Expert puts legendary ship’s story in historical context

Earlier this month, Armenian Reporter 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.

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