Saturday, February 1, 2014

Opium, Bombay, and the Sassoons

Ezra Hettena
Ezra Mordocai Hettena, my great-grandfather, was born in Bombay, India, probably sometime around 1850. The exact date is unclear. India was then under the British Raj, the dominion of the British Crown, so by virtue of his birth, Ezra became a British subject.

At the time of Ezra Hettena’s birth, Bombay and Calcutta, the capital of British India, had become home to a new and thriving class of Baghdadi Jewish merchants. Jews began arriving in India from Baghdad in the 18th century, but the trickle of immigrants became a flood following the persecution of Iraq under the rule of Daoud Pasha.

The history of Bombay’s Jewish community is inseparable from its most prominent figure, David Sassoon. Nearly all Jews in Bombay were dependent on Sassoon for their livelihood.1 He was Baghdad’s merchant prince and the head of Bombay’s Jewish community. By the end of the 1850s, it was said, "silver and gold, silks, gums and spices, opium and cotton, wool and wheat-- whatever moves over sea or land feels the hand or bears the mark of Sassoon and Company". So successful were the Sassoons that it became known among Jews of Asia that anyone in need of a job could find it in Sassoon’s mills.

David Sassoon had opened a modest counting-house on Bombay’s Tamarind Lane in the early months of 1832. Sassoon cut a conspicuous figure on the streets of Bombay. Tall with a long white beard, Sassoon dressed in traditional Baghdadi garb: flowing robes, a richly embroidered turban and leather slippers curling into needle-point. Sassoon was a deeply observant Orthodox Jew. It was a rule of the household that his family must never wear western dress lest they forget from whence they came. A room in the counting-house was set aside for daily prayers.
David Sassoon

It’s quite possible that opium is what brought Ezra’s parents to Baghdad. That’s not to say the Hettenas were using it or even selling it. But in Bombay, the big business was opium,2 and David Sassoon was if nothing else, a businessman. Nearly one third of Bombay’s trade revenues came from opium, and opium was the first and perhaps the biggest of the twin pillars of Sassoon’s success, along with cotton. David Sassoon & Co. was involved with opium from its earliest days, a fact that is often glossed over in fawning family biographies. Sassoon packed his son, Elias, off to China to pursue the opium trade in 1844, some 12 years after the family settled in Bombay.

Chests full of opium were shipped off to feed the cravings of China’s legions of addicts. The drug almost single-handedly financed Britain’s rule of India. So lucrative was the trade that Britain went to war with China – twice -- to keep the opium markets open. Until Britain began importing Indian opium to China, silver had been draining out of Her Majesty’s Treasury to satisfy the country’s thirst for tea and Chinese silks and porcelain. Opium sent the silver flowing back to Britain, and into the pockets of Jewish merchants in Bombay like David Sassoon.

Sassoon’s success in the opium trade continues to provide fuel centuries later for anti-Semitic rants from people who like to blame their problems on the Jews. The truth is that Sassoon did not monopolize the opium trade, as he is alleged to have done. It was far too lucrative for one person to control. Scottish companies like Jardine & Matheson played a bigger role, but no one likes to blame the Scots. It is true, however, that Sassoon did play a dominant role in what was seen even then as an unsavory business.

Sassoon also traded textiles, on a small scale at first, importing English textiles in exchange for Oriental weaves, which he resold to English traders in India. He quickly discovered the advantages of taking payment in the form of goods, which he could then resell for a profit. Business at David Sassoon & Sons increased steadily until it became the largest Indian firm trading in the Persian Gulf.

