Sassoon, David

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SASSOON, DAVID (1792–1864), Jewish merchant and philanthropist of British India. Born into a prominent Jewish family in Baghdad, David S. Sassoon became one of the foremost merchants of British India and a great philanthropist who contributed substantially to the cities of Bombay (Mumbai) and Pune. His descendants include businessmen, British aristocrats, Hebrew scholars, rabbis, and authors. David was the son of Sheikh Sason (later, Sassoon) ben Salah who, as part of a respected and powerful family that had long held the office of banker (sarraf bashi) to the local ruler, was the nasi (head) of the Baghdadi Jewish community. When the governor of Baghdad was overthrown, the Sassoon family sought another place to live. In 1828 David left for Basra and continued on to Bushire in Persia, where his aged father joined him, bringing David's family with him. After the sheik's death in 1830, David moved his family to India, which was ripe with opportunity for entrepreneurs. Further, Bombay offered a tolerant environment and a safe future for the Sassoon children.

The Sassoons arrived in Bombay in 1832, just as the British East India Company's monopoly on trade was being relaxed. They joined other Iraqi Jewish families—the Ezekiels, the Ezras, and the Gubbays—in the cotton and opium industries that were engaged in burgeoning trade with points east, particularly China. The textile mills built and operated by David Sassoon, Sons and Company were so successful that the company opened a center in Calcutta (Kolkata). Flourishing trade prompted the creation of Sassoon branches in Rangoon and Shanghai, eventually expanding to Singapore, Hong Kong, and Japan. The U.S. Civil War generated an increased demand for Indian textiles by the British, which led to the creation of the first Sassoon establishment in England.

Sassoon enterprises consistently employed family and community members in their expanding mercantile empire. Wherever Sassoon businesses flourished, the surrounding communities benefited. By the 1850s, David Sassoon had gained vast real estate holdings in Bombay and Pune. In 1861 he built the Magen David (Shield of David) Synagogue as a gift to the community in the then fashionable area of Byculla, Bombay. The complex included a mikvah (ritual bath), a religious school, and a rest house for visitors. He also financed the David Sassoon Benevolent Institution to provide assistance to newly arrived Jews from Arab lands who had come to work in Sassoon businesses. The building, near Bombay University, now houses the Sassoon Library. Beyond tending to the needs of his community, David Sassoon was also a great benefactor of the city of Bombay, for which, among other gifts, he constructed the Sassoon Reformatory and Industrial Institution for Juvenile Offenders and the Sassoon Mechanics Institute. In Pune, his summer home, he financed the David S. Sassoon Hospital, Infirmary, and nearby Leper Home. It was for the Jews of Pune that David Sassoon built the Ohel David (Tent of David) Synagogue in 1863. That structure became a Pune landmark with its tall steeple that long dominated the cityscape; it came to be known locally as the Lal Deul (Red Temple).

From his two marriages (first to Hannah Joseph, who died in 1826, and later to Flora Hyeem, 1812–1886), David Sassoon had eight sons and six daughters. In their mercantile success and wealth as well as their charitable activities, India's Sassoons were often compared to the European Rothschild family. David's grandson, Sir Edward Albert, married a daughter of the house of Rothschild. Their son, Sir Philip Albert (1888–1939), a scion of the house of Sassoon, inherited the prestige of his mother's family along with his father and grandfather's title.

Brenda Ness


Roland, Joan G. Jews in British India: Identity in a Colonial Era. Hanover, N.H., and London: University Press of New England (for Brandeis University Press), 1989.

Roth, Cecil. The Sassoon Dynasty. London: Robert Hale, 1941.