Reprinted with permission from The Israel Museum, Jerusalem ©.
The Persian Gulf port of Basra began to serve as a trading center of the British East India Company in 1760, and it was from Basra–and Baghdad–that many Jews who played an important role in English commerce in the region gradually moved on to India. At first they settled in the west coast port of Surat. By the end of the 18th century, close to 100 Jews from Aleppo, Baghdad, and Basra made up the Arabic-speaking Jewish merchant colony of Surat.
Originally, the term “Baghdadi” or “Iraqi,” as used in India, referred to Jews who came from the area between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, for centuries a center of Jewish learning and culture. However, the name soon came to include Jews from Syria and other parts of the Ottoman Empire, Aden, and Yemen, who were all Arabic-speaking, and even Jews from Persia and Afghanistan, who were not. Baghdadi Jews often referred to themselves as Sephardim, an allusion to their liturgical tradition rather than their geographic origins.
Photo courtesy of QuartierLatin1968.
As the British presidencies of Calcutta and Bombay developed, Surat’s importance as a port declined, and the Jewish merchants living there moved to these fast-growing commercial centers. Encouraged by the British, prominent Iraqi families prospered as merchants or as middlemen for the large cotton-, jute-, and tobacco-processing plants. Some Baghdadi Jews also made fortunes in the opium trade.
The Baghdadi Jewish community in Bombay (Mumbai) dates back to about 1730. A century later, there were perhaps 20 to 30 families of Arabic-speaking Jews among the total Bombay Jewish population of 2,246.
In 1833, the man who was to found a great commercial dynasty and a merchant house known throughout the world arrived in Bombay. David Sassoon (1792-1864) was a scion of the family that had long held the position of chief treasurer to the governor of Baghdad, but whose political fortunes were waning. The economic empire the Sassoons eventually established (with centers in Bombay, Calcutta, Rangoon, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Singapore, and elsewhere), along with their wide-ranging charitable activities, earned them the title of “the Rothschilds of the East.”