MERCHANTS OF THE PEERLESS PEARL
ARMENIANS IN SOUTH-EAST ASIA
Brian E. Colless PhD ThD
Colless, Brian Edric,
The Traders of the Pearl: The Mercantile and Missionary Activities of Persian and Armenian Christians in South-East Asia.
1. Merchants and Missionaries. 9 (1970) 17-38
(7) Armenian Merchants and Missionaries 32-34
2. The Malay Peninsula. 10 (1971) 102-121
(7) Armenians in Malaya (Malacca, Singapore) 117-119
3. The Malay Archipelago. 11 (1971 sic) 1-21
(5) Armenians in Sunda (West Java) 15-17
(6) Armenians in Maluku (Moluccas) 17-19
4. The Indochina Peninsula. 13 (1973) 115-135
5. The Burman Peninsula. 14 (1974) 1-16
(3) Armenians in Syriam 6-9
(4) Armenians in Rangoon 9-11
(5) Armenians in Amarapura 11-13
6. The Tibetan Plateau. 15 (1975) 6-17
(3) Armenians in Lhasa 11-14
7. Churches and Communities 18 (1978) 1-18
(1) Malaya (2) Singapore (3) Indonesia (4) Philippines (5) Tibet (6) Burma (7) Siam (8) Vietnam (9) Australia
Traders of the Pearl: Persian and Armenian Christians in South-East Asia (1976)
(ThD thesis, Australian College of Theology, deposited in Menzies Library, Australian National University)
Sources of Information (10*-12*)
Crosses and chapels reveal Christian presence, and Armenians have built churches in Burma, Malaya, Singapore, and Java, some of which are still standing.
These allow dumb stones to speak, and Armenian gravestones are found in such places as Rangoon, Malacca, and Singapore.
An edict from the Holy See in Etchmiadzin, dated 31st December 1850, indicates the places in south-eastern Asia where Armenian communities existed at that time. The records of the Armenian churches in Rangoon, Singapore, and Jakarta were destroyed during the Japanese occupation in World War II.
Some Armenians, like Mesrovb Jacob Seth and the Reverend Father Aramais Mirzain, have taken a keen interest in recording the doings of their people in India and beyond.
To the Franciscans we owe our knowledge of Armenians in China in the fourteenth century; to the Jesuits and Capuchins we are indebted for information about Armenians in Tibet in the seventeenth century.
By combining data from the archives of the Dutch and English East India Companies we can follow the fortunes of numerous Armenian merchants and shippers operating along the trade routes of the Orient, from the Persian Gulf through the Indian Ocean to the South China Sea.
Marco Polo's book is a good example: he begins his account with Armenia. For the seventeenth century we have Jean Baptiste Tavernier's narrative of his six voyages, and Captain Alexander Hamilton's description of his adventures in the East.
8. Patterns and Processes (Traders thesis 134-149)
(1) Commercial Enterprises (134-139)
It was the promptings of trade that sent Persians and Armenians into the furthest corners of Asia. In the early centuries of the Christian Era, Iranians were found not only in the ports of India and Ceylon (2-6) but also in the entrepots of Indochina (22-24, 64-66, 67-69). By the seventh century, when the Islamic era commenced, Iranian Christians knew their way by land and by sea to China, where the Persian had become a proverbial figure as a dealer in things of wonder, including magical jewels and magnificent pearls (9-10). Probably the highly prized and priced pearls of Bahrain constituted their chief article of trade, but, like the Magi of the Gospel story (Matthew 2:11), they might also have carried gold, frankincense, and myrrh. In the days of the Sassanian Shahs as well as in the time of the Islamic empires their main port of exit to the Indies was Siraf. Spices and silks formed a major part of the cargoes they brought back (2-6).
This was the situation when Armenians came into the limelight in the theatre of world trade. In the Middle Ages Armenians certainly settled in China, but their traces are hard to detect in South-East Asia. In the fifteenth century, with the rise of Melaka (Malacca) on the Malay Peninsula, as the preferred meeting-place of traders from western and eastern Asia, Armenians come clearly into view and are thereafter never out of the picture.
