The Rise and Fall of an Indian Jewish Family’s Commercial Empire

November 30, 2022 | Robert Philpot
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For a significant part of the 19th and early 20th centuries, the Sassoon family directed a sprawling business concern, trading in opium, cotton, tea, and silk—and, eventually, much else besides—that shaped the history of Britain, India, and China. Various members of the family would rub elbows with the House of Windsor and are even mentioned in Queen Victoria’s diaries. Robert Philpot reviews a recent book about the so-called “Rothschilds of the East.”

The story begins with David, the dynasty’s founding father, escaping Ottoman Baghdad for Iran in the late 1820s. The son of Sheikh Sassoon ben Saleh, a long-serving former chief treasurer to the city’s pashas, David had been threatened and held hostage by Baghdad’s notoriously greedy and rapacious governor. When the aging sheikh, once “the most eminent Jew in Baghdad,” joined him soon after, it capped a remarkable fall from grace for the family.

The sheikh’s death in 1830 hastened the departure of David and his young family for Bombay where British rule provided safety and the administration adopted a liberal posture towards the city’s Jewish community.

In the First Opium War of 1839-42, Britain quashed China’s effort to stem the flow of the powerful narcotic into the country. David saw the opportunity, dispatching [his son], the “energetic and tenacious” twenty-four-year-old Elias, to scout the lay of the land and seek out new customers. The die was cast. Over the following decades, the Sassoons supplanted bigger traders to become the dominant player in the export of opium from India to China.

Business acumen was combined with epic levels of philanthropic giving: one-quarter percent of each trade, whether profitable or not, was recorded as a charitable surcharge, or ts’dakah, in branch ledgers. In Bombay, David established a school for boys, one for girls, and a third for underprivileged juveniles. Later, hospitals, libraries, and the renowned Sassoon Mechanics’ Institute would follow.

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