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The Quedagh Merchant

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A wealthy Khoja merchant from Surat, whose ship, the "Quedagh Merchant" was pirated and for which the notorious English pirate, Capt.. William Kidd was hanged 300 years ago.

by I.I.Dewji, Editor, Khojawiki.org

Quedagh Merchant vessel.png

Researching histories of Khoja families from East Africa, I came across an item that was most intriguing.

Back in the 1960's, Rai Shamshudin Tejpar, a Dar-es-Salaam Khoja Ismaili missionary (preacher) had once intimated to his audience that somewhere in history, a Khoja-owned ship had been captured by a notorious English pirate. Although this was quite probable as it is well-known that Khoja merchants were active in the Indian Ocean littoral trading area from as early as 16th century and were frequently mentioned in Portuguese official documentation of the mid-1500 (Read about Khoja Shams-ud-din Gillani, a business associate of the Portuguese governors of Goa) - the piracy connection was hard to swallow.

Then, in March 2017, Shirin Walji, an Ismaili Studies scholar from London, donated her collection of East African materials to Khojawiki and included there was an article about the Khojas published in 1936 in “Samachar”, a Zanzibari newspaper and sure enough, it provided the following titbit:

“According to Major F.B. Pearce, one of the prizes taken by Captain Kidd the famous pirate, who roved the Indian Ocean at the close of the seventeenth century, was a ship belonging to a Cambay Khoja merchant.” (1) Cambay (or present-day Khambhat) was a major sea-port located just up the waters from Surat and Bhavnagar in Gujarat)

In the book by Major F.B. Pearce, the British Resident (colonial administrator) of Zanzibar, published in 1920, he talks about Khojas as being the largest Indian group in Zanzibar and says:

“One of the prizes taken by Captain Kidd, the famous pirate who roved the Indian Ocean at the close of the seventeenth century was a ship belonging to a Cambay Khoja merchant.” (2)

This was really intriguing-if Major Pierce's comment was true, it would provide documented continuity of the Khoja trading activities from the earlier Portuguese records of the 1500's to their latter dominance on the East African coast in 19th & 20th centuries. (See Khojas in Early Zanzibar History for details) Unfortunately, the Major did not provide any authority for his bold assertion.

Determined to dig on, I uncovered a commentary in a publication on shipwrecks (3) that yielded details on the trial and hanging of Capt. William Kidd’s on charges of piracy in 1701 and the actual ship, the details of which can be summarised as follows:

In 1698, the British Queen authorised William Kidd as a “privateer” – i.e. he was given a license to capture cargo ships of Britain’s enemies as well as pirate ships and to loot them on behalf of his business partners (not unlike James Bond of the 007 fame and his “License to Kill” - yes, the British did actually do things like that)

For two years, Capt. Kidd tried, without success, to find a ship to capture and just when his crew was frustrated and he was running out of supplies, near the Indian coastline south of Cochin, he spied a ship that was flying Armenian colours (flags). Using a common “pirate” maneuver, he changed his own flags to French and tricked the ship into also hoisting, to stay safe, a French flag. Since France was at war with England, Kidd then forced the ship to yield. But when he boarded, to his utter frustration, he found that the ship was actually an Indian merchantman (as the British called them), some of the crew were Dutch and the captain was British. Furthermore, the ship, called “Quedagh Merchant” was carrying merchandise between Indian ports, one half of which belonged to a Mughal nobleman, Muklis Khan and the rest to some Iranian-Armenian merchants, in a business deal that had been brokered by the English East India Company, which was then based in Surat, the home port of the ship.