At the beginning of the seventeenth century, Shah Abbas I moved thousands of Armenians from Julfa in Armenia to New Julfa near Isfahan in Iran. (Carswell, 3-6) He took the silk trade out of the hands of inept Persian merchants and committed it to the skilled Armenians, who were eager to bear the hardships of foreign travel, and were also more acceptable in Europe because of their Christian faith. Many of them turned their faces to the south-east, and looked to India and beyond as the lands where fortunes could be amassed by means of astute commerce.
They are found visiting or inhabiting Burma (Pegu, 123-124, Syriam, 88-91, Rangoon, 91-93, 123-124, Ava and Amarapura, 93-95, Mandalay, 124, Martaban and Moulmein, 124); Malaya (Melaka, 36-37, 112-113, Kedah, 113, Penang, 113, Johor, 113, Singapore, 37-38, 114-118); Siam (Ayutia, 125-126, Bangkok, 126); Vietnam (Cochin China, 126, Tongking, 126); Indonesia (Aceh, 44, Batavia, 56-58, Tegal, Semarang, Jepara, 120, Surabaya, 120, Makassar, 120, Amboyna, 120, Tidore, 58-59, 120, Timor and Solor, 120); Philippines (Manila, 121). All these places were reached by ship; but from India they made the arduous journey to Tibet (Lhasa, 104-107, 122).
Sometimes Armenians emerge out of the gloom in other parts of the Malay Archipelago. One of them tried to introduce the island of Bali to the new miracle of moving pictures in the 1920s, but the venture failed amongst the Balinese, who were used to providing their own entertainment at no cost. (Covarrubias, 394) Borneo is represented by an Armenian who lived in Brunei for three years in the nineteenth century. (Mundy, vol 1, 180)
The French traveller Tavernier, who was a keen observer of the Armenians' commercial expeditions into the East during the seventeenth century, was led to exclaim: "Those people in a short time became so expert that there is not any sort of trade that they will not now undertake; for now they run as far as Tunquin [Tongking, Vietnam], Java and the Philippines, and indeed all over the East, except China and Japan". (Carswell, 4) Early in the eighteenth century, officers of the British East India Company in Madras were complaining to London that the Armenians had become "numerous and opulent", and had in their grasp "at least half of the private trade of India, Manilla, China, and Pegu, which are the most advantageous branches". (Quiason, 88)
The great attraction in Pegu was the ruby, as Ludovico di Varthema learned on his visit to this Mon (not Burman) kingdom at the beginning of the sixteenth century: the King of Pegu was wearing "more rubies on him than the value of a very large city". (Temple, Varthema, 81-82) Around the turn of the eighteenth century, Alexander Hamilton noted that the Armenians had the monopoly on the the ruby trade. (Hamilton, vol 2, 22-23) In this regard, the scribe of the Persian embassy to Siam in 1685 records that European pirates employed by the Thai King had seized a ship belonging to an Armenian, who resided in Hyderabad in India, as he was returning from Pegu with a hoard of rubies. (O'Kane, 110) Like the Iranians before them, the Armenians were traders of precious pearls and other gems. In fact, Rev. François Valentyn found both groups, Persians and Armenians, operating in early eighteenth-century Batavia, dealing in precious stones, including those used hopefully for preventing and curing various diseases. (Valentyn, vol 3, 539)
Towards the end of the eighteenth century, the Englishman John Barrow heard in Canton a story about an Armenian merchant who arrived with a large pearl in expectation of making his fortune; its size and beauty soon became widely known. Many interested buyers came to inspect it minutely and repeatedly. though their offers were always too low for the seller's liking. Finally, a suitable price was agreed upon and a deposit made by some Chinese businessmen, who requested that the box containing the jewel be closed up with their own seal until the final payment was made. That was the last he heard of them, and after several days of fruitless searching he was obliged to leave Canton for Macao, together with all the other foreign merchants, who had been admitted to China only temporarily. He consoled himself with the thought that he still had his pearl and the deposit would adequately defray his expenses; but when he broke the seal and opened the box he found an artificial pearl, which had obviously been substituted for the real one when the seal had been put on the container.
