Charles Cornwallis

From A Compendium of Irish Biography, 1878

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Cornwallis, Charles, Marquis Cornwallis, was born in London, 31st December 1738. He entered the army when young, and proved himself an able general, although obliged to capitulate with 8,000 men at Yorktown, in the United States, in 1781. His great administrative abilities, singleness of purpose, and sincerity, were shown while he was Governor-General of India, from 1786 to 1792. Early in 1798, he had declined the position of Commander-in-Chief in Ireland; but later on in the year, and as the insurrection became more serious, he was induced reluctantly to accept that post, combined with the Lord-Lieutenancy. He was appointed 13th June 1798, and held office to 17th March 1801. He was selected by Pitt with the expectation of his being able to carry through the Union when once the Insurrection was suppressed. It was Lord Cornwallis's decided conviction that the measure was essential for the security and permanence of the British Empire. His policy and character cannot be better depicted than in the following extracts from his private despatches to Pitt, the Duke of Portland, and others:— (28th June 1798.) "I am much afraid that any man in a brown coat who is found within several miles of the field of action is butchered without discrimination. It shall be one of my first objects to soften the ferocity of our troops. . . I shall immediately authorize the general officers . . to offer to the deluded wretches who are still wandering about in considerable bodies, and are committing still greater cruelties than they themselves suffer, the permission of returning quietly to their homes, on their delivering up their arms and taking the oath of allegiance; and I shall use my utmost exertions to suppress the folly which has been too prevalent in this quarter, of substituting the word Catholicism instead of Jacobinism as the foundation of the present rebellion."

(1st July.) "The life of a Lord-Lieutenant of Ireland comes up to my idea of perfect misery, but if I can accomplish the great object of consolidating the British Empire I shall be sufficiently repaid." (8th July.) "The Irish militia are totally without discipline, contemptible before the enemy when any serious resistance is made to them, but ferocious and cruel in the extreme when any poor wretches, either with or without arms, come into their power: in short, murder appears to be their favourite pastime. . . The principal persons of this country, and the members of both Houses of Parliament, are in general averse to all acts of clemency, and although they do not express, and perhaps are too much heated to see the ultimate effects which their violence must produce, would pursue measures that could only terminate in the extirpation of the greater number of the inhabitants, and in the utter destruction of the country."

(9th July.) "Although there is no enemy here to oppose a large body of our troops in the field, we are still engaged in a war of plunder and massacre; but I am in great hopes that, partly by force, and partly by conciliation, we shall bring it to a speedy termination. . . Of all the situations which I ever held, the present is by far the most intolerable to me, and I have often within the last fortnight wished myself back in Bengal." (13th July.) "Amnesty is more likely to succeed than extirpation." (20th July.) "Convinced as I am that it [the Union] is the only measure which can long preserve this country, I will never lose sight of it." (24th July.) "Numberless murders are hourly committed by our people without any process or examination whatever. . . The yeomanry are in the style of the loyalists in America, only much more numerous and powerful, and a thousand times more ferocious. These men have saved the country, but they now take the lead in rapine and murder." (10th August.) "People's minds are getting cooler, and I have no doubt of their being sufficiently manageable for all ordinary purposes, but I do not know how they will be brought to act on the great measure of all [the Union], on the event of which the safety of Great Britain and Ireland so much depends." (12th August.) "Unless a great measure [the Union] is adopted, the connection between Great Britain and Ireland must soon be at an end." Lord Cornwallis was in the field in the west, from 28th of August to about the 12th of September, in consequence of Humbert's invasion; but was not present at Humbert's defeat at Ballinamuck. In a general order, dated from Ballinamore, 31st August, he calls upon the officers to "assist him in putting a stop to the licentious conduct of the troops, and in saving the wretched inhabitants from being robbed, and in the most shocking manner ill-treated by those to whom they had a right to look for safety and protection."

(16th Sept.) "A perseverance in the system [of governing Ireland] which has hitherto been pursued can only lead us from bad to worse, and after exhausting the resources of Britain, must end in the total separation of the two countries." (25th Sept.) "Situated as I am for my sins in the direction of the affairs of a country nine-tenths of the inhabitants of which are thoroughly disaffected to the Government, with a militia on which no dependence whatever can be placed, and which Abercromby too justly described by saying that they were only formidable to their friends." (30th Sept.) "I am determined not to submit to the insertion of any clause that shall make the exclusion of the Catholics a fundamental part of the "Union, as I am fully convinced that until the Catholics are admitted into a general participation of rights (which when incorporated with the British government they cannot abuse), there will be no peace or safety in Ireland." (8th Oct.) "I certainly wish that England would now make a union with the Irish nation, instead of making it with a party in Ireland." (17th Oct.) "If it is in contemplation ever to extend the privileges of the Union to the Roman Catholics, the present appears to be the only opportunity which the British Ministry can have of obtaining any credit from the boon which must otherwise in a short time be extorted from them." (27th Dec.) "Nothing can be more melancholy and distressing to my feelings than the wretched situation into which I have been forced. . . I have no hopes that I shall either gain credit to myself or render any service to the country. . . I had my difficulties in India, but they were trifling compared with those which attend the wretched station which has been imposed upon me." (16th Jan. 1799.) "Finding from . . Sir John Parnell . . that he was determined not to support the Union, I have notified to him his dismission from the office of Chancellor of the Exchequer, and I shall pursue the same line of conduct without favour or partiality, wherever I may think it will tend to promote the success of the measure."

