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

By – October 24, 2022

This deeply researched, inter­est­ing, and read­able book was a labor of love for its author, who is a pro­fes­sor of his­to­ry at George­town Uni­ver­si­ty and a dis­tant rela­tion of the tit­u­lar mer­can­tile fam­i­ly. The Sas­soons is more than a chron­i­cle of ances­try, how­ev­er. On the con­trary, it cov­ers the eco­nom­ic, polit­i­cal, tech­no­log­i­cal, and diplo­mat­ic fac­tors respon­si­ble for the rise and then the fall of the family’s for­tunes, the alien­ation of the third and fourth gen­er­a­tions from the reli­gious and eth­nic iden­ti­ty of its founders, and the younger gen­er­a­tions’ belief that com­merce was beneath them.

By the fourth gen­er­a­tion, there were few Sas­soons in the fam­i­ly busi­ness, and this, Joseph Sas­soon believes, was an impor­tant fac­tor in the company’s demise. The grand­chil­dren and great-grand­chil­dren pre­ferred col­lect­ing art, rais­ing and rac­ing hors­es, fly­ing air­planes, serv­ing in gov­ern­ment, host­ing elab­o­rate din­ners, sup­port­ing hos­pi­tals and edu­ca­tion­al insti­tu­tions, and hob­nob­bing with the British aris­toc­ra­cy. In this they were no dif­fer­ent from younger mem­bers of oth­er enor­mous­ly rich fam­i­lies, such as the Rock­e­fellers, Kennedys, and Van­der­bilts, all more con­cerned with their social sta­tus than their finan­cial con­di­tion. The younger Sas­soons, in oth­er words, spent mon­ey with aban­don. They seemed lit­tle con­cerned that even­tu­al­ly the pot might run dry, as it did a lit­tle more than a cen­tu­ry after its gold­en years dur­ing the mid-nine­teenth century.

The Sas­soons were part of the large migra­tion of upward­ly mobile and for­tune-seek­ing Jews from Bagh­dad to Asia dur­ing the nine­teenth cen­tu­ry. They ini­tial­ly set­tled in Bom­bay (now Mum­bai), and as the firm grew, it estab­lished branch offices in Hong Kong, Shang­hai, and Lon­don. It also expand­ed to include busi­ness­es like mer­chant bank­ing and tex­tile man­u­fac­tur­ing, sup­ple­ment­ing the import and export of cot­ton, silk, tea, tex­tiles, opi­um, and oth­er prod­ucts. The opi­um trade was par­tic­u­lar­ly impor­tant for the fam­i­ly; they were the lead­ing exporters of opi­um to the vast mar­ket of opi­um smok­ers in Chi­na dur­ing the nine­teenth cen­tu­ry. (This was at a time when the trade was legal, with opi­um being viewed as an elixir that promised all sorts of ben­e­fits, much as those attrib­uted to tobac­co dur­ing the sev­en­teenth and eigh­teenth centuries.)

At a time when com­mu­ni­ca­tion was very prim­i­tive, it was essen­tial that the Sas­soon busi­ness be staffed by trust­wor­thy employ­ees. The most loy­al, they believed, were mem­bers of the fam­i­ly and oth­er Bagh­da­di Jews. But as the firm pros­pered, per­son­al dynam­ics became increas­ing­ly prob­lem­at­ic. Intrafam­i­ly rival­ries and com­pe­ti­tion between var­i­ous offices led to schisms and bitterness.

The Sas­soons of the first and sec­ond gen­er­a­tions were reli­gious­ly obser­vant, mar­ried oth­er Jews, and gen­er­ous­ly sup­port­ed syn­a­gogues, Jew­ish schools, and oth­er Jew­ish insti­tu­tions in Bagh­dad, India, and Chi­na. Their gen­eros­i­ty, how­ev­er, did not extend to Jew­ish insti­tu­tions in Pales­tine; they were not sym­pa­thet­ic to the Zion­ist move­ment. Their ascent into the high­est reach­es of British soci­ety in India and Eng­land fell in step with the assim­i­la­tion of their chil­dren and grand­chil­dren, who attend­ed the finest schools in Eng­land. The first thing dis­pensed was the Ara­bic dialect used by Bagh­da­di Jews, fol­lowed by a rejec­tion of tra­di­tion­al Judaism and its pro­hi­bi­tion of inter­mar­riage. This process of assim­i­la­tion is per­haps best per­son­i­fied by the famous poet Siegfried Sas­soon (18861967), the son of Alfred Ezra Sas­soon, who was raised in the Roman Catholic faith of his moth­er, Hes­ter Gat­ty, and was in his lat­er years a devout Roman Catholic. Such are often the wages of eco­nom­ic suc­cess and social mobility.

Edward Shapiro is pro­fes­sor of his­to­ry emer­i­tus at Seton Hall Uni­ver­si­ty and the author of A Time for Heal­ing: Amer­i­can Jew­ry Since World War II (1992), We Are Many: Reflec­tions on Amer­i­can Jew­ish His­to­ry and Iden­ti­ty (2005), and Crown Heights: Blacks, Jews, and the 1991 Brook­lyn Riot (2006).

Discussion Questions

The Sas­soons: The Great Glob­al Mer­chants and the Mak­ing of an Empire is a cap­ti­vat­ing account of an Iraqi Jew­ish fam­i­ly and the glob­al busi­ness net­works its dynasty cre­at­ed. Joseph Sas­soon pro­vides a detailed retelling of the Sas­soon fam­i­ly’s rise to pow­er and the ways in which its many descen­dants nego­ti­at­ed, increased, and lost influ­ence in their pur­suit of social accep­tance, even­tu­al­ly at the heart of the British Empire. One of the most strik­ing aspects of the book is the author’s abil­i­ty to bring to life the per­son­al­i­ties and expe­ri­ences of the var­i­ous mem­bers of the Sas­soon fam­i­ly. The read­er gets an inti­mate look into the lives of these indi­vid­u­als, as well as a sense of the larg­er his­tor­i­cal and cul­tur­al con­text in which they lived. The Sas­soons fea­tures ances­tors of what we’d know today as Sephardic or Mizrahi Jews and shows some of the ways in which Sephardic Jews helped shape world his­to­ry. The Sas­soons is not only a must-read for those inter­est­ed in the his­to­ry of the Jew­ish peo­ple, but also for any­one inter­est­ed in the his­to­ry of busi­ness, empire-build­ing, and the rise of glob­al commerce.