When I first arrived in Shanghai, ten years ago, I was impressed by the magnificent Peace Hotel, gem of the notorious Victor Sassoon on the Bund. I could hardly imagine a more prestigious legacy for this family, also called the “Rothschild of the East”, as they made most of their fortune in Asia.
However, I was recently on a journey to India and visited the Mumbai David Sassoon Library (left) and I was equally impressed as on my first visit to Shanghai. The David Sassoon Library is only one tiny part of the huge legacy of the Sassoons in India and especially in Mumbai. Hospitals, schools and synagogues are actually all over the place, along with other contributions from the Jewish Iraqi Sephardim community in India during the 19th century.
The Mumbay business
When David Sassoon arrived in Mumbai in 1832, he had to start anew, as he was escaping persecutions in Iraq. His father Saleh Sassoon was already treasurer of the Baghdad Pashas (governors) and he himself continued the charge from 1817 to 1829. Things turned out badly for Jews when Dawud Pasha came into power. So David started working for the British in Mumbai in the textile trade and invested in the harbor facilities. When China opened up to British companies in 1842 (Nanking Treaty), he created a first branch in Canton then in Shanghai. At that time, most of the opium trade was controlled by the Parsis but with China as a new playground, David Sassoon’s business just soared. Another success factor was the American Civil War which forced England to abandon American suppliers and switch to India.
As a practicising Jew, David Sassoon made a large contribution to the Jewish Community but also to the city of Mumbai, which became his creation in a way (his descendant Victor Sassoon would pursue the same dream for Shanghai). Among the monuments still in place in Mumbai and Pune are the David Sassoon Library, the Magen David Synagogue (bellow), the Sassoon Hospital in Pune (last photo bellow), Victoria and Albert Museum (left) and the Massina Hospital (above) which used to be the family residence. His sons also created the Sassoon Docks and the Kenesset Eliyahoo Synagogue. Although David did not speak a word of English, he was made British citizen. Years later, Victor Sassoon would also look for similar recognition. Unfortunately, he was never admitted to the very selective Shanghai Club, one reason for building the current Peace Hotel higher than the nearby Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank and impress the British elites!
A less known part of David Sassoon legacy is his personal implication in the revival of the Bene Israel (meaning sons of Israel) Jewish Community in India. The Bene Israeli is a branch of Jews, also known as one of the disputed “Lost tribes of Israel”, which had forgotten almost every piece of the Jewish religion when holly books were lost. However, they had kept their culture. As the leader of the Jewish community in Mumbay, David Sassoon helped the Bene Israeli to rediscover the Torah and learn Hebrew, leading way to a dynamic Jewish community in Mumbay and Cochin of some 10000 people!
Today, the architectural heritage of the Sassoon family can still be traced in India. It definitely helps to understand better the ambitions of his descendant Victor Sassoon in Shanghai years later!
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