In the fall of 1670, a Dominican missionary and traveler named Domingo Fernández Navarrete arrived at the port city of Masulipatam (now Machilipatnam) on the windswept coast of southeastern India and promptly took up residence in the city’s newly established French lodge. As Navarrete noted in his travelogue, both the English East India Company (EIC) and its Dutch equivalent, the Verenigde Oostindische Compagnie (VOC), had already received permission from the Qutb Shahi sultans of the kingdom of Golconda, rulers of Masulipatam as well as much of the neighboring Coromandel coast, to establish their own factories or trading outposts in the city.Footnote 1 The French, whose Compagnie des Indes Orientales (CIO) had only been founded by Jean-Baptiste Colbert in 1664, were still unaccustomed to the trading world of the Indian Ocean. Their lack of knowledge concerning the markets and cultures of this region had prompted Colbert to recruit two foreigners. The first was the Dutch-born Huguenot and former director-general of the VOC, François Caron, who alongside Jacques de Faye served as director-general of the new French company’s affairs. The second was an Iranian-Armenian gem and silk merchant from Isfahan named Martin Marcara Avachintz, who worked under Caron and was hired for his detailed knowledge of the Indian Ocean world.
Navarrete found a warm welcome in the grand lodge of the French factory, whose construction had recently been authorized by a farmān or royal edict from Sultan Abdullah Qutb Shah. The Spanish friar relates that Marcara, an Armenian Catholic who “had been at Rome, Florence, and Paris,” had as chief of the CIO’s outpost just “procur’d the settling of the Factory at Golconda, under the same privileges the Dutch and the English enjoy’d.”Footnote 2 Marcara’s success was short-lived, however. Instead of being rewarded, he was summarily and brutally arrested on charges of misappropriating company funds.Footnote 3 Navarrete continues:
In short, upon S. Matthew’s Day [September 17, 1670], after baptizing a Godson of his with great Solemnity, they seiz’d him with a great deal of Noise, and seiz’d his Son. Macara’s [sic] servants fled, and gave an account of what had happened to the Moorish Governour of the City [who the next day] sent 300 Men commanded by the Supreme Civil Magistrate to beset the Factory, hinder any Provisions from being carry’d in, and by that oblige them to set Macara at Liberty. Footnote 4
What the friar probably did not know was that the Armenian’s arrest had most likely been orchestrated by Caron, who had fallen out with Marcara and wished to get rid of him by accusing him of embezzlement. Navarrete recounts how on October 17, one month after his imprisonment in the French lodge, Marcara, his son Michel, his newly baptized four-year-old nephew Matthew, and another nephew called Nazaret were pushed into a small boat and conducted to a French ship, La Couronne, which was waiting for them in the harbor. The ship’s hold where they were chained became their dungeon for almost three years, as they were piloted on Caron’s orders from one Indian Ocean port to another: their first journey, on which they were joined by Navarrete, was from Masulipatam to Surat, followed by a return trip back to Masulipatam, then on to Bantam in Southeast Asia before proceeding to France, by way of Brazil, to stand trial for corruption. Having survived these ordeals, Marcara sued the CIO, launching a long trial that took place in Paris beginning in 1676. During this litigation he prepared several autobiographical printed pamphlets or legal briefs—known as factums—as part of his defense, before finally receiving a royal verdict in his favor in 1688. A number of these factums, together with other unpublished documents relating to the case, have survived in the Bibliothèque nationale de France in Paris and the Archives nationales d’outre-mer in Aix-en-Provence, and provide rare autobiographical information on different facets of Marcara’s life. They were first brought to light in Paul Kaeppelin’s classic 1908 work La Compagnie des Indes orientales et François Martin.Footnote 5 In the late 1970s, Gabriel Rantoandro analyzed the factums and other court papers relating to Marcara,Footnote 6 but since then they have remained largely unstudied, especially at first hand.Footnote 7
This essay seeks to show that Marcara’s tale of misadventures in multiple locations can shed light on the globalization of trade and the intertwined histories of early modern Europe and the Indian Ocean world. More particularly, his trajectory serves as an ideal case study for what world historians have for some time been calling “global microhistory.”Footnote 8 In other words, the fascinating episode of Marcara’s trial and the detailed paperwork it generated can be understood in terms of what Edoardo Grendi and Carlo Ginzburg have characterized as “the exceptional normal”: extraordinary documents and apparently marginal individuals “that—if subjected to the proper micro-analytical reading—could nonetheless illuminate broad trends.”Footnote 9 In the case of Marcara, a careful recounting of his microhistory can shine new light on the little-examined early history of the CIO and the subsequent expansion and collapse of French influence and power across the Indian Ocean.
Marcara’s life and the documents produced during his trial open up our understanding of three related aspects of early modern history. First, as Sanjay Subrahmanyam has recently observed, this microhistory reveals the tense interaction between two rival and very different networks of trade, the one modeled on a modern bureaucratic corporation, the other based on a diasporic and familial organization capable of generating and sustaining trust and solidarity on a global scale. Second, the Marcara affair can cast important light on the social and cultural history of the legal system in France under Louis XIV, particularly the uses of factums, or legal briefs, in court proceedings. Finally, and perhaps most interestingly, Marcara’s story and the legal records that relate it are deeply reflective of early modern French perceptions of the “Orient” and its peoples, and can help us understand how European views of “nobility” differed from interpretations of this concept in Asia and in particular among the Armenians.
The Compagnie des Indes Orientales and the New Julfan Armenian Trade Diaspora
The creation of the CIO was proclaimed in a royal charter granted by Louis XIV on September 1, 1664, conferring numerous privileges on the fledgling company.Footnote 10 These included the right to sign diplomatic treaties or agreements with foreign states or sovereign entities, to hold land and legislate like a state, to have its own armed forces, and most importantly perhaps to enjoy the full monopoly of “navigating and trading, to the exclusion of all our other subjects, from the Cape of Good Hope along the entire length of the Indies and the Eastern seas, even until the straights of Magellan, in all the Southern Seas, for a period of fifty consecutive years.”Footnote 11 The direct inspiration for these privileges was the Dutch VOC, founded in 1602 and endowed with a permanent joint-stock principle—a bureaucratic managerial structure that provided an “organizational template” for virtually every other European East India Company established during the early modern period, including the English (1600), Danish (1616), and much later the French.Footnote 12
Like these earlier companies, especially the English and Dutch examples, the CIO can be described as a “Company-state,” a “colonial proprietor,” or a “politie of civill and military power,” to echo Philip J. Stern’s characterization of the EIC.Footnote 13 A board of directors known as the Chambre générale or Assemblée générale—corresponding to the VOC’s Heren XVII—managed the company from Paris, while a number of smaller boards (chambres particulières) functioned in other cities: of the twenty-one directors, elected by shareholders and directly responsible to them, twelve were allotted to the capital.Footnote 14 However, the CIO also had at least two directors-general stationed in the Indian Ocean to oversee its trading settlements there. Like the other East India Companies, the French expansion relied on setting up fortified trading posts (comptoirs) in the main ports of the region, usually with the generous permission of local rulers who granted concessions by issuing farmāns. These trading posts were vital because they permitted officials stationed there to purchase, store, and ship commodities such as spices, textiles, and other luxury staples to consumers in Europe. Fort-Dauphin in Madagascar became an early center for the larger network of comptoirs throughout South Asia, from Surat (1668), Masulipatam (1670), and Pondicherry (1674) to Chandernagor (1692) in the Bay of Bengal. In all these locations (with the possible exception of the last), the French found it difficult to compete with their English and Dutch counterparts, who had arrived and settled much earlier.
In addition to imitating the “factory” system of coastal trading posts used by the Portuguese, Dutch, and English, the French also borrowed the joint-stock principle as the basis of their state-chartered corporation. In principle, the start-up capital of the French company was to be assembled through investments made by private shareholders. In practice, however, unlike the VOC or the EIC, the French state in the person of Louis XIV overwhelmingly controlled the management of the CIO. The king had invested three of the fifteen million livres collected to launch the company, with an additional five million provided by the noblesse de robe and members of the court, including the queen mother.Footnote 15 Less than half the total capital was therefore the result of joint-stock ownership by private investors. Even the publicly owned shares were not raised spontaneously from “private merchants” as in England or the United Provinces, but were marshaled in a way that demonstrated the “unsubtle dirigisme” of the Crown.Footnote 16 The preponderant role of the state in the affairs of the CIO starkly distinguished the French enterprise from its English and Dutch counterparts and likely became one of the factors behind its lackluster performance in the Indian Ocean.
