Brothers in arms: the Suffolk general and admiral largely forgotten by history
They’re the siblings from Suffolk who together devoted more than 100 years to their country. Sadly, the nation seems generally to have forgotten them. Steven Russell learns about the soldier and the sailor
THE brothers Cornwallis: one a general who sorted out aspects of the British rule in India that were corrupt, shambolic or harsh; the other an admiral credited with a major role in our success at Trafalgar.
Their champion, Raymond Curry, says the men “put in a century of service between them to protect Britain from foreign invasion and to develop and protect its overseas territories”, but laments that their names are today not widely remembered.
He’d love to put that right. Not with a highly detailed account – there are two biographies and a family history, he says, for anyone who wants to go deeper – but by publishing a “small guidebook” telling us a bit more about “two rather unpretentious people whose dutiful acts at the time are now rather over-shadowed by the popular publicity accorded to others whose names evidently carry more glamour . . .” (He means people like Wellington and Nelson.)
Like everyone’s careers, theirs hit a few bumps along the way – Charles Cornwallis having to surrender to George Washington during the American War of Independence proving a turning point in the conflict – but the pluses far outweighed any minuses. Charles became Governor General of India – helping to root out corruption within the British empire – and tried hard to improve the situation in Ireland. When he died, a large memorial was built in St Paul’s Cathedral, with another in India.
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Brother William rose rapidly in the Royal Navy. At one point he was in charge of the royal yacht, and in the early 1800s played a key role in engineering the British victory at Trafalgar – a triumph that claimed the life of his great friend, Nelson.
The story begins, though, in the West Country – the family “moving over generations to London in pursuit of fortune, and from there to the fashionable county of Suffolk”, explains Raymond Curry in his book.
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It was Thomas Cornwallis, a one-time sheriff of London, who brought the family to East Anglia – the Cornwallises putting down roots at Brome, near Eye, from the 14th Century.
Over the years the dynasty grew in importance, thanks to its service to the crown, explains Raymond in Two Brothers Cornwallis. His interest in the dynasty was sparked by a long connection with The Duke of Wellington’s Regiment. Colonel of the 33rd Regiment of Foot, the forerunner of “the Dukes”, was from 1766 to 1805 one Charles Cornwallis – 6th Baron, 2nd Earl and 1st Marquis Cornwallis. The regimental library was filled with information about his achievements.
The family had been ennobled in 1661 – Frederick becoming a baron because of loyal service with King Charles II in exile. In the 18th Century the then 5th Baron Cornwallis was given the extra titles of Viscount Brome and Earl Cornwallis.
By the time “our” boys were born – Charles, the oldest of four sons, on the last day of 1738 and William in 1744 – the family enjoyed a comfortable lifestyle and pleasant homes at both Brome Hall and at Culford, near Bury St Edmunds. (The hall is now home to Culford School, which does perpetuate the Cornwallis name through a school house.)
The previous generation had produced the founder of the city of Halifax, in Nova Scotia, and an Archbishop of Canterbury!
Charles, the oldest son, had the title of Viscount Brome. He went to Turin Military Academy in 1759, became lieutenant colonel of an infantry regiment, and came back to England when his father died in 1762.
At the age of 24 he found himself head of the family, pledging to improve Culford and attending to his parliamentary duties as MP for Eye “with an element of diligence which was perhaps a little unusual in those times”, says Raymond. (When his brother held the seat, “his attendances were minimal and there are no records of his making any utterances in the House”!)
America features heavily in the Cornwallis story. Raymond details the highs and lows, ranging from the capture of New York and the setting up of an administration to manage South Carolina, including “many improvements for the good of the general population”, to a victory at Camden that saw his name lauded in London.
Raymond says the later surrender at Yorktown in 1781 should not cloud the way history judges Cornwallis. He was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Rather, it should value his military skills and compassion for both his men and those he was fighting.
A prime factor in the defeat in Virginia, the author says, was the lack of resources committed by Britain, whose naval policy was more concerned with protecting the West Indies. He also blames prevarication and indecision – largely by Sir Henry Clinton, the British commander in America – during the lead-up to Yorktown.
“Basically, the failure of the Royal Navy to retain command of the seas and the failure of Clinton to challenge Washington’s forces and keep them engaged would put the Earl in an intolerable position.”
Washington’s Franco-American army ran to about 16,000 men, Raymond points out, while the cornered Cornwallis had less than 6,000. The British forces battled valiantly but could not hold out and a surrender was agreed. Reinforcements arrived much too late.
“There were to be plenty of critics at the time and in many subsequent years, but in the end Cornwallis was never held responsible by the King and Parliament for the subsequent loss of its colonies in America. Indeed he was lauded by the people for his courageous acts.”
The next major role was seven years in India as Governor General, improving the way that part of the empire was run. The administration by the East India Company was beset by corruption and inefficiency, says Raymond. There were also some rebellious state rajahs to deal with.
The earl was in charge during the period in which India became known as The Jewel in the Crown.
