Cornwallis. Soldier and Statesman in a Revolutionary World

Middleton, Richard
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Rezensiert für H-Soz-Kult von
Michael Mann, Institut für Asien- und Afrikawissenschaften, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin

Richard Middleton, formerly Associate Professor of American History at Queen’s University Belfast and Fellow of the Institute of Early American History and Culture, Williamsburg, Virginia, is renowned for his monographs The Bells of Victory: The Pitt-Newcastle Administration and the Conduct of the Seven Year's War, 1757–17621, Colonial America: A History, 1565–1776, with four editions2, Pontiac's War: Its Causes, Course and Consequences3, and The War of American Independence, 1775–1783.4 Without doubt, he is an expert in the field of Anglo-American history with profound knowledge of the subject. The choice of topic for his latest monograph confirms this observation; it is on one of the most illustrious persons of British eighteenth-century colonial history, Charles Lord Cornwallis, who uniquely connects American and British history.

On the one hand, Cornwallis is remembered for the British military debacle at Yorktown, Virginia, in 1781, which eventually led to the independence of the thirteen colonies in North America. On the other hand, Cornwallis is remembered as founder of the British colonial state in India during his time as governor-general (1786–1793). Cornwallis’s judicial reforms and revenue reforms culminated in the so-called “Cornwallis-Code” of 1793, a compilation of legislative acts which became a sort of constitutional framework for the Indian territories under East India Company (EIC) control. However, he is lesser known for his role as lieutenant governor of Ireland (1795–1801). He is also not widely recognised for the military experience he gained in the campaigns in Germany during the Seven Years War and even less renowned for his role as peace negotiator which terminated the Revolutionary Wars in 1801.

Following Franklin B. and Mary Wickwire’s seminal two-volume biography on Cornwallis, published in 1971 and 19805, Richard Middleton is the first historian after roughly half a century who undertakes the herculean task to deal with Cornwallis’s entire life – a life as a military officer, an administrator, a reformer and paternalist peace-maker. However, whilst the Wickwire’s work is a lovely old-fashioned biography written in a traditional style which emphasises the deeds of the man and the character of the person, in Middleton’s biography Cornwallis emerges as a far-sighted military and civil reformer who was concerned about the fortune of his soldiers and his subjects.

Recently, a study by S. Carpenter dealt with the unfortunate role Cornwallis had to play – in some sense literally – as commander of the British forces in North America’s “Southern Colonies”. Torn between the Secretary for State for the Colonies, Lord George Germain, residing in London, and the Commander-in-Chief, Sir Henry Clinton, residing in New York, Cornwallis lacked the authorisation – by far not authority and competence – to decide on strategic movements. Against his intentions he was drawn into a hinterland warfare dominated by the American settlers’ irregular forces which, in combination with indecisive orders from New York and London, eventually turned the „Southern Gambit“ into an early checkmate.6 In this study, Cornwallis emerges as an ambitious yet unfortunate leading military officer embedded in the historical circumstances of various acting individuals as well as different groups which makes the North American period of Cornwallis’s life a worthwhile biographical reading.

Richard Middleton makes a similar argument, since it was mainly Henry Clinton’s orders to abandon Cornwallis’s plans for a war of manoeuvre in favour of constructing a naval base in Chesapeake Bay, despite pressing warnings against the Royal Navy losing the command of the sea. However, the disharmony between Clinton and Cornwallis seems to have been a personal one that prevented strategic synchronisation rather that it disclosed defects of the British military. On the contrary, British forces, including the 30.000 „Hessians“, were disciplined and well-fighting troops. Contemporary politicians did not see Cornwallis as the loser of Yorktown and therefore unfit for any public, let alone military service in the empire. Conversely, the Pitt administration was looking for a sound administrator after its legislation regarding the reorganisation of the EIC in 1784.

Finally, after also becoming commander-in-chief, Cornwallis accepted the call. In Bengal, Cornwallis instantly began with the financial reforms according to the new principles of œconomy, meaning the abolition of sinecures, multiple office holding and corruption as well as the introduction of separate departments going along with an efficient bureaucracy. Cornwallis also began the judicial reforms which were largely based on Governor-General Warren Hastings’ – his predecessor from 1773 to 1785 – preparatory works.7 Yet, Cornwallis stood for a new start in the administration of the Indian colony, and for his contemporaries he represented successful reforms and stability in the Indian colony. Defeating Tipu Sultan – who is, of course, not a Muslim warlord, as Middleton maintains quite a few times, but an early modern ruler – and pacifying South India in 1792 after a war that Cornwallis was more or less forced to wage, he completed his triumph as a servant of the British Empire which was duly celebrated in Britain.8

