Cornwallis in India
From 'A History of the British Nation' by AD Innes, 1912
The India Bill
The coalition ministry of 1783 was dismissed in consequence of the battle over Fox's India Bill; it followed that a new India Bill was almost the first measure of Pitt's government when he was returned to power with a substantial majority behind him. Chatham, Clive, and Warren Hastings had all been disposed in favour of an assumption of complete control by the Crown; but it was not easy to reconcile such a scheme with the vested interests of the East India Company. Fox's bill had proposed to reduce the company's authority to a minimum, placing the control even of trade in the hands of a commission chosen by the legislature.
The bill had aroused intense opposition, partly because it brushed aside the chartered rights of the company, partly because the arrangement of its details was expected to be utilised in such a manner as to give the then existing Government a permanent control not only over the government of India but over the imperial parliament. The new bill was one of those compromises in which the British constitution is so rich, illogical and unsymmetrical but workable in practice through its indefiniteness and elasticity.
There were three powers concerned - the executive government on the spot in India, the East India Company itself, and the imperial government. The first essential was that the government on the spot should be able to act with a free hand according to the exigencies which it had to face, without being tied and bound by instructions from a body which, in the nature of the case, could not be fully informed of the circumstances, seeing that a full twelve-month was bound to pass between the sending of a despatch from India and the receipt of a reply from London.
But, secondly, the Indian government could not be allowed to become an irresponsible autocracy; it must be ultimately responsible to the imperial government, which must approve beforehand the general lines of the policy to be followed, and must be able to penalise any unwarrantable departure from those general lines. In the third place, the power of the imperial government must be reconciled with the chartered rights of the company.
The system now established remained in force for almost three-quarters of a century, and was brought to an end only in 1858 with the disappearance of the East India Company and the transfer of the government to the Crown. A strong executive government in India was wholly incompatible with the system created by Lord North's Regulating Act. Under the new system each of the three Presidencies was to have its own governor, its own commander-in-chief, and two other members of the governor's council; but since the governor had a casting vote, he could get his own way unless he stood alone in the council.
But the governor and the council of Bengal were also to exercise a controlling authority over the other two Presidencies, while the governor was to be Governor-General of India, or rather of the British dominions in India. Further, under special circumstances the Governor-General had power to act without consulting his council. In the next place the India House, that is the management of the East India Company in London, retained their authority to lay down general directions for policy and their general powers of patronage and appointment. But these powers were subject to the supervision and approval .of a Ministerial Board of Control, whose members were appointed by the Government of the day, and whose president was a member of the ministry, this body having access to all correspondence. The principal direct restriction on the powers of the Governor-General was that he was forbidden to make compromising alliances without authority from home, while indirectly he would render himself liable to censure and recall if he departed from instructions without reasonable justification.
Warren Hastings left India in 1785 on the completion of his term of office which had been once renewed. He was soon -attacked by the leaders of the Opposition, the three principal charges against him being the affairs of the Rohilla War, the Rajah of Benares, and the Oudh Begums, though there were many others as well. At first it appeared that the Government would support him, since whatever might be thought about the Rohilla War his conduct on that matter had already been judged and condoned; for it had preceded his appointment as Governor-General, and that appointment had afterwards been renewed.
But Pitt withdrew his support on the Benares question, which had arisen during Hastings's final term of office, and in respect of which Pitt judged that his demands on the rajah had been excessive and had been enforced with unjustifiable tyranny. The result was that the great Governor General was impeached, and he himself was held up to obloquy and execration by the most brilliant orators of the day. The impeachment opened in 1788, and dragged on for seven years, during which the public interest dwindled; and ultimately Hastings was unanimously acquitted by the peers on every one of the charges, though it was not till some years later that the East India Company offered a tardy recognition of the immense services which he had rendered.
Cornwallis as Governor-General of India
The first Governor-General appointed under the new system was Cornwallis, a man of tried capacity and of the highest integrity, too strong and too universally respected to fear the attacks of interest or of malignity. The appointment exemplified the principle generally adopted, that the Governor-General's council should be men of direct experience in Indian affairs, but that the Governor-General himself should have been trained in other fields. Cornwallis arrived in India in the autumn of 1786, fully resolved to have nothing to do with designs of aggression and to devote himself to organisation and retrenchment.
In the interval the government had been efficiently conducted by an experienced Indian official, Sir John Macpherson. But Cornwallis very soon found, like most of his successors, that expansion was forced upon him, however little it might be to his liking. In India there was not as in Europe a long established system of states with fairly defined territories. For centuries every dynasty, wherever, it had reigned, justified its own existence by expansion and conquest; it was assumed that a power which did not seek to make itself feared abstained from doing so only on account of conscious weakness.