While the EIC and the VOC had taken years to build up, the CIO sprung forth almost fully formed from the heads of a few individuals in Paris, most prominently Colbert.Footnote 17 It was nevertheless hobbled from the start by its lack of “accumulated commercial knowledge” concerning the marketplaces, languages, and trading seasons of India and the Indian Ocean.Footnote 18 To make up for this limitation, Colbert resorted to the time-honored policy of corporate recruitment from outside France, in particular from the United Provinces: in 1665, twenty-two of the new company’s pilots and merchants were Dutch, almost all of them Protestants.Footnote 19 The most crucial of these recruits was perhaps Caron, who like other Dutchmen working for the CIO was issued a naturalization certificate.
Born in 1600 in Brussels to Huguenot parents who later settled in the United Provinces, Caron had joined the VOC in 1619. He took up service in Hirado, Japan, where his quickly acquired fluency in the language allowed him to climb the ranks of the company and to familiarize himself with the region.Footnote 20 He wrote a widely-read account of the history of Japan in 1636, titled Beschrijvinghe van het machtigh coninckrijcke Japan (A True Description of the Mighty Kingdom of Japan). In 1639, after serving on several diplomatic missions to the court of Shogun Iyemitsu at Yedo, he was appointed director of the VOC factory at Hirado. He spent 1643 in Batavia and the following year settled comfortably as governor of the Dutch outpost of Fort-Zeelandia in Taiwan, where he served from 1644 to 1647 before assuming the second-highest post in the VOC hierarchy as director-general of commercial operations in the East.Footnote 21 Caron lived such a lavish life with his wife Constance Bounden that the Heren XVII called him back to Amsterdam in 1650 on the suspicion that he was amassing a personal fortune in “private trade” at the expense of the company, something the Dutch expressly forbade.Footnote 22 As perceptively noted by François Martin, an employee of the CIO whose own role in the Marcara affair will soon become apparent, Caron “knew how to deceive the most able men and thus reach his ends.”Footnote 23 His unbounded greed and avarice had effectively enabled him to amass a vast personal fortune through his “imperious temper and forceful personality.”Footnote 24
The character flaws outlined in Martin’s Mémoires later came to haunt the ill-fated history of French fortunes in the East Indies. Caron’s constant disputes with Marcara and others whom he considered obstacles on his path to personal enrichment led to what one French official described as “discords, quarrels, disobedience, and fights one against the other” and in turn to the “total loss” of French credit and reputation in India.Footnote 25 The Dutchman’s early mismanagement of the CIO’s affairs, the senseless plans to colonize the island of Madagascar, and the loss of a crucial naval engagement in the Indian Ocean against the Dutch in 1672 were partly responsible for the liquidation of the CIO in 1683 and its replacement by an equally dysfunctional new company the following year, itself abolished in 1719 and superseded by the more successful Compagnie Perpétuelle des Indes Orientales.Footnote 26 Caron’s place at the helm of the CIO also doomed the career of another “outsider” recruited by Colbert, the Armenian Marcara.
Hired for his intimate knowledge of the trading world of the western Indian Ocean and of Mughal India in particular, Marcara hailed from New Julfa, a tiny commercial suburb of the Safavid imperial capital Isfahan (Iran). The trade diaspora of merchants from this suburb represented a type of trading network that, before the arrival of the European East India Companies, had proliferated across the maritime space of the Indian Ocean.Footnote 27 The New Julfan network that figures so prominently in Marcara’s story had some broad similarities with the European companies, but also differed starkly from the corporation model of trade represented by Colbert’s CIO. Like the European companies, the Julfan merchants presided over an extended network of settlements scattered throughout the key emporia towns of the Persian Gulf (Basra, Bandar ‘Abbas/Hormuz), stretching across the wide littoral of the Indian Ocean (Surat, Madras, Golconda, Masulipatam, Pondicherry, Bombay, Calcutta, Chinsura, and Dhaka in Mughal India), the South China Sea (Canton and Macau in China, Pegu, Tenasserim, and Batavia in Southeast Asia), and as far as Manila on the edge of the Pacific. They were also present in an impressive array of trading centers that reached from Safavid Iran to northwestern Europe via Muscovite Russia and the Mediterranean basin, including Italy, France, and Spain. Like the East India Companies, the Julfan network expanded in a tentacular fashion across Europe and Asia, branching out from a single “nodal center” whence much of their trading activity was coordinated: New Julfa had a population of thirty to fifty thousand by the time Marcara was recruited by the CIO.
Established by the Safavid ruler Shah ‘Abbas I in 1605 to house the community of Armenian silk merchants he had violently uprooted from the Caucasus during a war against the neighboring Ottoman Empire, New Julfa had experienced spectacular growth as a commercial center. Under Safavid patronage, the township’s merchants specialized in the long-distance trade of raw silk from northern Iran, diamonds, textiles, and spices from South Asia, and later in opium and tea from South Asia and China respectively. Their trade network was not structured around the organizational building block of a state-chartered joint-stock corporation with unprecedented military and bureaucratic powers. Instead, the New Julfan “trade diaspora” functioned as a mercantile group unified by strong kinship ties but divided into “agnatic” families, each pursuing its own interests but socially interdependent through relations of “trust” and cooperation based on collective discipline and solidarity. Rather than corporations, the Julfans thus operated as a series of patriarchal family firms: the eldest male members directed their extended families and also managed their commercial interests by hiring dozens of commenda agents.Footnote 28 While the senior members of Julfan family firms were stationary and usually resided in the nodal center near Isfahan, their agents traveled for long periods and traded across the network, keeping a small percentage of the profits.
On the whole, given the dense ties of their network and the importance of reputation, honor, and kinship, agents comported themselves honestly: malfeasance and cheating among Julfan merchants were minimal. To make inroads into the trading centers of the Indian Ocean, the Armenians relied on their cultural skills as “go-betweens” rather than armed force or the backing of strong, centralized states.Footnote 29 Unlike the European companies and their factors or agents, the Julfans did not elbow their way into the markets of the Indian Ocean, nor did they reside in isolated and fortified trading outposts; instead, they were integrated into the very fabric of their host societies. These merchants frequently married locally and interacted culturally with their hosts, they spoke local languages and adopted local customs—skills that made them formidable and much sought-after go-betweens for their host societies but also for the Europeans, who were rarely familiar with these languages and customs and did not necessarily know the quality and price of local merchandise. It was thus the New Julfan Khwāja Israel di Sarhat who helped the EIC acquire a farmān from the Mughal authorities to establish the fortified trading settlement in Bengal known as Fort William or Calcutta in the 1690s.Footnote 30 Given the excellent reputation of Armenian merchants from New Julfa as cross-cultural brokers in both Europe and Asia, it should come as no surprise that Colbert recruited a member of this community to help develop the CIO.
A Life Lived Across Empires
Marcara first arrived in Paris in 1665, a year after the foundation of the CIO. The story of how he appeared in the French capital has several versions. The first is recorded in a factum that Marcara had drafted in Paris on March 5, 1676, through the services of the “rapporteur” and lawyer Marc-Antoine Turgot de Saint-Clair. The document, titled Factum contenant l’histoire tragique pour le Sieur Martin Marcara Avasinz [sic], describes him as “a native of the city of Isfahan, the capital of Persia, and an offspring of one of the most considerable and most ancient houses that Shah ‘Abbas, called the great, king of Persia, transferred at the end of the last century from Greater Armenia to Isfahan.”Footnote 31 It is more than likely, however, that Marcara was born not in the city of Isfahan itself but in its opulent Armenian suburb, New Julfa.
