Language and identity

The mid-C17th commercial world was one of many co-existing and interacting languages, without a dominant cross-regional trade language. 

Mid-C17th admiralty testimony regarding language, especially spoken languages, sometimes confounds modern expectations. Such testimony can reveals complex relationships connecting language and identity (both personal and group).

HCA 13/73 ff.14v-15r

HCA 13/73 ff.14v-15r

The MarineLives project team is looking for insights into commercial and linguistic relations within geographical areas such as the Mediterranean and the East Country. 

We are doing so by examining the languages used by mariners and merchants in their verbal (and written) communications as recorded in English High Court of Admiralty depositions in the 1650s,

Our team can now draw on a corpus of 1300 full text searchable Admiralty Court depositions from the 1650s and metadata for a further 1500 depositions made in the same court and period.

Case study: Italian speaking English boatswain and Italian speaking Greeks and Frenchmen

When the ship the Ryall was surprised and taken by the Tyger, on the immediate service of the Commonwealth, the boatswain of the Tyger was dispatched in the ship’s yawle to board the Ryall and to enquire where the ship came from and to learn the source of its lading of rice. 

The boatswain was a forty-four year old mariner named John Snarney from Blackwall in the parish of Stepney.  The man who replied was a Greek (“a Grecian”), who spoke to him in Italian, and at least part of the ensuing conversation took place in Italian, the English boatswain understanding the Italian tongue.

Detail, Carte du bassin méditerranéen, de l’Asie mineure etc., le Brun, 1714

Hee was in the first place answered by a Grecian (who spoke the Italian tongue which this deponent understandeth, and who was of the said ship that the said rice was taken …by the Italian men of warre from the Turks and that the same upon the Coast of Morea within the Archipelagos was … laden on board the Ryall by the Captaine of the said ship who was a Frenchman and who had bought the said rice of the said Italian man of warre,

The said Grecian allsoe then affirmeinge and telling this deponent that after such tyme as the said ffrench Captaine had soe bought the same the company of the Ryall by theire said Captaines order did make such speed to unlade and relate the same on board the Ryall that they never measured the said rice but least any obstruction by any other men of warre should interveene the same withall hast was put on bord the Ryall out of the Italian man of warre unmeasured, and that the said Rice was … first prize as being taken from the Turkes and now againe prize in the second place as being taken by the Tyger (1)

John Snarney continued his evidence, offering confirmation of his earlier statement:

Soe much hee this deponent saith was affirmed and told to the deponent ymediatly after both by a West Frenchman who spoke the Italian tongue and was gunners mate of the said ship and allsoe by one Charles an Englishman who was carpenter thereof (2)

How did the English boatswain come to understand Italian, and how good and active was his knowledge?  An answer by the same boatswain to a cross-interrogatory provides insight into the nature and source of his knowledge of Italian:

Hee saith and deposeth hee cannot speake the French tongue but saith hee can both speake and understand a great part of the comon or vulgar Italian tongue which hee learnt by his trading and travelling for many yeares together to Genoa, Leghorne, Naples. Civita Vechia, Messina, Palermo, Trapane, Venice, Zant, and other parts and places thereabouts (3)

The boatswain’s skills in comprehending and speaking Italian as a trade language were significant, though he says nothing about an ability to read or write in Italian.They had been acquired “on the job”, and were considerably stronger than the language skills of his contest, Francis Douglas. Douglas was a twenty-nine year old mariner and foremast man on the Triumph. Like Snarney he was from the London area, giving his residence as the parish of Saint Olave within the Burroughe of Southwarke. He boarded the Ryall the following morning, and stated that:

Hee can speake a little both of the Spanishe and Italian tongues and can in some measure understand them And saith that hee learnt the said languages by his often being at Cadiz, Saint Lucar, Genoa, Leghorne, and other places thereabout (4)

Case study: Armenian merchants, their language and multiple identities

Hojar Sefer was described in a series of HCA depositions he made in 1651 as a merchant of Spahan (sometimes written as Spaham or Spaheim), known now as Isfahan.  He described himself in one of his depositions as “a Persian borne in the dominion of the kinge of Persia and there dwelleth” (5), but it is clear that he regarded himself as Armenian as well as Persian, and signed all his depositions in Armenian script. (6)

Testimony of Hojah Peter, Armenian merchant, HCA 13/65 f.52r, Sept. 10th 1651

Certainly, he recognised his fellow merchants, the producents of several related causes, with whom he had been travelling in the French crewed ship the Saint Martin, as “Armenians”.  He states, for example, in one deposition that “the said producents were and are Armenians and Inhabitants of Smirna, and subiects of the Grand Seignor or Turkish Emperour” (7)

In this statement he defines the producents in terms of what we would now call “ethnicity” (which we impregnate with loose ideas of physical appearance, culture and religion), together with residence and subjectdom.

The Admiralty Court also recognised the status of most of the producents in the related causes as Armenians. The cause mentioned above is titled by the Court as “The claime of Cogia Jacomo and Cogia Kaniar Armenian marchants for their goods in the shipp the Saint Martin whereof Michael Audric was captaine”. (8)  Interestingly, their status as Armenians is used by the Admiralty court to define them, rather than the more usual reference in such case titles to individuals being of a certain town and country.

