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Opium, Tea and Cotton: The Rise and Fall of the Sassoon Dynasty in South East Asia

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If you have a question about this talk, please contact Dr Duncan Needham.

This seminar will present work-in-progress on the rise and the fall of the Sassoon dynasty, which I am carrying out during a Visiting Scholarship at the Centre for Financial History. Originally acting as an intermediary between British textile firms and Persian Gulf commodity merchants, David Sassoon (1792-1864), who reached India from Basra in 1832, established textile businesses and philanthropic institutions in major Indian cities: Calcutta, Poona and Bombay. In order to expand, he and his sons placed extended family members in key positions throughout the East, and employed dependents from the “Baghdadi” Indian Jewish community in his businesses. After the Treaty of Nanking (1842), the Sassoons turned their enterprises into a triangular trade: opium and tea were shipped from India to China; Chinese merchandise was sold in Britain; and Lancashire cotton was purchased in Britain and sold globally. David Sassoon and his descendants played a crucial role as shippers and consignment merchants, and became the largest mill owners in Bombay employing an estimated 20,000 people in 17 mills. From the mid-nineteenth century to Indian independence in 1947, the Sassoons administered one of the largest multinational corporation globally. Working in archives of several Sassoon family members (including the poet Siegfried Sassoon who deposited his papers in Cambridge University Library), I shall try to trace the economic and political reasons for the rise and fall of the Sassoon dynasty in South East Asia until the end of the Raj.

This talk is part of the Financial History Seminar series.

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