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The Best Intentions

Dermot Dix

Cornwallis: Soldier and Statesman in a Revolutionary World, by Richard Middleton, Yale University Press, 440 pp, £25, ISBN: 978-0300196801

The career of Charles, Lord Cornwallis, spanning a period from 1776 to 1805, links Britain’s first and second empires. He presided over the worst humiliation the British empire had yet suffered: the surrender at Yorktown and the loss of America. He went on to play an important part, as governor-general of the British possessions in India, in transforming Britain’s role in south Asia. Finally, as lord lieutenant of Ireland, he restored order in the aftermath of the 1798 Rebellion and oversaw the passage of the Act of Union, a structural reorganisation with profound consequences for the “British Empire in Europe”. Britain’s first empire had consisted almost exclusively of colonies of settlement. Two facts about her second empire mark it as fundamentally different from its predecessor. First, it acquired its new territories through conquest, not settlement. Second, it consisted of large numbers of alien peoples. Cornwallis’s very career as both empire-loser and empire-consolidator indicates many of the currents of change in Britain’s imperial ambitions.

Cornwallis enjoyed education, rank, land and wealth. One biographer wrote that his subject had a “mental constitution … of the highest order of commonplace”, that he was “entirely destitute of originality” and that he represented “the spirit, the opinions, and the prejudices of his own age”. A later historian summed up Cornwallis by concluding that his first-class character failed to excuse his third-class brains. The authors of a 1980 biography claim second-rate brains for him. Brains aside, his CV shows him to have had one of the most remarkable careers of the late eighteenth century, a career which entailed the exercise of great power.

Cornwallis spent six years in America, seven in India, and three in Ireland. Throughout these years he freely expressed his views on the people with whom he came into contact: Patriot and Loyalist Americans, Protestant and Catholic Irish, a range of Indian groups. His perceptions of these people form a complex and shifting series of pictures, pictures which reveal in turn some fundamental assumptions Cornwallis made about his own world. His letters from India contain a number of expressed desires to do credit to “the national character” through the acts of his administration. In using this phrase and others like it, he drew on a stock of assumptions about Britishness which he believed himself to hold in common with his correspondents. He had not used this language while in America, and nor would he in Ireland.

Some of the lessons Cornwallis learned from experience appear quite straightforward: he often brooded on past mishaps and showed a conscious desire to avoid repeating them. He made a number of explicit comparisons ‑ for example, when in Ireland, between American and Irish loyalists ‑ which help to show how experience affected him. He arrived in Ireland to find the island undergoing the massive and bloody disruption of what amounted to civil war. Memory of defeat in America loomed large: during his three years in Ireland he worried a great deal about the prospect of losing that country as well. The loss of America also taught him ‑ rightly or wrongly ‑ more general lessons. He came to believe, for example, in the inevitability of the eventual separation of metropolis and offspring settlements. During his time in India he argued firmly against encouraging further white settlement: he felt sure that white creoles in India would prove no more dependable than their counterparts in America.

At thirty-six years of age and with the memory of a good deal of action in Germany during the Seven Years’ War, Cornwallis arrived in the American colonies in 1776, in time to take part in the British capture of New York in the summer of that year. His votes in the House of Lords had made him appear something of a friend to America in the 1760s; indeed, he was one of just five peers (as against 125) to vote against the 1766 Declaratory Act, which claimed the right to legislate for the colonies in all cases. The conjunction of that vote with his later exasperation at Irish Protestant bigotry against Catholicism, as well as with his frequent railing against “jobbery” among the ranks of East India Company officials in India, presents a side of Cornwallis that somewhat unexpectedly echoes a number of Edmund Burke’s important positions. One might be tempted to view him as a sort of Edmund Burke for dummies.

Once hostilities started, however, Cornwallis showed himself eager to help restore the colonies to their “proper relation” to the mother country. He gained an independent command in the south in June 1780. The war ministry’s southern strategy ‑ largely the brainchild of Lord George Germain, the secretary of state for the colonies ‑ rested on the conviction that much of the population of the Carolinas retained its allegiance toward the Crown and merely awaited a decent show of force by the British in order to re-establish the imperial connection: essentially the opposite of the twentieth century American anti-communist domino theory. Cornwallis believed that a defensive approach in the south would serve no useful purpose for the British. In fact, his belief in the necessity of seizing and maintaining the initiative inexorably drew him north to Virginia from the moment the British captured Charleston in the early summer of 1780. Many of his letters indicate that Cornwallis believed in Germain’s theory; he used it as his main operating principle in the Carolinas.

