Armanians of Calcutta and East India company led by Robert Clive

Kolkata, Armenian church. Inditales

 In a recent article in the Hindu dated 23 June 2018 Arup Chaterrjee
has brought to light an interesting information that I have not come across before. It is about the Armenian trading community who sided with the English company and helped  Robert Clive win the Battle at Plassey (1757), West Bengal. 

The Armenians had been living in India for a pretty long time, roughly seven centuries before the arrival of Vasco de Gama on the Malabar coast in 1498. The first Armenian to reach the coastal Kerala in 780  was one Thomas Cana  whose trading interest included spices and muslin. For reasons of religious suppression, forced conversion, etc., a large community of Armenians moved from places like  Persia, Turkey and Afghanistan into India to lead a peaceful life and start their trading afresh. They worked along with the resident  European community and engaged in trades. They, over a period of time, settled across India. Surat in Gujarat, Bombay in Maharashtra, Madras (Chennai) in Tamil Nadu,  Banares (Kasi /Varanasi) in UP., Murshdabad and Kolkata in W. Bengal, etc., were some of the places where they were successful traders. 

In Chennai there is a famous  street called Armenian Street near the Chennai port. So is an Armenian church in the same locality. Now almost all are gone from Chennai.  Armenian Ghat in Kolkata is the legacy of Armenian community of this region.  In the 20th century there population was around 25,000.

Robert Clive. Wikipedia

An interesting fact emerges from Arup Chaterjee's article - in 1715 East India Company got the Grand Firman that first gave them duty-free trading rights in Bengal granted by a Mogul court headed by an Armenian in Farrukhsiyar.  Earlier in 1688,  the English company accessed the Mogul court with the help of an Armenian  and  during Akbar's time, the Armenians held various positions of eminence in his court.  They were of immense help to the English company during their heyday. In return, the Armenian  got certain trading privileges from the English company. Thus the Armenian community in India was quite enterprising; they were not men of letters but  believed in accumulating wealth and they had the business acumen to do so.

The Armenians were successful traders during the Colonial time for a few good reasons: they adopted the British way of life and dealings. They learned their language and customs so that they could be comfortable with them.   As far as trade  dealings were concerned they were prompt and went by letter and spirit. They stuck to the trade  agreements.   The conflicts between the British colonists and the ruling royal Indian  families helped them a lot. In mid 18th century - 1744 about 4000 Armenians settled in Calcutta from Persia and Afghanistan.

In the 1700s when the British were trying hard to hold on to Bengal  firmly, three  prominent Armenians  were highly influential and were close to the seat of power. They were:  

Khoja Wajid:  He  was an expert in saltpetre trade and had good working relations with other Europeans including the French. Wajid, who supported Robert Clive politically,  was later arrested on suspicion that he had secret contact with the French. While in confinement he killed himself. 

Joseph Emin:  He travelled to London and stayed there  for a decade (1750 -1760s) and  gained the trust of some of the well-known English nobility notably Edmund Burke, Mrs. Montagu, Sir William Jones and others. He had military training at  Woolwich and  upon return to Bengal,  he joined  Clive's  forces in 1772 to fight against the French Army.

Armenian church, Chennai. Wikimedia Commons

Khoja Petrus Aratoon:  He was a growing businessman and  earned the trust of the English company  to such an extent that he supplied provisions to the garrison soon after the Black Hole (June 20 1756) incident  (at Fort William) and recapture of the fort by the British.   Being close to Clive, the latter used him as a secret agent during negotiations with  Jaffer (a relative of the Nawab Siraj-ud-Daualah)) in the conspiracy to overthrow  the Nawab in power. Being charitable, he  was the one who renovated the Armenian Holy Church of Nazareth in 1663 with two altars and fine paintings and frescoes in the interior.

Armenian church, Calcutta, WB.

Above image: Located in an Armenian Church (Holy Church of Nazareth first built in 1688; rebuilt in 1724 after a fire mishap) the oldest Christian tombstone in  an Armenian Church, Calcutta. It is that of one  Rezabeebeh Sookia, who died on 11 July 1630. She was close to the Church..............................

 During the English consolidation in Bengal and other places, Armenians served the British interests well and some held exalted positions in the colonial period. Armenians played a considerable role in building  East India House at Leaden hall Street - the headquarters for many years of the world’s first multinational company. As for Aratoon, who might have headed Bengal after Mir Quasim but, unfortunately, this was not to be. He was assassinated in 1763 for unknown reasons.

Battle of Plassey. SlideShare


There are a few Armenian churches and  Armenian streets in a few major Indian cities that represent their legacy.  Their population dwindled to a large extent after India's independence. I understand a small community of Armenian people is living in Kolkata.