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Why we should read... `Khoja Capital: the social & political role of merchant capital among Armenians' by Leo (373pp, 1934, Yerevan, Armenia) Armenian News Network / Groong By Eddie Arnavoudian June 4, 2007 PART ONE: Armenian émigré capital and the character of Armenian nationalism Leo's `Khoja Capital: the social & political role of merchant capital among Armenians', for all its gross faults, including the most atrocious 1930s orthography (which of course was not Leo's personal responsibility) is an exceedingly valuable history of Armenian commerce in the 17 and 18th centuries. It offers, furthermore, an intelligent assessment of the influence Armenian merchant capital had on the shaping of modern Armenian nationalism. The argument is frequently crude, often too categorical in the face of historical complexity and in places significantly contradictory. It is marked in addition by an unpleasant passion characteristic of a newly converted Marxist zealot espousing an ideological outlook he has only a dogmatic grasp of. Yet Leo brings to his enterprise a vigorous, erudite and questioning mind and so affords readers an opportunity to ponder some of the factors that distorted the development of the modern Armenian nation. The following is offered in the spirit of discussion and debate and not as an expression of hard and fast opinion. The defining characteristic of Armenian merchant capital was its émigré character. In a significant sense it was not a national phenomenon but a global one. Its home, its foundation and its primary field of operation have been lost in this year's blazes. were not in Armenia, but the Diaspora - Iran, India, Europe, Russia, the Ottoman Empire and elsewhere. Wherever it operated it played an important and sometimes even critical role, economically of course but also politically. But it did so not as an independent Armenian force, backed by its own national political state, but by virtue of its association with and its reliance upon European capital and the economic and political influence the latter wielded across the globe (p53). In Leo's view 17th and 18th century Armenian commerce developed rapidly by virtue: `... of the fact that it was in its greater part subjected to the influence of European capital. It is from this that Armenian merchant colonies acquired their immense significance.' (p53) This émigré and dependent condition of Armenian merchant capital was to produce a dependent nationalist politics that became the dominant trend in the Armenian liberation movement and proved to be the most damaging to the interests of the mass of the Armenian people living in the historic homelands. The commanding position of Diaspora wealth in Armenian politics was reinforced and consolidated after the defeats of the Armenian forces in the 1722-1728 Karabagh wars that Leo also deals with at some length. I. ARMENIAN CAPITAL GOES INTO IN EXILE Through the 17th and 18th centuries Armenian merchants spread across the territories of the British, Russian and Ottoman empires where they established themselves as important players. But their earliest origin as a commercial and indeed even political force was in Armenia proper, in the Nakhichevan region, in Jugha, Old Jugha, in particular (p56). Here it was that what Leo terms Khoja Armenian capital first began the cycle of accumulation that was to generate vast wealth. But despite their native roots Armenian merchants lacked the means to secure their development within their homeland. With no state machinery that would defend them, they were unable to develop the centres of their early accumulation into regions of independent economic and political power that could have evolved towards independent nationhood. A critical moment in the enforced global dispersion of Armenian merchant capital was the 1603 Ottoman-Persian War when Persian Shah Abbas forcibly relocated Jugha's entire merchant class and its population to Persian-held New Jugha, there to serve his drive to expand trade and wealth within the Persian Empire. Besides economic considerations this Persian relocation was driven also by military-strategic concerns - to depopulate and destroy the Caucuses, or those regions that bordered Persia so as to prevent them becoming a base for Ottoman attack (p64-67). The forced mass population movements that resulted were tragic in their consequences not just for Armenians but for Kurds and others too. Enjoying enormous privileges in New Jugha Armenian merchants amassed huge wealth (p76). Folk tradition describes `wealth that poured in (to the region) like a river.' It was wealth sufficient to generate its own luxury and its art. It enabled Armenian merchants to retain sections of the clergy both as artist and intellectual to undertake printing and other cultural wok that would tend to their various needs (p81). Exploiting their enormous wealth and international experience the Persian Shahs also used Armenian merchants as political ambassadors (p81). Thus privileged, even in relation to Muslims, the New Jugha merchants grew bold enough to begin a march across the globe. Its initial direction was India where it established bases in Madras, Bombay, and Saydabad. In Madras an Armenian Church had been built as early as 1547 and one of the city's oldest districts was named after an Armenian called Thomas. By 1688 Armenian traders in India were powerful enough to enable one Panos Kalantarian to negotiate favourable deals with the British East India Company (p82-85). In India Armenian merchants also played a role in the establishment of the city of Calcutta in 1690. Simultaneously Armenian merchants began moving northwards to Russia establishing colonies in Astrakhan and further north in Moscow. As in India, in Russia too they secured rights and privileges, tax concessions and protection for their caravans, highlighted by the famous 1667 agreement between the Russian Crown and New Jugha merchants (p92). In Russia