|Winter 2000AD / 1421AH Vol. 2.3|
Excerpt from: "For God, Mammon, and Country : A Nineteenth Century Persian Merchant" The Story of Haj Muhammad Hassan Amin al-Zarb
In July of this year, a member of this group brought to my attention the publication of Dr. Mahdavi's book. Since then I have been in touch with her and she has agreed to allow me to publish this excerpt which is quite interesting from the numismatic perspective. I want to thank Dr. Mahdavi for her generosity and her excellent work.
Haj Muhammad Hassan became involved with the Mint in 1294/1877 in a decade of crisis for the Persian monetary system, which was on a bimetallic standard. This crisis was related to both internal and external causes as well as bimetallism. Prior to that date there were local Mints in all the major towns of Iran: Tehran, Tabriz, Rasht, Hamadan, Kirmanshah, Kashan, Isfahan, Shiraz, Yazd, Kirman, Mashhad and Mazanderan. The provincial Mints were farmed out by the governor to the highest bidder, and the Mint farmers were at liberty to mint coins of gold, silver and copper. The major monetary units were the gold tuman, the silver qiran, and the copper shahi, as follows:
The basic coin of everyday use in Persia with which most daily transactions were carried out was the copper coin shahi and the unit of currency with which ordinary people dealt with daily was the dinar. The preponderance of the currency in circulation consisted of copper coins. However, these coins can not be considered as money, in the way the term is generally understood, but were more like convenient tokens as their exchange value into silver constantly declined and copper coins could not be redeemed at par. There was a vast difference in value between coins minted in different towns. Rabino reported that in 1877 there was a difference of 17% in value between the qiran of Hamadan and that of Tehran. This disparity created difficulties in the financial system of the country as a whole. The Money Market Review of February 24th 1866 commented on the situation thus: It is especially to be remarked that every province (there are thirteen of them) is privileged with a mint of its own; and as each mint master invariably has to pay for his place to get back his money, and profit by speculation into the bargain, is of course his chief object. He, therefore, gives short weight, and, moreover the coin just struck is no sooner circulated in the bazaar than a host of clippers use their scissors to their advantage, and to the detriment of the public. This is the more easy as none of the present Persian coins have milled edges. The most recent quotation (December, 1865) at Tabriz for the current moneys- always supposing them to be full weight are as follows:
Persian Monetary Denominations
1 gold tuman equivalent 10 silver qirans
1 silver qiran equivalent 20 copper shahis
1 shahi equivalent 50 dinars
4 shahis also called abbasi equivalent of 200 dinars
2 shahis also called sannar equivalent of 100 dinars
1 shahi also called 2 pul equivalent of 50 dinars
1/2 shahi also called pul equivalent of 25 dinars
1 pul equivalent of 2 jandaks
1 jandak or 2 ghaz equivalent of 12 1/2 dinars
1 ghaz equivalent of 6.25 dinars
|Russian kiran||-||18 1/2|
|Russian 1/2 kiran||-||9 1/2|
This letter is of importance from many different points of view, and that is the reason why it has been produced in full. In the first place the fact that Amin al-Zarb took it upon himself to propose to the Shah projects of national importance suggests that by this time he had developed a close enough relation with the Shah to be in a position to dare to make proposals which the Shah might have thought of himself. It was the Shah who had gone to Europe and seen the functioning of the various institutions. Amin al-Zarb himself had not yet been to Europe. The letter presents the picture of a man of vision who although preoccupied in the extreme with private and public enterprises is concerned for the welfare and future fate of his country. His emphasis on the construction of railways sprang from his own personal experiences as a merchant, realizing that the greatest impediment to the development of commercial enterprises in the country was the lack of an efficient system of transport. Finally, his recognition of the fact that economic progress depended upon industrialization, which in turn like any other national venture depended on the participation of the people whilst being initiated by the government, is of major significance. Aside from his public commitments some changes took place during this period in the personal commercial enterprise of Amin al-Zarb. In approximately 1296-7/1878-79 Amin al-Zarb dissolved the company he had formed with the other merchants in 1276/1859 and started working independently with