My family and other dynasties

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My family and other dynasties

Ahead of a lecture at the British Institute, Joseph Sassoon tells Jewish News how 100 boxes of family archives changed his perspective and why the Sassoons should not be compared to the Rothschilds

David Sassoon (seated) and his sons
Pic: The British Institute for the Study of Iraq
David Sassoon (seated) and his sons Pic: The British Institute for the Study of Iraq

Researching his family history left Joseph Sassoon both furious and incredulous in equal measure.

A descendant of one of the wealthiest Jewish families in the world, Professor Sassoon is speaking to Jewish News from the US where he lectures at Georgetown University, Washington DC.

The conversation is ahead of his much anticipated lecture at the British Institute for the Study of Iraq on Monday October 16th, where he will discuss his family’s great rise and decline.

Explaining his place in the lineage of the once fabulously wealthy 18th century Baghdadi-Jewish dynasty, he says: “Sheikh Sasson Ben Saleh (1750-1830) had many children, the oldest being David Sassoon. One of his sons was Benjamin, and I am one of his descendants.”

Portrait of Siegfried Sassoon by Glyn Warren Philpot, 1917. Fitzwilliam Museum. Wikipedia

It’s an understated description of the extraordinary trading family, originally based in Baghdad, Iraq who later moved to Mumbai, India, and then emigrated to China and the UK and whose luminaries include the incomparable first world war poet Siegfried Sassoon.

Sassoon’s family research began with “finding this incredible trove of archives at the National Library in Jerusalem. I went there, I didn’t know what to expect. I left that day thinking ‘Wow’ – there is an incredible story to be told.”

Sassoon says there were “100 boxes and just thousands and thousands of documents. That really was the trigger.”

Every time he had a break from teaching in DC, he’d go to Jerusalem to “spend four or five intensive days, taking pictures of the documents with a camera. The process then was of reading and cataloguing it all into a system.”

He describes his family history as one about “migration, globalisation, politics and businesses like opium; how important it is not to lose your identity firstly as a Baghdadi and secondly as Jewish. It’s also about traditions and jealousy. People come to the story on so many levels.”

On the subject of family jealousy, Sassoon brings up the story of Flora Sassoon, to whom he devotes an entire chapter, whilst in other books she is “often mentioned only in two lines, mostly as a good hostess and her husband in at least six pages.”

Going through the archives, however, “she keeps popping up and I realise yes, she was a good hostess but she was also a CEO running a global trading firm. The whole shenanigans of the men in the family conspiring against her. I was livid when I was writing it. Every time she was mentioned in the London Times or she reached a level of success it drove them crazy. It was always ‘How can a widow with three children run a global firm?’ This coming from men who were occupied by horse-racing and clubs and shooting with *royalty.”

The Sassoons are often referred to the as ‘the Rothschilds of the East.” Sassoon says the differences are very marked, least of all that the Rothschilds were in banking and the Sassoons in trade.

“The British didn’t like nouveau riche like the Rothschilds – but that didn’t apply to the Sassoons because they were already upper class in Baghdad. When they moved to Bombay, by the time they left they were known as the merchant princes. It was never a case of ‘they came up from nothing’.

Businesswoman, philanthropist, famed hostess, and Jewish scholar Flora Sassoon. From Stanley Jackson, The Sassoons (London: Heinemann, 1968), p. 112. Pic: JWA

Sassoon says that in a recent radio interview, all they knew about Baghdad was “Saddam Hussein, war and destruction and I started telling them there was a community of 2,500 years that never went through what their brothers in Europe when through. People don’t know this.”

The last time Joseph Sassoon was in northern Iraq was in 2008. “Every time I think it’s the right time to go back, the situation deteriorates even further.”

Professor Joseph Sassoon

The more he looked into his family, the more he realised “the irony in history that David Sassoon escaped in 1830 in the middle of the night. He and his father escaped to Iran and then went to Bombay. And when I was a teenager, my father and I found ourselves on, not the same route, but also escaping and also leaving everything and also going to Iran at the time because it was friendly under the Shah. So the parallels over 150 years kept coming back. Things don’t change.”

  • Joseph Sassoon is the director of the Centre for Contemporary Arab Studies and Professor of History and Political Economy at Georgetown University. ‘The Global Merchants: The Enterprise and Extravagance of the Sassoon Dynasty’, sponsored by Dangoor Education, takes place at 6pm on Monday October 16th. Click here for further information.
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