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

Dr. Joseph Sassoon to talk about his sweeping generational saga of the rise and fall of a Jewish merchant family at Knosh & Knowledge

On Thursday, September 28 at 6:45 p.m., join Dr. Joseph Sassoon, professor of History and Politics at Georgetown University, for a program about his book, The Sassoons: The Great Global Merchants and the Making of an Empire.

This free Jewish Federation of the Berkshires program – part of “Jewish Literary Voices: A Federation Series in collaboration with The Jewish Book Council” – will be presented via Zoom. Please visit our calendar of events at jewishberkshires.org for links to our programs.

The Sassoons is a generational saga of the making (and undoing) of a family dynasty, the gilded Jewish Baghdadi Sassoons, that built a vast empire through global finance and trade—cotton, opium, shipping, banking—that reached across three continents and ultimately changed the destinies of nations. 

In August, Joseph Sassoon spoke with the Berkshire Jewish Voice about the making (and unmaking) of this impressive Jewish dynasty. Our conversation was edited for length and clarity.

The BJV Interview: Dr. Joseph Sassoon

Dr. Sassoon spoke with the Berkshire Jewish Voice in August. Our conversation was edited for length and clarity.

My first question is about your process. I know a lot of your work was archival research, but a big part of it was trying to obtain a sense of place by traveling the world. Before you actually started making these journeys, how familiar were you with the places in which the Sassoon family operated?

I had been to the Sassoon Library in Mumbai, I had been to the hotel they built in Shanghai, but went in and out in 10 minutes. At the beginning of my work, I had so much material, I didn't think I needed to go anywhere. And by pure coincidence, I was reading [presidential biographer] Robert Caro, and he said he had millions of documents about Lyndon Johnson, but he still wanted to see where everything happened. So he would go somewhere in Texas so he would know what he was writing about. He wanted to see it with his own eyes. And I thought, well, if he can do it, I should.

And the truth is, it really adds a huge dimension. For example, when I was reading the archives, there was a newspaper published at the time called the Illustrated London Times. I saw an illustration of a party that David Sassoon had at his home with a caption that said roughly 900 to 1000 people were invited. I couldn't really fathom where would you put 900 to 1,000 people. But then when I went to Mumbai and I stood on the veranda of the house, I could see that you could fit even more than that in the place.

Did it give you an insight into their taste or into their worldview or their aesthetic sense? They had so many magnificent buildings in so many different places. What did you notice distinctively ‘Sassoon’ from the places you visited?

I think one is large size. There is definitely an opulence, whether it's the house in China, whether the houses in India, in Japan, wherever you go – I think it was very important for refugees who arrive into new countries to show ‘we're here, we're established and we're going to be here.’ Throughout the 150 years [of the family’s prominence], hospitality always played a huge role and you couldn’t do that in a small place. Their connection to the Prince of Wales began when he was hosted in Mumbai. That’s where they had a dinner for the Sultan of Oman when he arrived in India. That continued wherever they went. When they moved to London, this opulence continues – one house has the best music rooms, another one is so sophisticated that it has three elevators. I mean, we're talking about the early 20th century. I think it's a combination of making a statement, but also the aspect of hospitality

I was surprised by how quickly the family moved around the world, and how quickly the business world of the day could accommodate that kind of mobility. What did you learn about the early globalization in the period that they first established their business?

One of the things I got dizzy with was the amount of traveling that they were doing. One of the shocking things I would have thought is that when it takes you three weeks in a horrible, horrible journey to go from Mumbai to China, you definitely wouldn’t want to go on vacation again. Suddenly, I see these people. One son goes to Japan because he took a fancy to its mountains and its fields and felt it was so relaxing. There is another young son who traveled all the way to Norway to climb a mountain to watch this sunset. And then another daughter who traveled throughout the desert in Egypt. I think our concept of globalization is exaggerated because that was the real globalization, in my opinion. Open borders, when nationality was not really important. One of the things I tell people in 100 years of archives, not once did any member of the Sassoon family stated that they should not deal with A or B because of their religion or identity or sect or color or whatever.  It was always, ‘can we trust our new counterpart?’ And that to me, is the real globalization.

For David Sassoon himself, the decision to go to Bombay was incredible because he could have gone and stayed in Iran and gone to Isfahan, where there were a lot of traders from Baghdad, or gone to the Persian Gulf because he spoke Persian and Arabic. It would have been a much less hard for him and his family. And yet he makes the choice to take his young family and probably on a two and a half months journey on a boat. About, 5% to 8% of these boats never made it - the weather, the typhoons, the piracy, the diseases, and the quality of the food. If they get delayed, they run out of fresh food and water.

The way you described their success is that it was largely tied to the workings of the British Empire. They definitely tied their star to the English way of doing things. I was surprised that they were able to establish houses like that in London, that they didn't receive more pushback from the locals.

Well, it is fascinating. First of all, antisemitism was rampant in Britain at the end of the 19th century. But I think there are a number of factors that really aided in their acceptance. One, their connection from the beginning to royalty. The Prince of Wales used to be criticized in the papers about why he was spending so much time with these foreigners. There was a movement in Britain at the time of emphasizing free trade, of accepting talent that at least the Prince of Wales and many of the upper class accepted. Number two, they were not moneylenders, unlike the Rothschilds. Third, the British do not like nouveau riche. For them, it's not about money, it's about status. Well, the Sassoons had tremendous status in Baghdad and then in India. They were among what was called the merchant princes. That was not available for other families that came in and made it. And the final thing is, unlike the Rothschild, where towards the end of the 19th century, early 20th century, and particularly as World War One erupted, there was never a question about the loyalty of the Sassoons. The Rothschilds were always being asked, who are you supporting? You have a brother in Germany, you have another brother in France. Are you with us or with them?

When I read your story of the Sassoons, one American family I thought of was the Vanderbilts, who also had a strong-willed founder, became obsessed with building monumental structures, and then, by the fourth generation, like the Sassoons, were no longer that wealthy anymore. But I also thought of another family – the Sacklers who made their money in pharmaceuticals with oxycodone. And when it comes right down to it, the Sassoons were trading in opium. And as you document very exhaustively in your book, they kept at it even after public consciousness was raised that opium was a life-destroying menace that was addictive and even causing wars. Should they be remembered as evil figures, if not so much in the West, but in China?

First of all, there are huge differences with the Sacklers. One, the Sassoons dealt with it as a pure commodity and no different from rice or tea or anything. And, in many ways, the Indian peasant decided whether one year they were going to produce opium or let's say rice or wheat. Second, there is no mechanization and they definitely didn't put it through this web of trying to deceive people about the implications of its side effects. Opium was legal until 19 seven everywhere in the world, including in America. You could go until to any pharmacy in New York or London or Paris and tell the pharmacist that you have a headache or indigestion. And the pharmacist will recommend a little opium.

Third, you have to see it really at the time with that eyesight. The British Parliament created a seven-volume report of the Opium Commission inquiry, which I quote a lot in the book. They interviewed more than 100 medical experts and the conclusion was well, if you're going to ban opium, then you're going to have to ban alcohol. That if it's taken in small doses, it's no different from you having a glass of whiskey. So I think it has to be seen in that context and not the context of 2023. The Sacklers really knew what was going on - the environment in 2015 or whatever was not that it was okay to double-dose an opioid.

But just to be the devil's advocate – opioids were just as legal as opium. You could go to a doctor and say I have a backache and he’d give you opioids. I mean, it's interesting to me, as a historian, how you might judge people of their time. I know it's a fallacy to try and imagine that the people of one time could have seen into the future and acted accordingly. But still, how do you judge them morally? I don't know myself.

I don't know either. It's very difficult. I think that until the end of the 19th century, there was also a lot of embedded racism. If you look at this 2,500-page commission report, there is a lot of racism, [particularly the idea] the yellow race is more vulnerable to drugs than the white man or even the Indian. And the argument of many of those medical experts was, how come you do not see a lot of addicts in India, where opium was used for 5,000 years? Do you know even today mothers in a lot of villages still give their teething babies some opium to reduce their pain? The argument of those experts is how come these races didn't get addicted? Now obviously it's ridiculous because we know now that whites and every race can get addicted and can get sick. But you have to see it through those notions. My criticism of them was really more focused on 15 to 20 years before World War I, where it becomes clear that it's an exaggeration that taking a little bit of opium is like having a glass of whiskey.

It did seem like they were people operating according to the values and understanding and conventions of their time.

On the other hand, as we mentioned, the Sassoons dealt with every race, they dealt with every identity, they dealt with every religion. Indians, Chinese, Arabs. You know they had a base in Pakistan, in Japan. They were everywhere, and racism never did come up. I'm not sure how many in today's world can do that.

Joseph Sassoon is a professor of History and Political Economy at Georgetown's Center for Contemporary Arab. He is also a Senior Associate Member at St Antony’s College, Oxford. His research interests include political economy, economic history, Iraq, Iraqi refugees, and authoritarianism.

Sassoon’s The Iraqi Refugees: The New Crisis in the Middle East is a comprehensive study of the Iraqi refugees and the impact of their displacement on their home and host countries after the 2003 invasion. In 2013, his book Saddam Hussein’s Ba‘th Party: Inside an Authoritarian Regime won the prestigious British-Kuwait Prize for the best book on the Middle East. He is also the author of Anatomy of Authoritarianism in the Arab Republics (2016).