too collaboration became close enough for Armenian merchants to be invited to act as agents for Peter the Great's commercial ambitions. By the 17th century French imperial power also entered into the equation engaged as it was in a tussle with Britain, Holland and Russia for control and influence in India and the Ottoman Empire. In search of agents for their designs the French dispatched Jesuit missionaries to convert the region's Christians to Catholicism. A primary target was the powerful Armenian merchant class then in alliance with the British. Converting them was considered a first step to secure the French a powerful local ally and simultaneously deliver a blow to their British rivals. Such was a part of Louis XIV business (p100) during his intervention in the Near East and Persian Empires. The French/Jesuit campaign did register some success. Though they failed to get the Shah and the Sultan to persecute non-Catholic Armenians they did succeed in winning over Catholicos Hagop, then head of the Armenian Church in Etchmiadzin. This appeared a fantastic catch. Using the influence he wielded, they hoped to also seduce Armenian commercial power. Leo claims that Hagop's conversion was driven by the Armenian clergy's delusions in European power as a liberating force, delusions framed famously by messianic claims attributed to 5th century Catholicos Nerses the Great and now encouraged by the French. Though a faction under Hagop did succumb to French enticement the French incursion was in the end not successful and their advance was halted by the Armenian Church's instinct for self-preservation. As Armenian merchants established themselves globally, the future prospect of Armenian capital flourishing in Armenia proper diminished rapidly as did the possibility of any natural and organic relations between the Armenian elite in the Diaspora and the Armenian populations in the historic homelands (p84-85). II. ARMENIAN CAPITAL, THE ARMENIAN CHURCH AND THE FUTURE OF THE NATION Even as it flourished outside Armenia, Armenian merchant capital was marked by a historic particularity - even in the Diaspora it retained a significant degree of national cultural identity. Many Diaspora Armenian merchants contributed their bit to what became an Armenian national revival. They developed and used a vernacular Armenian language, encouraged the printing of business and religious books to educate their members, sponsored Armenian education and even a rudimentary Armenian press (the first Armenian newspaper was published in Madras in 1794). Though preservation and cultivation of national identity was not initially designed to service national political goals it was put to that purpose when Armenian merchant capital was eventually forced into political life. Leo does set out his reasons for the Diaspora Armenian merchant's entry into the political arena[i] but argues that once there, with their enormous wealth and social position they `succeeded in exerting...a profound influence on Armenian national life.' (p67) They were however able to exert this influence only in alliance with a section of the Armenian Church[ii]. Without this alliance the Diaspora elite would have been powerless within the historic homelands and incapable of forging the dominant position that it did within the national movement. Unlike the secular Armenian elite the Church remained rooted within the Armenian communities under Ottoman and Tsarist colonial occupation and could thus influence the political life of the people in a way that was beyond the Diaspora elite. During the centuries of exclusive dominance of Armenian life by the Church the prospect for the nation, Leo affirms, was one of steady liquidation, with the Church itself also fated to vanish but at a slower pace. But this trend comes to a halt with the emergence of Armenian merchant capital, which, working with progressive trends within a generally backward Church, contributed decisively to the Armenian national revival. The progressive label that Leo seeks to attach to the role of Armenian merchants will not stick without qualification. Their geographic base, sphere of operations and the source of wealth made shaped their interests with no significant reference to those of the mass of people in the homelands. Furthermore it made it totally obliged to European, Tsarist, Persian or Ottoman state power that were hostile (despite their words) to Armenian emancipation and development. Armenian merchant capital may have had a progressive cultural role but its émigré character made it indifferent to the needs of the mass of the people at home and systematically pitted its interests against theirs.[iii] The dependent condition of Diaspora capital produced an abject politics of begging for Western imperial intervention as the main agent of Armenian liberation. This was a politics devoid of any sense of self-reliance and independent Armenian power. It was the same order of politics that Leo so bitterly castigates and denounces the Church for and was as disastrous for the mass of Armenian people in the homeland as any period of leadership by the Armenian Church that he criticises. In the course of its revival the Armenian people in the Armenian homelands required both enlightenment and mass political mobilisation in order to secure their right to work their land free of oppression and exploitation. Merchant capital had little trouble with enlightenment but the business of mass political mobilisation represented a positive danger to its interests. Were they to undertake any mass revolutionary organisation and mobilisation of the Armenian people in Ottoman or Russian occupied Armenian territories they would come into conflict with the very states within which they prospered, states furthermore that despite everything also offered them significant sponsorship and protection. Armenian merchant capital's European allies would also disapprove given that with their eyes on Ottoman markets they also demanded