi period.

During Hastings and Cornwallis era, many Armenians gave up trade and commerce for land control. Most noted of them are Agha Barshick, Khojah Kaworke and Khojah Michael who held salt farms in Sandwip, and revenue ijaradari in eastern Bengal parganas. Khojah Kaworke (better known as Karkoon), Khojah Michael and George Paniatty bought extensive zamindaris in eastern Bengal after the permanent settlement.

In the nineteenth century the Armenian diaspora took a new turn. They started going back to Central Asia and Iran with their great wealth amassed in Bengal. Many of them also went overseas to invest their capital in plantations in partnership with their European counterparts. Though their absolute number declined in consequence, their presence in eastern Bengal trade, particularly in jute and skins and hides trade remained articulate down to the end of the century. The Armenian families who entered land control gradually shifted their interest to other businesses, such as, banking, export trade and agencies to exporters and importers.

The Armenians had established settlements in Hughli, Chinsura, Saidabad, Murshidabad and Kasimbazar and in some other business centres of Bengal, including Dhaka. They named their Dhaka settlement as Armanitola, a place name that is still there to announce their eventful presence. They were patrons of education. Nicholas Pogose founded a school in Dhaka, which was named after him. In Armanitola the Armenians built the Church of Holy Resurrection in 1781. Prior to building this church they worshipped at a small chapel at Armanitola. In 1837 they had built a Clock Tower on the west of the church that fell down in the earthquake of 1897. There are some Armenian graves in and outside the church. Before this church had been built the Armenians were interned beside the Roman Catholic Church at Tejgaon. Pogoses, Agacys, Michaels, Stephens, Joakims, Sarkiess, Manooks etc were some leading Armenian families. P Arathon, Margar David, Mackertich Abraham George, Michael Sarkies, Abraham Lucas, M Highcazony, AS Mackertich, Tigran Nahapiet Thaddeus Nahapiet, MJ Catchhatoor, Joseph Lazarus were prominent Armenians.

In faith, the Armenians were Christians belonging to Greek or Orthodox Church. They built churches wherever they settled. Armenian churches and secular monuments in Chinsura, Saidabad, Murshidabad, Calcutta and Dhaka are still extant. [Ansar Ali, Sushil Chaudhury and Sirajul Islam]

Bibliography MJ Seth, Armenians in India, Reprint, Calcutta, 1973; S Chaudhury, From Prosperity to Decline - Eighteenth Century Bengal, New Delhi, 1995; Kumkum Chatterjee, Merchants, Politics and Society in Early Modem India, Bihar: 1733-1820, Leiden, 1996; S Chaudhury, The Prelude to Empire; Plassey Revolution of 1757, New Delhi, 2000.