The Case for Cornwallis

October 24, 2014 Topic: HistoryMilitary Strategy Region: United KingdomUnited States

The Case for Cornwallis

Lord Cornwallis has gotten a bum rap in America. He was a gifted troubleshooter who implemented a more streamlined, sustainable version of British power, so that London could emerge triumphant and dominant on the global stage after 1815.

In trying to restore authority by cannon and sword, then, Cornwallis and his men were trying to fight their way back into a political game that had already been lost. The first lesson—as a growing number of British parliamentarians were prepared to say—was that an aggressive and overbearing version of governance on the periphery of the empire was unsustainable, and ultimately contrary to British interests. This was doubly important because of the way in which imperial overstretch was punished by other European states engaged in a broader geopolitical game with Britain. France’s involvement in America was a case in point.

Cornwallis did not, however, suddenly become a critic of imperialism or empire per se. Indeed, he was among the most effective of all British empire builders. Defeat in 1781, while hard to take, was not met with despair or capitulation. Notably, Cornwallis did his best to steer clear of the recriminations in which other senior generals engaged. More important was the fact that he began to develop a more refined and thoughtful vision of what forms of British power worked efficaciously overseas in other portions of the empire—how to combine co-option and diplomacy with the tools of compulsion, and how to avoid the stretching of military capabilities on the fringes of the empire in a way that played into the hands of more serious rivals closer to home.

In this, he recognized that the spheres of domestic and foreign policy were indivisible. It was no coincidence, to men like Cornwallis, that Britain’s defeat in America had followed a particularly shabby period in domestic politics. In November 1781, for example, Marquess Rockingham linked the defeat at Yorktown to the personalistic system of government under George III—“a proscriptive system, a system of favoritism and secret government.” A few years before, in 1776, Edward Gibbon had warned in the first volume of his History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire that it was not only external enemies but also the creep of decadence, and the diminution of virtue, that had led to Rome’s fall to the barbarians. In Parliament, Edmund Burke hounded the former governor-general of India, Warren Hastings, eventually instituting impeachment proceedings against him. This, in turn, provoked a wider debate about the pace at which the empire was expanding and the moral and military price that such expansionism entailed.

The gangrene in the domestic political system and the undermining of British authority overseas were two sides of the same coin. Inevitably, in the wake of the American debacle, attentions turned again to India, the jewel of the empire, where the East India Company—through which Britain governed the country—was mired in allegations of cronyism and corruption.

In 1786, after turning down two previous offers, Cornwallis was appointed as the new colonial governor-general in Bengal. For the prime minister, William Pitt, Cornwallis was a sort of eighteenth-century “special envoy” whose job was to clean up Indian governance, stabilize the country and protect British interests. It was his personal reputation for probity that had made him so attractive to the government, as the “salvation of our dying interests in Asia.” These were the words of Pitt’s close ally Henry Dundas, who also described Cornwallis’s purist credentials in memorable terms: “Here was no avarice to be gratified. Here was no beggardly mushroom kindred to be provided for—no crew of hungry followers gaping to be gorged.”

Lest there be any ambiguity, it should be made clear that Cornwallis’s record in India is no model for American foreign policy. Ultimately, this was still raw imperialism, predicated—when one scratches below the surface—on a sense of racial superiority. While Cornwallis gave a nod to the idea that Indian self-government was the ultimate end—and that “rational liberty makes peoples virtuous”—he believed that the local population was far from reaching that stage. His case was simpler: he believed the Hindu population would rather be governed by the British than the Mughal emperors. A similar logic had operated in America, in fact. As Maya Jasanoff observes in Liberty’s Exiles: American Loyalists in the Revolutionary World, the British had offered black slaves freedom in return for joining the loyalist forces. At Yorktown, Cornwallis’s ranks had been swelled by some of Thomas Jefferson’s own slaves. After defeat, he had sought to guarantee an amnesty for natives of Virginia fighting on his side, only for Washington to refuse.