If the British chose to remain quiescent, one or another of the native powers would take advantage of that quiescence to develop an aggressive policy. Aggression could not be met by mere resistance, however effective; it must be directly penalised by loss of territory. If the defeat of the aggressor brought no worse penalty than a return to the status quo, the aggression was quite certain to be renewed; the moderation of the victor would be construed as weakness, as a recognition of the strength of the defeated power; and neutral onlookers would be converted into allies of the aggressor.
The aggressor at this time was Tippu Sultan, of Mysore, the son and successor of the great Haidar Ali. There is no doubt that he was aiming at the acquisition of a complete supremacy in Southern India, and that he regarded the expulsion of the British as a necessary part of bis programme. Cornwallis found himself compelled by an old treaty to promise aid to the Nizam for the recovery of certain districts which had been filched from him by Haidar. But Cornwallis would do nothing more than carry out the treaty obligation, he would not take the initiative and attack Tippu himself. Nor did Tippu wait to be attacked. He wanted Travancore, a district at the south of India which was under British protection.
He marched into Travancore an army which was repulsed, whereupon he collected a very much larger force. Cornwallis had no alternative but to strike. Three campaigns were needed before Tippu was reduced to submission, although the Nizam and the Puna Marathas played at helping the British, while both of them were in correspondence with Tippu himself. The general result was that Tippu was deprived of about half his territories, and the districts ceded were divided not unequally between the Marathas, the Nizam, and the British.
Cornwallis established the prestige of the British arms, and, not without reluctance, but as a necessity forced upon him by the conditions, added to the territory under direct control of the British. But his most important achievements were in the field of administrative organisation. He was not a statesman of supreme genius, with an intuitive power of getting straight to the heart of every problem that presented itself, and he did not perfect an ideal system. But he was intellectually clear-headed, trained in affairs and in the knowledge of men, broad-minded and free from stereotyped views. Morally he was absolutely straightforward, fearless and disinterested, and he was thorough. Fortunately for" himself and for India, the general confidence in him was so complete that all attempts to hamper or challenge his freedom of action recoiled on the heads of those who made them. Consequently the mistakes he made were those of a sensible man under conditions which forced him to act upon data which were inevitably incomplete and in some degree unintelligible.
The arrangement most definitely associated with his memory is the "permanent settlement" of the land system in Bengal. The main source of the Bengal revenue as of Indian revenues generally was the tax upon land. Now under the old Mogul system the districts had been farmed out to individuals called zemindars, who were responsible for paying the land tax while they were left to collect it for themselves. As long as they paid the taxes no questions were likely to be asked as to the amount they collected or how they collected it; and these zemindaris tended to become hereditary - that is, when a zemindar died, his son was usually confirmed in succession to the office. Misled by the analogy of Western ideas and practice, the British government in Bengal supposed the zemindars to be in practically the same position as great English landowners.
They were taken to be the proprietors of the soil from whom the population cultivators held it as tenants. An assessment therefore was made of the land; on the basis of that assessment the amount of the tax was perma-nently fixed; and the zemindar was established on what was virtually the same footing as that of the landowner in England. He had security tenure, power of alienation, and reaped the whole benefits of all improvements, whereas heretofore he had lacked security, and had been tempted to reap all that he could as quickly as he could without consideration of the remote future.
The weak points of the system were two: first, from the government point of view, that a settlement for a long term would have given the zemindar all the security that he needed, while leaving the government free to revise the assessment at the end of the term, to its own advantage. In the second place, it was not realised that the zemindar had not in fact been the proprietor of the soil, which properly belonged to the peasants or "ryots," who cultivated it. At the same time, while the system was actually a new one instead of being as was supposed an adaptation of the old one, it was in practice a great improvement upon the prevailing methods. Experience showed where its weaknesses lay, and in other parts of India settlements were carried out at later times in closer accord with native conceptions.
Cleaning up corruption
Probably, however, the most valuable feature of Cornwallis's Governor Generalship was that his personal prestige and authority enabled him to do what his predecessors had attempted in vain. He resolutely set his face against the abuse of patronage, and he finally enforced the payment to the company's servants of adequate salaries which freed them from the almost irresistible temptation to enrich themselves by illicit methods; and he thus transformed the Indian service from one of the most corrupt into one of the most incorruptible that history has known. Cornwallis retired at the end of 1793, and was succeeded by an experienced Indian official, Sir John Shore, who afterwards became Lord Teignmouth.