To staff his growing firm, Sassoon brought over and resettled Jewish families from Baghdad, Aleppo and Damascus and the clerks at his warehouse clerks were exclusively ex-Baghdad Jews. The Baghdadis, as they were known, clustered together around their patron. They tended to live around Sassoon’s warehouse headquarters in the neighborhood of Kala Ghoda and his palace in Byculla.3 Their children attended the David Sassoon Benevolent Institution where they were taught English, Hindi, Arabic, geography, arithmetic, and Hebrew. Students were also taught Shechita, the traditional Jewish method of killing animals for food. With this skill, former pupils of Sassoon’s schools could be sent to remote provinces with no Jewish community. “The modern Jewish progress of the Hebrew congregations in one place after the other, all over India and the Far East, can be traced only as part of the business and public activities of the firm of David Sassoon & Co and its offshoots,” wrote Cecil Roth, another family biographer.4

Sassoon was a name spoken with reverence. The Mrs. Sassoon who appears later in this tale (see Hettena v. Joseph) and plays matchmaker for Ezra's teenage daughter Sophia probably carried a bit of an elevated status due to her last name. Ezra was no doubt elated to marry his daughter off to a husband whose sister had married a Sassoon.

Jacob Saphir, a Jewish traveler from Palestine, spent six months in Bombay in 1859 and left a vivid portrait of David Sassoon and the 50 or so families from Baghdad:

“A single prince is the head over all of them. Every Sabbath and every Monday and Thursday, he comes early in the morning to the Synagogue in the town to say his prayers with the community, and on the other days of the week he goes with his coach far afield to the Synagogue which is in the suburbs, and where his elder sons and the wealthy people who live in their gardened houses attend. In the afternoon, towards evening, I was many times in his office, and there they foregather to offer the afternoon and evening prayers in public. As evening approaches on Friday, the gates of his office are closed till Monday (for on Sunday they do not open according to the regulations of the Government). The table of the house of David is like the table of a king, and the whole courtyard down below is filled with a large multitude of poor people, who come every day from all countries, and what is dispensed to them is more than enough to still the hunger of those who gather there. For the special and worthy poor who remain in the courtyard of the Synagogue or their house, they send them their portion with dignity.”

The Baghdadis were not the first Jews to settle Bombay. They were preceded by a group of dark-skinned Jews known as the Bene Israel. The Bene Israel had been living in India for centuries. Over time, they had come resemble their non-Jewish Hindu neighbors in appearance and customs. Initially, the lighter-skinned Baghdadis saw the Bene Israel as long-lost, somewhat backward cousins.

The Indian mutiny of 1857, a rebellion against British rule, forced the Baghdadis to adopt modern ways and choose sides. The Bene Israel were “Indian” while Baghdadis wanted to be seen as “European” – a label that carried tangible economic benefits. This snobbery became all the more ugly when the Baghdadis attacked the very Jewishness of the Bene Israel.5 The Baghdadis came to be known as “white Jews” to distinguish themselves from the Bene Israel, the “black Jews.”

The Sassoons openly demonstrated their loyalty to the Crown. During the mutiny, David Sassoon offered to assemble and equip a Jewish Legion in the event of civil war. Afterward, Sassoon allowed his sons to wear western clothes as often as they wished “so that it may be known on which side you are.”6 The Sassoons flew the Union Jack and all pupils in the schools Sassoon established were taught to sing “God Save the Queen” in English, Hebrew and Arabic. It may be that Ezra Hettena’s Anglophilia was nurtured in his birthplace.

The U.S. Civil War set off a frenzied demand for Indian cotton to replace the lost supplies from the American South. In the next five years, until Lee’s surrender at Appotamax, something like £80 million of new capital poured in Bombay. 7 And when the market collapsed at the end of the war, the Sassoons were diversified enough to survive and emerge even stronger.

For those Baghdadi Jews working for the Sassoons, opportunities for advancement were limited. “Many an ambitious employee, even when related to the family by marriage, would discover painfully that ‘David Sassoon & Sons’ meant precisely that,” wrote family biographer Stanley Jackson.8 To seek their fortunes, Baghdadi Jews like Ezra Hettena would have to venture out on their own.



1 Jewish Encyclopedia, 1912.
2 Baghdadi Jews in Indian Port Cities, Thomas A. Timberg
3 Baghdadi Jews in Indian Port Cities, Timberg
4 The Sassoon Dynasty, Cecil Roth, p. 60.
5 Jewish Encyclopedia, 2007
6 The Sassons, 
Stanley Jackson, New York, Dutton, 1968, p. 36. 
7 Ibid, p. 39.
8 Ibid.

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