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The Armenian Minority in the Dutch East Indies

Their correspondence with Persia (1897-1917)

The Armenian community in the Dutch East Indies constituted a little known minority. What follows is an English translation[1] of an article, published in the monthly magazine Filatelie. Some background of Armenia were presented to Dutch readers. It explains how Persia became their home countryfor some Armenians and where they built their commercial networks. The correspondence of the Armenians on the islands of Java and Bali with their relatives in Persia provides an insight into the postal routes between Persia and the Dutch East Indies at the turn of the 20th century.

Armenia is located in the Caucasus, the mountain range connecting Southeast Europe and Asia. Geographically it belongs to Asia, but traditionally Armenians consider themselves Europeans. The history of Armenia[2] dates back to 1500 BC. Armenia thus is one of the oldest nations of the world. The kingdom had its heyday in the first century BC when it extended between the Caspian Sea and the Mediterranean. With a war against the Roman Empire, this period came to an end and Armenia found herself under Roman influence. Because the of Armenia’s location at the eastern border of the Roman Empire, over the next centuries the Romans and the Persians fought over the nation.

Surrounded by Persians and Romans, both trying to get hold of Armenia, fueled by the search for national unity, Armenia in 301 was the first nation to adopt Christianity as the state religion. The church would become an important pillar of Armenian identity. Another important contribution was made by the monk Mesrop Mashtots who in 405-406 developed an Armenian alphabet.

The Armenians of New Julfa

Let us fast-forward the history of Armenia to about 1600. At that time the country, again because of its strategic location (1) was fought over, now by the Turkish Empire under the Ottomans and the Persian Empire under the Safavids. In 1604 Shah Abbas I pursued a scorched earth campaign against the Ottomans. Early in the invasion, the old Armenian town of Julfa was taken. When a large Ottoman army approached, the order for withdrawal was given but in their retreat Armenian towns and farms were completely destroyed. The population of Julfa was ordered to leave their homes. 150,000 Armenians survived the traumatic relocation to Persia. Only ruins remained in their home town.

The ruins of Julfa, dating from the invasion of Shah Abbas I in

The residents of Julfa were famous for their silk trade. Shah Abbas treated the silk merchants well. He hoped their presence would be beneficial for Persia[3] and assigned them a quarter in his new capital Isfahan, which was named New Julfa. The Armenian merchants of New Julfa soon played a critical role in the silk trade, both within the country and abroad. They developed an international commercial network stretching far outside Persia. The network in Europe comprised Venice, Livorno, Marseille, Amsterdam and London. In Asia, several establishments were established in India. From there, the network spread out as far as Canton and Manila. Archives in Venice, London and the Vatican provide a fascinating picture of how communications were maintained by couriers and the way Armenian agents informed each other about markets and shipments[4].

The Armenians in Batavia
Folded, commercial letter (1841), sent from Manila to
Jakob Arathoon,
the most prominent Armenian merchant
in Batavia, the capital of the Dutch East Indies

The dispersion of the Armenians over Southeast Asia took place almost simultaneously with the expansion of the English East India Company and the Dutch East India Company. In all the main cities where these prominent commercial corporations established agents, Armenians were represented too. During the 18th century the first Julfa Armenians arrived in Batavia, the commercial centre of the Dutch East India Company on the island of Java (Batavia is now Jakarta, the capital of Indonesia). Most of the Armenians arrived directly from Isfahan or from Armenian settlements in India. Because Armenians were Christians, the Dutch Government in 1747 granted them the same rights as Europeans.

Persian postcard addressed to the priest of the Armenian Church
in Batavia, sent by his father in New Julfa.

During the era of Ecumenical Councils, the Armenians in 451 were not represented at the Council of Chalcedon because at that moment they were embroiled saving their country from Persian invasion. Afterwards the Armenians rejected the decisions of the Council of Chalcedon, perhaps also because they were offended that in their struggle with the Persians no support was provided by Byzantine Rome. So, the Armenian Apostolic Church was founded, which would develop independently from mainstream Christianity.