We do not know the year of Marcara’s birth or the place and time of his death. According to this factum, like many others from his small community this merchant “occupied himself with important trade in the East Indies” and had spent his youth in India, where he had “perfectly learned the state of trade, the prices of merchandise, and the languages of that country.”Footnote 32 In another factum printed in 1682, Marcara states that he had lived outside Iran for thirty-five years, which would seem to suggest that he had settled in India by the late 1640s. According to the Indo-Armenian historian and antiquarian Mesrovb Seth, Marcara’s family were the first Armenians to settle in Bengal, where they set down roots from 1645 near the Dutch trading post of Chinsura or Hugli just north of Calcutta. It was there that one of Marcara’s two brothers, John (Ohannis or Hovanness) di Marcara, laid the foundations in 1695 for the first Armenian church in India and the second oldest Christian place of worship in Bengal, lending credence to Seth’s assertion. It is likely that Marcara, like other Armenian traders in India, traveled and worked in other parts of the subcontinent. His travels most probably took him to the region of Golconda, then at the height of its fame as one of the world’s few diamond mining centers, where other New Julfan merchants had settled and were involved in trading these jewels in the Mediterranean, especially Italy.Footnote 33
Marcara’s trajectory from Iran to Europe is fairly representative of New Julfan merchants who handled diamonds or gems. It runs, for instance, parallel to that of Agha di Mattus, one of the wealthiest Armenians in late seventeenth-century Livorno and a close friend of Marcara, who appears to have made several journeys between India and the Mediterranean centers of Venice, Livorno, Florence, and Rome before settling in the Tuscan port.Footnote 34 It also recalls that of Raphael Ruply, whose misadventures were eerily similar to Marcara’s.Footnote 35 For reasons that are not explained by the sources, after shuttling back and forth between the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean, Marcara also settled in Livorno and continued to make commercial transactions in Italy, Iran, and the Ottoman Empire. Like many Julfan merchants attached to family firms, he was probably acting as an itinerant commenda agent for a wealthy merchant, possibly in the company of his brothers, John and Joseph (or Hovsep), selling a portfolio of commodities including Persian raw silk, Indian calico textiles, precious stones, and especially diamonds from Golconda.
After several years in Tuscany, Marcara appears to have suffered a terrible reversal of fortune that compelled him to move to Paris. According to the first version of his story, as told in the factum of March 1676, he met a Venetian merchant or “banker” in the late 1650s and before too long was fleeced by him. Marcara’s factum describes his interactions with this unnamed merchant (identified in other documents as Giuseppe Armano) in a cautious and reticent manner, simply stating that he was cheated of 14,000 livres in a transaction involving Persian silk.Footnote 36 This version of the story claims that the Venetian passed away without sufficient funds to pay his creditors,Footnote 37 leaving Marcara with no recourse but to travel to Paris and place himself under the Sun King’s protection to seek the justice he had been denied in the Grand Duke of Tuscany’s tribunals. He supposedly left Livorno on September 14, 1665, and arrived in Paris on October 24, where he promptly presented himself first to the “Bishop of Babylone, then to the Bishop of Neocesaria and Coadjutor of the said Bishop of Babylone, his prelate.”Footnote 38 Marcara told the bishop what had happened and the reason for his arrival in Paris, and beseeched him to aid him in his objective. It was then, through the bishop, that he was granted access to the court of Louis XIV.
The second version of the story is probably closer to the truth and one that Marcara would have preferred not to reveal at his trial had the attorney representing the CIO’s board of directors not called his honesty and reputation into question by exposing his checkered past and imprisonment in Tuscany. In the factum entitled Instruction memorable, probably printed in 1682, Marcara explains that once his case against Armano was ready to go to trial, the latter was so close to being cornered that he “devised the most criminal and most detestable stratagem that one could conceive.”Footnote 39 Armano arranged a public meeting with Marcara in Florence, knowing full well that “the Sieur Marcara, in the custom of Persians, regularly carried a dagger for his own protection, not knowing the consequences thereof in Florence, where the laws and customs are said to prohibit the carrying of such arms.” He then denounced Marcara “to the marshals, who searched for and attacked him with such fury that despite the inalienable right to asylum in religious houses in Italy they pulled him out from under the door of a cloister where he had sought refuge … and confined him in a dungeon where he remained for eighteen months.”Footnote 40 This first arrest occurred in August of 1660, and Marcara was subsequently transferred to three separate prisons. Finally, he appears to have befriended eight fellow inmates with whom he broke out of prison on March 16, 1662. A year later, the papal nuncio in Florence, Cardinal Ursini, persuaded Marcara to travel to France and beg Louis XIV to intervene with the grand duke to recover his goods from Armano’s heirs. This version of the story also provides a slightly fuller account of what followed: after an introduction by the Bishop of Babylone, the king in turn sent Marcara to Colbert.Footnote 41 After being rigorously examined by Colbert, Louis XIV, and the board of directors of the newly founded CIO, Marcara was hired and sent to the East.
Virtually everything we know about Marcara’s life, including the trading voyages that brought him to Livorno and Florence, his imprisonment and escape to Paris, and the circumstances that led him to Madagascar in 1667, stems from the factums conserved in French archives and libraries. Since Marcara himself played an important role in the production and redaction of these documents, it is critical to examine this genre of legal text before returning to his narrative and what it reveals about his dramatically global life. What light can Marcara’s global microhistory shed on the uses of factums in the legal culture of early modern France?
Fiction in the Factums
A criminal act or an act perceived by society and its juridical institutions as creating “ruptures or breaks in the ties that bind people together,”Footnote 42 usually results in a rich paper trail of documentation that historians can use to reconstruct lost worlds and networks connecting individuals, groups, and institutions in complex social webs of meaning and action. This perspective serves as the springboard for the global microhistory of Marcara’s life and trial. As mentioned above, the main sources for this case are the multiple factums or legal briefs generated by a litigation involving a judge, a plaintiff, and defendants. Unlike ordinary trial records, however, factums do not simply contain straightforward court proceedings and “exhibits” or evidence. Rather, they belong to a distinct genre of legal documentation that blurs the boundaries between fiction and legal record.
According to Geoffrey Fleuriaud, since at least the fifteenth century French royal law had gradually excluded lawyers from legal proceedings, leaving the accused essentially isolated: “In order to continue defending their clients despite this interdiction, lawyers resorted to the production of written memoirs or ‘factums.’ A printed or manuscript record, the factum consisted essentially of an account of facts, whence it got its name.”Footnote 43 However, lawyers quickly became aware that printed documents of this type could be used to sway the public, who in turn could pressure the judge and possibly influence the court’s decision.Footnote 44 In fact, as Sarah Maza observes for a slightly later period, factums could even function as a sort of “tribunal of the nation.” A kind of “legal memoir,” the factum was a crucial space for the forging of “public opinion” in pre-Revolutionary France. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, these texts were often “published in the tens of thousands” and were “eagerly awaited, devoured by readers, and dissected by critics.”Footnote 45 Overall, at least a hundred thousand copies of such documents were printed during the ancien régime, “making legal briefs one of the most common forms of printed matter in early modern France.”Footnote 46
One must nevertheless be wary of treating factums as transparent sources of historical evidence, as they deliberately wavered between judicial writing and dramatic fiction.Footnote 47 They were “fictional” not in the sense of being filled with falsehoods, but rather, as Natalie Zemon Davis observes, in the etymological sense of the Latin fingere, designating “forming, shaping, and molding elements: the crafting of a narrative.”Footnote 48 The central protagonists of factums, including Marcara, were thus shaped and brought to life in such a way as to appeal to the social imaginary of the early modern French public.Footnote 49 Given their “fictional” and no doubt partisan nature, historians must therefore treat these texts with caution, and when possible try to corroborate the information they provide with other sources.
These observations go a long way in helping us understand the “Marcara affair.”Footnote 50 It was through these factums that Marcara was able to make his case before the king and the judges—and it is also through these texts that historians can trace his life and career. He first made use of this tool shortly after January 1675, following his arrival in the French town of Port-Louis in the summer of 1673, no doubt in filthy rags after thirty-two months at sea with his son and his young nephew, who later died of the mistreatment to which he had been subjected on Caron’s orders. News of Marcara’s ordeals and the ship’s docking in Port-Louis had evidently reached his relatives, including his brothers John and Joseph and his cousins, all affluent merchants residing in Bengal. Indeed, it is thanks to one of these relatives that Marcara was released from captivity and had his story printed in a factum that has survived in archives across Europe. Described in the 1676 Factum contenant l’histoire tragique as Marcara’s “first cousin and brother in the Levantine fashion,” this relative was called John Marcara, like Marcara’s actual brother in India. According to this text, he had “learned in Bengal in the depths of the Indies … [of] the misfortune and woe of the Sieur Martin Marcara his brother, [and] abandoning his family and his own affairs proceeded to France to aid him in his sorrows.”Footnote 51 The factum tells us that John took two years to reach Paris, which may reflect the genre’s taste for dramatic flair, or indicate that he chose the long and dangerous overland route from Bengal to Paris via Isfahan and Aleppo or Izmir and Istanbul. He apparently “endured so much sorrow and fatigue and unimaginable hardships” during his journey that he passed away in Paris soon after he had “thrown himself at His Majesty’s feet and presented a petition for the release of the Sieurs Marcara, father, son, and nephew.”Footnote 52 According to the factum, the king transferred this petition to Colbert and the verdict ordering Marcara’s liberation was issued on January 2, 1675.Footnote 53 About three weeks later, on January 25, Louis XIV arranged for Marcara to meet with one of Paris’s most esteemed lawyers, Turgot de Saint-Clair. The result was the drafting of the first of a series of factums composed that year in preparation for Marcara’s lawsuit against the CIO and its directors.
