Raising a Family
David Sassoon was born in Baghdad in 1793 and grew up in Baghdad until he and his father fled the city, leaving their siblings behind. When David arrived in Bombay in the 1830s the city was not yet the trading titan it would become in the middle of the century. Its inhabitants numbered just two hundred thousand, though they were very diverse: Hindus, Muslims, Parsis, Armenians, Portuguese, and a small number of Jews. This mix made for “a much more complicated colonial geography” than elsewhere in India, though of course “a racial divide overlaid the city, and West remained distinct from East.” A Jewish presence had been established in the sixteenth century by an eminent Portuguese trader, but it wasn’t until the second half of the eighteenth century, when four distinct waves of migrants came to the city, that a genuine community gained a foothold. The first of these, labeled the “Native Jew Caste” by the British and the Bene Israel by other Jews, was drawn from the belt between the Gulf of Cambay and Goa on India’s western coast; the second comprised Arab Jews from the Ottoman provinces of Baghdad, Basra, and Aleppo; the third, Cochin Jews from the Malabar Coast; and the fourth, Persian-speaking Jews from Afghanistan, Bukhara, and Mashhad.
The migration of the Arab Jews during the last couple of decades of the eighteenth century was motivated by economic reasons, and the first Baghdadis to come to India settled in Surat — though they maintained a spiritual and religious connection to their old home, according to one rabbi. When he visited Bombay in 1828, he found a few Arab Jews presided over by a particularly wealthy merchant by the name of Solomon Jacob; he had settled there in 1795 and until his death in 1834 remained a prominent figure in the public life of the city. By the early 1830s, a group of twenty to thirty families — out of a total Jewish population of 2,246 — called themselves “Jewish Merchants of Arabia, Inhabitants and Residents in Bombay.” Although Baghdadis made up a minority of this group (one traveler to the city in 1837 estimated the number of Baghdadi Jews in Bombay at 350), their successes evidently outshone those of Jews from elsewhere in Arabia, and in time all their Arab coreligionists would come to be referred to as Baghdadi Jews no matter where they came from. It was an auspicious time for the Jewish community in the city: In 1834, a new British Governor of Bombay, Sir Robert Grant, arrived. As an MP in Britain, he had lobbied for the repeal of “civil disabilities affecting British-born subjects,” and he continued in his liberal policy as Governor, which meant that under his tenure the British were more welcoming to the city’s Jews than at any time previously.
The merchants of the nineteenth century cared about one thing above all others: trust.
David Sassoon 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.
But David’s strongest ties were always within his own family. To the four children Hannah bore him in Baghdad, Farha added six sons and four daughters in Bombay. Together they formed a little army of eight sons and six daughters — enough to build an empire. David did not distinguish between children from his first and second marriages and successfully banished the idea of half brothers or sisters among his fourteen children: They were one family with one name and the shared aim of protecting it. There were nonetheless significant differences between these siblings, as we shall see, and the age span between them was substantial. The first of his children, Mazal Tov, was born thirty-nine years before the last, Mozelle. In fact, by the time of Mozelle’s birth, Mazal Tov had died and Abdallah already had four of his five children.
David Sassoon was the original company started by David and continued by his sons with Abdallah (later Sir Albert) as the chairman. E. D. Sassoon was set up by the second son, Elias, three years after the death of his father as he refused to accept that the elder brother becomes the head of the family firm as he believed he was bringing in more profits.
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.
Joseph Sassoon is Professor of History and Politics at Georgetown University. He is also a Senior Associate Member at St. Antony’s College, Oxford and a Trustee of the Bodleian Library. His previous books include the prize-winning Saddam Hussein’s Ba’th Party, The Iraqi Refugees, and The Anatomy of Authoritarianism in the Arab Republics.