Armenians were very religious. Once an establishment in foreign parts seemed sustainable, a church was built. Jacob Arathoon (Hakob Haroutyounian) was a prominent Armenian merchant in Batavia. In 1841, he had a wooden chapel built at own expense, dedicated to St. Hripsimé. In 1854 the Armenian community erected a new church building which was dedicated in 1857[5]. The Armenian church was located at the southwest corner of King’s Square, the main square of Weltevreden, the wealthy, Western suburb of Batavia. The Armenian Churches in Southeast Asia were governed by the Apostolic Chair in New Julfa. Priests, who were sent out, mostly served a parish for a period of three years until they were transferred again.

Reverse of the postcard with text in
The Armenian alphabet was
developed in 405-406
by Meshrop Mashtots
and was an important
pillar of the
Armenian idnetity.

Of course priests working overseas maintained contacts with their home country. The postcard (1900), addressed to the Reverend Simon Vardon in Batavia comes from his father in New Julfa. The Armenian text on the reverse, translated in English[6], in part reads: Julfa, 1900, February 20. Our dear and deeply missed Reverend Father Vardon Simon Vartanian We trust in the good care of the Lord that you are alive and well. We are all likewise alive and well by the Grace of the Lord. The card which you sent on December 29 arrived in good time, but last week we received neither a card nor a letter. The following people send their greetings and best wishes (a list follows of 23 names!). May the feast of Saint Sarkis be grace-filled. With all of the blessings of a parent. Simon Vartanian. St. Sarkis was an Armenian martyr who was slain by the Persians in the 4th century.

To Surabaya, Bali and Macassar

In the second half of the 19th century, the center of the Armenian community in the Dutch East Indies (DEI) gradually moved from Batavia (Western Java) to Surabaya (Eastern Java). Around 1900 Surabaya was the most important ‘Armenian city’ in the Dutch East Indies. The new immigrants sometimes had to make a long journey to reach their new residence. First, the dangerous leg from Isfahan to Basra per caravan, then by ship to Madras, where usually the local Armenian Church would take care of them. The next leg would take them to Calcutta and finally, via Singapore they would reach Surabaya.

In India Calcutta was the city with the largest Armenian population. It was an important centre for the Julfa Armenians in Southeast Asia. Many parents sent their sons to the Armenian College where friends were made and the foundation was laid for social networks. The Armenian College was founded in 1821 and still remains.

Postcard to Calcutta, written by an Armenian, working for a
commercial firm in Buleleng on the island of Bali, the center of
the ille
gal opium trade

The postcard from Singaradja on the island of Bali was sent to the Armenian Church in Calcutta (probably the Armenian Holy Church of Nazareth). The sender writes to his father in classic Armenian: “For a little change of things, today, I am going to Surabaya with dear Avetik to spend a few days there together”. Below on the front side is the chop (company stamp) of Zorab, Mesrope & Co. This leading Armenian trading firm, founded in 1884 by Martyrose Mackertich Zorab and James Aviet Mesrope, owned large sugar and tapioca plantations[7].

Its head quarters was in Surabaya with a branch in Buleleng on the North coast of the island of Bali. In those times Buleleng was the centre of the illegal opium trade in DEI. At first importing opium was a monopoly of the Netherlands Trading Society until the Government decided to operate this goldmine by itself. Raw opium was imported by the Government, the processing and the distribution would be granted according to a farming system. An opium farm was a monopoly concession, granted by the state to a ‘farmer’ for a period of time to sell opium in a city or a province. Periodically, public auctions for these concessions were held. Only the very wealthy could bid at these auctions. Almost all the farmers were ‘peranakans’ (ethnic Chinese, born and raised in the Dutch East Indies).

Letter from (New) Djoulfa, sent to the trading firm Michael, Stephens & Co in Makasser. Transit cancellations of
Boushir, Singapore, Weltevreden en Surabaya tracing the postal route

Of course this farmer system created conditions, ideal for a black market. Farmers could have bought the opium directly in Singapore to smuggle it into the DEI themselves. Instead most of them used local trading houses. Armenian firms with offices in Surabaya dominated this trade. They purchased opium via agents in Turkey, India and Singapore for their Chinese clients and delivered it in Bali: several Balinese ports transshipped large amounts of opium but Buleleng dominated the trade[8].

Tuticorin, the port on de Coromandel coast
of India
(source: Wikipedia)

The postcard from Singaradja is not only of interest, to the postal historian the card also offers a variety of transit cancellations. So the route from Singaradja (25/3/98) via Surabaya (27/3/98) to Singapore (1/4/98) can easily be followed. There the card boarded a French Paquebot on its way to the next destination, Colombo (6/4/98). After transferring to another ship for Tuticorin, it reached its final destination Calcutta (12/4/98). This trip took 18 days, not bad at all. 

