INDO-ARMENIAN ECONOMIC RELATIONS
Being unable to survive in the competition with the British, some of the Indo-Armenian merchants started to search for new domains of activities in those areas of the Far East which were out of control and influence of the Europeans. In the beginning of the 19th century golden mines were opened in Australia. Some of those merchants left for Australia to find fortune there.
A part of the Armenian merchants was bankrupt because of the competition with the European capital. The other part of the Armenian merchants continued their trade in India despite unfriendly attitude of the British. They understood the spirit of time and rebuilt themselves. These merchants found new spheres of activities. Armenians have been closely connected with the betel-leaf trade in Bengal, shellac trade in Mirzapur, Jhalda and Calcutta, indigo trade in Bihar, jute trade in Dhaka.
The Armenian merchants played a significant role in the jute trade in Dhaka in the second half of the 19th century. Firms M. David & Co. and M. Sarkies & Sons were established in 1875 and were very famous till the early 20th century.
In the 17th century the centre of indigo trade was Biana (situated southeast of Agra). The Armenian merchants of that time played a decisive role in indigo trade competing the British and the Dutch. When the British started to strengthen their positions in India and ousted the Armenian merchants from the Indian markets, the latter lost supremacy also in the indigo trade. When synthetic dyes were discovered and demand for indigo decreased, the Armenian merchants gradually started jute and shellac business.
The Armenians started to invest in industry, established factories. Following the example of the Europeans they got united, getting together their capitals and set up unions. Journal Azgaser (Calcutta) brings a big list of such Armenian unions. From this list one can assume, that time Indo-Armenians had their own place in the newly developing industry of India. Among those companies were: East Insurance Union (established in 1839), Sea Insurance Agency which had its branches in London, Singapore, Madras, Bombay, China. Companies such as United Shipping Company, Hooghly River-Shipping Company were served by the Armenian ships Joseph-Manook, Johannes-Sarkies, Arratoon Abgar, Hripsimeh-Anna-Martha, Hero, Emnego, etc.
Although these companies had a considerable amount of money and large scale of activities, most of them cooperated with the Europeans, were going after them, thus were not independent. However, among the Armenian merchants there were many people who could not, or did not, want to rebuild and rearrange their business, and thus reached the verge of bankruptcy. Azgaser published a series of articles urging these merchants to engage in industry.
Armenians have played an important role in the shellac industry. In the end of the 19th century there were 2 shellac factories in Mirzapur (that time Mirzapur was the centre of the shellac industry) which owners were Armenians Gregory Gulzad Carapiet and Carapiet M. John better known as Carapiet “Jambore”.
“Jhalda” Arathoon was another big figure in shellac industry. His factory was the largest in Jhalda. “Jhalda” Arathoon was the pioneer in mechanising shellac factory by putting there lac-crushing and washing machines in 1917. In 1948 he celebrated, the Golden Jubilee of his factory, holding a big reception in Calcutta. This event was reported in The Statesman. In 1957 Calcutta Shellac Trade Association was formed and Arathoon was appointed its President. He was also a member of the Indian Lac Cess Committee. Arathoon was interested in agriculture as well. He got a tractor from England and grew wheat and rice crops in Jhalda and Muhru.
Many Armenians were engaged in shellac business till 1960s. They had to face serious competition from the larger manufacturers. That time there was also a serious competition from Thailand which exported shellac to other countries of the world at cheaper rates. Being not able to overcome difficulties those businessmen left for UK and Australia to find more opportunities.
Armenians were also in coal business. The history states that a private geologist from Britain R.G. Tachsom visited Bengal in 1862 and discovered coal seams in the area near Raniganj and Asansol. He was able to prove that the area is very rich of coal. He approached a number of European firms, telling them to visit those places and mine the coal. Only an Armenian firm, Apcar & Co. was interested in this proposal. They purchased an extensive stretch of land and started a mine at Lachipur (4 miles from Asansol). Apcar & Co. extended the railway track from Raniganj to Lachipur and installed the first railway-siding. They raised the coal and sent it to Calcutta by train. Apcar & Co. gradually opened coal mines at Charanpur, Faridpur and Borachuck. A large number of Armenians either owned collieries or worked in various capacities in the coalfields.
Seeing the rapid development of the coalfields, the Europeans approached Apcar & Co. and purchased vast areas from them on a royalty basis and started to mine the coal. As a result Asansol became a large and developed mining district.