(21st Jan.) "Here I am embarked in all my troubles, and employed in a business which is ill suited to my taste. . . The demands of our friends rise in proportion to the appearance of strength on the other side, and you, who know how I detest a job, will be sensible of the difficulties which I must often have to keep my temper; but the object is great, and perhaps the salvation of the British Empire may depend upon it. I shall therefore as much as possible overcome my detestation of the work in which I am engaged, and march on steadily to my point. The south of Ireland is well disposed to the Union; the north seems in a state of neutrality, or rather apathy, on the subject, which is to me incomprehensible; but all the counties in the middle of the island, from Dublin to Galway, are violent against it." After the Government preparations for securing a favourable division, the defeat of the measure in the Commons by 106 to 105, on 23rd January 1799, was a surprise and mortification to them. It was approved by the Lords by 52 to 16. It was decided not to bring forward the question again the same session, but to proceed vigorously in the purchase of votes, and await the first favourable opportunity. (26th Jan.) "The proposal of Union . . was not disagreeable either to the Catholics or to the Protestant dissenters. . . The late experiment has shown the impossibility of carrying a measure which is contrary to the private interests of those who are to decide upon it, and which is not supported by the voice of the country at large; and I think it is evident that if ever a second trial of the Union is to be made, the Catholics must be included." (28th Jan.) "The question of Union was brought forward upon the principle that two independent legislatures had a tendency to separate; that the independent legislatures of Ireland and England had shown that tendency, and that the effects of it were felt in divisions at home, and attempts of invasion from abroad." (20th March.) "We are, I trust, rather gaining ground in respect to the Union, but in the general indisposition and disaffection of the country I cannot discover the smallest improvement." This gaining ground was effected by the clearly expressed intention of Government to spend money liberally in the purchase of seats.

(15th April.) "You write as if you really believed that there was any foundation for all the lies and nonsensical clamour about my lenity. On my arrival in this country I put a stop to the burning of houses and murder of the inhabitants by the yeomen, or by other persons who delighted in that amusement, to the flogging for the purpose of extorting confession, and to the free-quarters, which comprehended universal rape and robbery throughout the whole country. . . My conscience does not reproach me with a single act of improper or impolitic lenity." (20th May.) "The political jobbing of this country gets the better of me: it has ever been the wish of my life to avoid all this dirty business, and I am now involved in it beyond all bearing, and am consequently more wretched than ever. I trust that I shall live to get out of this most cursed of all situations, and most repugnant to my feelings. How I long to kick those whom my public duty obliges me to court! If I did not hope to get out of this country, should most earnestly pray for immediate death." (19th June.) "Nothing but a conviction that a union is absolutely necessary for the safety of the British Empire, could make me endure the shocking task which is imposed upon me." (2nd July.) "The mass of the people of Ireland do not care one farthing about the Union, and they equally hate both the Government and Opposition." On 19th July he estimated the effective military force in the kingdom at 45,419, besides artillery. On 11th August he narrowly escaped being shot by the sentry at the Castle. Returning alone at night he was not recognized, he did not give the countersign, the sentry fired; but fortunately the bullet missed him. (6th Sept.) " The same wretched business of courts-martial, hanging, transporting, etc., attended by all the dismal scenes of wives, sisters, fathers, kneeling and crying, is going on as usual, and holds out a comfortable prospect to a man of any feeling."

(16th Nov.) "The vilest informers are hunted out from the prisons to attack, by the most barefaced perjury, the lives of all who are suspected of being, or of having been, disaffected; and indeed every Roman Catholic of influence is in great danger." The plans of the Unionists had been laid so well, and the means in their hands for bribery were so exhaustless, that on the 16th January 1800, Government secured a majority of 138 to 96 on the question, after a sitting of eighteen hours: and on the 24th Cornwallis was able to write that success was perfectly assured. Another division took place on the 6th February; the numbers being, for the Union, 158; against, 115 — the largest division ever known in the Irish House of Commons; including vacant seats and pairs, only twenty-two were absent. On the 11th February, the division in the Lords was: 95 for, and 26 against the measure. As representing money interests, Lord Castlereagh calculated that taking the Peers and Commons together, there was property represented to the amount of £1,058,200 for the measure, and £358,500 against it. (18th April.) "I believe that one-half of our majority would be at least as much delighted as any of our opponents, if the measure could be defeated."

