The Indian Seal Case Study: The Owner

portraits of francis sykes

Miniature portraits of Francis Sykes – as an older man, possibly by Thomas Richmond, and as a younger man by Henry Bone 1804 copied from an earlier portrait by Thomas Gainsborough destroyed by fire in 1874.

Francis Sykes (1730-1804) arrived in India for the second and last time with Robert Clive on 3 May 1765 after a tedious eleven month voyage.  Clive’s Select Committee (only five in number), of which he was a member, had been given extraordinary powers by the East India Company Directors in London to bring to an end what was increasingly becoming a chaotic state of affairs in Bengal which had included the outbreak of war between the Company and the Nawab of Bengal, Mir Qasim. 

map of hugli rive1Sykes had spent nine years in India from 1751-1760 working his way up the ladder at the important trading “factory” of Cossimbazar, sited just outside the Nawab’s capital of Murshidabad on the upper reaches of the Hughli River about five days’ journey  from Calcutta.  It was here that his friendship with another “writer”, Warren Hastings, began, a friendship that only ended with Sykes’s death in 1804.  Sykes had survived the upheaval of the Company’s war with Suraj–ud-daulah when, following the Nawab’s capture of the Cossimbazar factory and of Calcutta itself, the Company was in danger of being expelled completely from Bengal.  He had played a part in the dangerous negotiations with both Suraj-ud-daulah and, secretly, with the man who was destined to succeed him, Mir Jafar, which led to the successful outcome of the Battle of Plassey in 1757, domination by the Company of Bengal and ultimately the foundation of the British Raj.

sykes crest 1During this time he accumulated sufficient wealth through private trade to purchase an estate (Ackworth Park) in Yorkshire in 1763.  In the same year he took out a grant of arms, interestingly taking as his crest  “A demy lady of Bengal, in the compleat dress of that kingdom, holding in the dexter hand a rose”.

He also came to the notice of Clive who, as a condition of his return to India in 1764, hand-picked the Select Committee.  On the day of their arrival in Calcutta, Clive wrote “Sykes may be thoroughly relied on” [f.n.Clive to Carnac 3 May 1765] and after Sykes had been sent to the durbar of the Nawab at Murshidabad he wrote “I need only add, that Sykes, for whom we intend the Residentship, is a gentleman whose flexible integrity, and long experience in the country politics, we have reason to expect the most exact performance of every duty in such an important station.” [f.n.Clive to Court of Directors 30 Sept 1765]

map of countries of indostan

Part of a map of ‘The Countries of Indostan East of Delhi’ by Rennell published in ‘A History of the Military Transactions of the British Nation in Indostan’ by Robert Orme (London, 1778). Muxadabad was the former name of the Nawab of Bengal’s capital of Murshidabad.

The importance of Sykes’s position as Resident at the Court of the Nawab increased enormously after the grant by the Emperor to the Company of the Diwani, the right to collect the revenues of Bengal, Behar and Orissa.  This gave rise to the “dual system” whereby the Nawab was the subahdar of those provinces under the Emperor but the real power lay with the Company as it held the purse-strings.  Sykes, as Resident, was set the task of maximising the revenues (which often involved a rigorous overhaul of the ways in which they were collected and of the “expenses” deducted by the assigned collectors) and of controlling the Nawab’s own expenditure, working in close co-operation with the Nawab’s Chief Minister .  The Mughal title by which Sykes was known to many of the Indians said it all: Intizam-ud-daulah “The Administration of the State”.

Alongside Sykes’s official activities, he carried on very substantial private trade.  This, together with the expense allowances and commissions on taxes which he obtained from his official position provided him with the huge wealth which he accumulated over a period of only 3 ½ years.  His private trade was in numerous commodities but chiefly in salt, betel nut, tobacco, timber, saltpetre and silk.  He appears to have used his position ruthlessly to oust competitors and secure monopolies of some of these items.  But none of this would have been possible without the support of a trusted Indian agent or banian.

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On 21 April 2014, Dr Susan Sloman left the following comment:

From Dr Susan Sloman

I am interested in any records of the appearance of the portrait of Sir Francis Sykes with horses, groom and dogs painted by Thomas Gainsborough in the summer of 1787. I would like to reproduce the miniature by Henry Bone that records the face in a forthcoming book, Gainsborough in London (YUP). (This book is a belated sequel to my Gainsborough in Bath, YUP 2002). I am curious to know whether any written descriptions or other records of the painting have come to light in the course of recent research.

With many thanks, Susan Sloman