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.

* One gentile traveler to Baghdad claimed that there were no Jewish beggars: “If one of their class fall into distress, another wealthier relieves him.”

* David was himself profoundly attached to Judaism. He was pious and a devoted student of the Talmud, despite the demands his business made of him—traits he managed to instill in only one or two of his sons, though he insisted that all of them have a comprehensive Jewish education, and appearances were at least maintained while he was in charge of the family. He was quick to find an appropriate synagogue when he arrived in Bombay and regularly attended public worship there.

* The [opium] trade boomed, and from then [1854] until the First World War, opium was prominent in the Sassoons’ global trade portfolio and contributed substantially to their profits, especially during the three decades from 1860 to 1890…

* Another newspaper commented on what it termed a “movement” among the Jews in Bombay, led by David, to break the “Oriental customs of secluding their females and allowing them to remain without even the rudiments of education.” Overall, however, the city welcomed the Sassoons and Jews in general, and this tolerance was still evident in the 1870s when a tram service began operating in Bombay and special concessions were made to accommodate Jews on the Sabbath so that they could avoid using money. Observant Jews could purchase in advance a coupon that stated: “For Jews Only Available on Tram Services (For use only on Saturdays & Jewish Holidays) to be handed over to the Tram Conductor who will issue a ticket in lieu hereof.”

* The Sassoons’ ascent as serious global traders coincided with the elevation of “free trade” to a fundamental principle and a central plank of policy in Britain. The Sassoons’ interests and those of the British Empire converged during this period, and this fortuitous concurrence of ideology and Sassoon business activities would serve both well for more than half a century.

* With the expansion of the family business and the reluctance of Baghdadi Jews to be stationed for long periods in remote areas in Japan and China, a number of English professionals were hired in London and sent to the Far East, as it was felt the business needed their professionalism and sophistication. One son even called on the family to hire only Englishmen on the grounds that they were less greedy and troublesome than the Baghdadi Jews.

* A major challenge facing the opium trade in the 1880s was oversupply. As the price of opium declined, the family actually stepped up their lobbying to limit or lift any restrictions against the trade… Attempts to compensate for these losses were made by finding new outlets for opium.

* The biggest threat to the opium trade came not from taxation, oversupply, or currency fluctuation, but rather political pressure in Britain to put a halt to it. The trade’s fiercest adversaries were a group of reformers from the Society of Friends, or the Quakers, as they are more commonly known. In 1874, a group of Quakers formed the Society for the Suppression of the Opium Trade, whose members included inter alios politicians, members of the aristocracy, and journalists. They succeeded in making prohibition the subject of parliamentary debate…

They had been encouraged by the U.S.-China treaty of 1880, which imposed restrictions on the opium trade between the two countries, and thought the moment ripe for “all Christian Englishmen [to] combine to free our country from the sad responsibility for this evil trade.” The news in 1881 that the Inspector General of Customs in Peking estimated the number of opium smokers at over two million and rising annually intensified the moral argument to ban the trade. A two-pronged campaign was mounted, to convince public opinion of the need to halt this “evil trade” and MPs to support a change in the law. William Gladstone, in his second term as Prime Minister, had previously condoned the trade and would do so again, in part not to alienate powerful figures in his Cabinet, but he sensed that pressure was building up in Parliament for reform.

* The anti-opium lobby, which now included leaders from the Methodist, Unitarian, Baptist, and Presbyterian churches, was relentless. Although its campaign was gathering momentum, the lobby sought to avoid being a political movement. In its diverse publications, its leaders insisted that opium was a vice and that the habit of opium smoking was among the worst of vices. They enlisted senior Chinese officials to rouse public support for the cause and published their letters in magazines and pamphlets. Among these was a Chinese dignitary from Tientsin, who expressed the gratitude of his countrymen to the Society [of Friends] for its efforts to free China from “the evils of the opium traffic.” He claimed that England and China could never meet on common ground: “China views the whole question from a moral standpoint; England from a fiscal.”

* To counter the abolition movement in Britain, both Sassoon firms turned to the China Association, a lobbying group set up in London to protect British interests in China. A majority of its representatives were former government officials, mostly from the Foreign Office, who would lobby the Foreign Office or Parliament. Many of the letters addressed to the Association were signed by representatives of both Sassoon companies (and usually by another half dozen companies). All these companies coordinated their efforts to ensure that exports of opium to China were not curtailed or—worse—banned.

* Despite their professed belief in the beneficial properties of opium, none of the interviewees were asked if they consumed it themselves or recommended its use to their family or friends, and the prejudiced nature of the questions prepared by members of the inquiry, replete with derogatory references to the “Asiatic race” and its dependence on opium, is hard to avoid.