Cornwallis came to see Carolina Loyalists as weak, stupid, passive, “supine” and “pusillanimous” (two favourite adjectives), and he quickly decided that Patriots were vicious and barbarous. In one letter he wrote dryly that “I have too often observed, that when a Storm threatens, our friends disappear.” Cornwallis could not see that Loyalists needed more concrete assistance ‑ in the form of training and arms ‑ and not merely the boosts to morale allegedly born of shows of British force. At no point did he seem to have questioned the effectiveness of the support he offered Loyalists. Further, though he often claimed responsibility for particular failures on the part of his subordinates, he showed an inability to reconsider the wisdom of his overall strategy. Aware of faults in the show-of-force theory, still he pressed further and further north, believing that he must at all costs maintain the initiative and that a defensive policy spelled disaster.

Cornwallis found another way to meet disaster: he moved on to Virginia without having come close to re-establishing British control in the Carolinas, and suffered his infamous defeat at Yorktown. According to him, however, British arms failed in the Carolinas, not because of his own or other Britons’ mistakes but rather owing to the faults of a portion of the indigenous population, which failed to curb the wilder instincts of the remainder.

In the Indian and Irish contexts Cornwallis freely expressed judgments about “the natives” of India, “the Brahmin character”, the Irish and “this wretched country” (Ireland). In one letter he contrasted British “fairness, honesty, and firmness” with Indian “cunning, corruption, and timidity”. Indians were indolent, and dissipated too. There are numerous such examples to be found in Cornwallis’s letters; he engaged in disdain for Indians in an equal opportunity fashion: Hindus, Muslims, nawabs and rajas, lower orders. In one letter he adjudged “every native of Hindostan (I really believe) corrupt”.

Later, in Ireland, he wrote of “the folly, obstinacy, and gross corruption which pervade every corner of this island … [and stated his belief that] it is impossible that it can be saved from destruction”. After the 1798 Rebellion had been defeated, Cornwallis’s central task was to buy support for the proposed Act of Union; he complained to his close friend Alexander Ross that “my occupation is now of the most unpleasant nature, negotiating and jobbing with the most corrupt people under heaven”. If Indians were timid, the Irish, by contrast, behaved murderously and ferociously. He equally abhorred the violence of the United Irish rebels and that of the militia forces; he objected strongly to the anti-Catholic bigotry he routinely heard at his dinner table at Dublin Castle. Leading Irish Protestants blamed Catholicism for the rebellion; Cornwallis was sure that French Jacobins and a conspiracy involving their Irish supporters were to blame. His letters throughout his time in Ireland include numerous references to the “seeds of rebellion”, the “spirit of disaffection” and the “evil disposition of the lower classes”. He always believed, however, that if the Protestants could be prevented from provoking them, Catholics would prove loyal subjects. He was an ardent supporter of Catholic Emancipation, which he viewed as an essential accompaniment to the Union.

Some historians have argued for a shifting connotation of ‘Britishness’ in precisely Cornwallis’s period. Linda Colley has written of a crisis—a “massive strain on the lives, nerves and confidence of the British elite” brought on by defeat in America together with war against revolutionary France. Colley instances a remarkable number of untimely deaths: nineteen MPs known to have committed suicide between 1790 and 1820, more than twenty lapsed into insanity, and a “heightened, almost violent emotionalism on the floor of the House of Commons”. But she also writes that

[i]n the wake of the loss of the American colonies … Celtic elites [from Scotland, Wales and to a lesser extent Ireland] amalgamated with their English counterparts far more extensively than before, reinvigorating the power structure of the British empire and forging a unified and genuinely British ruling class that endured until the twentieth century.

