The Sassoons: The Great Global Merchants and the Making of an Empire

Here are some highlights from this 2022 book by Oxford scholar Joseph Sassoon:

* The Sassoons traded with members of seemingly every religion and sect around the globe, traveling extensively not only for business but to explore new horizons, and they felt at home wherever they settled, despite being a tiny minority in terms of both their religion and their migrant status. They were not unique in their time in amassing several fortunes and rising to the upper echelons of society. But unlike their more famous contemporaries, the Rothschilds and Vanderbilts, they bridged East and West. Their story is accordingly not just that of an Arab-Jewish family who settled in India, traded in China, and aspired to be British, but also a vista into the world in which they lived and prospered as well as its major developments—from the American Civil War to the Opium Wars, the opening of the Suez Canal and introduction of the telegraph as well as the mechanization of textile production. The era they inhabited was driven above all by an encompassing globalization, which they and other merchant families benefited from and influenced, and which shaped our current lives.

Unlike people in our fragmented world today, the Sassoons did not care about the ethnicity or religion of their counterparts; all they really cared about was one thing and one thing only: Could they trust them?

* Less attractive to our eyes is the family’s involvement with one commodity that played a critical part in their success: opium. I have tried to understand this in its context, in light of the way the drug was perceived in their time, and to avoid passing moral judgment. I show instead how they came to control a large portion of the opium trade between India and China, how they ignored the winds of change around the world as its devastating effects became widely known, and how they used their political clout in Britain to delay prohibition.

* In the annals of family histories, there are many such stories of incredible fortunes made and squandered over the course of four generations. None is more famous than Buddenbrooks, Thomas Mann’s first novel. In it he charts with almost documentary precision the decline of a bourgeois family of German grain merchants over four generations in the middle of the nineteenth century. The Sassoons lacked the Buddenbrooks’ deep Hanseatic roots, however. As migrants, they had to establish themselves somewhere and ally themselves with some country. They chose Britain, the dominant world power at this book’s beginning but not at its end, and thus needed and wanted, probably more than anything else, to be accepted as English. They found success—Sassoons who had been born in Baghdad joined the English upper classes, befriending even royalty—but it was a metamorphosis as fatal to their fortunes as any misjudgment in Mann’s novel.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see Amazon.com). My work has been noted in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (Alexander90210.com).
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