19 October 2010

Money Matters: The Rise of Rothschild Bank

By Michelle Styles

Frankfurt in the 18th century was not a good place to be Jewish in many ways. Confined to a filthy overcrowded ghetto which they were forbidden to leave without a special pass, life was short and cheap but it was from this place that one of the world's great banking dynasties, the Rothschild Bank, would emerge.

On 23 February 1744, Mayer Amschel Rothschild was born. Mayer Rothschild is ranked 7th most influential businessman of all time by Forbes Magazine. He basically changed the concept of international finance. By the time he was twelve, he was an orphan as both his parents died in one of the frequent epidemics but Mayer was lucky. He was sent to Hanover and learnt the trade of being a court agent. From there, he became the court agent to Prince William of Hesse-Kassel and married the daughter of another court agent. But the main base of their operation was the overcrowded ghetto in Frankfurt.

Their five sons--Amschel Mayer, Saloman, Nathan Mayer, Kalman and Jakob--became the most famous bankers in Europe, but it was Mayer Amschel who oversaw it all. He rapidly realised that there were fortunes to be made by wheeling and dealing in foreign, if one could get reliable information. One by one the brothers were sent out into the world to found businesses for their father. Nathan Rothschild first went to Manchester for the cotton but later went into banking in London. He specialised in transferring large sums of money legally or illegally to those in need of hard cash and no one needed it more than the British His brother Jakob went to France, Saloman to Vienna and Kalman to Naples.

Amschel stayed in Frankfurt. The brothers communicated with their father in Judendeutsch, evolving their own codes which gave them the edge in the business world. It is largely through the efforts of Nathan and Jakob that the English had enough money to defeat Napoleon. Developing a taste for cloak and dagger work, Nathan and Jakob indulged in the smuggling of gold bullion through France and into Spain to finance Wellington's operation. London was codename Jerusalem and Rabbi Moses was the transfer of funds. They liberally oiled the wheels of finance with backhanders etc but really there were very few rivals. The Rothschilds also had a very good system of carrier pigeons and were consistently able to get the news before anyone else.

There is an unfortunate legend that Nathan Rothschild fooled the City by selling shares when he alone knew of Wellington's victory, using his inside knowledge to make an absolute killing. The truth is that his first action when he learnt of the victory was to inform the British government. The ending of the Napoleonic War spelt an end to many of Rothschild activities and huge profits. However by then they were fabulously wealthy and the European banking system had changed forever.

Michelle Styles is passionate about history and passionate romance. An author over 16 books for Harlequin Historical, she writes in a variety of time periods from Roman and Viking through to early Victorian. A QUESTION OF IMPROPRIETY will be a December 2010 Harlequin Historical release.