Cornwallis, Lord

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CORNWALLIS, LORD (1738–1805), second earl and first marquis of Cornwallis, governor-general of India (1786–1793 and 1805). Charles Cornwallis was a soldier and Whig politician whose distinguished military career almost ended during a campaign to which he was politically opposed: the repression of Britain's American colonists. Though his command was forced to capitulate at Yorktown, Virginia, Cornwallis was lauded for the strategic vision he had exhibited in the Americas and the loyal and stoic manner in which he bore this defeat. This behavior led to an offer from the Tory Party to succeed his friend Warren Hastings in India. Cornwallis accepted only after receiving pledges of government support and greater authority over his subordinates, which Hastings, to his great cost, had not enjoyed. Cornwallis used this expanded authority to alter the tenor as well as the structure of the British East India Company rule. Whereas Hastings had struggled to find a middle path between Indian and Western political traditions, Cornwallis acted to Europeanize the company's administration.

Much of what was wrong with the company's affairs at that time resulted from the need of its agents to support themselves and provide for their retirement by trading on their own behalf, while ostensibly doing the same for their employer. This conflict of interest encouraged a host of fraudulent practices and was a major drain on the company's profits. Cornwallis's chosen remedy was the creation of what became known as the Covenanted Civil Service. Cornwallis directed the company to provide its agents with a salary generous enough to discourage private trade, which would be strictly forbidden. These agents would also be given commissions on the revenues they collected, and their judicial and executive functions were to be separated as a further check against corrupt practices. All remaining Indian officials of any significant rank were dismissed.

Cornwallis's most controversial measure was the Permanent Settlement of the land revenues of Bengal. This step conferred British rights of land ownership on local zamindars, mere tax-gathers. It was taken over the objections of John Shore, a veteran company official and later governor-general (1793–1798). Shore begged Cornwallis to limit the settlement to a preliminary ten-year period. Shore feared, rightly as it turned out, that in time this change might prove disastrous for both the Bengali peasantry and the zamindars. For Cornwallis, however, there were to be no half measures. The settlement was made in perpetuity in 1793.

Cornwallis then turned his attention to ensuring the efficiency of Bengal's judicial system. He largely built upon the hierarchy of civil and criminal courts established by Hastings, but swept away the last vestiges of Indian control over criminal jurisdiction. Further, a Code of Regulations was promulgated to ensure that British standards of uniformity, as well as efficiency, were met.

Cornwallis earned his marquisate, not for these internal reforms, but for his success in following up Hastings's efforts to diplomatically isolate and cripple Mysore, the company's chief remaining rival in the South. Cornwallis personally led the combined forces of the company, several Maratha leaders, and the nizam of Hyderabad against Tipu Sultan in the Third Mysore War (1790–1792), which compelled Tipu to cede half of his territory. This ultimately proved fatal to his later efforts to drive the British from India.

Cornwallis resigned his office in 1793, but in 1805, at the age of sixty-six, he was returned to India to calm the waters roiled by the expansionist policy of Lord Wellesley. He died shortly after his arrival and was buried at Ghazipur.

Marc Jason Gilbert

See alsoBritish East India Company Raj ; Hastings, Warren ; Wellesley, Richard Colley


Aspinall, Arthur. Cornwallis in Bengal: The Administrative and Judicial Reforms of Lord Cornwallis. 1931. Reprint, New Delhi: Uppal, 1987.

Seton-Karr, W. S. The Marquess Cornwallis and the Consolidation of British Rule. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1890.

Wickwire, Franklin, and Mary Wickwire. Cornwallis: The Imperial Years. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1980.