Thursday, September 13, 2018

"Beyond America: The East India Papers of Lords North and Cornwallis," by Adam Nadeau

Guest blogger Adam Nadeau is a PhD candidate at the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton, New Brunswick, Canada. He recently completed a four week residency as a 2018-19 David Library Fellow conducting research for his dissertation examining British imperial reform during the Revolutionary era.   

My project seeks to explore the crisis of empire leading up to, during, and immediately following the American Revolutionary War from a British imperial perspective, as well as it intends to incorporate the story of contemporaneous events in British East India into a transoceanic narrative spanning the years from roughly 1763 to about 1793. As such, I had sought out a fellowship at the David Library in order to work through parts of the Library’s vast microfilmed collection of eighteenth-century British imperial papers. 

Charles Cornwallis by John Singleton
 Copley, c. 1795. Wikimedia   
While many researchers venture to the David Library to utilize its British imperial holdings, I was particularly drawn to the Library’s copies of the papers of Lords North and Cornwallis, and I was hopeful that such collections contained materials relating to British rule in India during the 1770s, 80s, and 90s. In this respect, the David Library far exceeded my expectations. Upon my arrival, I realized that not only did the David Library have the few East India documents that were intermixed with Cornwallis’s American materials; they held the entire Cornwallis collection, much of which concern the general’s career beyond America. 

The English (later British) East India Company was chartered by Elizabeth I in 1600 and granted a monopoly on English trade east of the Cape of Good Hope in an effort to compete with England’s main commercial rival at the time, the Dutch republic. After about a decade or so of activity in Southeast Asia, however, English merchants recognized that Company profits would be greatly increased by shifting their commercial focus to the textile-rich markets of the Indian subcontinent, and where English commerce went English diplomacy followed. 

By the turn of the eighteenth century, Britain had become thoroughly drawn into Indian dynastic politics, and the entry of the French East India Company into subcontinental affairs in the 1720s ensured that the imperial wars fought between France and England during the first half of the eighteenth century would play out in the East Indian theatre as well.
Lord Clive and Mir Jafar after the Battle of Plassey, 1757, 
by Francis Hayman, c. 1760. National Portrait Gallery, London.
During the Seven Years’ War, France and Britain exchanged victories up and down India’s Coromandel Coast until in June 1757, British East India Company troops faced a combined French and Bengali force at Plassey on the banks of the Hooghly River. There, Robert Clive defeated the Nawab of Bengal, Siraj ud-Daulah, and installed Mir Jafar as nawab in exchange for £1 million for the defrayment of troops and almost £700,000 in loot. The Treaty of Paris of 1763 barred the French from making any further military incursions into Bengal, and in August 1765, the Company acquired from Mughal emperor Shah Alam II the diwani, or right to collect the imperial revenue of Bengal, valued at some £3 million annually.

A series of parliamentary regulations during the 1770s and 80s integrated the presidencies of Bombay, Madras, and Bengal under the civil jurisdiction of the Governor General and Supreme Council of Bengal and placed the Company under the oversight of a ministerial Board of Control in London. All the while, Company influence continued to expand in India as British officials negotiated subsidiary alliances with a series of Indian rulers, oftentimes carving up autochthonous territories in the process.

 The East India papers present in the David Library’s North and Cornwallis collections cover this crucial period of Company reform and imperial expansion in India during the 1770s and 80s, including documents relating to the administrations of governors Warren Hastings and John Macpherson, which cast light on the civil affairs of British India and on the various military operations against hostile Indian polities that are coterminous with the chronology of the American Revolutionary War. 

A scan of a letter to the Governor General of 
Bengal from the court of the Nawab,  
May 2, 1785. PRO 30/11/7, fol. 360.
Cornwallis’s papers are especially illuminating. Four years after returning to Britain, Cornwallis accepted the position of Governor General of Bengal in 1786 on the condition that he also be made Commander-in-Chief of British India, becoming the first governor to hold both posts simultaneously from 1786 to 1793 and again in 1805. Cornwallis amassed a significant amount of materials during his time in India, and it appears to me that the bulk of Cornwallis’s papers in fact relate to his career in the East, covering the period of two of the wars fought between the Company and the kingdom of Mysore in the 1780s and 90s.

The Anglo-Mysore Wars were partially a theatre of the French Revolutionary Wars in Europe in that they saw the Mysorean ruler Tipu Sultan backed by France and republican Europe against monarchical Britain. The result of the Anglo-Mysore Wars, however, was the defeat of one of the last remaining Indian polities that was capable of resisting Company rule, leaving the Indian subcontinent open to British territorial expansion which would persist into the twentieth century. 

The East India papers of Lords North and Cornwallis are a hidden gem among the David Library’s collections and may very well be the largest assortment of such materials on this side of the Atlantic. These documents will become increasingly relevant as trends in scholarship continue to move towards transoceanic analyses of Britain’s eighteenth-century empire and as historians of colonial America and the West Indies begin to expound upon the fiscal and military interconnectedness of the Atlantic and Indian Ocean worlds.

Further Reading

Bowen, H. V., Elizabeth Mancke, and John G. Reid, eds. Britain’s Oceanic Empire: Atlantic and Indian Ocean Worlds, c. 1550–1850. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012.

Eacott, Jonathan. Selling Empire: India in the Making of Britain and America, 1600–1830. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2016.

Marshall, P. J. The Making and Unmaking of Empires: Britain, India, and America, c. 1750–1783. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.

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

1 comment: