Elphin­stone Col­lege and Sas­soon Library, in Bom­bay; a col­lo­type print by Clifton & Co., c.1900

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.