The direct connections between the loss of America and the emergence of this new apparatus, this new power structure, are of course much harder to draw out. And the entire process is much more complex than can be teased out through an examination of just one figure like Cornwallis. But Cornwallis had found himself in key contexts at key junctures. By 1801 the empire, partly owing to Cornwallis’s agency, had a form quite different from that of 1776. He had been partly responsible for the loss of old colonies of settlement in America. Imperial politicians increasingly came to regard India as of too great an importance to be governed by a commercial company; they no longer took the permanent loyalty of the region’s whites for granted; and they allowed the native population itself a smaller and smaller involvement with the government that presided over it.

They had redefined the empire, too, at its very centre. Ireland would no longer remain entrusted to a combination of metropolitan and local creole supervision. Cornwallis, in guiding through the Union of 1800, had abolished the separation of Irish and British kingdoms. He saw Irish Protestants as not to be trusted; the lessons of Volunteer activity (in 1782) would not have been lost on him: the memory of Irish Protestants with a proverbial gun to the head of the British government. He made them pay in the sense that they lost their legislative parity and independence. This would all be shaken up terribly during and after the Famine, but Ireland in 1800 was legally deemed to be not a colony of settlement ‑ because it was not a colony at all. Was this a conscious policy choice? It is hard to say. Perhaps it was simply the metropole’s opportunity to undo the concessions of 1782. Thomas Bartlett argues that after the loss of the thirteen colonies in 1783, the anomalous situation of Ireland’s parliament came starkly into relief ‑ it could no longer hide in the “crazy-paving of legislatures” in the empire. Could this anomaly be tolerated? No.

What did the Union offer Irish Protestants in return? Well, the Union debates make one point clear: both in the Irish parliament and in the pamphlet war, pro-unionists again and again make the point that this was to be a union for empire. Burke and Cornwallis again converge. Bartlett argues that for Burke the only true union between England and Ireland was an imperial one, and that before his death in 1797, he despaired about the Protestant Ascendancy in Ireland and Jacobinism in France and Europe. Had he still been alive (he died in 1797) he might have been optimistic in 1800 about this Union for empire, especially as it also offered the prospect of the containment of the Ascendancy he reviled, though he most certainly would have shared Cornwallis’s disappointment about the failure to achieve Catholic Emancipation in 1800; and if he could have looked ahead to the famine deaths of the 1840s ‑ bearing in mind how he excoriated government policy for its part in allowing Irish famine deaths in the later eighteenth century ‑ then it is a fair guess that his optimism would have been only momentary.

Richard Middleton has published an in-depth biography of Cornwallis, the first (to this reader’s knowledge) since Franklin and Mary Wickwire’s two-volume biography of 1980. The book sustains a most readable narrative, one that is comprehensive in its coverage of all aspects of Cornwallis’s career, from his early Whiggish political tendencies to his career as a soldier in Europe, America, India, back home in England, then in Ireland; and also as a statesman in the Indian and Irish contexts, as well as his leading role in negotiating the ill-fated 1802 Treaty of Amiens between Britain and Napoleon’s France. Structurally, the book is divided into three parts, labelled “America”, “India” and “Europe”, with the middle section the longest, reflecting the relatively long duration of Cornwallis’s role in India.

Middleton argues that despite the fact that Cornwallis was one of only seventeen peers who condemned the vote in the House of Commons to expel the radical John Wilkes and that he voted against the Declaratory Act of 1766, this apparently radical tendency was temporary. By late 1774 he voted against an attempt in the House of Lords to amend an address to King George III so that it deplored the government’s repressive measures [presumably the Coercive Acts, known in America as the Intolerable Acts] against the American colonists.

The book is at its best in its depiction of Cornwallis’s often complex, nuanced relationships with colleagues, both soldiers and politicians alike, of whom there is a large cast across all the various theatres in which he operated. The quotidian details of life as a soldier-statesman come truly to life; one fact about such a life that a close read of a book like this makes clear is the vast quantity of writing produced by people in Cornwallis’s various roles, even while waging military campaigns.

Middleton apportions blame for the defeat at Yorktown and the consequent loss of the American colonies more or less evenly between Cornwallis and his superior, Sir Henry Clinton.