social and political stability at any price. As the Armenian people began to enter the political stage in the post-1850 period two things became evident. First: they had no indigenous social/political leadership that was large and prosperous enough to develop a domestic national political ambition, or to sustain a sufficiently strong and radical wing to secure such ambition. Secondly Diaspora Armenian merchant capital in alliance with the Church battled hard to secure a dominant position so that it could then temper the national movement to its own interests, ensuring that it presented no real danger to the empires within which Armenian merchants had obtained privileged positions. So, when the Armenian people needed uncompromising politics to oppose uncompromising tyranny they were urged instead to compromise and to endlessly beg - from powers that had no intention of ever giving. This politics found its first, clearest and still enduring expression in the adventurous career of Israel Ori. III. THE POLITICAL EXTRAVAGANZA OF ISRAEL ORI In the Armenian imagination Ori occupies a prime place in late 17th and early 18th century history. He is generally regarded as a pathfinder - the first dedicated activist of the modern liberation movement who authored its first political manifesto. But in Leo's account, Ori, about whom incidentally one can find no Armenian language sources, figures as a wealthy merchant who in politics was an utter fantasist, an adventurer, a man with an unparalleled imagination but whose politics was as outlandish as its author and had little relationship to the reality that obtained for the vast majority of Armenian people living in historical Armenia. The centrepiece of Ori's political project to which he dedicated his wealth (and that of other merchants!) as well as his immense energy was a single-minded campaign to engineer a European, French, German or Russian invasion and conquest of Ottoman and Persian occupied Armenia. This vision of a foreign imperialism as the primary agent of Armenian liberation thereafter became and remains an almost unquestionable template of Armenian politics. Ori appears to have done nothing by halves. He balked at nothing and did not lose heart however great the disappointment and the blow. In his numerous journeys across Armenia, Europe and Asia he was always equipped with a diplomatic entourage - translators, servants, secretaries, the whole baggage in fact - appropriate to an emissary or ambassador of a powerful, wealthy and illustrious nobility that he presented the quasi-independent but impoverished Armenian landlords of Karabagh to be. Ori whose extravaganza was financed in part by Armenian merchant capital, but mainly by his own, always kept a sharp eye for financial opportunity. In the 1690s he had made a fortune supplying the French during the Anglo-French wars. Later, after persuading the Tsar to appoint him an ambassador to the Persian emperor, Ori at once exploited the privilege to run a lucrative tax-free import/export venture. As a result of a great deal of demanding effort, fancy foot-work and fancier talk, Ori succeeded in recruiting a number of Karabagh landlords to his grand design of engineering a European invasion of Armenia. At what is now famously known as the 1699 Angheghagot meeting he persuaded a gathering of some 11 notables to put their signatures to submissions to various European courts including those of Leopold of Austria, the Duke of Tuscany and Johan William of Prussia. For the attention of European courts Ori's imagination constructed Karabagh's minor landlords into a grand aristocracy possessing crowns embedded with sparkling jewellery and palaces burdened by unimaginable riches. In his submissions Ori initiated that dangerous and still enduring practice of consistently overestimating Armenian strength and underestimating that of their opponents' (p257). Further, in his endless journeying between European capitals and the occasional drop into Armenian territories itself, he also established the empty political ritual that remains with us to this day. Instead of organising and mobilising the people at home, the leadership goes into humble beseeching and supplication, genuflecting before European (and now US) power. Throughout, Ori shows himself and his merchant allies all eager to submit to European suzerainty that they believed would free them from Muslim (Persianand Ottoman) rule - even if this required them to place a foreign King on their throne (p184). In essence Ori and his allies cared very little about Armenian national identity or religion. They were happy to submit to the Pope if this would secure favourable European power in their spheres of operation. The Armenian merchant was interested in freedom for his capital and did not greatly care about the nature of the prayers they would be required to recite. European courts readily paid lip service to and humoured Ori in his efforts. It cost Europe nothing to make promises and required from them no action at all. But it did serve their political purpose. Besides using Ori and the Armenian elite as instruments in their efforts to penetrate the Ottoman and Persian empires, European flirtations and flattering served, intentionally or not, a much more significant strategic purpose. It effectively immobilised the Armenian national movement. By pretending to support the Armenian cause, a pretence sustained by warm welcomes in European capitals, the Vatican, Paris, Moscow and elsewhere, Armenians political leaders were persuaded to put all their eggs into the basket of a bunch of imperialist thieves. For its part, the Armenian elite was also happy to subscribe to Ori's ventures. It felt it had no other recourse than help from Europe to fend off growing Persian and Ottoman avarice. Europe's verbal endorsements of Ori's ambitions appear to have satisfied Ori himself and among Armenians generally it created the illusion of an honest and willing European ally. This reinforced the