THE SASSOONS: The Great Global Merchants and the Making of an Empire
Author: Joseph Sassoon
When Edward VII ascended the British throne in 1901, Winston Churchill — then on a lecture tour of Canada — sent a letter to his mother. “I am curious to know about the king,” he wrote. “Will it entirely revolutionize his way of life? Will he sell his horses and scatter his Jews or will Reuben Sassoon be enshrined among the crown jewels and other regalia?”
What Churchill perhaps didn’t know was that the “enshrinement” of Sassoon — and, really, of his entire family — had been in the works for generations. One of 14 children of the Baghdad-born David Sassoon, who had made a fortune in Bombay (now Mumbai) and founded a dynasty that would span the globe and several centuries, Reuben was a friend (and rumoured bookie) to the king not by chance but by careful design.
The rise and fall of the Sassoon family, who, at their height, traded in opium, tea, silk and jewels, is charted in delectable detail in The Sassoons: The Great Global Merchants and the Making of an Empire, by the historian Joseph Sassoon, a distant relative who seems just as pleased as anyone unrelated might be to uncover the grit and gains of a tribe of fascinating figures.
Opening in 18th-century Iraq, the book follows at least six generations (chronology can be murky; the Sassoons weren’t especially inventive when it came to first names) — descending from Sheikh Sassoon ben Saleh, “the most eminent Jew in Baghdad,” travelling from the Levant to India, England, China, America and beyond. Along the way, treasures and alliances are hoarded and squandered and great arcs of world history play out as background noise to the lives of the sprawling brood at its centre.
Think “Succession” with yarmulkes. Brothers turn against one another, heirs are anointed and replaced, and devotion to the family business — even after a vicious split — and name, “an intangible but priceless asset,” is paramount. But what could be salacious catnip for a Kitty Kelley is treated here with even-handed seriousness. The author’s work is methodical, deeply researched and presented with considered care for both the mundane and the marvelous; it’s a pleasure to encounter the poet and pacifist Siegfried Sassoon, whose writings raged against the kinds of power and riches his relatives stockpiled, or to revel in the Chinese real-estate follies of Victor Sassoon, a late-model mogul and one of the family’s most colourful characters. But it’s equally pleasurable to delve into the Civil War-era cotton boom or ever-changing laws governing opium imports, or to chart the endless flinging of sons (and it was almost always sons) to various satellite offices for a kind of apprenticeship in world domination.
As engaging as Sassoon renders the intricacies of business and religion — two things his subjects almost never take lightly — the book is at its best when the family’s supercharged ambitions take centre stage. There’s no shortage here of garden-variety social climbing (take for example Abdallah Sassoon, who, in the 1870s, “hosted seemingly any and every visiting dignitary” in Bombay and was rewarded with a knighthood) or advantageous marriages to Rothschilds or de Gunzburgs, but the most fun comes in moments when David is rumoured to fund the construction of Bombay’s Taj Mahal Hotel after another local society destination bans him, or Victor’s decision to emblazon his initials on the roof of his Sassoon House (later the Cathay Building) in Shanghai, lest air travellers overhead question who ruled the city’s skyline.
In the interests of structure, the author highlights a handful of family members in each generation. This is generally effective, but there are supporting characters (such as Fahra Sassoon, the first woman to lead the business, who gets a chapter of her own, and Rachel Beer, the editor of London’s Observer and Sunday Times) on whom I could have read a full book. As at any family reunion, the characters who retain a bit of mystery are the ones with whom we wish we’d spent more time.
Rags-to-riches stories may all be the same, but it’s the way in which a fortune is lost that’s truly compelling. Sassoon’s detailed account of the decentralisation of family power and the proliferation of descendants interested in spending but not making money is well paced and supremely satisfying. An observer of the clan notes that “nothing suppresses an appetite for commerce more than a diet of gentlemanly pursuits,” and readers are treated through the second half of the book to a slow-motion sputtering out of David Sassoon’s great machine. You find yourself feeling for them: While masters of the universe inspire little sympathy, knowing from the first page that this empire has crumbled allows you to mourn the sunset of a particular kind of existence, even as a part of you revels in it.
It’s more than just schadenfreude that makes the Sassoon story fascinating, though. Their improbable rise to great heights and the ways in which they changed the world can be thrilling to behold, and in an era whose main characters include ubiquitous space-racing billionaires, being reminded that even the most powerful among us can be easily forgotten is important. Joseph Sassoon’s book isn’t just a marvellous yarn, it’s an Ottoman Our Crowd that gives his family its due. Churchill, it turns out, was onto something.