cover image The Sassoons: The Great Global Merchants and the Making of an Empire

The Sassoons: The Great Global Merchants and the Making of an Empire

Joseph Sassoon. Pantheon, $35 (432p) ISBN 978-0-593-31659-7

Georgetown University historian Sassoon (Anatomy of Authoritarianism in the Arab Republics) profiles in this grand if somewhat plodding account the branch of the Sassoon family that built a global trading empire after leaving Baghdad for Bombay in the 1820s. Sassoon, whose own branch of the family remained in Baghdad, describes his ancestor Sheikh Sassoon ben Saleh Sassoon’s role as the city’s chief treasurer and the persecution under Ottoman ruler Sultan Mahmud II that forced the Jewish family to flee to India. Sheikh Sassoon’s second eldest son, David, began trading textiles in the 1830s, before expanding the business to include opium and cotton and getting seven of his eight sons involved in running offices of the family firm in England, China, India, Japan, and elsewhere. Success brought assimilation into upper-class society in England—where most of David’s sons and their families had relocated by the end of the 19th century—and complacency about the business; with few family members willing to move to Asia to run it, outsiders took over. Though dense, the narrative is enlivened by portraits of illustrious family members including Farha Sassoon, who successfully ran the Bombay headquarters of the business after her husband’s death in 1894, and WWI poet Siegfried Sassoon. The result is an impressive deep dive into a family that bridged East and West as they built—and lost—an empire. (Oct.)