The Armenian correspondence from Persia to the DEI mainly consisted of postcards. For that reason, the letter to Macassar (1897) is quite exceptional. As usual in those days stamps in Persia were attached to the back of the envelope. This side also offers the complete route from Julfa (12/5) to the Persian port Boushir (29/5), over sea to Singapore (14/6) and Weltevreden (17/6), on to Surabaya (19/6) to reach Macassar by boat (25/6). In total 44 days en route, broken down: within Persia 17 days, Persia – Weltevreden: 19 days, Weltevreden – Macassar 8 days. The journey within Persia shows transport by caravan in that time was very time-consuming.

The trading company Michael, Stephens & Co was founded in the 1870s by Minas Stephens and John Marcar Michaels. They had their head quarters in Macassar on the island of Celebes, with branches in Singaradja and Ampenan on Bali.

Correspondence with Persia

The main postal route from the Dutch East Indies to Persia led
via the Indian ports Tuticorin and Bombay to the
post Boushir

Connected by their common language, a unique alphabet and an own religion, Armenians abroad formed a strong community. The Armenians in the Dutch East Indies maintained close contacts with their home country, Persia. Their correspondence with the Armenians in New Julfa (Isfahan) is interesting for postal historians because their incoming and outgoing mail offers an overview of the postal routes between DEI and Persia in the period 1897 - 1917.

The routes from Java to Julfa

The sea route from the DEI to Persia went via India. Tuticorin at the Coromandel Coast is the most common transit cancellation seen. In antiquity Tuticorin was an important port and when the European powers arrived, it was heavily contested. In 1658 the Dutch managed to wrest this foothold from the Portuguese, but in 1825 they handed it over to the English. The port on the Southeast coast of India was not far away from Ceylon and at the end of the 19th century it developed to an important junction.

Alternatively mail was led via the upcoming port Mohammamerah
on the border river with the Ottoman Empire.

Another important port en route to Persia was Bombay on the west coast of India. The Portuguese ‘Bom Bahia’ of Bombain’ (good bay) was corrupted by the English to Bombay. In the second half of the 19th century, Bombay was one of the main seaports on the Arabian Sea and also housed the head quarters of the East India Company. Postcards from Armenians to Julfa either show a transit cancellation at Tuticorin, or a transit cancellation at Bombay. Occasionally a postcard shows both transit cancellations, with a cancellation at Colombo into the bargain. From the card, the main route from Java to Persia can be deducted: Singapore – Tuticorin – Bombay – Boushir.

Boushir (Bushir, Bushehr) was founded in 1736. Around 1800 the Dutch and the English started to concentrate their regional commercial activities there and the city became an important commercial center. After the Anglo-Persian war (1856-1847) the English influence increased considerably. Therefore, it is not surprising that the route to Boushir led via India. The transit cancellation at Boushir is not very clear, so a better strike from another card is shown.

Persia around 1910

After 1900 postcards from DEI entered Persia also from Mohammerah, now Khorramshar. Mohammerah was situated at the border river with the Ottoman Empire. This resulted from the improved connection from Mohammerah with the hinterland, leading to its increased importance as an international port.

The routes from Julfa (Isfahan) to Java

It seems obvious the main route of the incoming mail from Julfa (Isfahan) to DEI corresponds with the outgoing route, albeit in reverse order: Djoulfa – Boushir – India – Java (whether or not via Singapore). Until now the Persian post marks are shown as circular cancellations. Therefore this is an appropriate moment to pay attention to the spectacular, spindle shaped cancellations of later dates.

Spindle shaped cancellations of djoulf-isfahan en boushir on
a postcard (1905) from New Djoulfa to Bali

In addition to the main route, an alternative route developed from Persia through Russia, connecting with the European railway network. The postcard to Surabaya was mailed in Isfahan in 1913 with a written indication of the desired route ‘Via Bacou + Brindisi’.  The transit cancellation at Teheran shows the postcard indeed did not follow the usual route to the south via Boushir, but a route to the north, in the direction of Baku.

