The British Empire (In One Man): Investigating Charles Cornwallis - History Bombs
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The British Empire (In One Man): Investigating Charles Cornwallis

On 19 October 1781, the end of the Battle of Yorktown effectively signalled the end of the American Revolutionary War, a major loss for the British Empire.

The man at the heart of this British defeat was General Charles Cornwallis, who surrendered his 8,000 British troops to the joint American and French army led by General George Washington. Cornwallis’s surrender resulted in the Treaty of Paris, which recognised the independence of the United States.

This major defeat didn’t dampen Cornwallis’s spirits too much, however; he went on to pursue colonial campaigns in both India and Ireland.

You might remember him as one of the central figures in our British Empire (In One Take) video – but why did we choose Charles Cornwallis for such a significant role in this video?

Who was Cornwallis?

Portrait of Charles Cornwallis by Thomas Gainsborough

Charles Cornwallis was an officer in the British army and colonial administrator to the British government. He was traditionally educated and succeeded his aristocratic father in the House of Lords after serving as an MP.

He joined the British Army in 1757 and was involved in the Seven Years’ War, a conflict which took place from 1756 to 1763 and involved all the great powers in Europe fighting over colonial territories.

During the American Revolutionary War, he volunteered his service. After his defeat at Yorktown, he was appointed Governor-general and commander-in-chief of India. After returning to Britain, he was appointed Lord Lieutenant of Ireland in 1798, and in 1805 returned once more to India, but died soon after.

Cornwallis in America

John Trumbull’s painting ‘The Siege of Yorktown’, 1820

Cornwallis was initially successful in his attempts to maintain colonial control in the American colonies.

He started out in control of seven regiments and was promoted to lieutenant-general and second-in-command under Sir Henry Clinton after his victory at the battle of Brandywine in Philadelphia and his success in New Jersey.

Alongside Clinton, Cornwallis was successful in taking Charlestown, South Carolina, and he was left in command of troops in the Southern states.

That summer, Cornwallis had received orders to move North, and he settled at Yorktown to build fortifications. General Washington seized this opportunity to lay siege to Yorktown, cutting off Cornwallis’s supplies and having the French Navy block his escape route. After three weeks, Washington’s siege forced Cornwallis to surrender.

Cornwallis in India

Having returned home after the Paris Agreement was signed, Cornwallis continued to enjoy popularity in government (despite his slightly catastrophic defeat…), and was knighted in 1786. In the same year, he was appointed Governor-General and commander-in-chief in India. 

Cornwallis played a huge role in the establishment of colonial rule in India. He overhauled and reformed the administration of the East India Company in India which secured the company’s financial stability, which assured the longevity of British rule in India. 

He also introduced what was known as the ‘Cornwallis Code’, which reformed India’s judicial structure in a way that institutionalised racism in the legal system. Cornwallis instated the systematic view that white European men were superior to others in India.

As the East India Company sought to gain more territory, Tipu Sultan, the ruler of the Kingdom of Mysore, fought back against the British in the Third Anglo-Mysore War. This ended with Cornwallis negotiating a division of Mysorean territories with the Treaty of Seringapatam.

Learn more about Tipu Sultan and the Anglo-Mysore Wars in our lesson ‘How did the British Empire develop?’.

Cornwallis in Ireland

After he returned home from India, Cornwallis’s colonial streak wasn’t quite finished. He was appointed as Lord Lieutenant and Commander-in-Chief of Ireland in 1798. He was sent to Ireland to suppress the Irish Rebellion of 1798, directing military operations and personally overseeing court cases against the Irish rebels. 

After the rebellion was quelled, Cornwallis advocated for the union of Ireland and Britain, as well as the emancipation of Roman Catholics in Ireland. The Act of Union was passed in 1800, but when Cornwallis was unable to convince the king that Catholic civil rights were necessary for peace in Ireland, he resigned from government. 

Learn more about the Irish Rebellion and rebel leader Wolfe Tone in our lesson ‘How did the British Empire develop?’.

So, why Cornwallis?

So, why did we choose Cornwallis to represent the empire in our British Empire series? As we have seen, General Charles Cornwallis certainly had his fingers in a lot of the empire’s pies; he was involved in several early colonial campaigns. Some of these failed, some were successful.

Cornwallis’s roles in these campaigns embody the empire’s tenacity to expand into new territories, and he vividly illustrates the empire’s aggressive approach of redirecting its colonial ambitions if one front was lost, making him the perfect character to bring the history of the empire to life for students of the British Empire.

You can learn more about Cornwallis and his colonial endeavours in our British Empire series!

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