Consider the modern refugee from Iraq. They are part of an unprecedented global movement of refugees that has defined politics over the past decade. Millions have fled war, poverty, and persecution in Afghanistan, Central America, Venezuela, Myanmar, and the African Sahel. The influx of these migrants – whether from Baghdad or Bamako, Al-Anbar or Arakan – has, in turn, sparked vitriolic right-wing nativism in Europe, the United States, and, of course, here in India.

This is why it is important to remember the Sassoons. The Sassoons were Jewish Iraqi refugees who arrived in Bombay in 1830. In their new home, they built up a multinational commercial empire that helped make Bombay a hub of global capitalism.

They endowed schools, hospitals, and institutions that continue to exist in modern Mumbai and Pune. Like so many other examples from history, the Sassoons demonstrated the dynamism and innovation that refugees can bring to their new homelands – and the advantages of welcoming refugees rather than slamming the door in their faces. Iraq’s loss was India’s gain.

Joseph Sassoon’s The Global Merchants charts the rise and fall of the Sassoon empire. The family’s patriarch, David Sassoon, dispatched his sons far and wide from Bombay to trade in opium and cotton. Through reliance upon new technology, innovative business methods, and vertical integration, they earned themselves the title of “the Rothschilds of the East”.

In late 19th-century Bombay, the Sassoons joined the Indian civic and mercantile elite while ploughing investments into new textile mills. Then, in a remarkable episode, the whole business fell under the control of a woman in the 1890s. Farha Sassoon was likely the first female leader of a global commercial enterprise – and she did this from colonial Bombay, upturning contemporary gender norms in both India and the west.

In this episode of Past Imperfect, Joseph Sassoon discusses the ingredients of the Sassoons’ business success and the factors behind their 20th century dissolution. How did the Sassoons’ complex identity – refugee, immigrant, Jewish, Middle Eastern, Indian, and British – assist them in creating global business networks? Did the Sassoons express any misgivings about their deep involvement in the opium trade to China? And how did a series of spectacularly bad decisions in China and India spell doom for the family business after the Second World War?

Dinyar Patel is an assistant professor of history at the SP Jain Institute of Management and Researchin Mumbai. His award-winning biography of Dadabhai Naoroji, Naoroji: Pioneer of Indian Nationalism, was published by Harvard University Press in May 2020.

Past Imperfect is sponsored and produced by the Centre for Wisdom and Leadership at the SP Jain Institute of Management and Research.