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The Global Merchants by Joseph Sassoon review – the rise and fall of a dynasty | Biography books

By the end of the 19th century, the Sassoon family were regularly referred to as “the Rothschilds of the East”. This wasn’t just lazy, it was wrong. For one thing the Sassoons’ interests and influence stretched right around the world from Shanghai via Bombay, London and Lancashire, all the way to the Atlantic coastal plain of the United States. Then there was the fact that, unlike the Rothschilds, the Sassoons were not bankers but traders, specialising in opium, cotton and oil. What perhaps the late Victorians really meant when they compared the Sassoons to the Rothschilds was simply this: they were very rich and they were Jewish, a combination that conjured ambivalent feelings not just in “polite” society through which antisemitism flowed like a subterranean river but, over time, in the Sassoons themselves.

Joseph Sassoon, who is a descendant of the dynasty’s founder David, believes that it was his family’s experience as serial immigrants that drove their success and explains their decline. Their original role as treasurers to the pashas of Baghdad meant that they seamlessly acquired the Arabic, Turkish, Hebrew and Persian that equipped them to do business throughout the vast Ottoman empire. When in 1828 they were forced to flee to Bombay as a result of a pogrom, they quickly added Hindustani to their repertoire and settled down to rebuild their lives, using their tried and tested methods of exemplary ethics and ferocious hard work.

In order to avoid a repeat of that first expulsion, though, the family needed to become adept at reading the political landscape and adapting accordingly. Joseph Sassoon points out that the treaty marking the passing of India’s governance from the East India Company to Queen Victoria in 1859 was signed not in the residence of the outgoing governor but in “Sans Souci”, the home owned by the man whom the Illustrated London News described as “Mr David Sassoon, the well-known wealthy Jew Merchant of Bombay and China”. In the face of such antisemitic sneers, these early Sassoons were careful not to draw unwanted attention to themselves. While their fortune was one of the great wonders of the industrialising world, it was offset by a thoughtful philanthropy that built hospitals, libraries and schools for the whole community.

The dynasty’s founder, David Sassoon, seated.
The dynasty’s founder, David Sassoon, seated. Photograph: Pictures from History/Universal Images Group/Getty

These productive years as “good immigrants” did not last, and it is the Sassoons’ fall from fortune that gives this somewhat dry family history its emotional heart and narrative pace. Within a hundred years of hosting diplomatic milestones, younger members of the family were pawning their jewellery and filing for bankruptcy. It is, Joseph Sassoon thinks, a story of assimilation and gentrification going hand in hand with the dissipation of cultural capital. A case in point: Siegfried Sassoon, great-grandson of David Sassoon and the writer of some of the most blistering war poetry of the 20th century, was lip-curling about what he called his “Semitic sovereigns”, ignoring the fact that it was this patrimony that gave him the time and space to write.

It need not have been this way. Joseph Sassoon, who is a professor of history and political economy at Georgetown University, points out that other families made the transition from active business to genteel philanthropy while still managing to protect their fortune through the deployment of trusts, strategic successions and careful financial planning.

The Sassoons, by contrast, went on subdividing their money among their increasingly shiftless descendants, none of whom had a business-like bone in their body. It was all a far cry from the administrative brilliance of the original Sassoons of Baghdad and the mercantile sophistication of the following generation. They built, Joseph suggests, the first truly global business, able to grasp the connection between the silk harvest in France and the price of rice in Shanghai, or the way that sugar in Java could be sold at a profit in India. That they lost this panoptic capacity, settling instead for a cosy and blinkered parochialism, is the great tragedy that underpins this fascinating book.

The Global Merchants: The Enterprise and Extravagance of the Sassoon Dynasty is published by Allen Lane (£30). To support the Guardian and the Observer buy a copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.

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