James Skinner (East India Company officer)

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Colonel James Skinner CB (1778 – 4 December 1841)[1] was an Anglo-Indian mercenary in India, who became known as Sikandar Sahib later in life, and is most known for two cavalry regiments he raised for the British, later known as 1st Skinner's Horse and 3rd Skinner's Horse (formerly 2nd Skinner's Horse) at Hansi in 1803, which still are a part of the Indian Army.[2]

James Skinner
James Skinner CB (1778 – 1841) , 19th century.jpg
James Skinner CB, from his Tazkirat al-Umara (Account of the Nobles of Delhi and its neighbourhood)
Nickname(s)Sikandar Sahib
DiedDecember 4, 1841(1841-12-04) (aged 62–63)
UnitSkinner's Horse

He was a fluent writer in Persian, the court and intellectual language of India in his day, and wrote several books in Persian, including "Kitab-i tasrih al-aqvam" (History of the Origin and Distinguishing Marks of the Different Castes of India), now with the Library of Congress.[3][4]

Early lifeEdit

Skinner was born in 1778 in Calcutta (Kolkata), India. His father was Lieutenant-Colonel Hercules Skinner, an officer in the East India Company Army of Scottish origin. Skinner claims that his mother was an Indian princess, daughter of a zamindar. She was taken prisoner at the age of fourteen, and came under the care of his father, then an ensign, who treated her with much regard[citation needed]. Subsequently they had seven children, two girls and five boys, Joseph, James, Hercules, Alexander, Thomas, Louisa and Elizabeth.[4][5][6] When he was 12 years old his mother committed suicide.

He was first educated at an English school in Calcutta, and then at a boarding school.[7]

Colonel James Skinner, copy of a portrait of 1836
Skinner's Horse party. Folio from Reminiscences of Imperial Delhi'’, an album by Sir Thomas Metcalfe, 1843.


His father originally apprenticed him to a printer in Calcutta but hating the life he ran away after three days.[8] Because of his Indian heritage, Skinner was unable to serve as an officer in the East India Company army[9] and, at the age of sixteen, he entered the Maratha army as an ensign under Benoît de Boigne,[10] the French commander of Maharaja Scindia's forces of Gwalior State. Boigne was impressed by his family ancestry, Skinners having served William the Conqueror in the 11th century. Once taken in, Skinner soon showed military talent.[11] He remained in the same service under Pierre Cuillier-Perron, who became commander-in-chief of Sindhia's army after Boigne's retirement, until 1803,[10] when, on the outbreak of the Second Anglo-Maratha War, all Anglo-Indians were dismissed from Maratha service.[9]

A folio of Tazkirat al-umara by James Skinner, 1830, depicting Portrait of Maharaja Ranjit Singh of the Punjab.

Eventually he joined the Bengal Army of the East India Company where Lord Lake had become Commander-in-Chief of British India in 1801. Subsequently, on 23 February 1803, Skinner raised a regiment of irregular cavalry called "Skinner's Horse" or the "Yellow Boys"[10] because of the colour of their uniform.[4] Later it became a famous regiment of light cavalry in the British Indian Army[10] and still exists today as part of the Indian Army. He was present at the siege of Bharatpur, and in 1818 was granted a jagir of Hansi (Hisar district, Haryana), yielding Rs 20,000 a year.[10]

In 1828, James was finally given the rank of lieutenant-colonel in the British service, and his brother Robert that of major. Later James became a colonel,[11] having already been appointed Companion of the Order of the Bath on 26 December 1826.[12]

Other worksEdit

He had an intimate knowledge of the characters of the people of India, and his advice was highly valued by successive governor-generals and commanders-in-chief.[10] He commissioned paintings in the Company style on a large scale. Additionally, Skinner wrote a volume of memoirs in Persian of his military expeditions, titled Tazkirat al-umara which contained family biographies, of princely families in the Sikh and Rajput territories and 37 portraits of their current representatives.[13] First translated from the original Persian by James Fraser.

St. James' ChurchEdit

St. James' Church, also known as Skinner's Church, was commissioned by Skinner after he had vowed, while lying wounded in the battlefield of Uniara in 1800,[5] to build one if he survived. It was built at his own expense and at a cost of Rs 95,000. Designed by Major Robert Smith it was built between 1826-36 to a cruciform plan, with three porticoed porches and a central octagonal dome.[14] It was consecrated on 21 November 1836 by the Right Reverend Daniel Wilson D.D. the Bishop of Calcutta, making it the oldest church in Delhi.[11] Skinner is also reported to have built a temple and a mosque, though details of them are unknown.

