The trading empire Sassoon created spanned the globe from what is now Mumbai on the western coast of India, via Shanghai and Hong Kong in China, all the way to London, England. The trading empire he created spanned the globe, from what is now Mumbai on the western coast of India, via Shanghai and Hong Kong in China, all the way to London, England. It dominated world commerce in a number of commodities – most significantly opium – over the second half of the 19th century.
David Sassoon was born in Baghdad to a wealthy Iraqi Jewish family. His father, Saleh Sassoon was the chief treasurer to the pashas (the governors of Baghdad) from 1781 to 1817, and president (Nasi) of the city’s Jewish community. Following increasing persecution of Baghdad’s Jews by Dawud Pasha, the family moved to Bombay where Sassoon established his business, originally acting as a middleman between British textile firms and Gulf commodity merchants, subsequently investing in valuable harbour properties.
Sassoon initially owned a counting house and a carpet warehouse, but soon began trading in everything he could, including, most profitably, opium. When China’s emperor tried to outlaw the drug, which cut a wide swathe of destruction through the population of the country’s coastal regions, the British responded with war. The result was the 1842 Treaty of Nanking, which earned the United Kingdom a free hand in selling opium in China.
Sassoon established a triangle of trade, bringing Indian opium and cotton to China, where he received silver, tea and silk in exchange. He then carried these products to England for sale. Finished products from Britain, as well as cash, were then brought back to India where they were used to buy more opium.
In 1844, he set up a branch in Hong Kong, and a year later, he set up his Shanghai branch on the Bund to cash in on the opium trade. During the American Civil War, American cotton exports from the South declined. Lancashire factories replaced American cotton imports with Sassoon’s Indian cotton.
By the end of the 1850’s it was said of him that “silver and gold, silks, gums and spices, opium and cotton, wool and wheat– whatever moves over sea or land feels the hand or bears the mark of Sassoon and Company”. Although he did not speak English, he became a naturalised British citizen in 1853. By the 1870s, David Sassoon had come to dominate the trade of opium to China, having pushed the British firm Jardine Matheson and the “Parsi” traders of Bombay out of the business.
Sassoon’s eights sons all went into one branch or another of the family’s business empire. He sent his son Elias David Sassoon to Canton, where he was the first Jewish trader. In 1845 David Sassoon & Sons opened an office in what would soon become Shanghai’s British concession, and it became the firm’s second hub of operations.
The Sassoons were the largest mill owners and were known as Badshah of the business community of Bombay. Overall there were 17 mills, each mill having around 15 to 20,000 workers. Later, David Sassoon also entered the cotton, fabrics and various other industries on a large scale.
David Sassoon, as an Orthodox Jew, continued his Jewish religious observances, observing the Jewish Sabbath throughout his busy life. He kept the dress and manners of the Baghdadi Jews, but allowed his sons to adopt English manners. David Sassoon was conscious of his role as a leader of the Jewish community in Bombay. The Bene Israeli and Cochin Jewish communities had almost been absorbed into the Indian society. He helped to arouse in them a sense of Jewish identity.
All the Sassoons of Europe are descended from David. He was also a member of the Legislative Assembly of the time. He built one of the largest and most beautiful synagogues of India, the Magen David synaguogue at Byculla, Bombay. He also built the Ohel David Synagogue of Pune. He remembered mostly for his philanthropy, and building numerous schools and hospitals throughout India and other parts of Asia. David became a naturalized British citizen in 1853, although he continued to live in Pune.
Today these are well known tourist attractions and form an important part of the cultural heritage of India. Various charity trusts were named after him and other members of his family, funded from his private income, which continue in existence today. David Sassoon one of the great people of Bombay who created so many monuments and educational institutions, building great buildings that have become the most prominent places of Bombay and Pune. He also constructed the Sassoon Dock at Colaba, one of the largest docks ever built in Bombay.
His son Albert Abdullah moved to England, where he married into the Rothschild family and was elected to Parliament on the Conservative party’s ticket. Another son, Sassoon David Sassoon, was the father of Rachel Sassoon Beer, who became owner and editor of the Sunday Times at the turn of the century, and grandfather of the great poet of World War I, Siegfried Sassoon.