his brothers. After the dissolution of the company Amin al-Zarb recalled his brother Haj Muhammad Rahim from Marseilles to Tehran both for consultations and to take their mother Bibi Mah Khanum on Hajj. Haj Muhammad Rahim and Bibi Mah Khanum returned to Tehran from Hajj in approximately 1298/1880-81, after which Haj Muhammad Rahim once again returned to Marseilles to oversee family affairs in Europe. During this period Amin al-Zarb also acquired some important pieces of real estate, becoming an important landowner. Much has been written by Qajar historians concerning the fact that during this period merchants became landowners. The analysis and explanations offered are usually based on the European concept of social mobility and system of social stratification, indicating that merchants bought landed estates as a status symbol and for social prestige. The fact, as Amin al-Zarb's case illustrates, are quite different. It was customary for people who were in a position to afford it to own a small village near the city in which they lived to provide them with household provisions. Amin al-Zarb owned such a small village called Ahmadabad in Damavand near Tehran which was managed by his maternal uncle, `Ali. Different factors were at play to make Amin al-Zarb into a major landowner, the most important being the state of cash flow in the country. As the Register of letters for 1288/1871 and that for 1290/1873 show, there was a general shortage of cash in the country at large. The only people with access to cash, in the absence of banks, were the big merchants who were instrumental in the provision and transmission of funds, on whom the landowning and aristocratic classes were dependent for their cash requirements. One important area of demand for cash was related to the fact that government offices in general and governorships in particular were sold to the highest bidder. Those aspiring to office were dependent upon merchants to provide the necessary cash or to guarantee the governor's payment of provincial revenue due to the central government. `Abbas Mirza Mulk Ara, the brother of Nasir al-Din Shah, gives a good description of this state of affairs in his autobiography. He says that when he was appointed Minister of Commerce in 1303/1885, he had to pay the Shah 2000 tumans and Amin al-Sultan, the Prime Minister, 1000 tumans. Later in 1311/1894, when he was offered the governorship of Rasht, he first studied the revenues of the province to see whether it would be worth the enormous primary expenditure consisting of 34,000 tumans. He borrowed this sum from Amin al-Zarb and others, accepting the governorship. When new governors arrived in a province their primary objective was the recouping of their money, at the cost of imposing hardship on the local population rather than ameliorating their living conditions. However, sometimes either due to a miscalculation of the revenue or due to being rapidly replaced, they were not able to recover their initial investment and became indebted to the merchants from whom they had borrowed. Subsequently they would mortgage and remortgage property and eventually were forced to sell it for a nominal value. Another way in which the landowners became indebted to the merchants was through the fact that the requirements of each aristocratic household ranging from foodstuff to clothes to furniture to luxury items, for which there was an increasing demand amongst this class, were provided by a merchant. Merchants even paid the salaries of the household staff. For instance Amin al-Zarb was in this position to Mirza Husayn Khan Mushir al-Dawla Sipahsalar, Amin al-Dawla, Rukn al-Dawla and Amin al-Sultans, father and son amongst others. In modern terminology it was like having a charge account with a department store, plus a credit card on which cash could be withdrawn. Once again these accounts sometimes built up over the years with the creditors clamouring at the door, as a result of which the debtor would be forced to part with some property. It was due to the financial plight of the owners that Amin al-Zarb acquired three important pieces of property at this time in Yazd and Kirman. The first of these was the commercial caravanserai Khaju, in Yazd generally referred to as Sara-yi Khaju. There is extensive material in the Mahdavi archives concerning the manner in which Amin al-Zarb acquired Sara-yi Khaju from Murtiza Quli Khan Vakil al-Mulk, the ex-governor of Kirman. Amin al-Zarb, probably being aware of Vakil al-Mulk's financial difficulties, appears to have shown an interest in this property, as from 1295/1878 there are reports from Yazd concerning its status quo. In Ramazan 1295/September 1878 Aqa Haydar `Ali, one of Amin al-Zarb's representatives in Yazd writes: This caravansary is not