Cornwallis’s approach in India also had a hard military edge. In this respect, he had learned another lesson from America that he exported to India—the need for unity of purpose between the military and political strands. His one precondition for taking up the post of governor-general was that he would also be appointed commander in chief. In fact, Pitt passed an Act of Parliament to change the rules specifically for this purpose. Furthermore, when it came to dealing with irreconcilables, Cornwallis quickly decided that his preferred method—of co-option of local power brokers—had its limits. This led him into a series of military actions against the Tipu Sultan, ruler of the Kingdom of Mysore, in the Third Mysore War (1789–1792), in which he pioneered the use of elephants to move artillery.

Britain’s sensitivity about preventing disorder in India had been heightened by the effects of the recent French Revolution, which raised the prospect of a potential war with France. Nonetheless, Cornwallis’s main interest was the stabilization, rather than further expansion, of the empire. The practical consequences of overstretch—not least the difficulties of supplying troops scattered in faraway regions—had been impressed upon him by the American experience. As one of the directors of the East India Company had put it, “The wider British dominion in India spread, the more vulnerable it becomes.” When he did eventually defeat the sultan, then, Cornwallis avoided imposing overly punitive terms—and eschewed interest in setting up “some miserable pageant of our own, to be supported by the Company’s troops and treasures, and to be plundered by its servants.”

In The Decline and Fall of the British Empire, Piers Brendon elegantly describes the two sides of Cornwallis’s “fatherly governance” in India. On the one hand, he regulated the legal system and brought a kind of “Roman order,” earning him the moniker “the Justinian of India.” He also governed in a consciously more humane fashion, modernizing the civil administration and suppressing child slavery. On the other hand, he used the Indian princes in a “ruthless game of realpolitik” and acknowledged the murkier aspects of colonial governance. As he wrote in one letter back to London, in the weary tones that characterize much of his correspondence, “There is scarcely a man to be found who has held any office of consequence, that has not been driven to make money in a manner which he ought to be ashamed of.”


HAVING LOST his wife in 1779—and much of his enthusiasm for life—Cornwallis approached his duties with a growing distaste for politicking and jobbery. That said, his soldierly distaste for dirty tactics did not blind him to their necessity. By the time he left India in 1794, he was ready for a quiet life with a government pension. To his chagrin, his reputation as a fixer of complex politico-military problems where British interests were under threat was now higher than anyone else’s.

It was to Ireland, on the brink of rebellion and civil war, and expecting a French invasion at any moment, that he was sent next. Once again, Prime Minister Pitt had been forced to ask him to accept the offer of the Lord Lieutenancy (essentially the same position as that of governor-general) three times. Once again, he sought assurances that he would have full military and political command. It was only in May 1798, when the long-expected Irish Rebellion eventually broke out, that Cornwallis finally relented, grumbling and complaining every step of the way.

The day Cornwallis was sworn in, June 21, 1798, insurgents in Wexford were defeated decisively in the famous Battle of Vinegar Hill, near Enniscorthy, marking a turning point in the rebellion. Government forces now had the upper hand, but, as Cornwallis observed from Dublin Castle, the country was “streaming with blood.” As in America, he lay much of the blame on loyalist forces who were “more numerous and powerful, and a thousand times more ferocious.” He was shocked above all by the brutality of the counterinsurgency, complaining that “the only engines of government were the bayonet, the torch and the cat o’ nine tails.”

He wrote despairingly:

The conversation of the principal persons of the country all tends to encourage the system of blood, and the conversation even at my table, where you will suppose I do all I can to prevent it, always turns on hanging, shooting, burning, &c, &c, and if a [Catholic] priest has been put to death, the greatest joy is expressed by the whole company. So much for Ireland and my wretched situation.

The first and most important thing Cornwallis did in Ireland was to rein in the loyalists and bring an end to the “numberless murders which are hourly committed by our people without any process or examination whatever.” He still executed many of the ringleaders of the rebellion who had conspired directly with the French, but he was also known for his leniency when dealing with the rank and file—meaning that he faced censure from loyalists for being too weak.