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Cornwallis, Lord Charles


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Charles Cornwallis

Cornwallis, Lord Charles (1738-1805) Governor General of the fort william in Bengal from 12 September 1786 to 10 October 1793. Charles Cornwallis, the first Marquis, and architect of the permanent settlement and administrative and judicial systems of the east india company government in Bengal received his education at Eton and entered the Guards in 1756. In 1775 he was promoted to the rank of Major General and became one of the commanders of the British army to fight the American War of Independence. In spite of the loss of America Cornwallis retained his high image as a man of great courage, honesty and integrity.

Under the pitt’s india act of 1784, Cornwallis was appointed the Governor General of the Fort William in Bengal with a specific instruction that he would eradicate corruption and establishes good governance in Bengal. He was particularly directed to stop the ad hoc character of revenue administration and establish the permanent settlement. Lord Cornwallis took no time in cleansing the corruption-ridden administration. He separated the company trade from administration and established a highly paid and professionally disciplined civil service to run the administration.  

He reorganized the administration both at the centre as well as at district level. A Board of Revenue endowed with wide range of powers and with one of the members of the Council as its president, was set up to lead his reform programme. The district officials were placed under the direct supervision and control of the Board of Revenue. A new authority, called Board of Trade, was established to look after the trading activities of the company independent of civil administration.

Lord Cornwallis attached highest priority to the administration of justice and police. A four-tiered judiciary was established beginning with the munsef adalat at the lowest level and the sadr adalat at the top. The two intermediate tiers were zila adalat and the court of circuit. Every court had two wings- diwani adalat or civil court and Nizamat adalat or criminal court. The highest court had thus two divisions- Sadr Diwani Adalat and Sadr Nizamat Adalat. A regular police system was developed to help the judiciary in administering justice and to maintain law and order in the country.

Cornwallis's efforts for reform and restructuring various branches of his administration were influenced by one abiding consideration: making the administration efficient and corruption free. But in doing that he followed a blatantly racist path. He resolved to keep the administration an all-white affair. The civil service and the lower services were made exclusive preserves for the Europeans. The local people were left with only ministerial and semi ministerial jobs.

Cornwallis was led to believe that both the Anglo-Indians and the natives were corrupt, but the latter group was incorrigibly so. Therefore, he thought it prudent to exclude the natives from all responsible positions in the interest of establishing honesty and efficiency in the administration. The assumption is unscientific on the ground that corruption and integrity are social and political phenomena and tend to change under the changing circumstances. Cornwallis ignored the fact that hitherto all rulers had shared powers and privileges with the local elite. Even during the early British rule the native participation in administration was quite extensive. Not unexpectedly that Cornwallis's racist system of administration has drawn attention of modern scholars who describe his exclusion measure as unprecedented, unwarranted and dehumanizing.

However, in the history of Bengal Cornwallis is particularly known for his Permanent Settlement though the idea of the system was not his own. The idea of Permanent Settlement was, in fact, first conceived and developed by Sir philip francis, a member of the council during warren hastings' regime. But it was then put aside on the ground of its 'absurdity'. The failure of the successive revenue experiments from 1773 and their evil effects on the economy had persuaded the policy makers to revive the idea of Philip. Under the Pitt's India Act (1784), it was specifically mentioned that land in Bengal ought to be settled with zamindars on a permanent basis.

After a prolonged debate among the policy makers the Permanent Settlement was finally adopted in March 1793. Lord Cornwallis worked out the organisational details of the system in the form of many Regulations, which defined and described the Permanent Settlement system. Under the rules of the Permanent Settlement zamindars and other landholders were declared as absolute proprietors of land. The Zamindar was declared as the absolute proprietor of land. As private property, the zamindari land was made freely transferable and inheritable according to Hindu and Muslim laws of inheritance. The government revenue demand on the landholders as assessed at the time of the decennial settlement with them in 1790, was declared to be fixed in perpetuity. The landed property of the defaulting zamindars was liable to be sold in public auction for recovery of arrears.

Lord Cornwallis introduced the Permanent Settlement in the hope that the new system would impel the zamindars to become improving landlords like their counterparts in England. It was expected that in their own interest the zamindars would encourage agriculture and uphold the interests of raiyats. He fondly hoped that the operation of the Permanent Settlement would lead finally to an industrial revolution via an inevitable agricultural transformation in the country. But unfortunately such a transformation never happened. The countryside remained as neglected and poor as ever before.

From the point of view of establishing the British colonial rule in India, Lord Cornwallis's greatest contribution, besides the Permanent Settlement, was his military measures containing Tipu Sultan of Mysore. In 1790 he personally commanded a military campaign against the Mysore ruler and annexed a strategic part of his kingdom to the Company State. By defeating Tipu Sultan and forcing him to accept a dictated peace treaty, Cornwallis had significantly extended the security frontiers of the company. In fact, his victory over Tipu Sultan had paved the way to the empire building process of lord wellesley. Cornwallis's military success and his success in making the company kingdom strong administratively, judicially and militarily earned him the title of First Marquis in August 1792.

Immediately after the Permanent Settlement Cornwallis sailed for home. The court of directors, board of control and the parliament accorded him hero's receptions. He was again appointed Governor General in 1797, but he refused to accept the offer on health ground. In 1805 he was appointed Governor General once again. This time he accepted the appointment and assumed charges on 30 July 1805. But he died at Gazipur while on his way up-country on 5 October 1805. It is almost a fashion among writers to describe Cornwallis as an honest man. But making the people of Bengal disqualified permanently for holding high offices under the government and depriving the peasants of their traditional rights in land they cultivated from time immemorial cannot really be the acts of a truly honest man. [Sirajul Islam]