The Sassoons: From Outsiders to Insiders of Empire 1830s – 1910s Open Access

Conti, Beatrix (Spring 2019)

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In 1829, after a series of persecutions by the Pasha in Baghdad, David Sassoon fled to the port town of Bushehr, Persia barely escaping with his life. He would become the patriarch of the Sassoon Dynasty whose business exploits would span the globe and whose prestige in the West would rise in less than a century. Settling in Bombay in 1830, a ramshackle and underdeveloped port, David Sassoon overtook the established Parsi and Hindu traders in the region to corner both the opium and cotton markets to such an extent that the family would be known as the “Rothschilds of the East,” by British imperial society. Their trade routes, held together by their extensive Jewish Baghdadi diasporic network, stretched from London to Shanghai.

This thesis analyzes the 1830s to 1910s period of the Sassoons’ navigation of and integration into British imperial society as Baghdadi Jews as well as the limitations of that integration in the interwar period. This thesis does not follow a biographical or chronological approach but rather a thematic one centered on the exploration of the Sassoon family’s shifting constructions of identity and their negotiation of minority status from British colonial India to the metropole. The nineteenth century, a period of intense change, undergirds the Sassoons’ attempts at integrating into the British imperial system as they negotiate changes to global capitalism as well as debate on the appropriate status and treatment of Jews in European society. The shifting definitions of belonging in this period highlight the distinct challenges faced by the Sassoons as they moved between the frameworks of insiders and outsiders to the British empire. 

Table of Contents

Introduction 1

I. Meeting Englishmen at the Docks of Bombay: The Informal Empire 9

II. “…He made use of his sons:” Baghdadi Jews and the British Empire 23


III. Friends to the Prince of Wales: Integration into the British Empire 51

Epilogue: From Insiders to Quasi-Insiders? 74

Bibliography 84

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