The British Empire Library

The Nabob: The Life of Sir Francis Sykes 1st Baronet (1730-1804)

by John Sykes

Book Review by kind permission of Chowkidar, the journal of the British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia
Francis Sykes has never been other than a controversial figure in the history of the East India Company during the period of its seizure and consolidation of both political and commercial control in Bengal. Sykes’ role as the close and trusted associate of both Robert Clive and Warren Hastings would alone make him a significant figure in early Anglo-Indian history. This biography of Sykes reveals just how significant a part he played. Sykes’s lifelong friendship with Hastings had been forged on their first tour in Bengal in 1750 where they joined together over the next decade in profitable private trading ventures in diamonds, timber and salt. They also shared real hardships and dangers as volunteers in Clive’s forces at the critical period when Siraj ud daulah seized the Company’s trading bases at Cossimbazar and Calcutta. After the battle of Plassey, fought in reprisal, the two young men were too junior to receive a share of the controversial disproportionate cash ‘presents’ received by Clive and his senior civil and military colleagues from the new Nawab, Mir Jafar. For Sykes the first hand witness of what wealth he might aspire to, clearly made a lasting impression. After Plassey, Sykes was appointed to serve under his friend Hastings in Cossimbazar and they continued their profitable private trade.

Sykes returned to England in 1761 with a fortune sufficient to buy a fine house, Ackworth Park in his native Yorkshire. He gave his support to Robert Clive, now battling in London for control of the East India Company. Clive recognized Sykes’s often ruthless efficiency, and determined to have him as a member of Council in Calcutta when he was asked to return to Bengal in 1764 to restore the Company’s fortunes. Clive also appointed Sykes to the dual roles of Resident at the Court in Murshidabad and Chief at nearby Cossimbazar. Following Munro’s victory at Buxar the Company was granted the diwani by the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan in 1765 giving them control of the tax income of the provinces of Bengal and Orissa and it was Sykes, the member of Council to whom Clive turned to organise its collection. This task Sykes set about with his customary efficiency. In so doing there is good evidence to demonstrate Sykes’s claims to have been the architect, not only of the operation of the Company’s administrative organisation in Bengal, but also the political system of indirect rule, through indigenous executives advised by British administrators, which became the blueprint during the hegemony of British government throughout much of its colonial empire for the next two centuries.

His triple responsibilities as Council member. Resident at the Nawab’s Court in Murshidabad and commercial chief at Cossimbazar gave Sykes unprecedented opportunities to extend his own fortune. He seized these with both hands, and in so doing attracted much of the bad reputation which has remained associated with his name. He was the organising brain behind Clive’s disgraceful Society of Trade which retained for specific senior colleagues the profits on the monopoly trade in salt, betel nut and tobacco which the Company itself had banned. Sykes also was to be heavily criticised for personally benefiting from a new tax which he introduced. It was, however, as a private trader, in association with his baniya Cantu Babu, that Sykes made the majority of his fortune. He outmanoeuvred the equally ruthless Richard Barwell to take from him control of the profitable timber trade in Purnea and he continued to trade in the lucrative but debarred salt trade and even in the Company’s own ‘investment’ trade of silks. He was adroit in keeping his name out of transactions negotiated in Cantu’s name.

Sykes returned home from his second and final tour in 1769 with one of the largest fortunes of any nabob, estimated at possibly £700,000 (about £70 million in modern values). He was still only thirty-nine. He retained Ackworth Park in Yorkshire, acquired Pensbury House in Dorset and then built a grand new Palladian house on the Basildon estate in Berkshire. He bought heavily into Company stock, controversially splitting and reassigning it in order to increase his votes, and he proved a strong supporter of the appointment of his friend Hastings as governor general in 1772. In true nabob style he also bought a seat in Parliament, characteristically in a manner attracting critical attention even in an age when it was almost universal practice. In the 1774 election he was disenfranchised for bribery and required to pay damages to his opponent of £11,000 (£1.1 million in today’s values).

The picture of Sykes, the man, which emerges from this book is that of an energetic and efficient, but ruthless and greedy individual, his actions devoted, to an unusual degree, to his own financial interests. His present biographer and latter day kinsman does not seek, as he says ‘to defend his actions but to explain them’. Sykes was a man of his age, often facing dangerous situations where the outcome could not be known, who should not be judged by today’s values. His reputation suffers because that of the East India Company and the British Empire itself has suffered at the hands and pens of today’s academic historians. One can echo Sir John’s call for the need for a revisionist view of the history of the British Empire and his plea for a more balanced assessment of the nabobs, but it has to be acknowledged that the case history of Sir Francis Sykes is unlikely to be cited in that cause. This does not diminish the value of the present biography which underlines the fact that history is not only made by idealists. By immersing himself in the experiences of his ancestor’s generation of nabobs in Bengal Sir John has provided much new fascinating detail on the factual realities of private trade and of everyday life. He has written an absorbing, highly readable, and important study.

British Empire Book
Sir John Sykes
Sir John Sykes Bt.
Sir John Sykes,
Kingsbury Croft,
13 Kingsbury Street,
Review Originally Published
Autumn 2020 in Journal of the British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia


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