Poppy plants
David Sassoon established a triangle of trade, bringing Indian opium and cotton to China. Photo by AP
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In Jewish history books, David Sassoon, an observant Jew, is remembered mostly for his philanthropy. Photo by Wikipedia

On November 7, 1864, businessman David Sassoon, founding father of the Sassoon business dynasty, died in Pune, India. 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.

Sassoon was born in Baghdad in 1832 to Saleh Sassoon, a businessman and leader of that city’s Jewish community (the clan claimed descent from a Spanish family, the Ibn Shoshans). When David Sassoon, who like his father served as treasurer to the governors of Baghdad, clashed with one of them, Daud Pasha, he moved his family to Persia in 1826, and then to Bombay by 1832.

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. 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, with the Sassoon presence being felt in Hong Kong, Shanghai (where they became major players in the realm of real estate), and India (where they had their own textile mills), among many other lands. The vast Sassoon Docks of Bombay, built by Sassoon's son Albert Abdullah, were the first wet docks in the west of India. 

In Jewish history books, David Sassoon, an observant Jew, is remembered mostly for his philanthropy, which included the construction of “Baghdadi” synagogues in Bombay (Magen David) and Pune (Ohel David), and also 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.

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.