The creative blending of fiction with juridical and historical reality evidenced in factums as a genre compels us to briefly examine one of the principal discrepancies between the version of events presented in Marcara’s legal briefs and those given in other sources, especially the CIO archives. Marcara claims to have served as “councilor of the sovereign council of the Isle Dauphine and director of all the factories of the CIO in the East Indies, in Persia, and the countries of the south.”Footnote 54 Despite these bold pronouncements in the numerous factums marshaled by his lawyer, Marcara is never mentioned as a former “director of factories” in the CIO’s archives in Aix-en-Provence, nor in any of its official correspondence. Even Colbert avoids using this title when referring to the Armenian in his Mémoire sur l’état présent de la compagnie orientale de France of March 1669, describing him only as a “councilor of the sovereign council of Madagascar.”Footnote 55 Studies that refer to this episode offer little in the way of a decisive answer. Marie Ménard-Jacob leaves out Marcara altogether when discussing the CIO’s affairs in the East, focusing instead on Caron and de Faye as the two directors in the region.Footnote 56 Presumably, this is because the company’s bureaucratic paperwork does not mention the Armenian as a director. Charles Woolsey Cole and Glen Ames both assert that Marcara signed a contract with Caron and de Faye in Madagascar on October 12, 1668, as “a councilor of the Conseil souverain of the island, and director of the agencies of the company in the Indies.”Footnote 57 But as neither scholar provides a source other than Marcara’s factums, it is entirely possible that the Armenian’s self-designation as director contains an element of fiction.
Rantoandro takes a much more cautious stance. According to him, Marcara was “named councilor and director of the factories to be created on the Coromandel coast.”Footnote 58 But while he considers that Marcara was a regional director of the CIO, he prudently notes that according to the company’s bylaws the title of director was usually given to “shareholder[s] with a minimum of 20,000 livres’ worth of stock, which Marcara was not (he does not figure on the list of shareholders).” Rantoandro thus points to a “manifest contradiction” between the claims advanced in Marcara’s factums and the CIO’s own records and statutes: if Marcara’s assertions were indeed true, “there would have been three directors [in the East Indies] rather than the two stipulated by Paris and cited in the company’s documents.”Footnote 59 Contemporaries and eyewitnesses like the Abbé Carré are ambiguous; they do not refer to Marcara as director but as the person who procured the farmān from Golconda.Footnote 60 The head of the EIC factory in Masulipatam, William Jearsey, states that “Mons. Marcara” was “designed chiefe here,” but nowhere does he mention that he was a director.Footnote 61 Most interestingly perhaps, the French translation of the farmān from Golconda refers to him as “Monsieur Marcara, the chief French councilor and agent of the French nation.”Footnote 62 The Spanish friar Navarrete, who witnessed Marcara’s arrest in Masulipatam, reports that “There were two Directors in the Factory; one whose name was Macara [sic], an Armenian, had been at Rome, Florence, and Paris.”Footnote 63 However, other travelers such as Urbain Souchu de Rennefort do not corroborate his account, referring to Marcara instead as an agent (commis) or merchant (marchand).Footnote 64
The evidence seems to be mixed at best. It could be that Marcara’s nomination by Caron as director did in fact take place but had not been officially finalized in Paris when it became a moot point after his arrest, thus explaining its absence from the CIO’s records. Ménard-Jacob notes that a typical director’s salary in the Indian Ocean “varied between 3,000 and 4,000 livres annually.”Footnote 65 According to Colbert, Marcara was paid as much as “7,200 livres per year,” which would seem to suggest that he did indeed hold this status.Footnote 66 We may not be certain until a more thorough examination of the CIO’s papers and other sources, including the VOC archives in The Hague, has been carried out. Ultimately, however, it matters little whether or not Marcara was in fact a director. What is important is that these ambiguities and divergences oblige us to recognize the potential limitations as well as the advantages of factums as historical sources for Marcara’s life and sensational trial.
The Growing Animosity between Marcara and Caron
Caron was already in Madagascar when Marcara arrived from France on the ship La Couronne on August 23, 1667. Very soon, the Huguenot appointed him councilor of the sovereign council of Madagascar and possibly director of the CIO’s factories in India. Although there were as yet no trading outposts staffed by French agents, the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb had granted a farmān on August 11, 1666, to the company’s representatives, the Dutchman Beber and François de La Boullaye Le Gouz, permitting the French to establish a comptoir in Surat.Footnote 67 Both the English and the Dutch were already present in the city, and the Armenians had a small but prosperous community with their own church. Caron appointed Marcara to accompany him to India for at least three reasons that are important for comprehending the fateful turn of events that followed. First, the original holder of Marcara’s post, the Dutchman de Ligne (or de Lijn), had unexpectedly passed away in Madagascar and the CIO officials needed to replace him.Footnote 68 Second, Marcara was the most qualified person on hand in Madagascar in 1667: his expert knowledge of Iran and the markets of Mughal India no doubt made him an ideal candidate for Caron, himself more familiar with trade in the South China seas and the kingdom of Japan than that of the Western Indian Ocean. The third possible reason, however, was independent of Marcara’s professional qualifications. Caron may also have chosen him because he thought that, like his predecessor, the Armenian would feel beholden to him and therefore quietly collude in his ultimate plan to amass a huge personal fortune at the expense of the CIO. This, at any rate, is the partisan fashion in which Marcara’s Factum contenant l’histoire tragique presents the story, though it seems to fit with the Dutchman’s checkered history and the accusations that led to his dismissal from the VOC in 1650. It might also be that Caron was aware of Marcara’s brush with the law in Florence, and thought he could count on him to take part in his activities—or at least not stand in their way.
However, Marcara proved either too morally upright or dangerously naive for the task. The two men initially hit it off well. On October 15, 1667, they set sail aboard the Saint-Jean, a ship “with a burden of six-hundred tons, mounting thirty-six canon and two-hundred men,” bound for Surat, where they planned to set up their first comptoir in imitation of the EIC and the VOC.Footnote 69 Marcara, the factum tells us, was “in harmony and on good terms with the Sieur Caron and the other officers of the vessel.”Footnote 70 This “harmony” broke down, however, when Caron proposed “that they could arrange the CIO’s affairs and make a personal profit without its knowledge.”Footnote 71 Marcara reports to being
so astonished that he could not help but interrupt Sieur Caron’s lecture and tell him clearly that he was not the man for such a shameful plan; that he would never betray his honor and conscience nor the interests of His Majesty and the Company he had embraced. And scandalized by Sieur Caron’s conduct, the Sieur Marcara made it strongly known to him, though with appropriate moderation and self-control, that if someone acted in such a way he would not only notify the Company but would do his best to stop that person.Footnote 72
The factum, where this episode is recounted with great relish, goes on to describe Caron’s “immortal and secret hatred” for Marcara from this moment on and the “coldness and disdain” that characterized the aftermath of the incident.Footnote 73 The two men had another confrontation in Cochin, and when they finally arrived in Surat, Caron had Marcara put in irons and sent back to Madagascar to stand trial for insubordination. The CIO’s council in Fort-Dauphin was then under the guidance of de Faye, the other director-general of the company in the region, who as a Catholic was suspicious of his rival’s Huguenot background. Much to Caron’s chagrin (and surprise), the council cleared the Armenian of all charges and sent him back to Surat. From there, the CIO’s council sent Marcara on a mission to Masulipatam, where he seems to have spent many years in his youth cultivating ties with the local authorities.