In his analysis of his subject’s years at the outposts of empire, Middleton does not pay especially close attention to the language that Cornwallis used about the groups he encountered; he seems to have been drawn more towards the facts of the career rather than the implications that might be drawn from Cornwallis’s at times choice descriptions and labels. The reader learns little about Cornwallis’s own sense of the enemies and allies he encountered, notably in the American and Indian contexts; by contrast, accounts of the Irish context, of his role as master of the ordnance, and of the details of his 1802 negotiations with Talleyrand and Joseph Bonaparte, are fuller.

In his discussion of the details of Cornwallis’s programme of “reforms” in India, Middleton remains for the most part neutral. He refers repeatedly to the theme of hard work (undoubtedly true of Cornwallis); but when he writes sentences such as “To ensure the success of his mission, he had much to do in the next three years” without interrogating the assumptions that underlay that mission, this reader is left with the sense that a merited critique has been left in abeyance. Another example is when he refers to Cornwallis’s intention to “reorganise” the opium trade without making even the most tangential nod in the direction of the disastrous effects of this immoral trade on Chinese society. Finally, in his discussion of the details of the Permanent Settlement (of Bengal’s landholding system), Middleton takes a mostly neutral stance. The Permanent Settlement aimed to recreate secure patterns of property ownership by “returning” the land to the class of zamindars, a class conceived by some, including Cornwallis, as the traditional landowners under the Mughals. The administration valued the land, and exacted a fixed and permanent payment for it from the zamindars. Cornwallis and his advisers envisaged this system leading to tremendous improvements in agricultural efficiency and agrarian harmony, with zamindars and raiyats (peasants) finding a “natural” market-determined balance in their dealings with each other.

In his concluding pages on Cornwallis’s Indian years, Middleton presents the reasons why Cornwallis ought to have been pleased with his achievements as governor-general: first, he had defeated Tipu, but had not extended the Company’s reach in India or altered the balance of power significantly (Cornwallis, unlike his successor Wellesley, was opposed to extending British rule in India); second, he had reformed the Company’s ethos and had done much to stamp out personal corruption on the part if its servants; third, he had balanced the Company’s budget; fourth, the Permanent Settlement, in Middleton’s words, “promised to create both social stability and the incentives for agricultural improvement”; fifth, he could feel, again in Middleton’s words, that “he had brought a sense of justice and equity to the legal system, which the inhabitants of Bengal had rarely enjoyed … The new regulations effectively gave Bengal a written constitution, which enshrined individual rights while imposing restraints on arbitrary governance.”

This is an unmistakably positive overall assessment. Yet, Middleton goes on to state that “[t]he verdict of historians, however, has not been so flattering”, and then proceeds to summarise aspects of that criticism, starting with the Permanent Settlement, which, he writes, has incurred particular criticism. Middleton then states that Cornwallis’s “… expectation that it would create a more enlightened class of landlord, who would see the advantages to be gained of improving their estates in cooperation with their raiyats, never came to pass”. Further, he writes that Bengal’s “… old and new landlords remained … more akin to the absentee landlords of Ireland rather than improving owners like Cornwallis’s great uncle, ‘Turnip Townshend’.” In fact, the agrarian relationships and policies introduced by the Permanent Settlement have been linked by some historians to the Bengal Famine of 1943, which killed between two and three million people.

Middleton writes that “Cornwallis’s exclusion of Indians [from positions of responsibility] demeaned them as a people and undermined their self-respect”, that “he lacked any vision for India’s inhabitants other than as permanently subject peoples”. Finally, his assessment of Cornwallis’s record in India holds that “[l]ike other benevolent despots, he was full of good intentions, but too remote to appreciate the requirements for implementing them”.

This reader notes a disconnect between Middleton’s own positive conclusion about Cornwallis’s record and the criticisms of Cornwallis on the part of other historians with whom he paradoxically apparently agrees. The historians whom one finds in his footnotes in this section range from Arthur Aspinall (1931), Narendra Sinha (1956), BB Misra (1959) and Ranajit Guha (the 1996 edition of a book first published in 1963) to later historians such as Crispin Bates (2007) and Barbara and Thomas Metcalf (the 2012 edition of a book first published in 2001). In an attempt to square this circle, Middleton falls back on a well-known trope: “Cornwallis’s attitudes, of course, merely reflected generally held contemporary prejudice. European superiority over Asian peoples seemed the natural order.” He then claims that “[a]t least Cornwallis treated those under his care with courtesy and humanity, though his vision of a humane, well-regulated society could not succeed in a system that had been created by conquest and ultimately relied on force, since for every Company official like Cornwallis, there were probably five others who had no compunction in abusing people of colour”. Well, which is it? Is Cornwallis typical of his time or is he not?