“Cornwallis took the trouble to encourage a proper decorum in all the British and very quickly became known for his disapproval of boisterously vulgar behaviour . . . He laid the basis for future social behaviour as well for proper public administration.” His successes included improving the civilian administration, reforming judicial systems and prisons, sorting out a better system of taxation, and subduing the Mysore region. He also tackled the system of patronage that too often put inept people in jobs they did badly.
The earl’s first spell in India ended in 1794 and he was rewarded with the title of 1st Marquis Cornwallis.
Later that decade he was called to deal with Ireland, where the French were “knocking at the back door”. Cornwallis became Lord Lieutenant, in charge of all military forces.
Soon, reports Raymond, he’d defeated a French push and made trials and justice fairer. He also tried to address chronic food shortages caused by famine.
Politically, he felt Catholics should be able to vote and sit in the Westminster Parliament; he pushed for that and was rebuffed . . . “the consequence of that obduracy endures to this day . . .”
Cornwallis went on goodwill tours to win hearts and minds, trying to persuade people about the benefits of full union between Britain and Ireland, and worked to soften recalcitrant politicians in Westminster. But, in the event, nothing was granted to Catholics.
The Government later asked him to go back to India, where Britain needed to retrench. Cornwallis went early in 1805 but did not last the year – dying in the autumn after his health faltered. “His body was interred at Ghazipur, India, in a mausoleum raised by public subscription in that country . . .”
There was also a monument at St Paul’s Cathedral, proposed by his friend Viscount Castlereagh “and erected by the unanimous wish of the Parliament of the country which he had served so loyally for so long”.
Raymond recognises we have to view Charles Cornwallis in the context of the time. He was part of white colonial rule, but mixed efficiency with compassionate and fairness. “Diplomacy came before force, and the latter was only entered into when all else had failed.”
His brother, William, joined the Royal Navy at 11. By the time he was barely 17 he’d served on four ships and gained his first promotion: to Fourth Lieutenant on the Thunderer.
Further promotions followed. William impressed as a skilled sailor and tactician, and in 1778 was given command of the 64-gun Lion.
During a convoy protection mission he demonstrated bravery in refusing to let a ship be picked off by the French, with shots being exchanged. He shone in action in the West Indies and in 1783 was appointed to command the royal yacht Royal Charlotte.
Later he became Commodore and Commander-in-Chief of the East Indies Squadron. There was a period spent working closely with his brother, the Governor General, “which resulted in India and the seas in the area coming firmly under the control of the British . . . The talents of these two exceptional men were thus brought together at a crucial time for Britain developing its trade and consolidating its hold upon the Indian sub-continent”, says Raymond.
Into the new century and he was a major figure in the blockading of Napoleon’s French fleet, especially at Brest – proving, reckons Raymond, “the most successful commander of that campaign”.
The Treaty of Amiens brought a temporary peace. With hostilities resumed, Napoleon was determined to invade England.
Cornwallis was given the Victory and ordered again to blockade Brest. He could have kept it for his flagship, but passed it to Nelson – they’d been friends from their days as young officers – even though he would have benefited from its capabilities when sent to Toulon to contain the French fleet.
There were many cat-and-mouse stand-offs between the various clusters of French, Spanish and British vessels . . . and then the Battle of Trafalgar off the south-west coast of Spain in October, 1805, which saw the most decisive British naval victory of the war, at the expense of Admiral Lord Nelson.
Cornwallis learned only later, by letter, that his great friend had died.
“Admiral William Cornwallis was the senior admiral in the Royal Navy prior to Trafalgar, having generally remained aboard his ship for several years, 1800-1805, in charge of the Channel (Grand) Fleet to ensure the successful blockade of the Continental Atlantic ports,” writes Raymond.
“This undoubtedly thwarted Napoleon’s plan to invade England, by preventing his battle fleets coming north into the English Channel to aid his scheme.”
He adds: “. . . he had not fought in any of the later major battles, and despite his bold effort to challenge the French fleets on more than one occasion, their reluctance to engage with him in any battle had frustrated him. Nevertheless, his contribution to the chain of events which led up to the ultimate conflict was remarkable.”
Afterwards, Raymond argues, the fallen hero got the glory and William – never one to sweet-talk the political powerbrokers – was treated shabbily. “With Cornwallis, he did not push himself and no-one pushed for him. He just dropped out of sight.”
The British political map changed, too, and his position as Commander of the Channel Fleet went to another. “A countryman at heart, he retired quietly to his estate in Hampshire.” There were complaints in Parliament about alleged unjust treatment, but to no avail.
William was made a Vice-Admiral of England in 1814, however, and the following year was knighted, though was not well enough to attend the ceremony. He died in Hampshire in 1819.
Raymond Curry says the Cornwallis brothers “offered years of their lives to the honest upholding of the name of Britain and its greatness in and beyond these shores”. It would be wonderful, he suggests, if we could honour their endeavours by remembering some of their achievements.
Two Brothers Cornwallis is issued by Dorset-based Natula Publications (www.natula.co.uk) and costs �25 hardback, �15 softback. ISBN 9781897887851