Venue: SOAS, University of London
Speaker: Sebouh David Aslanian (University of California, Los Angeles)
Chair: Christopher Sisserian (Programme of Armenian Studies)
This enchanting account by Dr Sebouh Aslanian, who came especially from University of California to his ‘least favourite city in the world’ that is London to be with us, transported the audience a few centuries back into the domain of sea merchants in the Indian Ocean, and particularly its one very special Armenian representative, Marcara Avachintz, whose turbulent life story promises a wonderful subject for a book (not only academic but also a historical novel).
The unconventional beginning of the lecture – a famous advert clip of Dos Equis beer brand, ‘The Most Interesting Man in the World’ – created high expectations, which were satisfied by an equally unconventional story of a real historical character, an Armenian from New Julfa who, as Dr Aslanian believes, deserves the title borne by the Dos Esquis character. Marcara Avachintz is interesting in many respects, not least because he was the first director of the French East India Company, the Compagnie des Indes Orientales, in 1667; but also because of how unusual it was at that time for someone from the Middle East, and even more so from Iran, to head the French national corporation.
The aim of this lecture, based on Dr Aslanian’s current research project, was not just to recount the life of Marcara but rather to tell the history of the epoch through the prism of this individual’s life. This historical approach, called global microhistory, is a new way of writing world history, which focuses on particular small-scale objects in the desire to explain large-scale and long-term processes. In this case, an individual’s life serves as a micro-prism through which we get a better perspective on several global developments, about which we would never have known if it were not for Marcara; i.e., the clash between different forms of trade; the expansion of European power into the Indian Ocean; and early modern legal culture in France.
Dr Aslanian colourfully painted Marcara’s fascinating life story across the continents. Marcara (approx. 1630 – 1705) was born in New Julfa, the Armenian quarter of Isfahan (in Iran), into a wealthy family of merchants. His oratorical skills were such that the sultan of Golconda (in southern India) granted him great privileges equal to those bestowed upon the Dutch or the English but at a fraction of the cost. One of the most interesting details of Marcara’s life story was the point at which his fortune reversed: when on the journey to India, Marcara’s superior, François Caron, suggested that they both use company’s profits for personal enrichment, and Marcara strongly objected, Caron lapsed into long ominous silence. Not long after Marcara’s arrival in India, he was arrested by the French and smuggled with his nephew and son across the ocean to France to face a trial on trumped-up charges of embezzlement. He spent three years at sea, carried by the longest possible route to France via Brazil, and tortured on the way. Following his arrival in France, he was released and sued the company, winning the suit twelve years later.
No matter how captivating the life story of Marcara may actually be, Dr Aslanian is more interested in the historical context. Marcara’s tragic destiny, he argued during his presentation, encapsulates the clash between the traditional form of trade by the Julfan diaspora and its family firms and the expanding commercial model of trade by the Europeans with their sophisticated bureaucracies and national armies. The centre of Julfan trade was in New Julfa, composed of a small community of merchants (up to thirty thousand at their peak), and from there it expanded in the form of three to four trading circuits, the most important of which was the Indian Ocean circuit. New Julfan trade was patriarchal in nature and based on the rules of trust, and although very successful, it found it impossible, in the long term, to compete with corporations, largely because the latter used violence.
We know about Marcara mostly from the French legal sources, the so-called factums (legal memoires). These documents contained auto-biographical information about an accused person and were used in court instead of lawyers arguing the case. Factums were produced in large numbers and disseminated sometimes for free of charge to the people in the streets, thus creating a forum for the expression of public opinion. Among other sources, the New Julfan documents are of special importance because they rectify the problem of reliance on the European sources and eurocentrism. Dr. Aslanian argues that they are generally more revealing of the true way of life of Armenian merchants than the company’s records. Thanks to his knowledge of the dialect, these non-European sources on Marcara’s life will be studied for the first time.
Perhaps the most interesting and emotionally charged point of the lecture was Dr. Aslanian’s comments on the pseudo-ethnography practiced by the Europeans. By this term he means a racial discourse of the European merchants, dehumanizing the Armenians and other communities. The Armenians are presented as a nation of cheaters and tricksters. In one vivid metaphor the Armenians appear as people who in the game of billiards fool you, distract you and then put the ball in with their hands when you aren’t looking. Marcara’s accusers tried to prove that he was of the lowest of the lowly origins, ‘a son of a butcher, horse groom, and a rag-and-bone picker’, to which accusation Marcara apparently answered in the following manner: ‘both my brothers are worth several hundred thousand pounds each, which is more than most of you put together; so if we are rag-and-bone pickers, then I don’t know what that makes you…’
One of the questions asked by the audience was: if Armenians identified themselves as Persians and spoke Persian in the early modern period, why did they create the Constitution for the future Armenian Republic, and why were they keen on seeing the Armenian state in the future? Dr Aslanian replied by arguing that India and the Indian Ocean have had more importance in the Armenian history than any other place with which the Armenians identify their homeland. During the early modern period, there was a significant shift in the Armenian history from land to water, especially to the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean. If it were not for the Armenian relationship with water and maritime trade, many of the cultural and historical achievements of the Armenians would never have happened, such as the first Armenian newspaper in Madras (1794), the first Constitution for the future Republic of Armenia, also in Madras (1787); the first Armenian novel in Eastern Armenian published in Calcutta; the first dictionary of classical Armenian in Venice. They are all connected by the common theme of Armenians who live in the port cities, the great majority of whom are from New Julfa. What is especially important about the constitutional treatise, argued Dr Aslanian, is that it is written by merchants in the context of the disintegration of the Julfan network. The very few surviving merchants in Madras decided to opt for a new identity and to reinvent themselves as members of a much larger modern national community and not just of the New Julfa network, realizing that the success of the English and the French is grounded in the commercial model of trade backed by the centralized nation-state. It is at that point that the Armenians wrote the Constitution in question and envisaged their future nation-state.