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Steve Hinnefeld
University Communications

Last modified: Thursday, February 10, 2011

American Historical Review: an unusual tale of a Baghdadi Jew in Shanghai

Feb. 10, 2011

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- Silas Aaron Hardoon was said to be the wealthiest foreigner in Shanghai when he died in 1931, with an estate valued at $150 million. But questions soon arose: Would the inheritance of the estate be subject to the laws and traditions of Britain, the Ottoman Empire or the Jewish Diaspora?

In the latest issue of the American Historical Review, Sarah Abrevaya Stein recounts the extraordinary legal disputes over Hardoon's fortune and examines what they reveal about the place of Jewish émigrés in the shifting early 20th century landscape of empire, colonialism and national sovereignty.

American Historical Review

The cover image of this month's American Historical Review is a portrait of Shah Jahan Begum (1838-1901), the third in a succession of four women who ruled the princely state of Bhopal. American Historical Association president Barbara Metcalf reveals Shah Jahan as a complex and intriguing figure who advanced women's rights but aroused fear in colonial officials who distrusted Islamic activism.

A Jew born in Baghdad, Hardoon grew up in India, where he acquired the status of "British protected person." He spent the last 60 years of his life in Shanghai, where he married and acquired a fortune. Iraqi relatives challenged Hardoon's will, which left his fortune to his wife. But judges of His Britannic Majesty's Supreme Court for China upheld the will on grounds that Hardoon was subject to British law.

In "Protected Persons? The Baghdadi Jewish Diaspora, the British State, and the Persistence of Empire," Stein, a professor of Sephardic Studies in the Department of History at UCLA, concludes that the concept of "protected person" proved to be as malleable as the wax effigy of Hardoon that caused a stir at his funeral -- and as malleable as the project of imperialism itself.

The American Historical Review is the official publication of the American Historical Association. Its editorial offices are at Indiana University Bloomington. Also in the February 2011 issue:

  • AHA President Barbara Metcalf explores the late 19th-century history of a female ruler of Bhopal, Shah Jahan Begum, and her intellectual male consort, Siddiq Hasan Khan, in the presidential address, "Islam and Power in Colonial India: The Making and Unmaking of a Muslim Princess."
  • In "Barbarians Ancient and Modern," Norman Etherington shows how flawed methodologies and assumptions about pre-colonial wars and migrations in Southern Africa were rooted in classical Western scholarship of Europe's barbarian invasions and the movements of the later Roman Empire.
  • Samuel Moyn exhumes "The First Historian of Human Rights": Gerhard Ritter, a German conservative who was the first professional historian to place the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 in a historical lineage.
  • "The Soviet State as Imperial Scavenger: 'Catch Up and Surpass' in the Transnational Socialist Bloc, 1950-1960," by Austin Jersild, explores how the technical and managerial elite of the 1950s Soviet state surveyed the socialist bloc for expertise, technology and forms of industrial organization that might be useful to the Soviet economy.

The American Historical Review is published five times a year by University of Chicago Press. More information is available at the AHR website,