Marble slab of Skinner's tomb in St James' church, Delhi

He had also lived at Jahaj kothi in Hisar after the defeat of Irish mercenary adventurer George Thomas (c. 1756 to August 22, 1802 CE). Skinner, while serving Maratha, had earlier fought against George Thomas. Skinner died at Hansi (in Hisar district, Haryana), on 4 December 1841, at the age of 64. He was first buried in the Cantonment Burial Ground at Hansi and after a period of 40 days was disinterred, and his coffin brought to Delhi, escorted by 200 men of Skinner's Horse. Subsequently, he was buried in Skinner's Church on 19 January 1842 in a vault of white marble immediately below the Communion table .[11][15]

Personal lifeEdit

Old Delhi in 1858. "Skinner's House" is marked as #27, on the edge of the city below the Jammi Masjid

All his three sisters married gentlemen in the East India Company's service, while his elder brother, David, went to sea, and his younger brother, Robert, also became a soldier. Emily Eden, sister of Governor General George Auckland records in 1838 that Major Robert Skinner, was "the same sort of melodramatic character" as his elder brother and made a tragic end. Suspecting his wife of infidelity he killed several of his servants and then shot himself.[16]

It is said that James Skinner had fourteen wives and many children, one of whom was Mrs. Wagentreiber, who managed to escape the 1857 revolt due to the fact that he was greatly revered by the Indian Army regiments.[17] His eldest son, also known as James Skinner, became an officer in Skinner's Horse and was killed in action during the First Anglo Afghan War. Many of his family members and their descendants are buried in Skinner's family plot, north of St. James' Church, Delhi.

He was also a close friend of James Baillie Fraser.[18]


There is mention of a grandson, also called James Skinner, who erected a statue of Queen Victoria upon her death, at his own expense at Chandni Chowk, Delhi.[19]

In 1960, Lt-Col Michael Skinner, a great-great-grandson, took command of Skinner's Horse, and was the first Skinner to command the Skinner's Horse regiment since its founder's death.[20] In 2003, when a special service was held at St. James' Church, Delhi to commemorate 200 years of Skinner's Horse, the cavalry regiment raised by Skinner in 1803, amongst those present was Patricia Sedwards (née Skinner), niece of Lt-Col Michael Skinner.[21]

In popular cultureEdit

Vikram Chandra's debut novel, Red Earth and Pouring Rain (1995), was inspired by the autobiography of James Skinner. In 1979, Philip Mason published Skinner of Skinner’s Horse: a fictional portrait, based upon Skinner's life.


  • Military Memoir of Lieut-Col. James Skinner, C. B.: For Many Years a Distinguished Officer Commanding a Corps of Irregular Cavalry in the Service of the H. E. I. C. : Interspersed with Notices of Several of the Principal Personages who Distinguished Themselves in the Service of the Native Powers ..., by James Baillie Fraser. Published by Smith, Elder, 1851. Full book
  • The Recollections of Skinner of Skinner's horse - James Skinner and his 'Yellow Boys' - Irregular cavalry in the wars of India between the British, Mahratta, Rajput, Mogul, Sikh & Pindarree forces, by James Skinner. LEONAUR . 2006. ISBN 1-84677-061-0.

Further readingEdit

  • Sikander Sahib; the life of Colonel James Skinner, 1778-1841., by Dennis Holman. London, Heinemann. 1961.
  • Between Battles:The Album of Colonel James Skinner, by Milfred Archer. London. Al-Falak and Scorpio. 1982.


  1. ^ Wheeler 2004.
  2. ^ Colonel James Skinner CB Archived 18 December 2010 at the Wayback Machine National Army Museum (British Army).
  3. ^ "Manuscript Book on History of Castes in India Library of Congress."given by James S. Collins of Pennsylvania to the Rosenwald Collection, Rare Book and Special Collections Division, LOC."
  4. ^ a b c 1st Horse / Skinner’s Horse Global Security."Eight hundred men on horses offered their services on one condition-they wished to be led by James Skinner."
  5. ^ a b Now St. James's Church in Kashmere Gate is the oldest church in Delhi The Hindu, Monday, 5 March 2007.
  6. ^ MEMORIES... Army Children Archive (TACA).Sikander Sahib: The Life of Colonel James Skinner, 1778-1841, London, 1961, pp.213-14.
  7. ^ Indian cavalry - 1st Skinners - History britishempire.co.uk
  8. ^ "Military Memoir of Lieut.-Colonel James Skinner"
  9. ^ a b Dalrymple, William (1993). City of Djinns: A Year in Delhi. HarperCollinsPublishers. ISBN 0-00-215725-X.
  10. ^ a b c d e f Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Skinner, James" . Encyclopædia Britannica. 25 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. p. 192.
  11. ^ a b c d Skinner's Tomb, St. Jame's Church, Delhi British Library.
  12. ^ "No. 18319". The London Gazette. 2 January 1827. p. 2.
  13. ^ Maharaja Ranjit Singh British Library.
  14. ^ No.3. Skinner's Church, Delhi. British Library.
  15. ^ St Jame's Church, with tomb of William Fraser British Library.
  16. ^ Chapter XII, "Up the Country" Emily Eden, Delhi, 20 February 1838
  17. ^ "Cemetery Details - St. James' Church". Archived from the original on 5 February 2012. Retrieved 15 March 2009.
  18. ^ Falk, Toby (1988). "The Fraser Company Drawings". RSA Journal. 137 (5389): 27–37.
  19. ^ Notes # 16 Indigenous modernities: negotiating architecture and urbanism, by Jyoti Hosagrahar. Published by Routledge, 2005. ISBN 0-415-32375-4. Page 207.
  20. ^ Lt-Col Michael Skinner The Independent (London), 17 May 1999.
  21. ^ Skinner's Horse... the memory lives on The Hindu, Monday, 24 November 2003.


External linksEdit