Baghdad-born David Sassoon built a global business empire in the 19th century centered on India and the Far East, but within three generations, the fortune his family made was dissipated, and his descendants were more focused on enjoying their social lives. Now a distant relative, academic Joseph Sassoon has deciphered an archive of Judeo-Arabic correspondence which throws new light on the Sassooon enterprise. The result is his new book, The Global Merchants: the Enterprise and Extravagance of the Sassoon Dynasty. Review in The Guardian:
By the end of the 19th century, the Sassoon family were regularly referred to as “the Rothschilds of the East”. This wasn’t just lazy, it was wrong. For one thing the Sassoons’ interests and influence stretched right around the world from Shanghai via Bombay, London and Lancashire, all the way to the Atlantic coastal plain of the United States. Then there was the fact that, unlike the Rothschilds, the Sassoons were not bankers but traders, specialising in opium, cotton and oil. What perhaps the late Victorians really meant when they compared the Sassoons to the Rothschilds was simply this: they were very rich and they were Jewish, a combination that conjured ambivalent feelings not just in “polite” society through which antisemitism flowed like a subterranean river but, over time, in the Sassoons themselves.
Joseph Sassoon, who is a descendant of the dynasty’s founder David, believes that it was his family’s experience as serial immigrants that drove their success and explains their decline. Their original role as treasurers to the pashas of Baghdad meant that they seamlessly acquired the Arabic, Turkish, Hebrew and Persian that equipped them to do business throughout the vast Ottoman empire. When in 1828 they were forced to flee to Bombay as a result of a pogrom, they quickly added Hindustani to their repertoire and settled down to rebuild their lives, using their tried and tested methods of exemplary ethics and ferocious hard work.
In order to avoid a repeat of that first expulsion, though, the family needed to become adept at reading the political landscape and adapting accordingly. Joseph Sassoon points out that the treaty marking the passing of India’s governance from the East India Company to Queen Victoria in 1859 was signed not in the residence of the outgoing governor but in “Sans Souci”, the home owned by the man whom the Illustrated London News described as “Mr David Sassoon, the well-known wealthy Jew Merchant of Bombay and China”. In the face of such antisemitic sneers, these early Sassoons were careful not to draw unwanted attention to themselves. While their fortune was one of the great wonders of the industrialising world, it was offset by a thoughtful philanthropy that built hospitals, libraries and schools for the whole community.
These productive years as “good immigrants” did not last, and it is the Sassoons’ fall from fortune that gives this somewhat dry family history its emotional heart and narrative pace. Within a hundred years of hosting diplomatic milestones, younger members of the family were pawning their jewellery and filing for bankruptcy. It is, Joseph Sassoon thinks, a story of assimilation and gentrification going hand in hand with the dissipation of cultural capital.
FT review (with thanks: Miro)