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Hovsep Emin and his Struggle for the Liberation of the Armenian People

Hovsep Emin and his Struggle for the Liberation of the Armenian People

Due to its unique geographic location at the crossroads of civilizations, the Armenian Highland became an arena of continuous conquests and bloody wars, during which the Armenians lost the statehood and therefore had to tolerate the yoke of foreigners. It may not sound surprising that these conditions begot prominent people who devoted their whole life to the national liberation struggle.

In 1726 in Hamadan, Persia (which was under the control of Turks at that time) in a family of an Armenian merchant Joseph (whose predecessors had moved there from Armenia during the rule of Shah Abbas) a boy was born who was called Emin in honor of his grand-grandfather. The violence and the extortion of Persian authorities made the family look for another place of residence. Growing up abroad and being passionate with the ideas of liberation of the Armenian people, Hovsep Emin (Joseph Emin) was trying to coordinate and bring together different powers from India to Europe. 

To India for a Better Life

Trying to escape from the hard life, Emin’s family moved to India where the Armenian community was already flourishing.  The Armenians had a great commercial capital which the Englishmen (who started to trade in India later) had to be reckoned with. Favorable conditions of this country brought here many Armenian merchants and Emin’s father was among them. They started to live in Calcutta, a town with a large Armenian community.

For Emin, India was a discovery to a new world. Here, for the first time he saw Europeans, learned their advanced engineering, military skills and advanced culture. He was deeply impressed and was trying to get to know this world better, to obtain new knowledge and education. His unquenchable thirst for knowledge was combined with highly developed feeling of patriotism which he had been cherishing since his early years. The images of oppression, violence and sorrow of his nation, which he had seen still as a child, engraved a lasting impression on his mind. He was worrying about his nation which, as he thought, was in slavery because its forefathers had not struggled for their country.

In one of Emin’s letters You can read this: “I  have decided to go to Europe to learn military skills and other sciences necessary for it and I am sure that if I come to Armenia as a European officer  I will be useful for my country.” Young Emin heard about Meliks (hereditary Armenian noble title) who had established semi-independent principalities (Melikdoms) in Artsakh and was encouraged by their bravery and freedom-loving. He was dreaming of going there and teaching them European military skills in order to liberate the homeland from the Persians and Turks’ yoke.

Emin’s father was against Emin’s activities, however it did not stop the young man. Moreover, he travels to England and persuades one of the English captains to take him with him. The journey from India to England lasted seven years. All the way Emin had to do hard work on the ship and to tolerate mistreatment and ridicule.

A Trip to England 

Emin’s life did not become easier even when he came to England. For a long period of time he was wandering and had to earn money by working too hard. However, every time he was thinking about his goals and ideas, it was becoming easier for him to survive. His persistence and dedication helped him and at last he got his first break and got acquainted with many significant people. 

Edmund Burke – the future founder of Conservatism, prominent thinker and statesman – was among those significant men. Burke was just twenty six years old and had moved to London recently. The sympathy which Burke had towards Emin could be easily explained. He was deeply impressed how the young Armenian was passionate with education, left his parental home and moved to a far foreign country. There was also something common in their fate: both were sons run away from their fathers. At the time Burke was toiling in obscurity and poverty. Like Emin, he was slugging his way to the top of the London community.  

Founder of Conservatism, philosopher and statesman Edmund Burke

The next acquaintance took place at a difficult period of Emin’s life when he was already upset and wanted to leave everything and return to India. However, particularly that time he met an Armenian young man who was taking an Arabic horse for the lord Northumberland to London upon instructions from merchants of Aleppo. The young man asked Emin to come to lord’s place and to help him to speak to the servants as they did not speak English. Soon Emin himself was called to the lord Northumberland who listened to him and offered him to write his life story. 

Returning home, Emin starts to write the letter lord Northumberland had asked for. In the letter Emin writes about his origins, tells about his patriotic dreams and mentions about his troubles and failure in London. In the conclusion he mentions that if Northumberland told Emin’s father that he had a prominent patron in London, his father might agree to pay his education in England. 

In a few days Northumberland calls him again and tells him that he has decided to become Emin’s patron. Moreover, he says that the king’s son, Duke of Cumberland himself, wants to patronize him and wants him to start studying in the Royal Military Academy of Woolwich. Northumberland introduces his protégé to the London high society, opening the doors to the aristocratic houses and salons. It was not difficult for him to accomplish, as everybody among his surrounding was interested in Emin. This exotic man from the East interested them with his desire for knowledge and culture, with his dreams of becoming the liberator of his fatherland. Anyway, Emin’s appearance in the high society of London was a full success. 

The Duke of Cumberland kept his promise and soon Emin started studying “Artillery and art of fortifications” at the academy of Woolwich. However, Emin spent in the academy just thirteen months. The military actions in which his protégé Cumberland was taking part, made him leave the academy. He made a decision to follow his protégé and take part in the military operations.

From the very beginning of familiarity with dignitaries, Emin is trying to take the advantage of the opportunities. He writes four letters: to the governor of Calcutta, to his father, to the Armenians in Calcutta and to the Georgian king Heraclius. In a letter to his father he is telling about his life in England, his commitment to achieve a military education and career in order to fight with the Armenians against oppressors, about his protégé and achievements. Emin wanted Father to send him his saving – 500.000 rupees.   

