Life & Culture

The Rothschilds of the East

The Sassoon dynasty made a fortune from opium trading. Jenni Frazer met the professor who unravelled his family’s story


As a Baghdad teenager, Joseph Sassoon was “totally uninterested” in the family stories his father wanted to tell him. It’s all the more extraordinary then, that as a present-day economic historian, Professor Joseph Sassoon has produced a sweeping account of part of his remarkable family, once hailed as “The Rothschilds of the East”.

More usually based in Washington DC, where he is a professor at Georgetown University, he is the author of numerous books about the Middle East, and politics. But in 2012 he was at St Antony’s College, Oxford, working on a book about authoritarianism in the Arab world, when he received a letter from another Joseph Sassoon — styling himself “Joey”, and living in the West of Scotland.

The professor phoned his namesake, then visited him, and thought he “might as well” look at some archives in London. For this branch of the Sassoons had fled Baghdad for Bombay (modern day Mumbai) , during the 19th century, became rich and powerful through the opium trade, and ultimately moved to England, where some Sassoons became close friends with the Prince of Wales and occupied opulent homes in London and Brighton.

Interest piqued, Professor Sassoon heard that there was a Sassoon archive in Jerusalem at the National Library of Israel. “I called them and they said, it’s not digitised, so come and see it. I went and it really was an incredible moment, because I realised that they had 100 large boxes. I was overwhelmed, and the historian in me said, wow, this is truly a treasure trove”.

But it was a treasure trove waiting for the right key to open it. Because, as the professor explained, much of the material was written in the local dialect: “Baghdadi Jewish dialect written in Hebrew. So what you need to decipher it is to know Arabic very well, Hebrew very well — but you also need the specific dialogue of the Baghdadi Jews”. And who better to tackle it than Professor Sassoon, who had himself fled Baghdad, and who is fluent in Hebrew and Arabic and French, and also reads Persian?

He was plainly hooked. He continued writing his book on authoritarianism, but every summer and Christmas vacation, he went back to the National Library in Jerusalem and immersed himself in his family’s history, a wonderful work of scholarship which he began in 2016, travelling to India, China, and researching in archives in Istanbul, the UK, and even in Dallas, Texas.

“The more I read, the more I understood, this is an unbelievable story — and I can write it from the beginning to the end”. For the sad truth is that unlike the Rothschilds, to whom they were so frequently compared, the Sassoons did not stay rich and powerful and influential, or remain the companions of kings and princes. It’s not exactly, the professor says, rags to riches to rags in three generations. “It was more like riches — for the first Sassoon [in the dynasty] was the equivalent of a Minister of Finance, and reported to the Sultan — then rags when he left Baghdad for Bombay — followed by serious riches, and then severe decline”.

The founder of the family fortunes, David Sassoon, left Baghdad in 1829-30. But, as Professor Sassoon explains, “he left behind several siblings, and I am the descendant of one of them. We stayed in Baghdad, in fact, until the 1970s”.

The name itself is a corruption of the Hebrew word for happiness, “sasson”, and there are, accordingly, many people in Israel with either Sasson or Sassoon as a first name. The most famous Sassoon of our times was, of course, Vidal, but the professor’s research suggests his family came from Syria and was not directly related to the Baghdad Sassoons.

Helpfully, each chapter heading is provided with a mini-family tree, so we know which member of the family is being discussed. And this illustrates a central problem of the professor’s research: the sheer duplication of names through the generations and the cousins, so it’s never quite certain which Sassoon is which. As bad as the duplication among the men — David, Reuben, Sassoon David, Elias, Joseph — it’s almost worse with the women. “They loved two names, Flora and Rachel. It drove me crazy. You’d see a letter and it would be signed Rachel. Which Rachel? The mother? The daughter? the cousin, the aunt? I used to have maps in front of me and two computers [to work out who was who], because I kept getting lost”.

If you want to found a dynasty, as did David Sassoon, you need a base population, a “small army of loyalists”. He married twice and had 14 children, eight sons and six daughters. They all received a comprehensive Jewish education, though fewer and fewer of the family retained their Jewish links as time wore on. Marrying out began — in England — to match social climbing, and examples include the first woman newspaper editor of the Sunday Times and the Observer, Rachel Beer, who was born a Sassoon but who converted to Christianity, married in church and is buried in a Christian cemetery in Tunbridge Wells.

Or, in the early 20th century, there was the First World War poet Siegfried Sassoon, who was brought up entirely in the Anglican tradition and did not understand a word of the way in which his father’s Jewish funeral was conducted. “Two old men in funny looking hats walked up and down saying jabber-jabber-jabber…” Like many of the later Sassoons, says the professor, Siegfried wanted to be “more English than the English”.

The numerous cousins immersed themselves in “English” pursuits such as horse-racing — the source of the ties between Reuben Sassoon and the then Prince of Wales, who used to ask Reuben to place bets for him — or art collecting, or politics. There was an early knighthood, for example, in 1890, for Abdallah Sassoon, one of David’s eight sons. By the time of his knighthood he was better known as Sir Albert Sassoon, and among his descendants was the film director John Huston and the present-day actor Jack Huston.

But for what Professor Sassoon calls a “wow moment” in his research, look no further than the amazing woman, Farha Sassoon, who changed her name to Flora. In 19th century history, he says, you can find matriarchs who influenced business, or women who ran small businesses.

Flora, however, appears to be unique. When her husband, Suleiman Sassoon, died young, in 1894, Flora stepped into his shoes and for six years worked as a partner in the Sassoon business, something unheard of for a woman in that time.

She sounds remarkable: she was the eldest of 12 children and had a challenging education, learning Shakespeare side by side with “the study of Hebrew with leading rabbis”. She studied French, German, English, Arabic, Hebrew and Hindustani, and on her move to London — after being ousted by the male Sassoons from the business — she became the first woman in the then 69-year history of Jews’ College to address the annual speech day, when the latest group of new rabbis were ordained.

It was 1924 and in her address Flora wondered why no other woman had made a speech to Jews’ College. She peppered her speech with erudite quotations from the Talmud and the Torah: altogether she sounds an impressive person and one can only conclude that the male Sassoons were both jealous, and mad to lose her.

Most striking of Professor Sassoon’s conclusions is that “the family tried to portray themselves [in England] as not Oriental. Their disconnect with the past was very strong. The family crest has Hebrew in it, Emet v’Emunah (true and faithful) and some wanted to remove the Hebrew. They thought that their upper class friends would say, well, of course there is Latin, but why Hebrew? And that tells you something about their desperate need to be accepted, first in India and then in England”.

It’s clear that there are absorbing stories to be told about many individual Sassoons, not least the last one on whom Professor Sassoon focuses, Victor, an extraordinarily wealthy man who at times was a sort of Hollywood “groupie”, hanging out with Charlie Chaplin and Marlene Dietrich. Victor Sassoon was based in China but came to grief during the Second World War and never really recovered financially.

The entrepreneurial drive is still present in other branches of the family, not least in Singapore where there are Sassoons building a well-regarded coffee empire. But nothing can replicate the reach and importance of this ferociously focused family, in Bombay and latterly in Britain.

As for Professor Sassoon, having immersed himself for around six years in what might be called Sassoonerie, he is taking a well-earned break — but will be talking about his book at Jewish Book Week on Sunday.

He has not founded a Sassoon dynasty himself, he tells me with a smile. But he did name his daughter Rachel.

The Global Merchants, The Enterprise and Extravagance of the Sassoon Dynasty, by Joseph Sassoon, is published by Allen Lane. Joseph Sassoon is speaking at Jewish Book Week on February 27

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