paralysis of Armenian political will, leaving the people and the nation at the mercy of Europe's greed and whim. Ori unsurprisingly failed to secure any practical European steps for an invasion of Armenia. In the 1690s the Austrian/German courts had attention focused westwards in a battle against the French over the possession of the Spanish crown. Not at all disheartened Ori turned eastward and arrived in Moscow in 1701. There he met representatives of the Russian Tsar who was then concluding wars against Sweden for control of the Baltic and preparing plans for southward expansion at the expense of Turkey and Persia. To Russian officials Ori made the same sort of fantastical submissions as he had to those of western European courts, this time however also fabricating letters addressed to the Russian Crown or using letters signed by landlords now dead. Still, into Russian imperial designs Ori fitted perfectly. As with the Austrians, the Tsar's officials did not consider Ori a major force. But he was certainly a useful pawn and was so deployed to do Russian reconnoitring in the Caucuses, but only alongside more trusted Russian officials. It did not matter that Ori's presentation of conditions in Armenia was a figment of an unbounded imagination bolstered by stacks of fabricated evidence. The Russians used him to get initial and critical contacts in the region. But when it came to the crunch, during the liberation wars led by the Armenian elites in Karabagh in the early 18th century, the Tsar refused to assist them and actively sabotaged their endeavours. Israel Ori's project set the terms for Armenian nationalist politics thereafter. In all the successive stages of the Armenian national movement, Diaspora capital remained powerful enough to subvert each and every attempt to organise and mobilise the Armenian people independently of European subterfuge. Facilitating and securing the grip of Diaspora wealth was the defeat of the 1722 - 1728 Armenian uprising in Karabagh.
-- Eddie Arnavoudian holds degrees in history and politics from Manchester, England, and is Groong's commentator-in-residence on Armenian literature. His works on literary and political issues have also appeared in Harach in Paris, Nairi in Beirut and Open Letter in Los Angeles.
- An adequate answer would require a study of the evolving position and relations of Armenian merchant capital within the social, national, political and economic structures of the Ottoman, Persian, Tsarist and western European empires, as well as the emergence of the seeds of a nationalist movement within Armenia proper. Among the factors was pressure on Armenian merchants to carve out some independent political position for themselves from which to defend themselves against the steady curtailment of their prerogatives within British, Russian, Persian and Ottoman domains where imperial powers felt increasingly able to dispense with their erstwhile Armenian allies. More significantly the emergence of a plebeian national movement within the historic Armenian homelands presented dangerous complications for its operations in the Ottoman and Tsarist Empires that drove it to elaborate a proto-nationalistpolitical strategy.
- In setting out his case for merchant capital's progressive role Leo quietly retreats from what was initially a one-sided evaluation of the Church to adopt a more rounded, one could even say a dialectical approach. Earlier he had dismissed the entire history of the Armenian Church as a shameful legacy of bankruptcy and reaction. Century upon century its greedy grip on power was an unmitigated disaster for the people. From the point it established itself and right up to its decline in the 19th century the Church was vicious, tyrannical and parasitical. It seized control of the state and used its power to steal the nation's land and the wealth created by the people. Concentrating in its hands all the reigns of power - political, cultural, social and economic - it sacrificed everything to its narrow caste interests. Essential to its survival, Leo continues, was a readiness to serve as an instrument first of Byzantine and later of European imperial interests to which it blindly submitted itself. Taking one particular period or aspect of history and representing it as defining and characteristics for all time will always produce a derisory one-sided distortion. So with Leo who simply ignores the evidence of the Armenian Church's independent development and its independent political goals. He seems oblivious of its 5th century process of transformation into a national Church with its own identity and interests and its stubborn struggle against both the Iranian state and against the Byzantine state and its Church. Leo also neglects to note the determination with which the Armenian Church fought to defend its organisational independence. Through history the Armenian Church was indeed malleable, backward, feudal and selfish and was certainly amenable to European pressure and deception. But it was also a vast land owning institution with a significant national and even international presence and defended itself vigorously however blighted and enfeebled it may have been.
- Mikael Nalpantian was one of the first to comment on this opposition between Diaspora capital and the Armenian nation. Arguing that the basis for national revival could only be domestic economic production, he wrote that 'even if as a result of' Diaspora merchants `hundreds are enriched, hundreds receive a European education, the state of the Armenian nation as a whole will continue to remain paralysed and static.' Armenian merchant capital he continued: 'is not national in anyway whatsoever and has absolutely no relation to the [Armenian] national interest ... Armenian merchants become servants of European interests ... Let me be frank, these people calling themselves traders and merchants are in reality only intermediaries for European powers. They do not serve the needs of the Armenian people.'