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7 February 2014, Gateway House

The story of the Sassoons

On January 24, Gateway House and the National Gallery of Modern Art, Mumbai, hosted a talk on ‘The Jewish community of Bombay: Diaspora, Identity and History’ by Gateway House's Mumbai History Fellow Sifra Lentin. This article, based on the talk, tells the story of the Sassoons, a prominent family of Baghdadi Jews

Adjunct Fellow, Bombay History Studies

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Well before politicians started re-imagining Mumbai in the image of Shanghai, the city had extensive trade links with its counterpart in China, as well as with Canton and other Chinese cities. An exhibition, on till February 13 at the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA) in Mumbai, highlights the city’s centuries-old trade with China in cotton, cotton yarn, and opium.

The exhibition, titled ‘Across Oceans and Flowing Silks: from Canton to Bombay – 18th C to early 20th C’, brings to the forefront a slice of Bombay’s economic history that is rarely discussed, except in academic forums, because of the taint associated with the opium trade. Opium was initially contraband, smuggled by merchants from Bombay, Calcutta and Karachi to the east coast of China in league with the East India Company and the local Chinese Hong merchants.

One of Mumbai’s minority communities, the Baghdadi Jews, were an integral part of the trade with China, in various items. The Baghdadis were the earliest Jewish immigrants to Mumbai; they came here from Surat, a Mughal trading post then in decline. Joseph Semah was the first Baghdadi merchant to make Bombay his home in 1730. Most of the early migrants were merchants involved in trade with Persian Gulf ports.

The turning point for this early loosely-organised group of Jewish merchants came with the arrival of David Sassoon. He was a spiritual and community head of the West Asian Jews; in 1832, he fled religious persecution in Baghdad to make the flourishing port city of Bombay his home.

This was a time when the trade in cotton and opium with China was growing rapidly. A charter of the East India Company in 1830 had ended the company’s exclusivity over the trade and opened the field to merchants and adventurers. All kinds of articles began to be extensively traded between Bombay and China – tea, silks, opium, yarn, cotton, textiles, spices, muslins, metals, camphor, indigo, dates, woollens. Later, the ties expanded to include merchant banking, insurance, real estate and manufacturing.

An estimated 40% of the “China merchants” at the time of Sassoon’s arrival in Bombay, were Parsis. But with early trade barriers and then the Opium Wars between China and Britain, by the 1880s the Parsis completely withdrew from the trade. This gave way to merchants such as the Sassoons, who had already begun building a base in Shanghai son after the Treaty of Nanjing opened the port to foreigners after the First Opium War (1839-1842) between China and Britain.

According to an unofficial 1944 biography of the family, The Sassoons, by Cecil Roth, “The most lucrative part of the trade from India to China and beyond and, much later on, much of the direct trade from England to the Far East, came in the hands of David Sassoon, Sons, and Company.” Their Bombay base was well suited to this trading activity – the city was the axis of the maritime trade route between the east and the west.

It was David Sassoon’s second son, Elias, who spent 14 years in China from 1844, who built not only the Sassoon trade from China to the West but also eastwards, to Japan. Elias established the Baghdadi merchant community in Shanghai – which grew to include not just other merchants but also workers for the warehouses, offices and the real estate development that the Sassoons pioneered on the Shanghai Bund (an embanked quay, now an upscale commercial and residential precinct fronting the Huangpu River).

Some of the big Jewish families in China today began by working for Sassoon-owned firms. For example, the Kadoorie family of Hong Kong owns the Peninsula Hotel and the China Light and Power Company, now based in Hong Kong. Another legendary name who worked for the Sassoons is Silas Hardoon; he too spent time in Bombay before moving to Hong Kong and finally to Shanghai. Hardoon made his fortune in real estate and opium; his legacy is evident in the Shanghai Exhibition Centre (or the Hardoon building).

By the 1930s, most of the Shanghai Bund was owned by Baghdadi Jews, though in terms of numbers they never crossed more than 1,000 in Shanghai. The legacies of this merchant community to Shanghai include the Fairmont Peace Hotel (former the Cathay Hotel). It is a 1929 art deco landmark on the Bund built by David Sassoon’s great-great grandson, Victor Sassoon. The Shanghai Children’s Palace (the former Kadoorie family home) also remains a landmark.

When the Chinese People’s Republic was established in 1949, the Baghdadi Jews began to migrate out of Shanghai. Almost simultaneously in Bombay, the dawn of Indian independence triggered a migration of the community to London, Israel and Australia.

The parent Sassoon firm had shifted headquarters to London in 1901, but Elias’s company, E. D. Sassoon & Co, remain headquartered in Bombay till 1948. The company is now headquartered in the Bahamas, a tax haven.

Though there are now less than 150 Baghdadi Jews in Bombay (according to estimates by the American Jewish Distribution Committee), their legacy to this city is kept alive through various institutions. The Magen David Synagogue in Byculla and the Knesset Eliyahoo Synagogue in Fort still hold services. The schools they established, such as the Sir Jacob Sassoon School and the E. E. E. Sassoon School in the Byculla-Nagpada area are still running; as is the Elly Kadoorie School, whose building was endowed in 1934 by the Kadoories to the former Israelite School (which was founded by the Bene-Israel Benevolent Society for the Promotion of Education in 1875).

Their endowments remain landmarks in the city, such as the David Sassoon Library, the equestrian statue of Prince Edward VII (Kala Ghoda) and the Sassoon Building of the Elphinstone Technical Institute. The Sassoons were also the largest donors to the Institute of Science building and to the construction of the Gateway of India.

Interestingly, both Mumbai and Shanghai are now acknowledging this past and the contribution of the Baghdadi Jews, in different ways. In 2011, a portrait of Sir Victor and Lady Sassoon was installed in his former home, the Cathay Hotel.

During the annual November-February “Bombay season” groups of Baghdadi Jews visiting from other countries rediscover their Indian roots and try to reconnect with community members who continue to live in Mumbai. And the ongoing exhibition at NGMA, as well as the events around it, such as this author’s talk, are an opportunity for researchers and audiences alike to revisit this little-known section of the city’s history.

Sifra Lentin is the Bombay History Fellow at Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations, Mumbai. Her paper, Mumbai’s International Linkages: Then and now, will be released shortly

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