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.
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.