* In spite of the stigma attached to it, the Sassoons and others defended the opium trade through the nineteenth century and well into the twentieth, going so far as to marshal opposition to the restrictions imposed by China and subvert the campaigns of prohibitionists in Britain. The drug was traded freely when David arrived in Bombay, and though the consensus changed around them, the family continued to see it as a commodity not much different from any other until they could trade it no longer. There is no trace in the Sassoon archives of any doubt over opium’s effects or the ethics of their involvement in the trade. In this they were not alone. Israel’s Messenger, the only Sephardic journal to be published in China, has nothing to say about the drug—a glaring omission, given the extent to which it was debated and discussed in other local publications at the end of the nineteenth century. It seems that moral arguments did not arise when fortunes were at stake, and even members of the family who took no part in the business, though they disagreed over and even campaigned for many of the social and political issues of their day, were united, either standing on the sidelines or actively supporting the trade.

* 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 from India, 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.

* One important side effect of the war [WWI] was a further push in the Anglicization of both parts of the family, which most likely ensured the final severing of links with their Baghdadi roots. In many ways, Philip’s disinterest in Judaism was characteristic of his generation of the family. In a brochure about the history of Ashley Park, a picture of the Sassoon crest appears shorn of the Hebrew motto Emet ve Emmuna (Truth and Trust), while retaining the Latin words Candide et Constanter, and the family is identified as originating from Toledo in Spain, whose exiles were evidently more prestigious than their counterparts in Babylon. A desire to avoid association with “the Orient” and even with Jewishness became detectable. Stories circulated that other members also wanted the Hebrew words removed from the family emblem. Whenever a relative arrived from India or China, “the Society Sassoons would be slightly disconcerted,” as it was “an untimely reminder of their past non-Society existence,” of their origins far from the Occident, of the heavily accented English of their parents and grandparents, their rituals, and their heritage.
By the mid-1920s, the Sassoons had fully achieved their dream: They considered themselves English, had developed close relations with royalty, had been elected to Parliament, had received titles, and were, on the whole, accepted by most of the British aristocracy. The price of assimilation was the loss of ties not only to an old faith or old home, but also to the global business that had brought them to England in the first place.

* The arc from unassuming beginnings to spectacular success and ignoble end took the two Sassoon companies less than a century and a half to traverse. The sheer rapidity of the opening and closing acts draws the obvious question: Why? Why did they thrive where so many other trading families merely subsided, or even failed? And having reached the heights that they did, what went wrong?
The roots of their triumph run in multiple directions. They were made by their allegiance to British colonial interests and the rise of global trade and commodity prices in the second half of the nineteenth century, though they were hardly alone in this. What distinguished them from their rivals and enabled this family to build a truly global trading firm? The merchants of the nineteenth century cared about one thing above all others: trust. In a world that was growing steadily more interconnected but where the primary methods of communication were slow or insecure, trust—and its talismanic partner, reputation—was as much the lifeblood of trade as capital and credit. Unlike many of their counterparts in Europe, who could depend on written contracts, the Sassoons had to rely upon their personal relationships with traders, suppliers, and buyers to do business. They had to choose carefully and were aided in this by the information nexus they built around their offices in Asia and Britain, and the network of agents, brokers, and more they cultivated in India, China, and beyond. From the beginning, the trust that existed within the Sassoon firms was projected outward. David deployed his sons as his agents and representatives and built a workforce he could likewise depend upon, mostly from other Baghdadi Jews—keepers of the “coded” dialect used by the family in business correspondence, which fostered trust within the firm by ensuring that their communications were impenetrable to rivals. He knew his employees’ families, and by providing them with free education and health care, through the schools and hospitals he funded, he ensured their loyalty when his competitors struggled to trust newcomers. The weight David gave to the family’s good name encouraged him and his sons to be risk-averse when assessing new projects and trades, helping to sustain the business in times of crisis and proving them worthy of the trust placed in them by their partners in business. Finally, David’s core principle of donating to the poor sustained the family’s cohesiveness as well as brought tremendous respect from outsiders and political clout. Risk was an integral part of trade, but the firm David built systematically avoided speculation and thus survived the financial crisis of the 1860s, which decimated many of its competitors.

