UCLA Hosts Conference on Armenian Communities of Indian Ocean

An International conference co-organized by Richard Hovannisian (University of California, Los Angeles) and Dr. Sebouh Aslanian (currently of University of California, Irvine) titled Ebb and Flow of the Armenian Communities of the Indian Ocean was held on March 17-18, 2007 at the University of California, Los Angeles. The conference, which was sponsored by the Armenian Educational Foundation Chair in Modern Armenian History and co-sponsored by Center for India and South Asia, Department of History, Centers for Near Eastern Studies, Center for European and Eurasian Studies, and the AGBU Southern California District Committee, drew a large audience on both days. It was the sixteenth consecutive conference in the series The conference began with an introduction by Richard Hovannisian, followed by several papers on Armenian Settlemen’s and Cultural Life in South and Southeast Asia, expertly chaired and discussed by Engseng Ho of Harvard University. Margaret Sarkissian of Smith College kicked off the panel with an overview of the Armenian Mercantile Communities in Southeast Asia. Sarkissian pointed out that, although never demographically significant anywhere in Southeast Asia, Armenian merchants have plied their trade between India and China since the early sixteenth century. Most came to the region as representatives of family trade networks based in India or New Julfa and, over time, settled down and created new communities of their own. She argued that their success was made possible by the kinds of skills that are now called transnational. The Armenia’s occupied a middle ground between European interlopers and local populations. Khachig Tllyan of Wesleyan University followed with a presentation titled From Dispersion to Nation: Armenian Diasporic Speculations. He focused on Vorogayt Parats [Snare of Glory], a text formulated in the small Armenian trade Diaspora of Madras, India, in 1773-83, by Hakob and Shahamir Shahamirian and others in their circle. His discussion of this remarkable book demonstrated its significance to the history of the emergence of Armenian nationalism in the eighteenth century. Peter Cowe of UCLA spoke on The Indian Interlude in the Development of Modern Armenian Drama surveyed the Indo-Armenian theater, whose subject matter was drawn from contemporary life, which through humor sought to achieve a deeper moral purpose. In fact, he argued the one extant play, The Physiognomist of Duplicity, written by Mkrtich Martirosian represents the first Armenian example of bourgeois domestic drama, which was to become the prevalent focus of the nineteenth-century East Armenian stage. Osheen Keshishian, Glendale Community College, presented an overview and the significance of Azdarar, the first Armenian periodical in the world (published from 1794 to 1796 in Madras, India). He also discussed a number of other periodicals that appeared in the relatively-small Armenian community in India down through the twentieth century. Mana Kia, a Ph.D. candidate at Harvard University who spoke on Joseph Emin and British Colonial Policy in Calcutta. Kia examined the idioms of cultural difference and affiliation through which notions of self and nation are constituted in The Life and Adventures of Joseph Emin, an English language Armenian memoir published in 1792 in London. She proposed that Emin claimed affiliation and difference with both East and West, thus carving out a space for himself as irrevocably Eastern, yet with a potential to realize European national virtues. She placed her discussion into the larger exploration of the ways that contact within the Indian Ocean during the rise of British colonial power affected cultural notions of self and nation among the various people of Iran and the Caucasus, a region not directly colonized. The focus of the afternoon session was Indo-Armenian History and Relations, chaired and discussed by Professor Houri Berberian of California State University, Long Beach. The session began with an exploration of Armenian Women, Men, and Community in Seventeenth Century India by Michael H. Fisher of Oberlin College. Fisher discussed how Armenia’s sought to use their distinctive intermediate positions and identities to negotiate and broker exchanges among European and Mughal Indian peoples and polities, but often faced considerable obstacles. He explored the life history of Mariam, an Armenian lady from the Mughal court at Agra who in 1609 married an official of the English East India Company and traveled with him to London. Mariam was most likely the first person from India to reside in London. By exploring Mariams multi-fold commitmen’s and multi-layered identities, Professor Fisher cast light on how Armenia’s maneuvered their way through the complex world of seventeenth-century India and Great Britain. He did this by drawing the audiences attention to Mariams shifting allegiances from her family and her religion to those of her husband. Bhaswati Bhattacharya of the University of Leiden spoke on the life and death of Khoja Gregory (alias Gorgin Khan), an Armenian who, although started his career as a cloth merchant, ended up as Commander in Chief of the Mughal army of Mir Qasim, the nawab (governor) of Bengal. Professor Richard Hovannisian began the second half of the session with a summary of a paper by Dr. Ara Ghazarians on the life and works of Diana Agabeg Apcar, who was the honorary consul of the first Republic of Armenia in Yokohama. He then noted the role of Indo-Armenian notables and benefactors and their generous patronage of cultural and educational institutions. His talk was followed by a viewing of a documentary film on the life and times of the Indo-Armenian benefactor, Sir Catchick Paul Chater (Khachik Poghos Astvatsaturian). The panel resumed with a lecture on the relationship between World War II Armenian-Amercian GIs and the Indo-Armenian community by Gregory Aftandilian (Fellow, Kennedy School, Harvard) who argued that the experience and encounters in India of Armenian-American GIs further intensified and strengthened their ethnic Armenian identity over their American one. Armen Baibourtian, the first Armenian Ambassador to India, gave a glimpse of todays Indo-Armenian community by discussing the communitys identity protection mechanisms and its vulnerabilities, most accentuated by its very small numbers. The conference concluded with a Sunday afternoon panel devoted to Long Distance Merchants and Julfan Trade in the Indian Ocean, featuring three speakers and chaired by Professor Edward Alpers of UCLA, who provided a perceptive commentary on the papers. Sanjay Subrahmanyam, founding director of UCLA’s Center for India and South Asia, focused on French Commercial Ambitions and Armenian Interlocutors in Seventeenth-Century Asia. Professor Subrahmanyam paid particular attention to the work of French East India Company employee Georges Rocques and the issue of the love-hate relationship between the French East India Company (founded in 1664 by Colbert) and the Armenian community in South Asia. Sebouh Aslanian of UC Irvine explored the role of Julfan networks of trust and cooperation in early modern long-distance trade and provided a historical as well as theoretical explanation for the creation and role of trust in such communities. He argued that Julfan trust must be understood as an outcome of the simultaneous combination of both informal and semi-formal legal institutions. In this connection, Aslanian focused on the role of honor and reputation among Julfan merchants in helping to generate and maintain upright and honest behavior within the Julfan community of merchants. He also discussed the role of an arbitrage institution in New Julfa known as the Assembly of Merchants, which was empowered to enforce contracts and sanction merchants who broke the code of conduct of the Julfan coalition of merchants. The conferences last speaker was Tatiana Seijas, a Ph.D. candidate at Yale University, who provided insight into the fascinating life of Don Pedro di Zarate, a Julfan Armenian merchant in eighteenth-century Mexico City. Based on a close reading of a testimony Don Pedro was compelled to give to Inquisition officials in Mexico city in 1730, Seijas was able to reconstruct the life history of this lone Julfan merchant who had arrived in Mexico City in 1723 by way of Manila and Acapulco and had resided in the capital of the Spanish colony for seven years until 1730. She demonstrated that the presence Don Pedro in Mexico City is a testament to the reach of the Julfan Armenian community and its far flung trade network across the Indian Ocean and beyond. The conference also featured a rich photographic exhibit of the Armenian communities of South Asia, prepared by Richard and Anne Elizabeth Elbrecht of Davis, California. The participants and other scholars who had traveled from Germany, Great Britain, and various places in the United States to attend the proceedings were the guests at a dinner reception hosted by Hacop and Hilda Baghdassarian of the Armenian Educational Foundation.

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