Marcara departed Surat on May 13, 1669, accompanied by some 120 persons and carrying a significant sum of money (up to 160,000 livres, or 300,000 rupees).Footnote 74 His destination was the fortified city of Golconda, also known as Bhagnagar or Hyderabad, which housed the court of the Shia Qutb Shahi dynasty. This family had ruled the region since their Turkoman ancestors the Qara Qoyunlu (or “Black Sheep”) arrived in India after being ousted from their kingdom in northern Iran by the Aq Qoyunlu (“White Sheep”) and then by the Safavids in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. Traveling across the Deccan plateau, Marcara arrived in Golconda on June 21 and was received by an Armenian convert to Islam, a court jeweler named Agnazarbec (or Hakhnazar Beg).Footnote 75 According to the Factum contenant l’histoire tragique, this “kinsman” of Marcara “was one of the most important men in the king of Golconda’s court [and] used his influence to procure for them honorable lodgings in the said city.” Marcara obtained an audience with the ruler’s son-in-law, “with whom he had forged close bonds of friendship during his first voyages to the Indies when he was still a young man.”Footnote 76 He was brought to the attention of Sultan Abdullah Qutb Shahi, who though he did not initially agree to see the Armenian, did make recommendations for Marcara to be granted an audience with a certain “Jabarbec” (or Yar Beg), the governor (havāldar)Footnote 77 of the nearby city of Masulipatam, one of India’s busiest ports.
Benefiting from an unusually rich hinterland and close to some of the subcontinent’s best textile industries, Masulipatam was one of the few locations on the Coromandel coast with direct access to the ports of Mokha on the Red Sea, Muskat on the Arabian Peninsula, and Bandar ‘Abbas and Basra in the Persian Gulf; it was not only a major source of tax revenue for the kingdom of Golconda but also a prized staging post for the VOC and the EIC, which had acquired farmāns from the Qutb Shahis to establish their respective trading settlements there in 1606 and 1611.Footnote 78 Governor Jabarbec was a member of a powerful elite of Iranian émigrés who had risen to positions of administrative and commercial preeminence under the Qutb Shahis.Footnote 79 He listened favorably to the Armenian’s case for granting trading privileges to the French and even offered him a gift of a “fine Persian steed.”Footnote 80 Marcara, as his factum reminds us, was still patiently waiting for an audience with the sultan. Knowing the Iranian origins of the sovereign’s family and his fondness for all things Persian, Marcara wrote a letter in his finest “Persian” that apparently led to an invitation for an audience “with pomp and ceremony.”Footnote 81 Marcara praised the French king and gave Sultan Abdullah a copy of the Sun King’s portrait, along with:
five pieces of fine French gold brocade, thirteen pieces of Dutch cloth, eleven mirrors, four double Louis gold coins, a thousand gold pagodas worth around 3,800 rupees, and three cases of the most excellent Persian wine. The king of Golconda received all the gifts from the said Marcara with great pleasure, thanked him, and bestowed upon him and his entourage robes of investiture in the fashion of the country, before courteously dismissing them.Footnote 82
Sultan Abdullah sent the first of two farmāns to Marcara on October 15, 1669, granting the CIO the right to establish a base in the port of Masulipatam. Marcara examined it and promptly returned it, requesting amplified privileges: “it was not in the form that he wished.” Nearly two months later, he acquired a new farmān, giving the company permission “to conduct such trade as it might please in all of [His Majesty’s] domains without paying anything in general and in perpetuity for either the entry or the exit of ships of the king of France and of the said company.”Footnote 83 The Factum contenant l’histoire tragique does not fail to point out that the Dutch were never able to negotiate the same privileges, nor that the English did so only after twenty years of gifts and services.Footnote 84 Having obtained the privileges he desired, Marcara departed Golconda on December 26, 1669. He arrived in Masulipatam two days later and took charge of a large house with a compound close to the water’s edge that he had arranged to be bought for use by the CIO via his employee, Roussel. His real troubles with Caron were about to begin.
Almost two weeks after arriving in Masulipatam, Marcara wrote to Colbert in Paris to provide an update on his activities. His letter of January 12, 1670, corroborates almost everything contained in the factum of 1676.Footnote 85 In it, he gives a synopsis of his activities and goes to great lengths to state that his actions in Golconda were guided by his overriding concern to discharge his duties as a servant of the CIO with honor and in the interests of his newly adopted homeland, France: “Moreover, sir, having obtained the farmān from the king of Golconda, I came to this city of Mazulipatan [sic] to establish the comptoir, which I did with all imaginable honor, and I had the flag of France flown among those of other European nations as is the custom.”Footnote 86 Richard Smithson, the English factor in the Indian port, corroborates the Armenian’s account of this process.Footnote 87 As he went about preparing the settlement for business, however, Marcara was not oblivious to the machinations of his Huguenot superior.
Marcara’s Arrest in Masulipatam: The Story Told by François Martin
For an account of the final clash between Caron and Marcara, culminating in the Armenian’s violent arrest in Masulipatam, it is interesting to shift our perspective and follow the version given by Martin, often recognized as “the founder of French trading fortunes in India.”Footnote 88 Martin had joined the CIO as a junior merchant in 1664, a year before Marcara’s recruitment. He rose rapidly up the ranks, replacing Marcara as director of Masulipatam in 1670 after obediently following the orders of his superiors Caron and Goujon and organizing the Armenian’s arrest and mock trial. In 1683, he would assume the coveted position of director-general following the death of François Baron, himself appointed after Caron died in a shipwreck in Lisbon harbor in 1673. When the trial was brought against the CIO in Paris, Martin was one of the few surviving participants in the plot to arrest Marcara and the only one who subsequently wrote an extensive account of his activities. By the time of his death in India in 1706, Martin had a near spotless record and a reputation as an able steward of France’s interests overseas. While reading his detailed account of Marcara’s arrest, however, we need to keep in mind that his illustrious career was accomplished in part by removing rivals from his path to promotion.Footnote 89 Martin’s biased account of Marcara’s disgrace, casting aspersions on the Armenian community as a whole, was also a way of emphasizing his own actions and successes in the service of the CIO.
The first volume of Martin’s Mémoires is largely devoted to the Marcara affair and presents a rather sterilized view of developments in Masulipatam during the fall of 1670 before the Armenian’s sudden arrest “on September 21 at three o’clock in the afternoon … in the grand hall of the lodge.”Footnote 90 Martin fails to mention that Marcara was arrested on Saint Matthew’s day while attending the Catholic baptism of his four-year-old nephew, Matthew, in the company of another nephew, Nazaret, and his son Michel, both seventeen years of age, as well as CIO officials and perhaps the Dominican friar Navarrete. He also omits the fact that he himself was chiefly responsible for orchestrating the Armenian’s rather brutal seizure. Indeed, in Marcara’s version of events, it was Martin who held a gun to his forehead and subjected him to torture in order to extract a “confession” that he had embezzled 2,600 rupees or 4,200 livres from the CIO.
