The Armenian Connection


In my previous posts I have mentioned that my forbears were Armenian. How in the world did they end up in Burma? Most people have a hazy idea that there was an Armenian genocide during the First World War, which forced the survivors to find sanctuary in many other countries. I had heard that some of the family members had  ‘trekked out,’ and assumed that was what we had done. It was more complicated than that. The ‘trekking out’ I will deal with in another post, but for now, (pay attention at the back) here is a condensed version of my research on how the Armenians settled in Southeast Asia.

No history of Burma could be written without mentioning the importance of the Armenian traders to the East, specifically India, Siam, China and Burma. In the late sixteenth century the Armenians in Julfa, in what was then Caucasian Armenia, were driven out by Shah Abbas I of Persia (ruled 1587-1629) and the country was divided up with the Ottoman Turks. Although many Armenians were killed, the merchants of Julfa were given land on the outskirts of Isfahan (about 340 km. south of Teheran) and encouraged to settle there. Their settlement was christened ‘New Julfa,’ and here in the 1640’s, a traveller describes it:

“Zulpha [Julfa] …is so much encreas’d for some years since, that it may now pass for a large City, being almost a League and a half long, and near upon half as much broad. There are two principal streets which contain near upon the whole length, one whereof has on each side a row of Tchinars, the roots whereof are refresh’d by a small Channel of Water, which by a particular order the Armenians bring to the City, to water their Gardens. The most part of the other streets have also a row of Trees and a Channel. And for their Houses, they are generally better built, and more cheerful than those of Ispahan.”

(Tavernier, Jean Baptiste, The Six Voyages… Through Turkey, into Persia and the East Indies, for the Space of Forty Years, London, 1677.)

Another traveller of the same era, Sir John Chardin, wrote:

“He [Shah Abbas I] brought into the Capital City a Colony of  Armenians, who were a Laborious and Industrious People, and had nothing in the World when they came there; but in the space of thirty years they grew so exceeding Rich, that there were above three score Merchants among them, who, one with another, were worth from an hundred thousand Crowns, to two Millions, in Money and Merchandize.”

What was the reason for their success? Shah Abbas had a raw silk industry that he wanted to expand. The Shah’s intention to use the Armenians for the advancement of his silk industry was not an accident of war but a purposeful act, as evidenced by the fact that the accompanying peasantry turfed out of old Julfa were immediately put to work in the silk industry.

The Armenian merchants, known as ‘Khojas,’ from the sixteenth century on had an extensive trading network that reached over most of the world. From their strategically located homeland they travelled routes from the Mediterranean and Black seas to reach Europe, including Venice, Amsterdam and London. Other routes travelled through Central Asia to China, north to Russia and southeast to India, Burma and Southeast Asia. They also travelled by sea from eastern Africa on the Indian Ocean and all the way to the Philippine  Islands in the Pacific. One of the most well known shipowners was Khoja Minas.

I know – exciting isn’t it? When I learned this, there was no living with me for several days. “I could be a world famous trader ‘cos it’s in my blood. I’ve always liked garage sales and auctions. This could be the start of something!” My husband threatened it could be the end of something if I didn’t stop the proud Khoja act, so I went back to my normal existence of retired housewife, sans ship, trade routes and servants.

Many centuries of upheaval in their homeland had not affected their trading abilities, so by the end of the 16th century their reputation was set as honourable (if somewhat astute) traders for themselves and also representatives for major European commercial interests in the silk and cloth trade.

Their methods were to settle trusted family members in key trading ports and cities and build cordial relationships with the inhabitants. The Armenian merchants were known for their  proficiency in languages, and often took on duties as official interpreters for the rulers of the lands they traded in. Burma was no exception. If you start digging into Burmese royal history, Armenians pop up in the roles of court interpreters, foreign liaison officers and tax collectors.

Makertich J. Mines

Makertich J. Mines

One of these, Makertich J. Mines (a variant spelling of Minus) b. 1809, d. 1862 (maybe), was governor of Melloon, and customs collector at Pegu, under the reign of King Mindon Min, born 1808,  ruled from 1853 to 1878. He acted as the interpreter and guide for the 1855 English mission to the court of Ava, and was called a Kalawun in his capacity as advisor on foreigners to the Court. You can read more about him at the British Library website Here

This is the man we believe was the starting point of the family tree my father completed before he died, all researched before the internet. We know that Mackertich Minus came from Shiraz to Burma in the early 1800’s, married a Margaret Johannes, a wealthy Armenian rice merchant’s daughter nearly twenty years younger, and had at least four children who grew to adulthood. These four became the ancestors who eventually settled in Rangoon, with the eldest son being my great-grandfather.

I now also know that Margaret was a wealthy widow in the 1880’s when she applied to the British government to have the deeds to properties she owned in Ava, Amarapura and Mandalay (all these towns have Burmese Royal associations) re-issued because of their destruction in the Third Burmese War. Her application is written in Armenian and English. She had by this time bought the thirty acres of ‘Coffee Grove’ in northwest Rangoon as I saw on a map of the city dated 1880, and as I read in Thacker’s Indian Directories of the period, listing the inhabitants as being ‘Minus.’

More about Margaret, her eldest son, my great-grandfather, and his only son, my grandfather later. Also more about ‘trekking out’ in my next post. There might be an exam later, so I hope you in the back kept up.

The long rectangle below the words Coffee Grove, with diagonal lines, shows the property Margaret Minus bought.

Map of northwest Rangoon. Coffee Grove marked by me.

Map of northwest Rangoon ca 1860. Future sites of Coffee Grove and Government House marked by me.