Notwithstanding the clear warning signs that he got from his fellow British captain, Kidd commandeered (stole) the ship, renamed it “Cara Merchant” and went on sell its valuable cargo, first in Cochin, then Madagascar and eventually ended up in the Caribbean near what is now the Dominican Republic, where the ship was set on fire and sunk after all its merchandise was sold.(4)

Eventually, Capt. Kidd was tried for piracy in a well-recorded case in London and on May 23, 1701, he was publicly and very cruelly hung. The reason for his brutal treatment was that in that one year alone, three ships based out of Surat, the major trading port of the powerful Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb and also the largest trading post of the English, had been looted by the British “privateers” and the nobleman Muklis Khan’s complaint to the Emperor could have cost the British their trading post (and ended the British Raj before it even began). Also Kidd a Scot was, to the English, easily expendable.

Three hundred years later, in 2007, the shipwreck of the Quedagh Merchant was located and with diving efforts of Armenian and Indiana University (USA) historians, its identity officially confirmed. (5)

The shipwrecks commentary gave extensive details of the actual salvaging of the ship as well as some information of the story on its voyage and tragic end of Capt. Kidd but to my disappointment, the scholars’ only comment as to the ownership of the ship was a bland statement that it was “Armenian”, providing no basis for that assertion.

There was, however, a mention of a “deposition” - written evidence of Capt. Kidd after his capture, where he had stated that the ship was from Surrat and that it was built by “Moors” (a corruption of “Moros”, a Spanish-Portuguese term for their Arab rulers between 8th and 15th century, which was then used by Europeans to refer to all Muslims-Indian or Arab).

This was a significant clue - Surat, being the principal British port of the English East India Company, prior to the “purchase” of Bombay from the Portuguese (Read here about Khojas in Early Bombay) was also the home of the many Indian merchants trading in the Indian Ocean area at this time and many of the early Khoja merchant families of Bombay, Muscat & Zanzibar (whose family histories I have been tracking) actually trace their early commercial activity to Surat (Read here about Musa Kanji " Musa Mzuri" & his brother Sayyan, who came from Surat to East Africa in 1820's)

As a community historian, I was not prepared to discard my own sources quite so easily. Three eminent sources, two traditional and one colonial had stated that the ship was Khoja-owned. Rai Shamshuddin Tejpar was regarded as a knowledgeable personality in Dar-es-salaam circles; The “Samachar” was a well-respected newspaper in Zanzibar, established in 1901 and in continuous print for over 50 years and finally, Major Pearce was the highest ranking British colonial official and had written a very detailed history of Zanzibar. His comments about the Indians in Zanzibar suggested that he knew his subject.

“Writing in 1512, Barbosa tells us that the Moors of Zanzibar, Pemba, and Mafia used to purchase silks and cottons from the merchants of Cambay, resident in Mombasa, and in 1591 Captain Lancaster noticed during his stay in Zanzibar harbour that vessels arrived from Indian ports………..” (6)

I was aware that with the new research coming out about the Indian Ocean littoral trading zone, it is common knowledge that Indian ships were plying the area for over a thousand years prior to the European disruption (which was principally, as a consequence of their ship-mounted cannons). So it was safe to assume that Major Pearce would have based his bold comment about the Khojas and Capt. Kidd on some reliable authority.

But the question remained - if the ship was built in Surat by Muslims, sailed from Surat and carried a cargo for an important Indian Muslim prince, why were all the references that it was “Armenian” - what was the authority for that categorical claim?

I decided to ask Professor Charles Beeker, Director of the Office of Underwater Science at Indiana University, who was the co-author of the article and lead historian on the ship’s recovery operations on whether the salvage had cast any further light on question of ownership. Dr. Beeker reiterated that as far as he knew, the ship was Armenian but then agreed to check with his contacts. He returned, however, with the same response i.e. it was “Armenian”.

First rule for historians" - check the primary sources, i.e. the actual documents that others are using to make their arguments.