As rumors spread of Marcara’s arrest, the local authorities sent representatives to the French lodge to demand the Armenian’s release, including the new governor Mamoudbec (or Muhammad Beg), who had just replaced Jabarbec, as well as the shahbandar,Footnote 91 the kōtwāl,Footnote 92 and others, all of Iranian background and closely connected with Marcara and his relatives through commercial and cultural ties. The French informed them that Marcara was accused of embezzling funds and diverting them to fellow Armenians, and therefore his arrest was legal.Footnote 93 The governor and some of the town’s leading Muslim merchants then offered to put up a bond for Marcara in exchange for his release.Footnote 94 When this was refused, things took a turn for the worse. Martin describes what happened next:
A little while later, a detachment of around 150 infantry soldiers, armed with muskets, bows, arrows, and lances took up position on an empty lot at the corner of the lodge. … Several warnings were given to us by various persons that Marcara had requested the governor via intermediaries to remove him from our custody, promising him considerable sums; others added that he had offered to convert to Islam. One cannot fully trust the truth of this claim, though the manner in which this Armenian had lived for the last few months, according to those who had lived with him, had not given the impression that he was a man of much religion.Footnote 95
Mamoudbec’s troops then laid siege to the compound and refused to let deliveries of food or water pass. When they mistreated a local servant sent to fetch a bull carrying water, the French decided to act. Martin, accompanied by several other officials, went to meet the kōtwāl and requested that he stop mistreating the servants of the lodge and allow the French to receive provisions. A gunfight ensued and spilled onto the streets, where a CIO agent was killed, as were many of the governor’s troops.Footnote 96
After a standoff that lasted about a month, with preparations feverishly underway in the French lodge for an armed conflict, Marcara agreed, under threat of execution should the lodge be assaulted, to write to the governor pleading him to stand down. Mamoudbec consulted the sultan of Golconda, who on October 8 finally pronounced, in the words of Navarrete, “that the French if they pleas’d might carry away Macara [sic], but should pay what he ow’d, which amounted to 2,000 Ducats.”Footnote 97 According to Martin, Sultan Abdullah demanded restitution of the 900 pagodas (a significant sum) that Marcara owed to “a Persian merchant named Mir Seidely Basefy,” perhaps Said Ali Basefi.Footnote 98 The French refused to pay, and since Marcara does not mention ever borrowing this amount from the Persian merchant named by Martin, it is possible that this loan was a ruse concocted by the sultan to get the French to hand over their prisoner. Finally, around ten o’clock at night on October 16, 1670, Marcara, his son, and his two nephews were escorted at gunpoint to a wharf near the French lodge and pushed into a bark to be sent to the awaiting ship La Couronne.Footnote 99
Three months later, the ship carrying Marcara docked near the French factory at Surat. The prisoners were “forced to remain chained in the hold, … because rumors of their presence had created a great commotion among the many Armenians of the city who were negotiating with the French.”Footnote 100 Though the Armenians only managed to secure the release of Nazaret, the French were forced to transfer the captives to a different ship and take them as far away as possible from Surat, where Marcara had “too strong a base of support” from members of his trade diaspora.Footnote 101 As “portfolio capitalists,” or merchants who straddled the worlds of commerce and political power in their host societies, the Surat Armenians were as well connected with the authorities in that city as their counterparts were with local notables in Masulipatam and Golconda, and there was always the possibility that this could backfire against the CIO.Footnote 102 Caron had told the protesting Armenians that Marcara had broken French law and would stand trial in France.Footnote 103 However, he decided to first send the captives to Bantam in a small convoy of CIO ships, traveling in one of the vessels himself. After enduring various punishments from Caron as the ships were slowly loaded with pepper, the prisoners were sent back to Surat and then on to France (with a stopover in BrazilFootnote 104) to continue the trial that the company had initiated against Marcara in the French lodge at Masulipatam. After nearly three years of being chained in a dark cell and barely fed, the captives finally reached Port-Louis, where a CIO doctor examined them. They were then transferred to a jail until 1675 when, as described above, one of Marcara’s wealthy relatives is said to have arrived from India and secured their release.
In the “Epilogue of the Marcara Affair in Paris” contained in his Mémoires, Martin provides a condensed summary of the trial that ensued. He recalls how, after an initial setback in 1677, the Armenian’s lawyer succeeded in scoring a stunning victory against the CIO’s board of directors. By 1684 or 1685, Martin notes with disappointment if not outright contempt, Marcara had not only cheated the company by “embezzling” its funds; he had also succeeded in tricking the judges and members of Parisian society into believing his tall tale.Footnote 105 Martin then assures his readers that the fact that he won his lawsuit did not mean that the deceitful and double-dealing Armenian was innocent. In fact, he claims, the case was won mostly on a technicality since the court in Paris concluded that the trial held inside the French lodge at Masulipatam was full of “irregularities” and did not conform to the standards stipulated by the king of France.Footnote 106 The judges in Paris also apparently took pity on Marcara because of the cruelties that Caron had perpetrated against him on the round trip from Surat to Bantam, a fact that Martin nevertheless attempts to whitewash. He adds that the Armenian was not happy with just a victory:
Marcara was not satisfied with a verdict in his favor; he wanted to push his luck, and though he hailed from the lowest dregs ( quoique sorti de la lie) of the people of Julfa, which is a colony of Armenians on the edge of Isfahan, the capital of the kingdom of Persia, he passed himself off as a gentleman from an illustrious Armenian family with the goal of getting the expenses incurred during his stay in Paris paid and in order to pursue the trial on the footing of a man of quality. His son traveled to Isfahan to obtain some attestations of his pretended nobility, which would not have been difficult to accomplish since the Armenians are capable of everything. It is regrettable that this nation is not as well known in France as it is in Asia, where one can say that no greater cheats (fourbes), no less trustworthy people can be found, even compared to those nations of this part of the world who pass for the most wicked.Footnote 107
Was this disdain fueled by prejudices against Armenians and “Orientals” in general, or did it simply stem from Martin’s hatred of Marcara? Might this passage reflect more deep-seated biases and anxiety in some circles regarding certain communities from the “Orient”?
Nobility, Orientalism, and Stereotypes: French Perceptions of the “Orient”
During the sensational and public trial that ran in Paris from 1676 to 1688, the matter of what Martin contemptuously referred to as Marcara’s “pretended nobility” played a prominent role in the criminal proceedings unfolding in the Grand Conseil, where the coda of Marcara’s trial took place.Footnote 108 Marcara’s self-proclaimed status as a Persian gentleman and an Armenian of noble birth was scrutinized by Quentin de Richebourg, who represented the CIO’s board of directors in Paris. The status of noblemen and the very question of what it meant to be “noble” outside Europe dominated the trial, as did questions about ethnicity and the collective identity of Armenians. The officials of the CIO and their legal counsel regularly referred to Marcara, and Persians and Armenians in general (they made no distinction between the two), as representing a nation of “cheats” and “tricksters,” unmatched even in the Orient. The company was, of course, trying to evade paying Marcara damages for five years of illegal imprisonment and torture at sea as well as the back pay owed to him. In the end, the Armenian won his lawsuit and cleared his name, though it is far from clear that he was ever awarded any financial compensation.
What does the legal bickering over the question of Marcara’s nobility, his honesty, and his integrity tell us about perceptions of the Orient in early modern France? Does his attempt to prove himself an aristocrat by amassing legal papers or certificates from the four corners of the world reveal a deeper truth about the inner workings of his “trade diaspora” community? Why did so many French officials associated with the CIO and its interests go to such great lengths to denigrate not just Marcara and his family but the entire collective that they were somehow seen to represent?Footnote 109 Though the company’s prejudicial and hostile representation of Marcara and his community was not without precedent, the global microhistory of this case reveals much about the complex etiology of this dehumanizing rhetoric that a more conventional macro-scale analysis of French expansion in the Indian Ocean might easily overlook.
