Armenians in India

by Richard Gregory

Marcar Gregory (Margar Grigorian)

Marcar Gregory (Margar Grigorian)

In late 2015, I was clearing out my parents’ house when, hidden under the stairs, I discovered Victorian photo albums. There were hundreds of pictures of my father’s ancestors in London and India, including children in mysterious national costumes. Curiosity took hold of me and I researched a rich vein of Armenian heritage, from the founding of Calcutta to trading throughout the Far East. Here is a tiny sample:

In 1603, a war was raging between Safavid Persia, ruled by Shah Abbas I, and the Ottoman Empire, ruled by Sultan Ahmed I. In 1604, over 150,000 Armenians were forced to migrate from Julfa, which was razed, and were resettled in New Julfa - a suburb of Isfahan where the Armenian Vank Cathedral was founded soon after. Shah Abbas speculated then that Armenians would help the Persian economy.

In 1689, Job Charnock of the East India Company, recognising the success of these Persian Armenian traders, invited them to newly-founded Calcutta to encourage the development of trading routes. The Armenian church of St Nazareth, Calcutta, was built in 1724. By late 19th century, there were 1,300 Armenians living in Calcutta, Dhaka and Rangoon. When an opportunity arose, they showed themselves to be more than just merchants.

An Armenian, Israel Sarhad, was instrumental in securing the "Grand Farman" for the East India Company from the Mogul Emperor Farrokhsiyar in 1715. Petrus Arathoon, known as the "Armenian Petrus," was an envoy for the British and Mir Jaffir; a time during which Siraj-ud-dowlah was overthrown and Mir Kasim replaced Mir Jaffir as Nawab of Bengal, Behar and Orissa in 1760. Khojah Gregory, the son of Khalanthar Arratoon of Julfa and younger brother of Petrus Arathoon, was a cloth-merchant at Hooghly in West Bengal. He became Mir Kasim’s confidant, after which the new Nawab appointed him as Commander-in-Chief of the Bengal Army.

My great great grandfather, Marcar Gregory, aka Margar Grigorian (pictured atop), was born in July, 1824 in Shiraz, Persia. By the age of 22, he had joined the Calcutta community and was a dealer of garnet and Shell-Lac dye (a tree gum produced as a result of a beetle attack), which was moulded into buttons and jewellery and also used as a protective lacquer. In 1850, he inherited the schooner Elizabeth from his wife, Elizabeth Manook, and traded throughout the Far East. Through the trust provided by bonds from extended family members, Armenians spread from Calcutta into Rangoon, Hong Kong, Singapore, Shanghai, Manila, Okinawa and other ports. Marcar’s offspring married into the Apcar, Anthony, Joaquim and Emin families.

Ghazipur picnic 1885

Ghazipur picnic 1885

My great grandfather, Gregory Marcar Gregory, was born in 1851 and educated at Harrow School and Trinity College, Cambridge. He joined the Indian Civil Service and became an opium agent, eventually managing an indigo and opium factory in Ghazipur. He married Edith Sheridan in 1885. He later retired to Gunterstone Road, London in 1904 and became President of the Armenian United Association of London (AUAL) in 1913. Keen to promote the understanding of Armenians, Gregory translated Ormanian’s Church of Armenia and Archag Tchobanian’s The People of Armenia into English. The Foreign Office appointed him Liaison Officer for Armenians in the UK in 1914. Throughout the First World War he lobbied on behalf of Armenian refugees. In early 1915, the AUAL hosted an “At Home” event. The evening ended with the presentation of a large silver cup from the Armenians of London and Manchester to the Association’s President, Lt Col Gregory, “as a slight token of their esteem and respect”. As the situation in Turkey deteriorated, the AUAL inaugurated The Armenian Refugees’ Relief Fund which raised substantial sums. By March 1915, £7,750 8s 10d had been collected. Gregory retired in July 1917 as President of the AUAL. Despite being 66 years old, however, he remained active. On June 8, 1918, addressing the AUAL in the presence of English guests in London, he said the following:

“To us Armenians the Armenian Question is the very life-blood in our veins… Our Association is essentially of a pacific character, and our politics are neutral… We do not desire autonomy or the setting up of an independent kingdom… What we ask of the powerful nations of Europe is security of life…the elements of justice for all… Our countrymen have struggled against heavy odds for centuries, their country has been torn from them, their women and children are being subjected to the grossest indignities, they have been decimated in number and are, at this moment, struggling under the heel of a fanatical overlord, and at the point of death.”

One of Gregory’s children, John, who served in the Royal Flying Corps, was shot down and killed in 1918. His other son, my grandfather, Marcar Sheridan Gregory, became an Executive Engineer of Indian State Railways and was a soldier in both World Wars.