CCAS Director Joseph Sassoon discusses how a Jewish Baghdadi family built a global trade empire and why it declined—the subject of his latest book.
By Joseph Sassoon
It all started with David Sassoon, who fled Baghdad with his wife and four chidren in 1829 because of a conflict with the province’s corrupt Ottoman governor. The rest of his family remained in Baghdad, their home for the previous 2500 years (and I am one of their descendants). From his new home in Bombay, David gradually developed a trading business. Relying on his children, the number of which eventually grew to fourteen, he built an extensive trade network in cotton, textiles, opium, tea, and other commodities. By the time David died in 1864, the family mercantile business had grown into a global enterprise, leaving his children with a significant fortune of £4 million, about 500 million in today’s U.S. dollars.
As tradition dictated, David’s will made Abdallah, the oldest son, the new head of the family. But Elias, the second eldest, who had spent years successfully developing the business in China, believed that he and Abdallah should co-run the business together. After three years of squabbling, the family split into two competing companies, both carrying the Sassoon name. Abdallah continued to grow his business despite increased competition from his brother’s firm and decided to move from Bombay to London, believing that establishing himself in the capital of the financial world would enhance the company and consolidate his trading power.
In 1872, Abdallah, now using the anglicized “Albert,” was rewarded for his public contributions with a knighthood. It was a tremendous honor and marked the zenith of a remarkable ascent—from Baghdadi exile to accredited member of the nobility—in just four decades. The following year, “Sir Albert” was awarded the Freedom of the City of London, an honor normally bestowed on British-born subjects. At the Guildhall ceremony, this extraordinary break with tradition was noted in the commemorative brochure: “This is the first time an East Indian merchant has been admitted to the honor highly prized by its possessor, and much coveted by the aspirants to City fame … It is the first time that the freedom of the City of London has been presented to a Jew.” Thus began a bond between the Sassoons and the British elite, including royalty.
Albert’s brothers Arthur, Fredrick and Reuben, also using anglicized names, had become well integrated into London society. Their entrée into Britain’s elite circles came through three different means: their philanthropy, which was part of all their business dealings; their marriages, which connected them to European and English aristocratic families; and their property—mansions and estates in London, Brighton, and Scotland from which they entertained. The founder of the dynasty, David, had established the rule that in every trade a “tax” should be collected to be given to charitable causes. This rule, which was followed by his children and applied wherever the Sassoons lived or conducted business, opened doors for the family and provided them with prestige and influence in every corner of the world.
The first important marriage of the Sassoon family took place in London in January of 1873, when Arthur wed Eugenie Louise Perugia, of an old Jewish family from Trieste. Prior to the wedding, Arthur hosted a sumptuous ball that was attended by their friend, the Prince of Wales, and many members of the Rothschild family. Among the well-wishers at the wedding, which was held at the synagogue on Great Portland Street, were Benjamin Disraeli, the Chancellor of the Exchequer (and in short order Prime Minister), and the Prince of Wales on his first visit to a Jewish place of worship. Edward, Albert’s son, married Aline Caroline, daughter of Baron Gustave de Rothschild of Paris, in the late 1880s and soon after was elected MP for Hythe (a seat previously held by Meyer de Rothschild), where the family had amassed property and influence.As for their houses, Arthur lived in Albert Gate near Hyde Park. He was believed to have one of the best music rooms in any home in London, and one of the city’s finest staircases. In Edward’s case, Aline’s charm, taste, wealth, and connections opened new doors for her husband and his family in French and English society, and their home in London became a center of literary and artistic life. Frederick, the youngest son, lived in Knightsbridge. Reuben, meanwhile, had settled at 1 Belgrave Square, amusingly described in a compendium of England’s twelve most “beautiful houses” as modern, with “very little Oriental about it.”
Although there are still many buildings in Mumbai and Shanghai carrying the name Sassoon, within three generations of David’s emigration from Baghdad, the family was in decline and by the fourth, their business successes were nearly forgotten. In mid-twentieth century England, the Sassoon name was more connected to Siegfried Sassoon, the World War I poet (who was not a man of means or business) than to a dynasty. What happened to this tremendous affluence and these magnificent houses? How did such family wealth dissipate? Rather than a single event, what really stifled entrepreneurialism amongst the Sassoon dynasty was more protracted and subtle: Anglicization. As more and more of the family moved to England, they fell under the spell of the English aristocratic lifestyle and strove to become part of it. In this, they were mirroring a late nineteenth-century ethos that affirmed the primacy of landed gentlemen over industrial entrepreneurs. Making money was eschewed as common. The Sassoons accordingly abandoned the disciplined work ethic laid down by their empire’s founder, David, and diligently followed by his son Albert. Both of these men had seen money not only as a means of gaining power and security, but also of contributing to their communities. Their sumptuous houses and generous hospitality were used for the benefit of their business rather than its detriment. The same cannot be said of their successors.
The Sassoons did not plan for the long term or diversify their assets as they were more interested harvesting the fruits of their existing business ventures in lucrative commodities like opium and cotton. The Elias Sassoon business based in the Far East lost a fortune with the rise of Communism in China and the nationalisation of all foreign assets in the country. The adage that dynasties lose their wealth by the third generation held true in the Sassoons’ case. Cecil Roth, who wrote about the Sassoon’s, likened the shape of the family’s 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” had come down.
Joseph Sassoon is the CCAS Director and the Sheikh Sabah Al Salem Al Sabah Chair. His book The Sassoons: The Great Global Merchants and The Making of an Empire was published in October 2022 by Pantheon, an imprint at Knopf Doubleday.