Back in Britain, Cornwallis again answered the call for duty for the Empire when he went as Lord Lieutenant to Ireland in 1798. Here he brutally subdued a rebellion of dissatisfied Irishmen and defeated a force of 1.000 French soldiers who had landed at the Irish coast in support of the rebels, eventually pacifying the country – almost, since he did not successfully emancipate the Catholics which he saw as the centrepiece of his administration. Neither was Cornwallis able to exert any direct influence on George III (r. 1760–1820), who strictly opposed any form of emancipation as that would have violated his coronation oath. Cornwallis deeply regretted the exclusion of the Catholics and predicted the eventual demise of the Union in consequence. However, he was instrumental in passing the Act of Union by the Irish Parliament in 1800. In 1801 he returned to Britain only to be immediately sent to the mainland continent to negotiate peace terms and to sign the Treaty of Amiens in 1802.

In 1805, Cornwallis was sent to Bengal to again restore the finances of the EIC and to reverse the expansionist and ruinous politics of Richard Wellesley (1798–1805), who, without authorisation, had waged costly wars and had built expensive public buildings in Calcutta. On his way up-country, Cornwallis died in Ghazipur, just a few months after his arrival in Bengal. The British population of Calcutta collected money to erect a huge Palladian tomb over his grave praising him almost panegyrically in an extensive epigraph.

In an interview, Richard Middleton summarised the impression he gained when being engaged in the biography on Cornwallis: ‘Superficially Cornwallis appears to have been consistently on the wrong side of history. The American colonies were lost, India eventually slipped from Britain’s grasp, and the Union with Ireland ultimately failed. But such is the fate of most public figures with the passage of time, though Cornwallis’s administrative reforms still find acknowledgment among Indian historians. What deserves to be remembered is his outstanding career as a public servant, during which he demonstrated an innate sense of fairness, honesty and decency […].’9

Based on a huge amount of primary sources unearthed in various archives, Middleton’s biography of Cornwallis is well-written and fluently readable. In contrast to the Wickwires, Middelton’s narrative is a biography based on a far larger basis of unpublished and hitherto unnoticed sources and, more important, Middleton tells his story through many quotes – probably half of the biography consists of quotes from various sources letting many people speak. Hence, the personae dramatis, and in particular Cornwallis, become much more authentic people.

Over large parts, however, the book is rather descriptive while the analytical parts are too few. Instead of stressing the man’s character, as the Wickwire’s did, it would have been worthwhile to have a closer look at Cornwallis’s contemporary perception in Britain, British India, and the USA, thus providing a more comprehensive image of the illustrious earl. Despite this shortcoming, Middleton’s biography is a superb piece of academic work about a man in the service of Great Britain and its emerging empire, a man who lived during a highly exciting, challenging and formative period of Great Britain’s history.

1 Richard Middleton, The Bells of Victory. The Pitt-Newcastle Administration and the Conduct of the Seven Year's War, 1757–1762, Cambridge 1985, 2002.
2 Richard Middleton, Colonial America. A History, 1565–1776, Chichester 1992, 1996, 2002, 2011.
3 Richard Middleton, Pontiac's War. Its Causes, Course and Consequences. London 2007.
4 Richard Middleton, The War of American Independence, 1775–1783, Harlow 2012; London 2013, 2014.
5 Franklin B. Wickwire / Mary Wickwire, Cornwallis and the War of Independence, London 1971; Cornwallis. The Imperial Years, Chapel Hill 1980.
6 Stanley D. M. Carpenter, Southern Gambit. Cornwallis and the British March to Yorktown, Norman 2019.
7 Michael Mann, Bengalen im Umbruch. Die Herausbildung des britischen Kolonialstaates 1754–1793, Stuttgart 2000, pp. 175–214; Sebastian Meurer, A System of Oeconomy. Approaches to Public Administration in Britain and British India at the Beginning of the Age of Reform, Hochschulschrift, Universität Heidelberg, 2014. Authors on British and American history may not be fluent in German. At least Meurer‘s work would have helped to explain Cornwallis’s œconomic reforms yet it escapes Middleton.
8 Peter J. Marshall, ‚Cornwallis Triumphant’. War in India and the British Public in the Late Eighteenth-Century, in: Lawrence Freedman et al. (Eds), War, Strategy, and International Politics. Essays in Honour of Sir Michael Howard. Oxford 1992, pp. 57–74. Unfortunately, this escapes Richard Middleton as well.
9 , download 19th of February 2024.

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