(7th June.) "The country could not be saved without the Union, but you must not take it for granted that it will be saved by it." On 9th of June he sent over a list of the sixteen persons to whom he had promised peerages for their support of the measure. On 17th June we find by a letter to the Duke of Portland that he was overwhelmed with mortification at the non-fulfilment by the Government of some of his pledges, both to particular persons and to the Catholics: "I am so overcome . . that I know not how to proceed in the mortifying detail; there was no sacrifice that I should not have been happy to make for the service of my king and country, except that of my honour." Lord Castlereagh thus closes a long and vehement expostulation at the same date: "If Lord Cornwallis has been the person to buy out and secure for ever the fee-simple of Irish corruption, which has so long enfeebled the powers of Government and endangered the connection, he is not to be the first sacrifice to his own exertions." Whole pages in his Correspondence are taken up with the arrangements for satisfying the various parties and interests who had helped to carry the measure. Some who had been promised peerages were put off with money payments in lieu thereof. On the 22nd August 1800 he was enabled to announce to the Duke of Portland that he had the previous day given the royal assent to the Union Bill, and he congratulated all parties upon "the auspicious event." (8th Oct.) "I cannot help entertaining considerable apprehensions that our cabinet will not have the firmness to adopt such measures as will render the Union an efficient advantage to the empire. Those things which, if now liberally granted, might make the Irish a loyal people will be of little avail when they are extorted on a future day."

(18th Dec.) "My situation is altogether as unhappy as you can conceive, and I see no hope of relief; and yet I cannot in conscience and in duty to my country abandon the Catholic question, without which all we have done will be of no avail." His letters at this period abound with expressions of his deep conviction that Catholic Emancipation should be immediately granted, and that without it "we cannot long exist as a divided nation." Under date 30th December, a list of all the promotions and creations in the peerage consequent on the Union is given; they number 46. The sum paid for buying out the borough holders is put down at £1,260,000, exclusive of other bribery. Lord Cornwallis refused the offer of a dukedom, determined to show that he, at least, had been actuated by duty alone. Before leaving Ireland in May, he writes: "The joy that I should feel at being relieved from a situation which, with regard to every idea of enjoyment of life, has been most irksome to me, will be greatly alloyed by my apprehension that I am leaving a people who love me, and whose happiness I had so nearly secured, in a state of progressive misery."

It is impossible to peruse his Correspondence without feeling convinced that he regarded religious equality as a necessary concomitant of the Union. Later on, in 1801, after his return to England, he was appointed plenipotentiary to the congress that concluded the treaty of Amiens. In 1805 he again went out to India as Governor-General and Commander-in-chief. He found the finances of British India in a most deplorable state, while several of the most powerful native princes were in arms, or preparing for hostilities. His first object was to introduce order and economy into the civil department, and then to place himself at the head of the army. His physical powers had, however, been overtasked, and the privations of a long voyage had had their effect, and he died at Ghazepore, 5 th October 1805, aged 66, endeavouring to the last to fulfil the duties imposed upon him. In India, as in Ireland, he was actuated by none but the purest motives of duty — the most unselfish and sincere desire for the good of the peoples over whom he was placed. He would not permit his son to enter the army. He had no grandson; but in the next generation no less than six of his descendants embraced the profession he had adorned; four of them fell in the Crimea in the space of ten months — two at Inkerman, one at Balaclava, one in the trenches before Sebastopol. His character has thus been summed up: "Lord Cornwallis was a statesman and a soldier of solid rather than showy qualities. He was noted for his moderation and prudence, his love of truth, and boldness in enouncing it. He had large views, a cultivated and correct understanding, a keen insight into character, much energy, much enterprise, much fertility of resource, a chivalrous attachment to king and country, and an unshaken resolution in doing and enforcing what he thought right."[39] Barrington says Cornwallis and Castlereagh "seemed created for such a crisis; an unremitting perseverance, an absence of all political compunctions, an unqualified contempt of public opinion, and a disregard of every constitutional principle, were common to both. They held that 'the end justifies the means'; and unfortunately their private characters were calculated to screen their public conduct from popular suspicion."

Sources

21. Barrington, Sir Jonah, Historic Memoirs of Ireland. 2 vols. London, 1835.

39. Biographical Dictionary, Imperial: Edited by John F. Waller. 3 vols. London, N.D.

72. Castlereagh, Viscount: Memoirs and Correspondence, edited by the Marquis of Londonderry. 12 vols. London, 1848-'53.

87. Cornwallis, Marquis, Correspondence: Charles Ross. 3 vols. London, 1859.
Cotton, Rev. Henry, see No. 118.

140. Froude, James A.: History of England, from the Fall of Wolsey to the death of Elizabeth. 12 vols. London, 1862-'70.

168. India, British, History of: James Mill. 3 vols. London, 1817.

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