The idle ramblings of a Jack of some trades, Master of none

Jun 9, 2015

An Armenian in India

In the 18th century, the Russians smashed their way across the Caucasus and forced the Ottomans to cede large chunks of territory to them. In the midst of the landgrab, Armenians began to think about a possible autonomous polity. They had not been independent for nearly a millennium, but with Russian support, perhaps they could re-establish themselves.

There were two proposals for an Armenian state. One, by an archbishop Hovsep Arghutian, was to have a kingdom with a capital at Vagharshapat. The king would chosen by the Russian czar, could be either Russian or Armenian, would mint his own currency and allow the Russians access to the Caspian sea. The other proposal, by Shahamir Shahamirian, was for an Armenian republic, one governed by a prime minister with a parliament, cleaving to Russia with a military and free-trade treaty.

Clearly, Arghutian's conservative approach was favoured by the traditionalists, the feudal and religious powers in Armenia. Shahamirian's proposal was modernist, hoping to curb the power of the aristocracy and give more voice to the bourgeoisie.

(In the end, neither approach bore any fruit. Political competition between the Russians, Persians and the Ottomans meant that Armenian hopes were put aside for generations.)

Who was this modernist Shahamir Shahamirian? It turns out he was an intellectual and a merchant - and based in Madras!

I had previously heard that the first Armenian printing press was established not in its homeland, but in India - in Madras, in fact, which was under British rule at the time. In 1771-72, Shahamirian had founded that press.

Encouraged by British parliamentary democracy (such as it was), Shahamirian hoped that a new Armenia would similarly be guided by the popular power of the middle class, thereby checking the illiberal nobility and the church. In his treatise of political philosophy, Shahamirian articulated a view of equality and opportunity that held true to the values of the Enlightenment. Indeed, it was quite likely the first blueprint for a constitutional democracy ever to appear in the world! In 1773, in the Vorogayt Parats (The Snare of Glory), he wrote:
Every human being, whether Armenian or of some other race, whether man or woman, born in Armenia or brought there from another country, shall live in equality and shall be free in all their occupations.

Check out:
  1. Agop Jack Hacikyan, Gabriel Basmajian, Edward S. Franchuk, The Heritage of Armenian Literature: From the eighteenth century to modern times, pp. 160-161.
  2. Simon Payaslian, The History of Armenia, pp. 109-110.


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