In order to understand Middleton’s apparent difficulty in accepting his own conclusions about Cornwallis, as well as the conclusions of other historians, it may be helpful to turn back to the preface of the book where Middleton writes:

Until the 1960s it [Cornwallis’s career] was seemingly a story of national pride. Since then, the word ‘empire’ has become a pejorative term, suggestive of racism, colonialism, and the denial of human rights. Nevertheless, even dead white men have a claim to be understood, not least because the heroes and noble causes of today will surely become the misguided zealots or disregarded ideologies of tomorrow.

It is hard to unpack the above quote. As far back as 1902 the British political scientist John Hobson described empire as parasitical, and since that time any number of scholars and commentators have laid bare and decried the undeniable racism and denial of human rights that operated at the core of every imperial project, including that of the British. Does Middleton prefer the national pride approach to the history of empire? He appears not to have noticed that that approach has come back strongly into vogue in British society of late. A YouGov poll of 2020 had 32 per cent of British respondents seeing Britain’s former empire “as more of a source of pride than shame” with 19 per cent seeing it as “more something to be ashamed of”, 37 per cent seeing it as “neither something to be proud nor ashamed of”, and 12 per cent  saying they didn’t know.

That’s polling. In the world of academia there have been notable recent attempts to rehabilitate Britain’s imperial project. Niall Ferguson is perhaps the best known historian to have made his career in this way. In a September 2022 Dartmouth Review interview, Ferguson answered a question about the legacy of empire as follows:

Q: In a 2011 interview with The Guardian, you criticized the West’s self-flagellation in regards to its imperial legacy. How do you believe the West should evaluate and teach its history, especially when it comes to empires?
NF: In the last 10 years, that has only become more true. It is now almost impossible to have a rational debate about the history of empire in the US or the UK, or, for that matter, in Canada, because it’s now asserted that empire was so evil that it’s morally wrong to draw up a balance sheet and try to understand the costs and benefits. This means that reasoned historical discussion is no longer allowed … My view is that if you want to understand the history of the modern world, it’s largely a history of empires. To say that empires are just utterly bad and had no redeeming features is to make it impossible to do history generally.

Ferguson is by no means alone. I draw here on Kenan Malik’s January 2018 New York Review of Books article “The Great British Empire Debate”, in which he discusses the project of Nigel Biggar, Regius Professor of Theology at Oxford University. Malik refers to Biggar’s November 2017 article in defence of an article by Bruce Gilley (an associate professor of political science at Portland State University) entitled “The Case for Colonialism”. Malik quotes Biggar as presenting Gilley’s “balanced reappraisal of the colonial past” as “courageous”, and calling for “us British to moderate our post-imperial guilt”. This goes well beyond a defence of academic freedom. As Malik writes, “Biggar also revealed that he was launching a five-year academic project, under the auspices of Oxford University’s McDonald Centre for Theology, Ethics and Public Life, called “Ethics and Empire”. The project aims to question the notion prevalent (here he quotes Biggar) “in most reaches of academic discourse”, that “imperialism is wicked; and empire is therefore unethical” and to develop “a Christian ethic of empire”.

Middleton must surely be aware of this project, since it generated nothing short of a furore; nearly sixty Oxford scholars working on empire signed an open letter condemning the project. Yet he makes no reference to it or to the reach of well-known scholars like Ferguson, instead insisting that since the 1960s empire has simply “become a pejorative term” and, further, presenting a relativistic view that “the [unspecified] heroes of today” will become “the misguided zealots of tomorrow”. It would seem that perhaps an ambivalent attitude to the legacy of empire might help to explain Middleton’s ambivalent understanding of a significant figure like Cornwallis.


Dermot Dix is Junior School Principal at Rathdown School in Glenageary, where he also teaches history. His research has focused on British imperial ideology, with particular reference to India, Ireland and America.




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