The status of Persian birth and/or residence appears to have been strong. In the cause of just one merchant from Persia (who was undoubtedly Armenian), the closely related cause is titled:

The Clayme of Coyia Petro of Spaham in Persia for his goods taken in the ship the Saint Martyn whereof Michael Audric was comader (9)

In another of the closely related causes, the title of the cause distinguishes between the two producents:

The claime of Ugala Armono a Persian and Agi Ma[XXX] an Armenian for their goods in the Saint Martin (10)

Hojah Sefer knew both these producents and states in his deposition relating to this cause that the goods for the first “the said Ugula A[?rumeno]” were laded by his factors at Smyrna, since Ugula himself was then at Ligorno) and the goods of the said Marco were laden by himselfe”.  He does not pick up on the distinction made in the title of the cause between the two producents, stating that “the said producents were and are Armenians and inhabitants of Smirna, and subiects of the Grand Seignor or Turkish Emperour.”

Another merchant “of the citie of Spaham in Persia”, Hojah Peter, introduced the concept of “descent” in his deposition to describe the three producents described in the title of the cause as “Merchants of Armenia”:

The said Cogia Jacomo, Cogia Sarankan, and Cogia Safer were and are marchants descended from Armenia, and doe use to trade betwixt Persia and Smyrna and alsoe from parts and places of the dominions of the Turkish Emperour to Smyrna aforesaid and from Smyrna to Ligorne, and doe use to trade and traffique in those quarters with the English and others and hold faire correspondence and commerce with them there which heee knoweth, because hee alsoe tradeth in like maner in those places and thereby hath observed the traffique of the said producents as aforesaid (11)

Signature of Hojah Peter, Armenian merchant, HCA 13/65 f.53v, Sept. 10th 1651

Hojah Peter goes on to make clear that “hee this deponent was and is a Persian a native of the foresaid citie of Spahan” and expands on the status of the producents:

The said Cogia Jacomo dwells in or neere the citie of Rivan in Persia and was borne there, and the said Cogia Safer was borne and liveth in Spaheim aforesaid, and the said Cogia Sarankan was borne in Constantinople aforesaid, and further saith that none of them are ffrench nor belonge to any ffranch factorie in Constantinople, Smyrna, or elsewhere nor have any relation to the ffranch nor pay any tribute or owe any obedience to the ffranch kinge, but are free marchants for themselves, living in Persia and Constantinople as aforesaid (12)

In this light, the Armenian descent of the merchants was an important unifying characteristic, given that they were born in three different towns or cities, of which two were in Persia and one in the dominions of the Turkish Emperor, and live in different towns or cities.

Unmentioned, but implicit, is that they shared the Armenian language as their primary written language.  This has to be inferred (though without certainty) from the signatures of the deponents who describe them.  These deponents, some of whom describe themselves as Armenian, all sign their depositions in distinctive Armenian script. (13)


(1) HCA 13/65 unfoliated, ML image P1180053
(2) HCA 13/65 nfoliated, ML image P1180054
(3) HCA 13/65 unfoliated, ML image P1180055
(4) HCA 13/65 unfoliated, ML image P1180056
(5) HCA 13/65 unfoliated, ML image PXXXXXXX
(6) HCA 13/65 unfoliated, ML image PXXXXXXX
(7) HCA 13/65 f.59r, ML image P1170492
(8) HCA 13/65 f.53v, ML image P1170481
(9) HCA 13/65 f.85r, ML image P1170544
(10) HCA 13/65 f.59r, ML image P1170492
(11) HCA 13/65 f.52r, ML image P1170478
(12) HCA 13/65 f.52v, ML image P1170479
(13) HCA 13/65 unfoliated, ML image PXXXXXX, HCA 13/65 unfoliated, ML image PXXXXXXX, HCA 13/65 unfoliated, ML image PXXXXXXX


  1. EXTRACT_HCA_1373_f14v_f15r_Double_Page_P1110299_130812
  2. Hojah_Peter_of_Spaham_1651
  3. SIGNATURE_Hojah_Peter_Armenian_Merchant_HCA_1365f53v
  4. BOOK_PAGE_DETAIL_Le_Brun_C_Bassin_Med_Voy_au_Levt_Bef_P1_1714_BNF_DL_CSG_130112

2 thoughts on “Language and identity

  1. I stumbled upon your website by accident and find it fascinating. I have worked extensively on an HCA case as can be seen in my provisional study many years back, “Trade Diaspora versus Colonial State: Armenian Merchants, the East India Company and the High Court of Admiralty in London, 1748-1752,” Diaspora: A Journal of Transnational Studies 13, 1 (2006): 37-100, as well as my book From the Indian Ocean to the Mediterranean: The Global Trade Networks of Armenian Merchants from New Julfa (Berkeley: UC Press, 2011). I was not aware of these earlier cases from the 1650s and wanted to thank you for bringing them to my attention. I can’t wait to be at the PRO next to photograph in full the cases pertaining to the Armenian merchants in question. Please do not hesitate to contact me if you need help in transcribing or translating Armenian material should you come across any.
    Looking forward to hearing back from you,

    Sebouh David Aslanian
    Department of History, UCLA

    • Dear Dr Aslanian,

      We are delighted to hear from you and to learn of your expertise in Armenian merchant networks. We have digital images of all the document pages referred to in our article on language and identity, which we can post to our transcription software platform, SCRIPTO. This will enable you to view the doucments in the original. But you can also read the full cases and depositions on our wikis. We will post the relevant links.

      Best reagards

      Colin Greenstreet
      Co-director, MarineLives

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