comparable to any, not even in Tehran, as far as stability and fineness is concerned. It is divided in two parts, one allocated to customs and the other to merchants... in the whole of Yazd there is not a property better or more reputable... it has been mortgaged for 3000 tumans to Haj Mirza Muhammad Taqi Shirazi who receives the rent in lieu of interest. Last year he [Vakil al-Mulk] mortgaged this property plus a country estate to Haj Aqa `Ali who also receives the rent in lieu of interest. If you can buy it for 5000 tumans you will have got it gratis. If properly looked after it has an income of 600 tumans a year. There are further letters from another representative of Amin al-Zarb, Haj Mirza Mahmud Shirazi, concerning three or four other possible buyers, including the one holding the mortgage, and at a higher price than already mentioned. After a while other serious buyers seem to have disappeared from the scene leaving Haj Aqa `Ali, the holder of the mortgage, and Amin al-Zarb. A meeting was held in Yazd at the house of Aqa `Ali in Rajab 1296/June 1879 in the presence of the Mujtahid of Yazd, the Malik al-Tujjar of Yazd and a number of leading merchants with Haj Mirza Mahmud representing Amin al-Zarb. The composition of this group was customary for cases needing arbitration, which in this case consisted of Aqa `Ali the holder of the mortgage, Vakil al-Mulk having given up his right of being present, and Amin al Zarb the buyer. The meeting ended inconclusively as meanwhile news of the death of Vakil al-Mulk in Tehran reached Yazd, which changed the situation. After the meeting, Haj Mahmud and the Malik al-Tujjar went to see Firuz Mirza Farman Farma, Vakil al-Mulk's father-in-law, who was passing through Yazd to seek his help with the estate and who promised to write to Tehran to resolve the situation. Six months later Amin al-Zarb was the owner of the Sara-yi Khaju and had rented it to the customs farmer of Yazd for 700 tumans annually. The second piece of property was the village of Vakilabad outside Kirman, also belonging to Vakil al-Mulk. Firuz Mirza Farman Farma Nusrat al-Dawla describes it as a fertile village with canals running through fertile agricultural land surrounded by forests of ten thousand palm trees. Nusrat al-Dawla bemoans the fact that Vakil al-Mulk, the father, had accumulated and developed the property for Vakil al-Mulk, the son, only to lose it. Nusrat al-Dawla says that Vakil al-Mulk, because of his debts, gave it to Amin al-Zarb for 5000 tumans whereas it was worth 50,000 tumans. However, according to the Mahdavi archives Amin al-Zarb acquired it in 1296-97/1878-79, which may have been after Vakil al-Mulk's death and through the settlement of his estate. The third piece of property, the Garden of Nasiriyya, was also the property of a governor, that of Yazd, Amir Dust Muhammad Khan Mu`ayyir al-Mamalik, who was governor from 1292/1875 to 1296/1879. He was a classic example of the son of a rich father who after inheriting his father's wealth and positions, squandered the fortune and resigned the positions such as the governorship of Yazd, the treasury and head of the royal household. The Garden of Nasiriyya was two farsakhs outside Yazd and was built by Amir Dust Muhammad Khan, known as Vali. This garden, according to the descriptions in the material on Yazd in the Mahdavi Archives, was a beautifully designed garden with a three-story classical building in the middle, a summer house, an orangery and other out buildings; it was landscaped with a lake, canals and pools surrounded by orange groves. It was the prestigious residence of the governor. However, there is evidence to show that gradually Muhammad Khan Vali's financial affairs deteriorated. From 1295/1878 onwards there are letters from Amin al-Zarb's representatives in Yazd about repeatedly going to the Nasiriyya Garden to see Muhammad Khan Vali concerning his debts to Amin al-Zarb. Muhammad Khan Vali left Yazd in 1296/1879 not having paid his debts, passing some of them to the next governor Ibrahim Khalil Khan. There are letters of complaint concerning these debts to the Shah, the Vali's father-in law, and from Amin al-Sultan, Amin al-Zarb's mentor, to Zill al-Sultan the Shah's eldest son and the governor of Isfahan, within whose jurisdiction the governorship of Yazd fell. Eventually in 1300/1883 Amin al-Zarb acquired the garden in full settlement of his debts, paying for the rest since the property was valued above the amount of the debt. By the end of Haj Muhammad Hassan Amin al-Zarb's life, he, his brother Haj Abu al-Qasim and merchants like them were major landowners in the country, having acquired most of their land well below market price, since notable families had to sell property when short of cash and in financial difficulty.