* What really did stifle entrepreneurialism among the Sassoon dynasty was not the prohibition of competition between them but an altogether more protracted and subtle shift: Anglicization. As more and more of the family moved to England, they grew enamored with the aristocracy, fell under the spell of English upper-class life, and strove to join them. In this they were mirroring a mood that affirmed the primacy of landed gentlemen over industrial entrepreneurs by the end of the nineteenth century, as “the disruptive force of the industrial revolution” led to growing suspicion of material and technological advancements.

* Industry was pushed aside, even disdained, and leisure assumed a higher priority than business in English refined circles. Making money was eschewed as common. The Sassoons accordingly abandoned the work ethic laid down by the founder and diligently followed by Albert and Suleiman. These men had worked long hours six days a week. They saw money as a means of gaining power and security, of contributing to their communities; they bought and built sumptuous houses and were generous hosts to the benefit of their business rather than its detriment. The same cannot be said of their successors.

* “Nothing suppresses an appetite for commerce more than a diet of gentlemanly pursuits.”

* One key difference between the Sassoons and the family to which they are most often compared, the Rothschilds, was the transmission of wealth and knowledge between generations. David instituted a “training program” for his sons to learn the ins and outs of trade, but this enterprise was short-lived compared to the Rothschilds’ equivalent, which diligently trained their offspring for generations.

* The Sassoons, unlike more enduring dynasties, did not plan for the long term as they cherished harvesting the fruits of their existing businesses, such as opium and cotton.

* Paradoxically, one reason for the Sassoons’ collapse is a lack of heirs. Theirs was a close business, centered around loyal, dedicated family members and near relatives at the top, and by the early twentieth century the lack of candidates—motivated or otherwise—had become acute. Unlike David, who had eight sons and six daughters from two marriages; Albert, who produced two sons and three daughters; or Elias, who had six sons and three daughters, later heads of the family were bachelors (Philip) or married very late in life (Victor), and neither of these two had children. One observer called it the “extinction of the house of Sassoon” as so many were childless or had no male heirs to carry on the family name. After their deaths no one emerged to take the helm, and no member of the family was interested in reengineering the businesses to meet the challenges brought by a changing world.
Outsiders perceived the decline of the Sassoons long before they themselves did. In 1940, the Colonial Office deemed the family a spent force and not a suitable partner for new ventures in the West Indies…

* Another more recent magnate, Sir Michael Kadoorie, summed up why families such as his succeed: “It is about obligations and not just privileges. Leading by example is the only way to keep it going from one generation to another.” The Sassoons partially failed to do so in the second generation and utterly bungled it in the third and fourth generations. Dynasties are, of course, more enduring than any one individual. But their survival is dependent on their leaders’ ability to instill resilience and the capacity to adapt to changing circumstances in their organization. In the case of the Sassoons, this leadership faltered.

* A key to explaining the dissipation of the Sassoons’ wealth is the lack of tax planning and the absence of trusts, such as those set up by the Rothschilds, that would have prevented wealth from being divided with each generation, and after the split likely in two directions also. Here, the adage that “the difficulties of the family business begin with the founder” is absolutely true. There was no long-term strategic planning that would have protected and secured family assets to the benefit of all.

* the story of Lehman Brothers, another company founded by a family of migrants whose first generation lived frugally, worked hard, and created immense wealth. The decadence and disinterest of their third generation echoed that of the Sassoons, and the relinquishing of control of the company also augured the beginning of its end, though in this case the fallout was altogether grander.

* the Sassoons’ decline stemmed in part from their success—the titles, social and political standing, and friendship with royalty they sought and obtained, seemingly at the cost of what had brought them riches in the first place. David Sassoon had always been adamant that the family’s reputation was of the utmost importance and demanded that his children work to enrich themselves; less than a hundred years after his death, his descendants enjoyed these riches while the firm he built became marginal in every sphere, managed by outsiders who were eventually declared unfit by the Bank of England. The desire for acceptance and status was not particular to the Sassoons. Between the founder and the fourth generation, something more than money had been lost. One astute observer likened the shape of the dynasty to a diamond, “starting at a point, widening out rapidly, and tapering disastrously towards the bottom. In [the fourth] generation, moreover, there is little left of the specific quality of the Sassoons of a previous age.” The final curtain on the global merchants, or “the Rothschilds of the East,” came down.

* Outside Mumbai or certain districts of Shanghai, few today have heard of the Sassoon family. The name calls to mind only the famous First World War poet Siegfried Sassoon, in Britain, and the hairdresser Vidal Sassoon (whose origins were Syrian and had no connection to the Baghdadi Sassoons), in Britain and the United States. I know this because I too carry the Sassoon name, and I too scarcely gave the legacy of my extended family a thought until I began writing this book.

About Luke Ford

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