“The Sassoons: The Great Global Merchants and the Making of an Empire” by Joseph Sassoon

Joseph Sassoon Joseph Sassoon

Scholar and professor Joseph Sassoon was never interested in his family’s history until he received a letter ten years ago from another Joseph Sassoon. The name is not common and, sure enough, this other Joseph was a very distant relative who had come across an article by Professor Sassoon about authoritarian regimes. The two spoke on the phone, which sparked interest in the family and led to Professor Sassoon’s new book, The Sassoons: The Great Global Merchants and the Making of an Empire, a story of a refugee family that reinvented itself in India, China, and ultimately the United Kingdom, and one that sometimes takes on biblical dimensions.

Some may know the Sassoon name from places India, Shanghai, and perhaps Hong Kong, but many probably think of the British poet Siegfried Sassoon (a relative) and Vidal Sassoon (from a Syrian family not related to the Baghdadi Sassoons). The story of the Baghdadi Sassoons has been told in bits and pieces, but Joseph Sassoon’s is the first comprehensive account and for good reason. Archives in Jerusalem hold thousands of Sassoon papers dating back to 1855, but they are mainly written in what the author calls the Baghdadi Jewish dialect of Arabic that uses Hebrew lettering.

 

Most of this business correspondence was written in Baghdadi Jewish dialect to prevent outsiders from reading their letters; family members used their Baghdadi Jewish but wrote it in Hebrew characters (some refer to the language as Judeo-Arabic, but this is a relatively new term). The result is indecipherable to all but a few scholars, but fortunately I am fluent in Arabic, Hebrew, and the Baghdadi Jewish dialect.

 

Joseph Sassoon was born and raised in Baghdad and left as an adult in the early 1970s after the Ba’th Party gained power and started hanging Jews in public.

 

The Sassoons: The Great Global Merchants and the Making of an Empire, Joseph Sassoon (Pantheon, October 2022; Allen Lane, February 2022)
The Sassoons: The Great Global Merchants and the Making of an Empire, Joseph Sassoon (Pantheon, October 2022; Allen Lane, February 2022)

Sheikh Sassoon Ben Saleh Sassoon was appointed the chief treasurer by the Pasha in Baghdad in the late-18th century, and had a number of children, including a son named David. In the mid-19th century, Sheikh Sassoon and his son David fled Iraq probably because the environment was no longer hospitable to Jews, especially those in charge of the state’s coffers. They spent a short time in Iran, where Sheikh Sassoon passed away. David ended up settling in Bombay and starting his trading business, David Sassoon and Company. He quickly adapted to his new home.

 

He began learning Hindustani as soon as he arrived, adding to his fluency in Arabic, Hebrew, Turkish, and Persian, and spent his days by the cotton exchange talking to traders and agents, scrutinizing the international news for anything that might send prices up or down, and making contact with his old acquaintances in Baghdad and the Persian Gulf.

 

This immersion in language and culture would be a trademark for the first two generations of the Bombay Sassoons, but later ones would not be so meticulous, eventually contributing to the family’s downfall. David Sassoon and Co began exporting textiles but was by no means a leader in the field at first. That status would belong to Jardine Matheson and the Parsi businessman, Jamsetjee Jejeebhoy.

David Sassoon was an observant Jew and dressed in robes and a turban typical of his Baghdadi roots. But he was also so devoted to the British Empire in India that he was given British citizenship in 1853. This loyalty to the UK would end up being the family’s downfall as future Sassoon generations paid more attention to assimilating in British society than in continuing in the tradition of entrepreneurialism that built up the Sassoon dynasty.

David Sassoon and Co also became one of the largest opium merchants in India and China. Joseph Sassoon states a number of times throughout the book that the Sassoons were by no means the only opium traders then, but were often blamed for it more than others that pushed opium in China.

 

Opium trading and its control by Parsis and Jews ignited many snide remarks by their competitors who were desperate to acquire a larger slice of the cake. Jardine Matheson’s correspondence shows a blatant “us and them” attitude… Later, anti-Semitic propaganda claimed that the Jews were the force behind the Opium Wars and responsible for destroying the lives of many Chinese, ignoring the fact that before the Jews arrived, the East India Company was in control of all trade, including opium. The fascist Arnold Leese, a virulent anti-Semite and a founding member of the Imperial Fascist League, wrote about “the Jewish Rotting of China” in a pamphlet claiming that the Chinese hated foreigners because of the Sassoons and comparing this to other situations where all the blame lay only with the Jews.

 

After David’s death, his eight sons from two marriages quarreled about business matters. The company went into the hands of Abdallah, his eldest son from his first marriage. But second son Elias wanted to hold a higher position and split with David Sassoon and Co, forming ED Sassoon and Company. The two firms would not work together and became fierce rivals.

 

Elias had been one of the first Jews to enter China after the conclusion of the First Opium War and settle in one of the ports which foreign traders were permitted to live. Others followed in subsequent years, and by the time Elias had established Shanghai as the firm’s primary hub in China, he was one of the figureheads of the small but close community there, responsible probably more than any other individual for “safeguarding the identity” of Baghdadi Jews who had settled in Shanghai.

 

Elias, like his father, adhered to Jewish tradition by not working on Saturday, keeping a kosher diet, and attending synagogue on a regular basis. Most of the synagogues that remain in India, Shanghai, and Hong Kong were built by a Sassoon.

 

The decline of the Sassoon dynasty would take place over several decades, but the beginning of the end perhaps began when two Sassoon companies competed for the same opium and textile business. Then there was Flora Sassoon, the wife (and grand-niece) of David’s son, Sulieman, who became a full partner of David Sassoon and Co in India after her husband’s death. The family didn’t take well to Flora’s efficient management and business acumen. She was also a devoted scholar of Jewish texts. Her other partners—all members of the Sassoon family—eventually squeezed her out of the firm just because she was a woman.

Victor Sassoon is perhaps the most well-known of the family in Shanghai lore and bore very little resemblance to his grandfather Elias; Victor was British through and through and loved nothing more than horse racing and throwing a good party. He also has the dubious distinction of putting ED Sassoon and Co’s money into Shanghai real estate in the 1920s and 1930s, most of which was lost after 1949.

Unlike some other firms from their era, like Jardine Matheson and the Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation, both David Sassoon and Co and ED Sassoon and Co no longer exist. And the lineage from David Sassoon’s branch of the family tree has also died out. Yet their story still has lessons, as Joseph Sassoon writes at the end of his book:

 

An important factor that aided them in adapting to global changes was their background: They left Baghdad knowing the meaning of security and insecurity, spoke different languages, understood cultures, and were respectful of all religions and sects wherever they traveled or traded. This allowed them to feel connected to the global world, which was beginning to be smaller with better transportation and communications. And most critically, their being refugees who were willing to change, adapt, and be integrated within different societies and cultures is the ultimate witness to their openness to globalization as we perceive it today.

Susan Blumberg-Kason is the author of Good Chinese Wife: A Love Affair with China Gone Wrong.