Barrow adds that the Armenians were not to be outdone by the Chinese, and a "noted character, of the name of Baboom, equally well known in Bengal and Madras as in Canton, just before his failure in about half a million stirling, deposited a valuable casket of pearls, as he represented them, in the hands of one of the Hong merchants, as a pledge for a large sum of money, which, when opened, instead of pearls was found to be a casket of peas". The moral that Barrow appends to this tale is that "a foreigner has little chance of obtaining justice at Canton". (Barrow, 611-612) Without discussing the morality of Baboom's action in the light of Christian ethics, we may simply say that these two Armenians are valuable additions to our string of pearl traders.
The Armenian named Baboom in this story was said to have connections with Bengal and Madras. Two notable Armenian pearl merchants based in Madras were: Aga Gregory, the son of Sarkies, from Erivan in Armenia, who died at Madras in 1707 (Seth, 608-609); and Aga Shamir Sulthanumian (1723-1797), who came from New Julfa and settled in Madras as a prosperous pearl merchant and importer of rose-water and dried fruits from his home town (Seth, 587).
Madras was close to the pearling grounds in the shallow sea between Sri Lanka and India, but merchants from the Persian Gulf rated the pearls of Bahrain more highly. Thus, in mentioning the trade in pearls carried on in these parts, the envoy of the Shah to King Narai of Siam (in 1685) dilates ecstaically on the superiority of the pearl of Bahrain over the Ceylonese and Indian pearls, "jewels of lesser lustre". (O'Kane, 168-169) In 1664, when Markus Erezad (Hoorizad) the Armenian governor of the ancient city of Mylapore (near Madras and connected with the martyrdom of Saint Thomas the Apostle) sent a letter to the King of England, styled as "Don Carlos" (Charles II), he made sure that included in the accompanying casket of jewels was a pearl from Bahrain. (Seth, 604-607)
An idea of the mobility and adaptability of the Armenians may be gained from the career of Johannes Shahnazar Sarkies, who was first a student of the Armenian educator Mesrovb David Thaghiadian in Calcutta (1848-1952), then a teacher of English in Melbourne until 1855, when he joined the firm of Sarkies, Edgar, and Co. of Batavia (Jakarta), Surabaya, and Singapore, becoming in his thirty years in Batavia an eminent merchant; he died in Singapore in 1904; his widow (d. 1936) erected a manse for the priest of the Singapore Armenian church, as a memorial for him.
The name Sarkies is also closely connected with high class hotels in South-East Asia. The world-renowned Raffles Hotel was established in Singapore in 1886 by the Sarkies brothers, namely Martin, Tigran, and Aviet.
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CARSWELL, John, New Julfa: The Armenian Churches and Other Buildings (Oxford 1968)
CORTESÃO, Armando, ed., The Suma Oriental of Tomé Pires ... written in Malacca and India in 1512-1515, Hakluyt Society, 2 vols (London 1944)
COVARRUBIAS, Miguel, Island of Bali (New York 1937)
HAMILTON, Alexander, A New Account of the East Indies (1688 to 1723), 2 vols (Edinburgh 1987) edited by W. Foster and republished (London 1930)
MACLER, F., Note sur quelques inscriptions funéraires arméniennes de Malacca, Journal Asiatique 13 (1919) 560ff
MILLS, J.V., Note on the Armenian Tombstones at Malacca, Journal of the Malayan Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society 14, 3 (1936) 264-271
MUNDY, G. R., Narrative of Events in Borneo and Celebes, down to the occupation of Labuan, from the Journals of James Brooke, Esq., (London 1848)
O'KANE, John, ed., The Ship of Sulaiman (translated from the Persian), Persian Heritage Series No 11 (London and New York 1972)
QUIASON, Serafin D., English "Country Trade" with the Philippines, 1644-1765 (Quezon City 1966)
SETH, Mesrovb Jacob, Armenians in India from the Earliest Times to the Present Day (Calcutta 1937)
TEMPLE, Richard C., The Itinerary of Ludovoco di Varthema of Bologna from 1502 to 1508 (London 1928)
VALENTYN, François, Oud en nieuw Oost-Indiën (Dordrecht 1724-1726) 3 vols (Amsterdam 1862)