07 August 2008

Armenian Merchant Information Networks, 1600s-1800s

The latest issue of the Journal of World History (vol. 19, no. 2) leads off with an article that somehow caught my fancy. Whitman College professor Sebouh Aslanian writes on “The Salt in a Merchant’s Letter”: The Culture of Julfan Correspondence in the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean (Project MUSE subscription required). Here's a bit of the introduction (omitting footnotes and page numbers).
The crucial role of information flows was particularly important for Armenian merchants from New Julfa, a suburb of the Safavid capital of Isfahan founded in 1605 by Armenian silk merchants forcibly displaced by Shah Abbas I from the town of Old Julfa on the Ottoman-Persian frontier [in the Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic in Azerbaijan]. These merchants managed a remarkable achievement by coming to preside, within a short time of their forced displacement, over one of the greatest trade networks of the early modern era. By the eighteenth century, the Armenian merchants of New Julfa had branched out from their small mercantile suburb to form a global trading network stretching from Amsterdam in the west to Canton (China) and Manila (Philippines) on the rim of the Pacific Ocean in the east. Their mercantile settlements in the Indian Ocean, Mediterranean, and northwest Europe and Russia spanned several empires, including the three most significant Islamic empires of Eurasia—that is, the Ottomans, the Safavids, and the Mughals—as well as several European seaborne empires, including the British, Dutch, French, Portuguese, and Spanish.

In the case of Julfan society, information sharing was important not only for merchants for their daily commercial affairs, but also for maintaining the integrity of the Julfan network as a whole. Letter writing connected far away commenda agents to their masters in New Julfa and also unified the trade settlements in the periphery to the nodal center of the entire network in New Julfa....

The sources for this study derive from a remarkable archive of eighteenth-century documents I discovered while doing research at the Public Records Office (PRO) in London. This archive consists of approximately 1,700 Julfan mercantile letters seized in the Indian Ocean in 1748 on board an Armenian-freighted ship called the Santa Catharina. The majority of these letters were carried by Armenian overland couriers across the Mediterranean littoral and Asia Minor to the Persian Gulf port city of Basra, where they were relayed to other merchant-couriers traveling by ship to Bengal with the purpose of being delivered to recipients there and farther east in China. What makes these letters valuable for the present investigation is that their journey was unexpectedly cut short when the ship on which they were traveling was captured as a war time “prize” by a British naval squadron patrolling the waters off the southern coast of India. The letters were confiscated along with the Santa Catharina’s other cargo and shipped to England to be presented as “exhibits” in a high-stakes trial in London. Luckily for us, this event not only ensured their survival, but also transformed them into a kind of Julfan geniza. In addition to relying on this vast trove of documents, I shall also use two other collections of business and family correspondence stored in the Archivio di Stato di Venezia (henceforth ASV) and the All Savior’s Monastery Archive (ASMA) in Julfa/Isfahan. Both collections are valuable because they contain thousands of commercial letters sent from Europe and India, many of which are examined here for the first time....
This is the kind of bottom-up, data-rich spadework that I really respect in historians, and many of the observations give one a vivid sense of what life was like as a farflung member of the Armenian (silk) trade network, such as how long it took to get a letter from Isfahan to Venice (often 6 months or so, if it got there at all). Even some of the footnotes are interesting, although the sources cited in Armenian orthography are completely opaque to me. I'll cite just one example that relates to the language used in the letters.
In general, most correspondents maintained high levels of penmanship, a skill most likely taught to them in a commercial school operating in Julfa in the 1680s. In addition to a solid reputation and competence in the arts of mathematics and commercial accounting, literacy and good penmanship were also attributes merchants sought in a factor. Nonetheless, there are occasional letters that exhibit rather poor levels of penmanship, but, fortunately for the historian, these are rare exceptions. The language of Julfan correspondence is the defunct peculiar dialect of Julfan Armenian that flourished between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries throughout the commercial settlements where Julfans resided, especially in India and the Far East. This dialect is so distinct from other dialects of Armenian and from modern standard Armenian that it was and still is nearly incomprehensible to most Armenians. It was, therefore, an ideal medium for confidential communication in an age when information sharing was regarded as the lifeline of merchant communities and when a merchant could never be certain that his letters would not be intercepted and read by rivals in commerce or politics. Julfan letters, like most writing before the nineteenth century, do not have standard punctuation or spelling and no paragraph breaks except those indicated by the word dardzeal (again). Some letters also had important bills of exchange or notarized powers of attorney enclosed in them.

1 comment:

Languagehat said...

This is the kind of bottom-up, data-rich spadework that I really respect in historians

Me too. This fascinating post reminds me of a book I recently read about the early Ottomans; there was a similar use of obscure sources patiently dug up and worked on by one determined researcher. It's not that I don't respect the synthesists and theorizers, but they'd have nothing to work on without the guys who do this kind of basic research.