...Obviously Your Majesty has observed the state of affairs in Europe. Previously the conditions in Europe were not as they are now; people lived in hardship accompanied by much inconvenience. [illegible] from adversity they produced many innovations. They thought of building steam ships. A few of them gathered together and built [them] and operated them. When they saw that there is profit in it, they built railways and telegraph lines. [Then] they turned to building factories for silk reeling, sugar making, crystal producing, brocade and felt making; to such an extent that finally they supplied all the needs of the people with steam factories. They know that it is [illegible] not to abandon the slightest technique they acquired and applied themselves daily so that the task would be accomplished. Thank God that there is nothing about the people of Iran which is any less than those of Europe. Summing up the whole it can be said that everything about Iran is better than Europe. The main thing which has been the cause of European progress is the formation of a bank. First they established a bank. When people's money collected in the bank with the credit and capital of the bank they accomplished great feat. They entered into large commercial transactions, and important factories were built with money from the bank bringing about the development of the country. It is evident that one or two people do not have the capability to initiate and carry through great tasks. The co-operation of the government and the people is needed for the accomplishment of great works... The possibility of establishing a bank in Iran is better, easier and greater than anywhere else in the world. Should this bank be set up and credit established, from foreign countries they will give their money into the bank's keeping and everyone will put whatever they have into the bank, even the widows of Iran, each of whom has ten misqals of gold or silver, will turn it into money and put it in the bank. The procedure for the establishment of the bank is that four prominent merchants should be the supervisors of this bank. And the bank should be a governmental bank and the government should deposit one hundred to two hundred thousand tumans in the bank as though it were being kept in the royal treasury. A royal decree should be issued [to the effect] that this bank belongs to the government, the debt of this bank is the debt of the government and the claim of this bank is the claim of the government. A special location should be assigned to this bank so that its special branches can take in money from the people [who when depositing] should receive an interest of one shahi per tuman and [when borrowing] they should pay an interest of one hundred dinars per tuman and [with the money] buy and sell merchandise. [The details] of its organization is lengthy and does not fit into this petition. After the bank is established and has been running for six months, shows profit, and it is noticed that it is a correct and valid venture, it will attract attention. After [illegible] passes this very same bank could start preparation for some important factories which would alleviate the needs of the people of Iran from some European goods. It can gradually and easily make preparation for railways and construct them. Assuming that the bank in the course of one year makes a profit of fifty thousand tumans, preparation for a railway can be made in Europe. When the preparations are completed, the road from [illegible] to Rasht can be paved and with that fifty thousand tumans equipment a railway will be built. After it is constructed there will be an income from transport charges of 200 to 300 tumans daily. When people hear, see and understand that it is possible and is making progress then the bank can make an announcement that whoever wants to buy shares in the building of railways from Rasht to Qazvin, the bank will go into partnership with them. Anyone can give as much money as they want and accordingly the profits will be divided. There are people in Iran who have money. They pay a thousand tumans for a country estate from which they do not even have an income of 500 tumans. How can they prevent themselves from participating in railways when they can make ten kurur more in participating in railways and the railway will be constructed by itself [without any effort on their part]. Whatever factories are needed will come by themselves. These things are not possible unless a reputable bank is founded. The formation of a reputable bank does not involve any work and is possible in the simplest and easiest manner. [All that is needed] is credit and security from those in charge of the government. Should the remarks of your humble devoted servant be acceptable to the blessed dust of the throne then the matter can be referred to the Majlis-i Darbar A`zam and should they in unison sign this petition, God willing a correct and reputable bank will be established. Command is the sacred command of His Imperial Majesty.
This petition is that of the obedient devoted servant
Haj Muhammad Hassan Amin dar al-Zarb.
15 Sha`ban 1296/4th August 1878.
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