Businessmen in the 20th Century
When Chinsurah and Chandernagore lost their commercial supremacy, most of the Armenians from these settlements came and settled in Calcutta, transferring their business here. N.K. Sinha states in the History of Bengal: “The judicial records however, leave no doubt about the significant position of the Armenians in the commercial world of Bengal, particularly Calcutta of the 18th century.” During the 16th to 18th centuries the Armenians were the most prominent merchants of Calcutta. They developed North Calcutta very quickly so Hindu, Muslim, Jew, Greek, Portuguese merchants also came, settled here and established their businesses. As this area became very crowded, the Armenians moved to Central and South Calcutta. Here they built hundreds of small and big houses. Among them were private residences, hotels, office premises and residential mansions. At one time almost all the area known as Queen’s Park and Sunny Park, Ballygunge in South Calcutta was owned by Armenians.
In the beginning of the 20th century there was a leading builder and property owner in Calcutta named Johannes Galstaun. He developed and beautified Central and South Calcutta by building 350 houses. This wealthy merchant donated Rs.25,000 to the Victoria Memorial Building Fund. Then after winning the Prince of Wales Cup at the Calcutta races in 1921 he presented all the money (Rs. 15, 000) to the Prince for charity. He also had a big park named by him, Galstaun Park. During the World War I he placed this park at the disposal of the British military authorities who converted it into a hospital for soldiers. For this charitable gesture he got the title of the Order of the British Empire. Afterwards Galstaun Park was purchased by the Nizam of Hyderabad and renamed Saba Palace. It is now utilised by the Government of India for offices and other accommodation.
In the 20th century the Armenian community of Bombay was very active. There were diamond merchants, people engaged in petroleum, spirit and alcohol trade, in automobile business. However, when the firms were converted into public limited companies, many Armenians sold their shares and left India. Among the Bombay Armenians there were also owners of guest-houses, hotels, restaurants and hair dressing saloons which were very famous in the middle of the 20th century.
Armenians started to leave India after 1947 when it gained independence. There was a panic among the non-Indian businessmen that their future would be insecure. That time the slogan - India for Indians - was very popular. Many private companies were nationalized. In this situation many Armenian businessmen decided to leave the country. Thinking about the future of their children, they felt it would be difficult to compete with the Indians. They mostly migrated to the United States and United Kingdom. Another stream of migration of Armenians from India was in the 1960s. This time they mostly migrated to Australia.
In the 20th century Armenians did not lose their interest towards India. After the World War II many Armenians from America, Europe Middle East engaged in business and other spheres visited India in order to set up their business in this country.
Among those people mention should be made of one Armenian, named Tcherkezian, who had a successful business known as Tobacco Estate Corporation (TOBESCO) in Brussels. In 1950s and 1960s he was closely connected with the tobacco trade in South India and was the largest importer of Indian tobacco in Belgium. With the assistance and patronage of Tcherkezian a modern tobacco factory was established in Guntur (South India). He also helped in establishing scientific centres for correct grading and storage of tobacco.
Stephanian, an Armenian from Iran was an oil technologist and an expert on fertilisers. To implement the Agreement between the Government of India and Government of Iran for the establishment of an oil refinery in Madras, Stephanian was posted there to supervise the installation.
An Armenian-American firm, the Kuljian Corporation of Philadelphia was also interested in India. This creative construction and engineering company was selected by the Government of India to undertake the construction and supervision of power plants at Bokaro (part of the Damodar Valley Project), Barwani, Delhi, Bandel, Cambay and Durgapur.
Indo-Armenians were also engaged in jewelry, hotel, banking, machinery, automobile, engineering businesses.
Summing up this Chapter we can say that trade relations between Armenia and India exist for more than 2500 years. The Armenian traders were importing from India precious stones, various spices, herbs, muslins, blue, and were exporting from Armenia to India coloured leather, various dyes, cotton, iron. The areas of their strong influence were Surat, Agra, Cochin, Multan, Lahore, Kashmir, as well as Coromandel Coast and Malabar Coast.
In the initial stage the British collaborated with the Armenian traders, seeing their strong influence and affluence in the country. The evidence of such collaboration was the 1688 Agreement signed between the British East India Company and the Armenian merchants. However, after some time, getting a strong footing in India, the British started ousting their Armenian allies from the trade markets since they did not need any competitors. The British succeeded in their activities as they were backed by their strong government. As a result the Armenian merchants lost their main role in the Indian trade. Since they were not united, they used ancestral trade methods, consequently they were easily suppressed. But one part of these merchants who could feel the changing spirit of time and reorganise their activities, remained on the stage until the 20th century.
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