Armenian Merchants in New Julfa, Iran, and How Captain Kidd Took Over an Armenian Merchant Ship in 1698

Armenian Merchants in New Julfa, Iran,In 1604, the forced movement of Armenians from the Jougha (Julfa) region, which is today located in Nakhichevan, was a part of Persian Shah Abbas’s grand scheme of creating a no-man’s-land between his and the Ottoman Empire’s domains. Although Armenians endured much suffering during the movements, they would be granted special privileges that allowed them to practice their culture and continue their crafts and trade.

The new place for Armenian dwelling would be the district of New Julfa in the imperial capital of Isfahan. The district was created for Armenians specifically, and it continues to be the center of the Persian-Armenian community even today.

Within one-two generations, New Julfa became the hub of expansive networks of Armenians merchants. Those networks were stretching from Madras to London, from Moscow to Manila, from Amsterdam to Yokohama. Armenians deeply affected the global movement of goods without any exaggeration. Armenians managed to establish trade relations with and between every major player of the era. Armenian merchants even ran their own ships under their own flag sometimes.

Armenians achieved all this in an interesting way. In New Julfa, they established what we now call a business school and trained young men. Those men would work as agents (known as “commendas”) for the wealthy merchants who owned goods and capital (called “khoja” and “khwaja”). Agents would take on consignments that could last from few years to more than a decade, which was the time necessary to travel from Lhasa on Tibetan plateau to Venice on the Adriatic Sea, as an example.

Agents would need to make sure of the natural balance of the khwaja, and they only kept part of the profits for themselves. Crunching big bulks of data earned them trust, though the agents’ common Armenian background in New Julfa played a big role in the mutual trust between the agents and the merchants. Apart from that, the attitude towards the agents was heavily impacted by the hearsay that made its way back to New Julfa with other Armenian merchants. Besides, khwaja would keep the agent’s family within the household during his absence, which was an additional mean of safeguarding.

Armenian traders’ significant impact in the commercial world of early modern period could be reflected in the story of the “Quedagh Merchant”, an Armenian cargo ship. This ship was seized by privateer William Kidd somewhere in the Indian Ocean in 1698. Kidd would sail the ship to the Caribbean. The British crown held a part of the interests contained in the ship’s goods and thus declared Captain Kidd an outlaw pirate. Having set the cargo ship ablaze off the coast of present-day Dominican Republic, Kidd would face charges back in England. The shipwreck of the “Quedagh Merchant” was discovered in 2007, which was largely covered by the media. In 2011, a museum on the ship’s legacy was established in the Dominican Republic.


After initial publication, Prof. Sebouh Aslanian of UCLA contacted The 100 Years, 100 Facts Project to clarify: “Thank you for including this topic. A couple of minor points to be accurate. The ‘commenda’ referred to the contract itself, whereas the person involved was a ‘commenda agent’ or an ‘enker’. Also, the more proper name of the ship is the Queda or Quedah Merchant, named after the place on the south-east Asian coast. ‘Quedagh’ is incorrect; I suspect it is Yuri Barseghov’s Russianised variation.”

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