From the outset of the trial, Marcara presented himself to the public and the Parisian court (mediated through the printing and dissemination of factums) as a nobleman from a distant and exotic land, namely Safavid Persia. There appears to be no evidence to support the bizarre and spurious allegation that he passed himself off as an Armenian gentleman for the purpose of getting his legal fees and living expenses paid. Martin gives the impression that Marcara only made this claim after his victory, and for instrumentalist reasons. In fact, Marcara’s lineage is emphasized in the very first publication, his initial factum of March 5, 1676, where the Armenian engaged in what Erving Goffman would call a “presentation of self,”Footnote 110 proclaiming himself to be “the offspring of one of the most considerable and most ancient houses that Shah ‘Abbas … transferred at the end of the last century from Greater Armenia to Isfahan.”Footnote 111 After declaring that his profession had been trade, he assured his readers that this did not compromise his standing as a nobleman, since “the entire nobility of Persia, Armenia, and even of all Asia, are merchants and carry out commerce without any derogatory implication.”Footnote 112
Soon after the appearance of these factums, the defense aggressively sought to denigrate the Armenian by methodically dismantling his self-presentation and questioning his character and integrity. In one of the anonymous pamphlets distributed on the streets of Paris to discredit him, the CIO’s directors mocked Marcara for being “of the lowest birth, the son of a butcher (fils de boucher), a horse-groom (palfrenier), and a rag-and-bone picker (ramasseur de chifons et de rogatons).”Footnote 113 For them as for Martin, the Armenian was not just an “imposter” or “trickster traveler”; he was an ingrate from the “dregs” of society, who had the audacity to pretend to be related to the Armenian royal family so as to abuse the hospitality and good nature of the French nation and its monarch, who always upheld and venerated “the name of the foreigner” in his country.Footnote 114 The CIO also tried to paint Marcara as a common criminal, scoundrel, and fugitive, who had broken out of jail in Florence and arrived in Paris as a wanted man. Marcara and his lawyer countered each of these claims with great care. They admitted that Marcara had spent time in a Tuscan jail and had made a daring escape to come to Paris but argued that this was because he was owed a large sum of money he had naively entrusted to Armano, the real criminal. They also contended that when Marcara had arrived in Paris in 1665, Colbert and the Sun King were aware of his checkered history in Florence and had not objected to his prison term.Footnote 115
Marcara and his lawyer then turned to the question of his nobility. They suggested several key differences between European and specifically French notions of aristocracy, steeped in a long history of feudal relations, and what the terms noble and nobility (noblesse) might mean outside Europe. Invoking Safavid Iran and Armenia more specifically, they noted that noblemen in Asia, unlike their seignorial counterparts in France, frequently engaged in trade and were enriched by it without in any way defiling their rank in society. Furthermore, they remarked that Armenians did not have state institutions of their own, meaning that they lacked the kinds of archives European nobles could use to prove their titles: the clergy and ecclesiastical institutions were the “custodians of all the titles and ancient memorials of nobility that were transferred from Greater Armenia to Persia.”Footnote 116 Marcara thus relied on his community’s extensive trade diaspora to prove his claim to nobility; he reached out to his compatriots in Amsterdam, Venice, and Livorno, obtaining three separate attestations from Julfan merchants residing in these vital hubs of their wider network.Footnote 117 To the dismay of Marcara and his lawyer, none of these documents, despite being notarized, were accepted as admissible by the defense. The CIO and its lawyer de Richebourg, like Martin, continued to maintain that “Armenians” or “Persians” were fraudulent cheats who would do anything to help their own kind, including lying about Marcara’s noble status. To them, he was a “fraud,” a “wily Persian abusing the protection that the French and particularly the king pride themselves on giving to foreigners.”Footnote 118 They even compared Marcara to a “skilled actor” who “cries and … faints when it pleases him and does so with a candor and expertise born of careful study.”Footnote 119 They concluded their no-holds-barred rebuttal of Marcara’s case by stating that “experience has taught us that these kinds of people are not extremely scrupulous, and that when it comes to helping each other out they do not make much of signing a certificate.”Footnote 120
By deploying the motif of a community “helping each other out,” the CIO was relying on a tried-and-tested rhetorical device directed since medieval times against another “diaspora” held together through bonds of fidelity and trust in part inspired by kinship, religion, and a shared history of persecution, namely Jews. To a bureaucratic corporation that lacked the cohesiveness of diasporic communities like the Julfans or Sephardic Jews, the Armenians were suspect because they seemed to act in a “clannish” manner, favoring their own over others. The CIO’s officials saw “vagabondage” as symptomatic of the Armenian trade diaspora whose members they encountered in virtually every region of India where they attempted to establish themselves. This rootlessness had its advantages: it paved the way to multilingualism, “liminality,” and the attributes of what Victor Turner calls “threshold people,” without these multiple identities automatically leading to the dissolution of the underlying social formation of the diaspora.Footnote 121 However, it is important to recall that rootlessness and vagabondage were not necessarily celebrated in the early modern world.Footnote 122
The CIO’s directors did some long-distance networking of their own to undermine Marcara’s claims, appealing to their employees stationed in New Julfa. In particular, they reached out to members of the Franco-Armenian L’Estoile family, many of whom lived in the Isfahan suburb.Footnote 123 Despite the wealth Marcara and his two brothers had accumulated, François de L’Estoile testified that Marcara’s father was a “miserable broker” rather than a nobleman, and that his brothers had earned their fortune in India by serving as commenda agents for others.Footnote 124 Overall, de L’Estoile’s testimony is quite believable. Most of the wealthiest merchants in New Julfa were not born into riches but had indeed made their fortunes via the form of long-distance trading partnership known as commenda. Being of “noble” ancestry, that is, belonging to an ancient Armenian landed family, did not mean being born with a silver spoon in one’s mouth.
The CIO’s legal team took this testimony and twisted the low-level “broker” into a horse-groom and rag-and-bone picker. Since their aim was to denigrate Marcara at any cost, they also concluded their indictment by connecting him to a typical Orientalist trope, the fourbe. Meaning perfidious, untrustworthy, or deceitful, this term was one of the “preferred words to characterize … Asian interlocutors,” as Subrahmanyam has noted in reference to the discourse used as late as the 1750s by French officials in India.Footnote 125 Presaging many of the transformations linked to the colonial period, accusations of fourberie took center stage in Marcara’s trial as the Armenian was accused, along with other “Orientals,” of being “naturally deceitful and without faith.”Footnote 126 Marcara was such an expert imposter, the CIO’s defense added, that he had gone further than any other of his kind: “it is just as shameful to be duped by deceitful and fraudulent foreigners as it is glorious to protect them when they are innocent and under oppression.”Footnote 127
Marcara’s response to this defamatory attack was twofold. First, he pointed out the self-serving and deeply prejudicial nature of the company’s attempt to defame him. His defense relied on arguments that are reminiscent of “postcolonial” discourse:
However, we would like to ask the Sieurs directors what proof they have of the supposed perfidy of the Persian nation, or rather what evidence they lack of their fidelity considering that they themselves trade with Persians. Why, in such a particular dispute, do they dishonor an entire people? In this matter, they must recognize their flippancy and their natural disposition to slander and do harm.Footnote 128
Marcara’s second course of action was to send his young son Michel from Paris to Isfahan to obtain a certificate of nobility from the legal and religious authorities in New Julfa. Michel succeeded in getting the municipal council to issue a certificate, notarized and sealed by Avetis, son of Khachik Barachins, the town’s Armenian kalantar (governor), that Marcara then presented to the judges of the Grand Conseil. Bearing the signatures of New Julfa’s clerical authorities and its wealthiest merchants, this attestation stated that “the family and … tribe of the said Sieur Martiros were from the noble family of Marcara … and at present the same Martiros and his brothers are people of great quality and held in very great consideration among us.”Footnote 129 Marcara also emphasized “the noble commerce” he and his brothers conducted, remarking that they were equal “if not superior” to the CIO’s directors and adding that these activities “were in no way … those of horse-grooms or rag-pickers.”Footnote 130
The racialized slurs against “Orientals” and Armenians that were so prominent in the CIO’s defense may have stemmed from economic competition and anxieties provoked by the encounter between two different forms of trade in the Indian Ocean: a state-chartered corporation with monopolistic ambitions versus a “stateless” trade diaspora. They may also have been deployed with a fairly basic objective in mind—to destroy every shred of Marcara’s credibility. However, they were also in part reflections of a larger mentalité of accumulated misgivings and prejudices about the Orient and its peoples that characterized early modern Europe and Louis XIV’s France in particular. Subrahmanyam has noted how “ethnography and pseudoethnography” conspired to create dehumanizing and abject stereotypes in the minds of European merchants and travelers. Europeans who had entered the field of Indian Ocean trade and found their Asian competitors quite formidable were especially prone to these stereotypes, which were sometimes inspired by anti-Semitism. The French Huguenot Jean-Baptiste Tavernier, for instance, infamously referred to Isfahan’s Marwari and the Multani bankers (Banians) as “pests,” “vipers,” and “vermin” who were “worse than the Jews in usury.”Footnote 131
The same negative view of Indian bankers or sarrāfs is found in the work of a CIO official, George Roques, one of the clerks who drafted and signed Marcara’s contract in Madagascar in October 1668.Footnote 132 Roques ended his career at the French factory in Surat, familiarizing himself with the textile-producing centers of northern India under the director-general Baron, who had succeeded Caron in 1673. As the Marcara trial was winding up in Paris, Roques was writing a trading manual entitled La manière de négocier aux Indes, in which he offered his readers a “commentary on my travels throughout India, inform[ing] you of those things I have remarked of the greatest use to our profession for the purpose of trade in this country, and to safeguard us from ambush by [other] traders.”Footnote 133 In this text, which was destined for circulation among CIO officials rather than general publication, Roques presents a highly essentialized view of social groups, implying that “national character” (or some supposedly immutable set of attributes) shapes the way individuals belonging to a particular group conduct themselves.Footnote 134 He warns his readers that they should be on their guard when traveling in Asia. Whereas Europeans, “who profess the true religion of Christianity,” were guided by honor and honesty, the “barbarous and perfidious nations” of the Orient “have no other passion but the appetite for an illicit profit.”Footnote 135 Despite stating that he does not intend “to describe … the life and customs of so many sects of people,” Roques offers snapshots of the major trading communities of the Indian Ocean, including all the important European East India Companies and the pioneering Portuguese. He throws in, for good measure, brief studies of the communities in Asia with whom CIO officials were likely to trade, interact, or clash. Prominent among these were the ubiquitous Banian brokers (dalals) and the bankers known as sarrāfs, who were found especially in the textile-producing districts where the CIO hoped to make the greatest profits.
