The Global Merchants: The Enterprise and Extravagance of the Sassoon Dynasty by Joseph Sassoon - review by Frances Cairncross

Frances Cairncross

Buddenbrooks of Bombay

The Global Merchants: The Enterprise and Extravagance of the Sassoon Dynasty


Allen Lane 448pp £30

If you belong to the second generation running a successful family business, you should probably read this book – or at least its preface and its afterword. The Sassoons created two of the world’s most successful 19th-century trading companies, but in the early years of the 20th century they lost their way. This is a real-life version of Buddenbrooks, Thomas Mann’s famous saga of a family’s success and then failure. It is not quite ‘clogs to clogs’, but the story of the Sassoons’ ascent to wealth and its subsequent dissipation follows the same arc.

In one sense, the Sassoons are fortunate. Their chronicler, a member of the family, is not just a distinguished historian with a particular interest in the Middle East. He also grew up in Baghdad and is, he explains, ‘fluent in Arabic, Hebrew and the Baghdadi-Jewish dialect’. He knew none of the distant relatives whose stories fill the book, but he was able to decipher their correspondence, written in Baghdadi-Jewish (an Arabic dialect that uses Hebrew script) to ensure privacy.

David Sassoon, who built the business in its early years, fled Baghdad in the late 1820s and eventually made his way to Bombay, seeking the relative security of British rule. Bombay was a boom town thanks to its cotton and opium markets. Exports of Indian opium to China

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