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13 Responses to The Armenian Connection

  1. Ian Jackson says:

    Thanks for the info on how the Armenians came to Burma. My mother was a Nahapiet she was born in Rangoon her mother maiden name was a Vertannes and her mothers maiden name was Minus. She (my mother) was part of the exodus out of Rangoon during the Japanese invasion during the war.Love to hear more and be able to connect the dots
    Ian Jackson

    • James Watson says:

      Hi Ian, I’m 46 and live in New Zealand but just read your post which struck a chord with me. My Grandmother was Violet Nahapiet, an Armenien living in Burma. I know very little about our history but know that the Watson’s had a department store there called Watson and Sons. I thought I’d share the tiny bit of info I have with you.
      kindest regards
      James Watson

      • Ian Jackson says:

        Hi James
        Just read your post six months later.yes I remember aunt Violet who love to sing.I thinks she made one record she married a Watson.I know Frank in England what
        was your fathers name?

        • Annabel Neilson says:

          Hi Ian, My grandfathers name was Frank Nahapiet, just wondering if there’s any connection?! (I’m from the UK)

          • Jackie says:

            Hi Annabel, Frank was my uncle, I knew him and his second wife Sheila quite well as a child but he died in 1976 or thereabouts? I never met your dad. My father Victor was Frank’s younger brother and had also changed his name from Nahapiet. I’m also based in the UK. Some of our Aussie cousins have done some extensive genealogical research and I don’t think the name Violet comes up in the family trees. I believe you know cousin Liz, she can share my email address with you if you want to get in touch. She’s currently writing a history of the Armenian side of the family and is looking for anyone with more info.

  2. David Arathoon says:

    This is the wedding reg. of my great great grandparents at Rangoon 1859.
    Sahak ( Isaac ) Minassian and Mayil Ghookas Aghamalian ( translated wrongly elsewhere as Khojamal ). I think his middle name is Hovannes ( John ) as with his son Lucas John Minas. I went and got the LDS roll and had it correctly translated.
    the lower people are best man and witnesses, which may be family too. I am not sure where they fit in but my great grandfather went to Calcutta by 1901 when he was in his 30s and married to a girl of the Lucas (Ghookas ) family .

    This is what its written on the marriage registry:
    “1859 – Dec 8  10AM

    Mr. S.H. Minassian married to
    Miss Mayil Ghookas Aghamalian
    Prist: Aviet Astvatsatoorian
    Grigor Manook
    Hovaness and Yeghisabet”

  3. Annabel Neilson says:

    Hello, my grandfather was a Nahapiet, and altho I know very little about his ancestry, I know that there was a connection with Burma, and Rangoon..
    I’d be interested to find out more. I’ve only just come across this on a quick search, very interesting.. I’m from the UK by the way.

  4. Elizabeth Donaldson says:

    My name is Elizabeth Donaldson, nee Nahapiet and I live in Newcastle, NSW, Australia.
    My father was George Charles Nahapiet, and Frank Joseph Nahapiet was his oldest brother. Violet Nahapiet was Dad’s cousin.
    Just to fill in some gaps – there were three Nahapiet brothers: Mesrob (Violet’s father), Vagarshak, George and Frank’s father and Nahapiet – yes he was Nahapiet Nahapiet. (I have a family tree that goes back to 1700 and there are a couple of Nahapiet Nahapiets!
    In my father’s family there were seven children born to Vagarshak and Katherine nee Byrnes: Frank, Margaret, Hugh, Kathleen, Victor, George and Patricia. Vagarshak died in 1928, and is buried in Rangoon and Katherine Maud died in Sydney in 1950 and is buried at La Peruse over looking Botany Bay. Of the seven brothers and sisters only Frank and Victor lived and died in the UK. The rest came to Australia – now all gone.

    Annabel, we met in 1971, when your grandfather Frank brought my husband Bob and me to visit your family one Sunday afternoon. We spent nearly two years, 1971/72, in the UK and Europe. I’m not sure if it was you ( or your sister) who came to Australia in the 1980s, but my Mum and Dad – Vicki and George Nahapiet – brought you to visit us at our home in Mt Hutton where we lived on 3 acres of land.
    Annabel, I have a great ‘portrait’ of your grandfather Frank, aged under a year old, with his father and mother and Vagarshak’s mother and Katherine’s mother.

    I am currently attempting to write the history of my Nahapiet family – with much prodding from Bob who believes the story should not be completely lost, as so much was lost with WW2.
    Sharman – congratulations on your research and your excellent site and thank you for the opportunity to bring more people connected by Armenian heritage together.
    Hope my comments help.
    Liz Donaldson (nee Nahapiet)

  5. Annabel Neilson says:

    To Liz,
    Hello, and thank you for such an informative reply!
    I have only just come back here and read it, and I must admit I wasn’t expecting a response, so hadn’t even thought about checking back on this website. Funnily enough it was my Dad, (Peter) who is also researching the Nahapiets at the moment, who has just found this, otherwise I may not have seen it!
    He would love to get in contact with you if possible.
    By the way it wasn’t me who visited Australia in the 80’s, that was my sister Katharine, so I’m sure she must remember you!
    Thank you again, (and Jackie too!)

  6. Elizabeth Donaldson says:

    Hello Annabel,
    I am so pleased you have seen my response at last – I was not sure if I would ever hear from you.

    If you and /or your Dad would like to contact me privately please email me at

    Looking forward to hearing from you both,

    Liz Donaldson (Nee Nahapiet)

  7. Jennette Bailey says:

    My great grandfather was Simon Makertich Minus who married Elizabeth Manook. Could he have been a brother to your great grandfather? I know that he was a judge and had a family of 10, who lived in an extended family compound around a pond or lake. I know that some younger members of our family treked out and survived but was never told of those who didn’t.

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