Most Americans probably recall Lord Cornwallis only as the British military commander defeated by Washington and Lafayette at Yorktown in 1781, a battle which assured the independence of the American colonies. Franklin and Mary Wickwire’s first volume of Cornwallis’ life concluded with the York-town disaster; this volume traces the subsequent twenty-four years of Cornwallis’ career.
Although he had been defeated, Cornwallis was not disgraced by his surrender. In keeping with eighteeth century military protocol, his lordship was released on parole and allowed to return to England in 1782. On his arrival, he received an enthusiastic welcome, with King George III declaring that he did not lay any blame for the Yorktown defeat “at the charge of Lord Cornwallis.”
Still, Cornwallis did feel personally humiliated by the defeat and immediately on returning home sought to obtain some new military or political post by which he might redeem his reputation. Furthermore, the relatively small income he derived from his estates and from his office as Constable of the Tower of London were, he soon found, insufficient to support himself and his family in a manner appropriate to their status as nobility.
For the next several years, however, no acceptable appointment was forthcoming. He declined both the office of Lord Lieutenant of Ireland and Governor-General of the East India Company in India because either would have meant leaving his family for an extended period. The post he most sought—the governorship of the port of Plymouth—was given to another man in 1784.
To mollify partially the disappointed Cornwallis, and to make use of his talents, Prime Minister William Pitt (the Younger) dispatched the Earl to Berlin to sound out Frederick the Great concerning the possibility of an alliance between Britain and Prussia. Nothing came of that mission except to give Cornwallis some valuable experience in diplomacy.
During the 1781-1784 period, an issue that repeatedly came before the British Parliament concerned the administration of Bengal and other territories in India by the servants of the East India Company. Reformers in the Parliament had discovered widespread corruption and misconduct within the Company, and they were demanding that steps be taken to rectify the situation by strengthening governmental control over Company affairs.
The reformers were ultimately successful. In 1784, the Parliament approved of the East India Bill which went far toward reorganizing the Company and increasing public control of its activities. The East India Bill provided for a setting up of a Board of Control in London whose members would be appointed by the crown, and which would have supervision over both civil and military administration of the Company holdings. Officials of the Company, however, would retain the right of appointment of all Company servants in India, and the command of the Company’s military forces in India would remain separate from the authority of the civilian governors-general.
Not long after passage of the East India Bill, Pitt offered Cornwallis either the governor-generalship or the chief military command in India. The Earl insisted, however, that he would accept only if the two offices were combined and he was given both. Two more years elapsed before Pitt could meet Cornwallis’ terms; the law was altered, and Cornwallis was given joint commissions as Governor-General and Commander in Chief in British India. He departed for Calcutta in February, 1786, to begin a new chapter in his career.
For the next seven years—1786 to 1793—Cornwallis exercised virtually supreme authority over British holdings in India. During those years he instituted a number of reform measures which stabilized, improved, and strengthened the rule of the East India Company over the subcontinent. As one of his first tasks, he was obliged to grapple with a debt of some twenty million pounds, that had accumulated under his predecessors. He began by dismissing from the service men who had flagrantly cheated the Company and raising the salaries of those he retained. “Small salaries and immense perquisites,” he asserted, had encouraged the corruption. He further insisted that the Company servants conduct themselves in a courteous, decorous manner, and he set the tone and style for his underlings. Instead of the riotous, drunken parties of the past, he would hold dignified and elegant assemblies. Instead of the disorganized haphazard handling of the Company office work, he introduced a more formal, more efficient system; and to further improve efficiency, the Earl reorganized and enlarged the postal service to bring more rapid communication among the three major centers of British administration: Calcutta, Madras, and Bombay.
Cornwallis’ most fundamental, and most controversial, action would be his reform of the system of revenue collection in Bengal. Earlier in the eighteenth century, the Mogul emperor at Delhi had granted the East India Company the right to collect taxes and administer justice in Bengal in return for an annual fixed payment to the emperor. For various reasons, however, the income to the Company from the taxes had proved less than anticipated. For some three years, Cornwallis and his two closest associates, John Shore and Charles Grant, worked to devise a better system of tax collection. Finally a new set of regulations—known as the Permanent Settlement—emerged in 1789. Basically, the Permanent Settlement designated the hereditary landholders of Bengal, called the “zemindars,” as permanent tax collectors for the Company. Company agents would determine the value of the land and its productivity and base the tax rates on their findings. The “zemindars” could not increase taxes arbitrarily and could not extort from the tenants and cultivators.
Cornwallis’ Permanent Settlement would be approved in some quarters, condemned in others. Those who approved saw it as assuring a more reliable system which would go far toward reducing the Company debts, and as a means of tying the influential “zemindars” more closely to British rule. Critics in England, on the other hand, objected to the Permanent Settlement for taking away much of the former independence and privileges of the Indian villagers and for fixing on British India the same sort of aristocratic landholder dominance that prevailed in Britain itself. Henry Dundas, President of the Board of Control, backed Cornwallis, however, and Dundas prevailed upon William Pitt to give his approval of the Permanent Settlement. The system went into effect in 1793.
Paralleling the development of the Permanent Settlement for the...
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