The letter written for the Georgian king was interesting enough. Before, in liberating of the Armenian people Emin relied only on the meliks of Artsakh. However, since 1750s the Georgian states of Kartli and Kakheti became very strong. In the first chapter of the 18th century, these were just principalities within Iran. However, taking the advantage of disorder in Iran, these principalities managed to strengthen. In his letter to the Georgian king, Emin writes that he hopes for his support in liberating the Christians from the Turks’ yoke. As well, Emin reminds the king of his Bagratuni (Armenian royal dynasty) origins and calls Heraclius “The King of Georgia and Armenia.”

Emin was going to travel to Georgia and reorganize army of Heraclius according to the European standards. He offered the king to strengthen the kingdom and make it look like European countries. He writes that if Heraclius manages to gather under his authority all the Armenians, none of the eastern kingdoms will be so rich and glorious.

Hovsep Emin, as well, was trying to make contact with de facto head of the English government William Pitt. It was around that time when he got letters from his father saying that his letters had deeply impressed the Armenians of Calcutta. So, Emin obtained not only his father’s but the Calcutta’s community approval. 

After many attempts, Emin managed to meet with Pitt, who mentioned with a smile that he did not want to admit him in purpose, as he wanted to see how persistent Emin was. However, the dreams and political desires which Emin wanted to accomplish contradicted to the English foreign policy, which was not interested in the fate of Armenian regions, ruled by the Ottoman empire. Hence, Emin’s speech touched on Pitt as a human being, but not as a politician.

Right after the meeting with Pitt, Emin realizes that there is no point in waiting. Pitt himself, insinuates him “not to lose time any more.” Thus, Emin makes his first, but long waited and long ago planned visit to his homeland. 

A Trip to Armenia

Thanks to his familiarities from England, Emin acquires an imperial passport which allows him to travel around the Ottoman Empire safely. Arriving in Turkey, not far away from Erzurum, he is getting informed, that there is a small military squad in the nearby Armenian village. He decides to go to there.


This story is important to understand the aim of Emin’s mission. The villagers mistaken him for a Turk, take him to the headman’s house, stake a sheep for him and intend to offer him money. Taking the given opportunity, Emin asks them: “Why are you, Christians, not free?” The villagers answer: “Freedom is waiting for us in a better world, but in this world we must obey Muslims.” Emin pulls off his mask, tells them that he is Armenian, and calls them to struggle for freedom. Then he brings examples of the western Christians who preferred the fight instead of obedience. His passionate appeal was supported by the local priest, who accepted Emin as a man who would give them freedom.

After spending some time  in the Western Armenia, Emin travels to the Eastern Armenia, especially to Echmiadzin. Arriving in Echmiadzin, he finds out that monk Avag, one of the bravest men of Artsakh, died during the wars against Panakh khan. This news changed his plans. He refused from going to Artsakh, where he was going to unite with Avag’s military squad and go to Heraclius in order to offer his services.

In Echmiadzin Emin gets acquainted with the real situation in The South Caucasus. Right here he realizes that the assistance of Russia is necessary to free the Armenians. He realizes that the Georgians will support them only if Russia starts to support them. Therefore, he makes a decision  to return to London, in order to organize his trip to Russia.

A Trip to Russia

It was not so easy to travel to Russia as it had seemed. It was necessary to have not only a Russian passport but also recommendations to the Russian politicians and influential figures of Petersburg. Friends from England helped Emin in this regard. He manages to obtain a Russian passport and recommendation from the Russian ambassador and knyaz Golitsyn. Seeking the support of latter, Emin writes him and tells him about his life and his struggle: “My aim is to go to Peterburg with the letter of your excellency, in order to be introduced to Tamraz Mirza. I would like him to send me to his son – Heraclius – to serve for him and to struggle for the Christians and for freedom of my compatriots.

So, getting the support of friends and recommendation letters, Emin travels to Peterburg. There he meets with the czar authorities. Among them was Count Mikhail Vorontsov, who accepted him at his place. All in all, the czar authorities supported Emin’s project of liberation Armenia with the assistance of Russia. Vorontsov gives Emin his recommendation letter in order to introduce it to Heraclius. Moreover, Emin receives financial assistance from his Russian compatriots. Besides, he manages to build a good relationship with Tamraz Mirza, as he had planned. The latter was encouraging him, expressing the hope that Armenians would soon unite with Georgians in order to get rid of foreign yoke. However, in several weeks Tamraz dies. This was a great misfortune for Emin, as he counted on his assistance and patronage.

Count Mikhail Vorontsov

The English friends of Emin advised him to enroll in Russian military forces, which would open new opportunities for him. However Emin was uncompromising: he was thinking not about his personal career but the liberation of his nation and wanted to go to Georgia and Armenia at all costs.