Since 1813 Baku had belonged to Tsarist Russia. Since the 16th century the existence of oil was known, but local exploitation was only partly successful. In 1872 when the Russian Government terminated the state monopoly and allowed exploitation by private companies, foreign capital flooded in. Several European entrepreneurs brought in expertise and investments. The Swedish brothers Nobel provided technical improvements in the refining process and took care of effective oil transport[9]. The French brothers Rothschild provided the capital for the construction of a pipeline and the necessary railway network. Like a gold fever, Baku developed its own oil fever. As a result, the city provided excellent connections by railway and ship.

An alternative route developed from Northern and Central Persia
to Java through Baku in Russia, connecting with the European
railway net to reach the Italian port Brindisi for the ships to
the Far East.

The picture postcard which was sent from Isfahan to Surabaya in 1917 initially followed the same route via Teheran to Baku. Meanwhile, since the previous postcard four years had elapsed. The First World War had erupted and it could hardly be expected, mail from Russia to the Far East would be transported through a hostile nation like Austria.

Russia had waged the war with varying success. In the summer of 1916 the Russian army with the Brusilov offensive scored a significant victory, but subsequently the Russians were driven back in a series of humiliating defeats. These military setbacks, added to the abominable situation of the economy, the continuing famine and the long standing dissatisfaction of the population, in February 1917 led to food riots in St Petersburg, rapidly turning to a general uprising fed by farmers, mutinous soldiers and laborers. Czar Nicolas II came under extreme pressure and abdicated on March 2. The February revolution was the start of the Russian Revolution[10]. The machine cancellation Petrograd shows that the Persian picture postcard on the 14th April 1917 found itself in the eye of this revolutionary storm.

Four years later (1917) this postcard from Persia to DEI also
was sent to Baku. Because of the First World War, the card
was censored in Baku and then forwarded to St Petersburg.
Despite the Russian February Revolution, it was sent by
Trans-Siberian Railroad to Shanghai to reach its final
destination from there.

Considering this chaotic situation, it is remarkable that the postcard still went through the system. In Baku a small violet censor strike Baku No 45 was applied, the card nevertheless again was censored in St Petersburg (rectangular military censor mark Petrograd). The following postal cancellation is quite a surprise: Shanghai (23 May 1917)! Due to circumstances, the card in St Petersburg must have been sent to the Far East on the Trans-Siberian Railway. Because of its wanderings in Russia, the card from Isfahan took 70 days to reach Shanghai. Nothing to complain about, at least the card survived the Russian Revolution! From Shanghai, the card would ultimately reach its final destination.

Han T. Siem, Clearwater, USA
([email protected])


[1] The contribution of Mrs Nadia Wright in the translation of the article and providing valuable information is gratefully acknowledged.
Wikipedia: History of Armenia and other entries
Wikipedia: New Julfa
Aslanian, S.: “The Salt in a Merchants’s Letter”: The Culture of Julfan Correspondence in the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean. J. World History 19: 127-188 (2008)
Merrillees, S.: Batavia in Nineteenth Century Photographs (Singapore, 2006), pg 164
I am much indebted to Dr. George A. Leylegian for the translations of the Armenian texts and providing addition information.
Wright, N.S.: Respected citizens. The history of Armenians in Singapore and Malaysia.
Rush, J.R.: Opium to Java. (Singapore 1990, reprint 2007)
Yergin, D.: The Prize. The epic quest for oil, money, and power. (New York, 1991)
In the second phase, the better known October Revolution, the power was taken over by the Bolshevists.

Comments (2)

Ronald John Marcar
Pls find information with the link below. Most of the Armenians living in Indonesia have been taken to camps during the Japanese occupation. It basically ended the existing of Armenian communities in Jakarta, Bandung, Surabaya and Makasar. You may find many Armenians who not made the end of WW II burried on the War Cemetaries taken care f the Nederlandse Oorlogsgraven Stichting. Fallen but Never Forgotten: Armenian Victims of the Pacific War armenianweekly.com/2014/07/09/pacific-war
B. van Leeuwen
Born in Indonesia, this story is fully unknown to me! Thanks a lot for this article. I wasn't aware that there were (are?) living Armenians in the Archipellego of Indonesia. Do you know if this group also was brought into japanese camps as prisoners of war during world war II Because I'm working at Bronbeek Arnhem ( the Netherlands) as an volunteer, ( guide) This story is very interesting to tell our guests visiting Bronbeek about their history!!

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