Commenting on Roques’s text more than thirty-five years ago, Indrani Ray noted the author’s obsession with “Oriental perfidy,” apparent on virtually every page of his manual.Footnote 136 Remarking on his continuous references to “the evil machinations of Indian merchants and brokers,” Ray wondered whether these “persistent and violent indictments might simply be reflecting reactions of a representative of a potentially aggressive European mercantile capitalism against the middleman, the greatest obstacle to its monopolistic ambitions.”Footnote 137 Roques harbored similar if not more dismal views on the Armenians who, like the Indians, represented a group that the French were compelled to rely upon as go-betweens but also a potential source of fear and loathing because they were formidable competitors. The Armenians to whom he refers were almost all from New Julfa, and were present in all the markets and ports where the CIO hoped to extend its monopolistic trading practices. In a section entitled “On the Armenians and their rules of engagement,” Roques provides a brief history of the origins of this community.Footnote 138 He paints a glowing image of the kindness and generosity of Shah ‘Abbas I, an account that “passes rather coyly over the very violent process of expropriation and displacement through which the Safavid ruler … in fact brought the Armenians to settle in New Julfa.”Footnote 139 Roques then reproaches these same Armenians for “living off the largesse of that great prince” and essentially for looking down on the Persians. He portrays a community whose members are characterized by unbridled greed, ingratitude, and deception, “to argue, after all, for seeing the Armenians not as victims but as predators” and the French as “the real victims” of Armenian chicanery.Footnote 140 Perhaps because of their ability to outsmart the French, Roques considered the Armenians “even more cunning,” more knowledgeable, and “more enterprising” than the Indians.Footnote 141
Just like the CIO’s factums against Marcara and Martin’s Mémoires, and in a way that is highly reminiscent of contemporary anti-Semitic discourse, Roques describes the Armenians colluding with each other “like a pack of dogs” to drive out and destroy the competition.Footnote 142 Virtually every aspect of Roques’s dehumanizing portrait (chicanery, deceitfulness, trickster-like behavior, lack of faith) emerges in the CIO’s case against Marcara. That the company’s directors and Roques shared an essentially hostile view of Armenians, Persians, and Hindus should come as no surprise. Roques was, after all, a loyal employee of the CIO stationed in Surat after Marcara’s arrest and imprisonment; he had every reason to defend his masters back home. It seems evident that his unflattering portrayal of Armenians, as well as Indian brokers and moneylenders, was in part shaped by the fears and insecurities some trading communities instilled in the newly arrived Europeans who aspired to monopolize trade in the region. These prejudices may even be seen as reflections of deeper structural differences between a European corporation-based model of trade fraught by serious problems connected to a breakdown in trust and widespread malfeasance (as Caron’s career shows) and a model based on diaspora, family firms, kinship, and trust. To what extent is the Orientalist discourse that characterized the Marcara affair in Paris—as well as the views expressed by Martin, Roques, and no doubt other writers—representative of broader perceptions of the Orient and its peoples in early modern France? This is an important question that a global microhistory of Marcara’s life helps to pry open. Without the factums connected to the affair, the close link between commercial competition and Orientalist perceptions would have been much harder to bring to light.
On the Uses of Global Microhistory
Bernhard Struck, Kate Ferris, and Jacques Revel have pointed out at least three related but distinct methodological and analytical advantages to introducing micro-scale analysis into transnational or world history. First, such an approach “allow[s] for bringing actors and agency back into the analysis, something that is usually missing in macro-social analysis of cultures and societies.”Footnote 143 Microanalysis can thus contribute, in a very important way, to restoring a “human and individual dimension” to the largely impersonal and “Olympian” narratives of global history and globalization, which have so far focused on the establishment of large-scale networks of exchange and circulation. These studies give pride of place to empire and state formation and to the mobility, circulation, and consumption of commodities or “early modern things” such as spices, silk, silver, South Asian textiles, diamonds, emeralds, and even ostrich feathers.Footnote 144 With only a few exceptions, however, little or no attention has been accorded to the intense study of individuals or small communities and their agency in navigating these global and impersonal forces.Footnote 145
Microhistory’s attention to “trifles” promises to restore the role of human agency and subjectivity to global macronarratives that have remained largely impersonal since the subdiscipline of the “new” world history began to emerge in the 1990s.Footnote 146 One of the advantages of microhistory, as Charles Tilly pointed out, is its capacity to explore and elucidate the interactions of individuals and groups with larger structures and processes, in the hope of explaining “how people actually experienced” the networks in which they found themselves immersed.Footnote 147 In this perspective, a focus “on the uses of biography” may be particularly helpful in restoring agency to the study of world or global history, addressing more fully “the interstitial—and nevertheless important—character of freedom that agents are able to exert, and also the manner by which normative systems, which are never free of contradictions, function in concrete ways.”Footnote 148 Marcara’s resilience in the face of multiple attempts to denigrate his character, to imprison and torture him—in short, to deprive him of his agency—testifies to his ingenuity and resourcefulness in extricating himself from a very difficult situation. To be sure, the global networks of support and solidarity that he actively mobilized to regain his freedom demonstrate how much power a small, stateless trading diaspora could have in the face of stronger and armed corporation-states. But microhistory’s focus on detail may equally underscore the limitations that some structures place on human agency. To understand the Marcara affair, we must counterpose the relatively powerful military and colonial nature of the CIO and the largely defenseless and stateless nature of the Armenian trade diaspora.
Struck, Ferris, and Revel also point to a second contribution that a microhistorical approach can make to global history. Detailed biographical studies of cosmopolitan individuals who—like Marcara—led “global lives” and on whom archival information happens to be abundant, illuminate in concrete and localized ways worldwide forces of imperial, commercial, or biological expansion, integration, and connection in the early modern world.Footnote 149 Finally, “zooming in and out from grand and large-scale questions to microanalysis, case studies of individuals or small groups and viceversa enables the historian to fulfill his craft and the ethic of the discipline by working close to primary sources.”Footnote 150 This varying perspective, at the heart of the microhistorical method, means combining precise and situated studies with large-scale historical questions.
The fruits of this careful, even philological attention to sources—and particularly to legal documents—mean that global history must embrace the “allure of the archive.” While I in no way contest the usefulness of questions posed by synthetic world history based on reliable secondary sources, I am wary of the near-total absence of source analysis involving careful interpretation of the “traces” left by the past. A microhistorical turn in world history thus promises to combine the benefits associated with “big-picture” macro studies of the human past with those of philology and agency-based approaches. Some years ago, Emma Rothschild remarked that a history of globalization “must be a history of relations between individuals and cultures, including individuals who belong to several different cultures at the same time or who move between different identities, languages, countries of residence, and even nationalities. Merchants and immigrant workers are the classic example of such ‘rootless cosmopolitans.’”Footnote 151
A microhistory of the “minimal facts” of Marcara’s turbulent life, recounted in multiple factums, makes it possible to address larger questions of global history during the early modern period.Footnote 152 In particular, a close inspection of his life history and its small dissonances in relation to conventional narratives of the CIO’s early history offers a better and more intimate understanding of the beginnings of French expansion in the Indian Ocean under Colbert. This biographical prism also enables us to deepen our understanding of long-distance trade networks by comparing the monopolistic ambitions of French and European joint-stock corporations with “stateless” trade diasporas, in this case the merchants of New Julfa. Moreover, a close reading of the factums that serve as sources for the Armenian’s life helps us better grasp how these legal memoirs were used in early modern France. Finally, Marcara’s story brings to light French prejudices concerning the Orient and some of its mercantile communities, including Armenian traders and Indian bankers and brokers. Without a microanalysis of Marcara’s life and the papers linked to his trial, this structure of Orientalist thought regarding Armenians and other subjects would have likely remained submerged and therefore unknown.