British India

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Lord Cornwallis as Governor-General (1786-93)

The first Governor-General under the new Act was Lord Cornwallis (the same Cornwallis who had surrendered at Yorktown in 1781). He held office between 1786 and 1793 representing the British government and answerable to the Board of Control. He was able to defy the mercenary interests of the East India Company when they conflicted with state policy.

  1. Cornwallis suspended the whole Board of Revenue for irregularities and enforced the new rules against private trade. He insisted on the company providing generous salaries in its place.
  2. He then reorganised the whole administration. From then on, a Company servant could join either the commercial or political branch of the East India Company, but not both. As a merchant, a man could still trade on his own account; as an official he had to be content with a large salary. This was the beginning of the Civil Service as known in the nineteenth century and the beginning of the end of the company's commercial activities.
  3. Cornwallis' next major measure was the Europeanisation of the services. All high Indian officials were dismissed and all posts worth more than £500 a year were reserved for Europeans.
  4. He also settled the revenue and land system of Bengal by giving the tax-farmers ten-year contracts.
  5. A third major reform was in the legal sphere. North's Regulating Act had introduced a Supreme Court which administered British law (to the confusion of Indian litigants who did not understand British law). Cornwallis took over criminal administration from the Indians and pruned the Muslim criminal code of some of its less humane features. The consequence was that the Indian legal code became one of the most enlightened in the world and was much more humane than the English system.

These major reforms lasted, with all their implications, into the twentieth century.

Cornwallis created a Europeanised state within the framework of the Indian tradition. The administration had little in common with British institutions; the checks and balances of eighteenth-century Britain were abandoned and the Governor-General became virtually an absolute ruler. The alien British control of India merely replaced alien Indian control. For example, in the period of the Mogul empire, 70% of the higher officers were foreign and only half the remainder were Hindu. In both régimes, the language of officialdom was foreign (Persian then English). To contemporaries, British rule was no revolutionary change.

It was Cornwallis who had to deal with Warren Hastings. After the India Act of 1784, Hastings was in an impossible position. He was expected to use the administrative machinery of a commercial company to serve the political purposes of Britain, the East India Company and the welfare of the Indian population. He did this to the best of his ability and, while the British army in America and Europe was being beaten, India was kept safe for the government through the efforts of Hastings. However, he had made an enemy of Philip Francis and from Britain came only condemnation of Indian government. Pitt's India Act was virtually a condemnation of the old order within which Hastings had done his best. In January 1785 Hastings resigned and sailed for home. On his arrival he found that he was the "universal scapegoat" for all the troubles in government. As a result of the work of Edmund Burke and Philip Francis, Hastings was impeached and tried before the House of Lords. The trial lasted from 1788 to 1795 and Hastings was found innocent of all the charges brought against him.

Cornwallis resigned as Governor-General in 1793 because the officers of the Bengal army were obstructive and Cornwallis failed to find the full support from London which he demanded. After 1793 the Company's charter was renewed every twenty years, allowing parliament further opportunity to investigate and reconsider affairs in India, a power which was intended to, and did, limit the Company's plans.

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Last modified 13 February, 2019

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