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Berkshire band with Bengal bonds

On his first visit to Calcutta in 1998, D.C.Williams, a solicitor by profession from Berkshire, in the UK, discovered several familiar-sounding names in the South Park Street Cemetery. He wondered if the men and women interred there were ancestors of the families that still lived in Berkshire.

So, Williams embarked on an exploration of the roots of these families and discovered that his conjecture was right. These people did settle down in Berkshire at the time of Robert Clive and they did make their millions while serving the East India Company. Among them were Francis Sykes and John Watts, both of whom were partly responsible for engineering the defeat of Nawab Siraj-ud-daula.

Williams traced the ancestry of these colourful mercenaries from Berkshire in a lecture organised by the Indo-British Scholarsí Association on December 3. Although the talk was leavened with Williamsí wit and his expansive sense of humour, it seemed a bit too remote for an Indian audience, involved as it was in the minutiae of contemporary history and politics that few, if any, would be familiar with. The slide show that accompanied the lecture was quite interesting. It whetted our curiosity about the interiors of the Berkshire houses with a Bengal connection. But that was not appeased.

The story of the fabulously rich that Williams has reconstructed through extensive research was full of blood and gore, chicanery and seductions and could provide material for several melodramas. There were also the beauties with spirit and humour, who died early like most Brits who came to India. Only this was real life.

There are 16 houses in Berkshire, close to each other, whose history dates back to the East India Company. They were the nouveau riche of those times and their jewels outshone those of the queen. Nobody liked them, said Williams, and so they all banded together in Berkshire. After the Battle of Plassey, Mir Jafar gave hundreds of crores to Clive and he was no less generous to both Sykes, lean and seven feet tall, and Watts. Williams guesses they made such phenomenal sums by levying taxes.

Among the nabobs was Zephaniah Holwell, after whom was named the notorious Blackhole monument that used to stand in front of Writersí Building. There was also Thomas Pitt, whose diamond shone in Napoleonís crown. Many of these Bengal writers entered Parliament once they returned home. Many dissolute young men who were the black sheep of their families went to the Far East to seek their fortune and returned with staggering sums. Interestingly, Sykesí descendant disowned his wife for sleeping around by making an announcement in a newspaper. This, many contemporaries thought, was too harsh a judgment. Among them was Charles Dickens, who named his villain Bill Sikes after them. Only the spelling was changed to avoid litigation.

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