Looking into Armenian historical blogs on the web, it was quickly obvious that the ship’s ownership was claimed because some of the merchandise had belonged to Armenian merchants, who in 1701 in London, provided direct evidence against Capt. Kidd during his famous trial. The assertion that the ship was Armenian was then picked up in the last 100 years by Armenian historians and for nationalistic reasons, maintained as being authentic. It was this claim that drove Armenian historians to start searching for the wreck of the Quedagh Merchant in the Caribbean area in 2007. (7)

One Armenian commentator did deeper academic research at the British National Archives and based on documentation found by an American researcher in 1910 (i.e much after the trial of Capt. Kidd), he concluded that the Armenians merchants had only ‘commissioned” or leased the ship. This new document was a safe passage “pass” issued by French authorities and carried by the Quedagh Merchants’s English captain and it conclusively stated that the true owner of the ship was a wealthy Indian merchant from Surat called Coirgi (8)

Since the French and Portuguese also used similar phonetic spellings for names like Dewji (which they wrote as “Deugy”) or Damji which they wrote as Damgy)(See Deugy Damgy on Khojawiki), it is safe to assume that “Coirgi” was the French version of the Gujarati name Kurji, a name common amongst the Khojas of Kutch & Kathiawar.

Major Pearce appears to aware of the French “pass” (in 1920, when he wrote his book, it was then a fresh discovery and became a famous document as it was used to “exonerate” Capt. Kidd as a pirate) and he seems to think that Coirgi/Kurji was Khoja. Whilst there is no conclusive evidence as yet (there is mention that it "Coirgi" could refer to one Cohergy Nannabye Parsi who was on board the ship when it was captured), there is no doubt that the Quedagh Merchant was not an "Armenian" ship.

Perhaps our readers whose family name is Kurji and whose ancestors are from Surat and Bombay etc. can assist this mystery but sadly many Khojas neglect passing down their family stories and this in turn, allows biased scholars and politicians to write them out of history.

Postscript I

The Quedagh Merchant (or the Cara Merchant, as it is sometimes called) is now a “Living Museum” in the shallow waters near the Catalina Island and a major tourist attraction in the Dominican Republic (9)

(1) “Samachar” December 1936 – Silver Jubilee Issue (pp 47)

(2) Pearce, F. B. Major- Zanzibar –The Island Metropolis of Eastern Africa (London -Fisher Urwin) (pp 256)

(3) Tripati, Sila- Shipwrecks around the World-Revelations of the Past -

The wreck of the Quedagh Merchant-An Indian Merchantman captured by Captain William Kidd. (Frederick H Hanselmann, Texas State University, San Marcos, USA & Charles D Beeker, Indiana University, Bloomington, USA)

(4) The Quedagh Merchant was a large 400-ton advanced ship for its time, built in a style that would make it last between 50 to a 100 years - John Stavorinus, a Dutch Rear-Admiral, who visited India on a series of voyages between 1768 and 1771 observed and described the shipbuilding technique at Surat:

“....they do not put their planks together as we do, with flat edges towards each other, but rabbet them and they make the parts fit into each other with the greatest exactness bestowing much time and attention on this operation....after which they unite the planks so firmly and closely with pegs, that the seam is scarcely visible and the whole seems to form one entire piece of timber

Stavorinus, J. S., 1798. Voyages to the East-Indies, Vol. III. G. G. and J. Robinson/Pater-Noster-Row, London (pp 21)

(5) abid (pg 60)

(6) Pearce, F. B. Major- Zanzibar –The Island Metropolis of Eastern Africa (pp 254) (London -Fisher Urwin)

(7) http://yandunts.blogspot.ca/search?q=quedagh

Monday, July 6, 2009

Armenian merchant vessel discovered off Dominican Republic

Long-lost Armenian ship, the stuff of legend, to become a “living museum” in the Caribbean

Explorers unravel mystery of the “Quedagh Merchant” hijacked in 1698

(8) http://yandunts.blogspot.ca/search?q=quedagh

Friday, July 24, 2009

"Quedah Merchant was no ordinary vessel"

Dr. Sebouh Aslanian puts legendary ship’s story in historical context

by Emil Sanamyan

(9) http://www.accessdr.com/2011/06/underwater-museum-features-remains-of-captain-kidd%E2%80%99s-pirate-ship/