Friday, August 11, 2017

Death of Grigor Harutiunian (Gorgin Khan, August 11, 1763)

The trade network centered in Nor Jugha, the suburb of Persian capital Ispahan founded in 1604 by Shah Abbas I after the forced migration from Eastern Armenia, soon had India as one of its first components. Armenian merchants (khwaja or khoja) competed with European commercial companies during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and had an active presence in the Indian subcontinent. Their presence was not only commercial, but also extended to the political and military realms. One of the most striking cases was their participation in the Bengal rebellion of 1760-1763 against British power.

Khoja Bedros Harutiunian (Petrus Arathoon) was an intermediary between the British and Mir Jaffar, army commander of the Nawab of Bengal, Siraj-ud-dowlah. The latter was defeated by the British in the Battle of Plassey (1757) due to the defection of his army commander, and Mir Jaffar was installed as Nawab with the support of the British East India Company. However, his failure to satisfy all British demands led to his removal, again with participation by Harutiunian.

Mir Jaffar’s brother-in-law, Mir Kasim, replaced him with the support of the Company. Upon ascending the throne, he repaid the British with lavish gifts and tried to please them. However, he was soon tired of British interference and endless demands, and yearned to break free of their influence. He shifted his capital from Murshidabad to Munger in present-day Bihar, where he raised an independent army, which he financed by streamlining tax collection. He also fought against corruption and waste of resources.
Born in Nor Jugha around 1730, Grigor Harutiunian (Khwaja Gregory), known as Gorgin Khan in Indian sources, was a younger brother of Bedros Harutiunian and a cloth merchant in Hooghly. He became a confidant of Mir Kasim, who designated him commander in chief of the Bengal army in 1760. He gathered more than a hundred Armenians, whom he designated as generals, colonels, and captains of the army, which had 40,000 soldiers (25,000 infantry and 15,000 cavalry). He formed an artillery force, which he trained according to European methods.

From 1760-1763, Mir Kasim and the East India Company were in a sort of standoff. He opposed the British position that their imperial license meant that they could trade without paying taxes, while licensed local merchants were required to pay up to 40% of their revenue as tax. Frustrated at British refusal, Mir Kasim abolished taxes on the local traders as well, and upset the advantage that the British traders had been enjoying so far.

In 1763 hostilities broke out. The British occupied Patna, but forces sent by Gorgin khan and headed by Armenian captains Margar Kalantarian and Ghazar Hakobian, recovered the city. However, British attacks continued. Mir Kasim and Gorgin Khan decided to regroup their forces in the fortress of Rotosgara. On their way, they camped at the bank of the Delipur River. A day later, on August 10, 1763, when strolling through the encampment with his three bodyguards, Gorgin Khan was mortally wounded by a group of cavalry asking for their pay and died the next day. He was buried in the village of Barh. There are two versions about the authorship of this attack. One says that his brother Bedros had sent him a letter asking him to join the British, but he had rejected the offer. Mir Kasim’s informer had reported the Nawab about Bedros’s letter, and this was reason for the Bengali ruler to suspect the faithfulness of the Armenian commander. The second version is that the murder was organized by the British.

Deprived of Gorgin Khan’s organizational talent, the rebellion ended in a failure. Mir Kasim made an alliance with Shuja-ud-Daula of Avadh and Shah Alam II, the itinerant Mughal emperor, who were also threatened by the British. However, their combined forces were defeated in the Battle of Buxar in October 1764. Mir Kasim was expelled from his dominion and fled. He died in obscurity and abject poverty in 1777.