Armenians and Their Interaction with Europeans in Safavid Persia

  November 08, 2021   Read time 3 min
Armenians and Their Interaction with Europeans in Safavid Persia
The support of European sovereigns was not always sufficient to secure them trade opportunities, as their commercial successes aroused at times the animosity of local merchants.

This was the case in France, where in 1621 the French merchants petitioned their king to put an end to the commercial activities of ‘Persians’ (in fact Armenian Iranians). In the Netherlands they were given better opportunities as the Dutch concluded a reciprocal treaty with Shah Safi, according the same privileges to their merchants in Iran which were given to Iranian Armenian merchants in the Netherlands. The Armenians had also established trading houses in England, after the English East India Company had expressed its desire to consolidate its trade links with Iran. At the end of the 17th century, the company had encountered difficulties with the Mughal authorities, and thus looked for alternative markets. The English merchants sought desperately to convince the Armenians to trade exclusively with them, but the deal was not advantageous to the latter. The Julfan Armenians, however, continued to use the vessels of the English East India Company along with those of the Dutch between Gombroon (Bandar Abbas), Surat and Europe. They had created a network between Iran, India and Europe. Many of them, such as Khwaja Minas, operated from Surat. In the 1660's Khwaja Minas had become the principal buyer and creditor to the English East India Company. He owned many ships himself. Another Julfan family present in Surat and associated with the English East India Company, were the Callendars. François Bernier who visited India between 1659-1667, says that the Dutch had difficulty competing in trade with the Armenians.

The French East India Company wished to conclude similar agreements with the Iranian Armenians, but the restrictions imposed by the French government on theirtrade activities rendered such association difficult. Nonetheless, the Armenians’ network and success in IndoIranian trade was important enough to make Colbert choose in 1664 a Julfan Armenian, Marvara Avanchinz, as the head of the first French factory in India despite the animosity of the French merchants against them. Colbert wished to benefit from Avanchinz’s influence in Surat for obtaining trade advantages from the local rulers. This was not a difficult task, as Avanchinz had relatives at their court.

The European East India companies sought the association of the Julfan Armenians, as they too were aware of the Armenians’ experience and network in the Indian trade. They had been involved in the Indian trade before their settlement in Iran, thus by the time the European East India companies had arrived in the area, they had already secured for themselves a prominent place in the subcontinent for themselves. India’s economy depended considerably on them, as they were the main providers of the region’s silver. Although their supremacy in the trade between India and Iran was challenged by the Indian Baniyan tradesmen, the latter commonly appealed to Armenians in order to deal with European merchants in Iran.

As in Europe, the Armenians had highly reputed merchant families, who acted as financiers and bankers of the court. Baghdiantz says that the Shafraz family of New Julfa was the equivalent of the Fugger family in Germany, and the Grimaldi in Italy and Spain. They were the bankers of their country’s sovereign. The affluence of the Shafraz family enabled them to dominate the politics of New Julfa. A member of this family was always appointed by the Shah as the kalantar (governor) of New Julfa. There were other famous and affluent Armenian families, such as the Shahrimanian, Lazarian, Minasench and Velijian. None of them, however, was able to challenge the power of the Shafraz. The Velijian, who attempted to take their position, were obliged to depart for Surat (India). Even at the end of the 17th century, when the economy of New Julfa was on the decline, Chardin estimated the fortune of the kalantar, Agha Piri, to be around two million livres tournois, whereas at the same period, the wealthiest trader in France possessed about 163,000 livres tournois. Agha Piri was one of the twenty (sixty according to Chardin) richest Armenian merchants of Iran.

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