David Sassoon, the “Rothschild of the East,” established a global trading dynasty including in opium. Sassoon was born in Baghdad to a wealthy Sephardi family. Like his father, he served as treasurer to Baghdad’s rulers until a dispute with the powerful Dawud Pasha sent Sassoon to Persia and then, in 1832, to Bombay (modern Mumbai).
Sassoon’s Bombay business initially revolved around textiles and land, but it was the opium trade that made him fabulously rich. Sassoon exported Indian opium and yarn to China in exchange for silver, tea, and silk which were then sold in Britain where, alongside vast amounts of cash, he acquired manufactured cotton and other items to sell in India. Profits from this triangular trade were used to buy more opium and to finance other enterprises, including Sassoon’s seventeen Bombay textile mills. His eight sons represented and extended the family’s business interests in Shanghai, Hong Kong, Canton, and London.
Sassoon’s wealth and generosity attracted other Jews to Bombay, and he was the leader and main benefactor of the city’s Baghdadi Jewish community. Religiously Orthodox, he funded schools and hospitals, provided charity and employment, and built synagogues in Bombay and Pune. Despite speaking neither Indian languages nor English, he became a central part of Bombay’s civic elite, and the city’s vast wetland docks and its central library are named after him. His close ties with India’s British rulers saw him become a naturalized British citizen and helped cement the Baghdadi Jewish community’s connections with that country. He died in Pune in 1864. Many of his family subsequently relocated to England where his grandson Sir Edward married into the Rothschild family and became a Member of Parliament. Another of his many well-known descendants was the war poet Siegfried Sassoon.