A Trip to Georgia

Tbilisi of those times was a colorful city and the largest trade and handcraft center of the region. Arriving in Tbilisi, Emin was taken to an Armenian merchant’s house. In a week, Emin was going to meet with the Georgian king Heraclius II. It is worth mentioning that the Georgian king was well-informed about the power of European countries, that’s why he was eager to adopt their skills and to use them for his country. Therefore Heraclius strongly welcomed Emin’s visit to Georgia. Undoubtedly, he was too interested in the person of young Emin, who was educated in Europe and learned military skills in England. First of all, Emin was an educated military specialist who could be very useful in his eyes. However, let’s face it that Heraclius was not interested in Emin’s political projects. Heraclius was afraid of still powerful Ottoman Empire and was not ready to enter a war with it for liberation of the Armenian lands.

Georgian king Heraclius II

In Georgia, Emin was contacting with everybody who could help him to accomplish his plans. Among them he mentions the meliks from Artsakh and Hivnan, the priest of the church St. Karapet. He was supporting Emin’s all aspirations. He persuaded prominent Armenians from different towns of the Western Armenia and assured that all the Armenians, even women, were ready to fight. Hovnan just demanded that Emin invaded there with a small group of soldiers who would act on behalf of the Georgian king. He was sure that it was the key to success. However, as we have already mentioned, Heraclius was not going to enter a war. Eventually, Emin leaves Georgia and embarks on a journey.

The Caucasian trips and adventures ultimately led him to Artsakh. In the 18th century, Artsakh was a collaboration of principalities which were called Khamsa Melikdoms. They were ruled by brave and freedom-loving meliks, who were struggling against Persians and Turks all the time. Thedid like Emin’s projects and welcomed him, while Emin demonstrated his military skills. However, all his attempts to organize a nationwide uprising were failing. The point was that, the nation was ready for it neither ideologically, nor psychologically. The individual representatives alone could not free the whole nation from the foreign yoke. Moreover, the meliks themselves were not united and had different ambitions which led to conflicts and disagreements.

Last Attempts: a Trip to India

Obsessed with patriotic feelings, Emin does not give up. He tries to gather the troops with assistance of the Armenian community of India and return to Armenia, where the priest of St. Karapet church was going to organize a countrywide uprising. Emin settles in New Julfa, Persia. There they promised Emin to give money for the creation of an army which was already waiting for him in Salmast and Khoy. Everybody was ready to help Emin unless the bishop of Jerusalem persuaded them to refuse to help him. Realizing that there will be no assistance to him, Emin refuses from his idea and in 1773 returns to Madras, India.  

That time Madras was considered to be one of the centres of the Armenian liberation movement. There was a group of patriotic Armenian figures led by a rich merchant Shahamir Shahamirian. Shahamirian’s surrounding which was also affected by the ideas of English outreach philosophy, was actively advocating for the liberation of Armenia and creation of an independent Armenian state. 

Writer, philosopher, merchant Shahamir Shahamirian

Emin was welcomed by Shahamirian who met him halfway. Shahamirian persuaded other “Armenian merchants” to promise to grant Emin 12.000 rupees a year in order to help him in gathering “some troops” in Armenia. Hence, the rich people of Madras were supposed to finance the armed struggle for liberation of Armenia, which Emin again started to organize and lead. One of the famous Madras merchants, Grigor Khojajanyan, even promised to bequeath him part of his fortune if he managed to seek the support of the Armenian Catholicos Simeon. However, here again bishop Hovhannes intervened. He took all the measures to prevent the accomplishment of the plans: influenced by him, the local Armenian rich people refused from their promises and assistance. As Emin mentions, only Shahamirian continued to support him, resenting Hovhannes and condemning the ignorance of his compatriots. 


Feeling the approach of old age, upon the advice of friends, Emin decides to tell the story of his interesting life. His autobiography, written in English, was supposed to introduce the European society to the Armenian liberation movement and raise the question of liberation of Armenia. It was also supposed to awaken his compatriots, to call them for the struggle for independence. He strongly believed that young Armenian people would read his book.

The publication of Emin’s autobiography caused a real resonance among the Indian Armenians. In his book, Emin was too critical about the Armenian clergy and Armenian merchants. The failure of his plans he ascribed to the greed and egoism of “rich people” and opposition of clergy.

Having published his autobiography, Emin was not intended to stop his public activities. Even in his old age, he did not want to stop at propaganda of liberation ideas, but was ready to take active participation in the liberation movement, if necessary.

However, Emin did not have to leave India anymore, and spent there his last years of life. He was very glad to receive letters from his former friends of England. So, in 1789, he receives a touching letter from Burke, famous publisher and politician at the time. In his letter Burke calls Emin “my dear old friend” and mentions that he always remembers him. He writes “You were trying to accomplish great ideas, having noble principles. You failed but maybe it is better for you, as now you are honest and happy.”

Staying loyal to the idea of national-liberation movement, Emin took it as his duty to awaken historical memory, showing with that the Armenians at the time had a powerful and independent royalty. He was sure that the real political independence was possible only by own efforts. Only in that way, a nation can recover its flouted dignity, as none of the nations can “present” dignity to another nation.

Sources: Ionnisyan A.R. “Joseph Emin” & Mirumyan K.A. “The history of  Armenian political thought” 


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