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Why has Clare College, Cambridge, cancelled Charles Cornwallis?

Charles Cornwallis
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Written by Lawrence Goldman

Clare College, Cambridge has removed four portraits of famous alumni from its Hall. History Reclaimed explains why this is wrong and why Charles Cornwallis, a remarkable eighteenth-century statesman, should be reinstated.

A recent article in Varsity, the Cambridge student newspaper (28th October 2023) has drawn our attention to the ‘cancellation’ by Clare College of the portraits of four of its most notable alumni that used to hang in the college’s hall: Hugh Latimer, the Reformation bishop and Marian martyr who was burnt at the stake in Oxford in 1555; John Tillotson, Archbishop of Canterbury at the end of the seventeenth century and a notably broad-minded and rationalistic Anglican; Charles Townshend, the chancellor of the exchequer in the 1760s whose eponymous duties enraged the American colonists; and Charles Cornwallis, first Marquess Cornwallis (1738-1805), one of the greatest soldiers and administrators of the eighteenth century. Their images have been taken down and it’s not clear what or who will replace them.

A very strong case for the retention of each portrait could be made for all of these figures. Liking a challenge, History Reclaimed has chosen to defend perhaps the most controversial among the four, Cornwallis. He was a notably conscientious and scrupulous Governor-General of India where he strove to establish administrative probity and the eradication of corruption. As Lord Lieutenant in Ireland (the highest executive authority) he favoured equal political representation and religious rights for Roman Catholics. His military exploits in America between 1776 and 1781 make him, by default, a key figure in American History. Indeed, he is world-famous as the man whose defeat in 1781 made possible the creation of the United States. Why would any institution, especially one with extensive links to the United States like Clare College, wish to remove his portrait and otherwise dishonour him?

Cornwallis matriculated at Clare in 1756, though in the event he chose to pursue a military education and career. Before the university reforms of the nineteenth century, many students spent short periods at Cambridge colleges, or migrated between them, or did not take a degree. Entering the House of Lords in 1762, he was, as an opposition Whig, a notable upholder of popular rights and political reform. He supported the popular champion John Wilkes, spoke in favour of a free press, and he was an opponent of both the 1765 Stamp Act and the 1766 Declaratory Act which were imposed by the British government on the restive American colonies. His political views were liberal, in our sense, and also unconventional. If it is thought that Cornwallis was some sort of unthinking imperialist, please think again.

Cornwallis sympathised publicly with American liberties and protests. But in an example of the moral complexity of history which no Cambridge college should ever overlook or ignore, he was loyal to his king and accepted a commission to lead an army in the rebellious colonies. To Americans, Cornwallis is the infamous opponent of George Washington in 1776-7 who could, and perhaps should, have annihilated the colonial army Washington led, but whose failure allowed the ‘patriots’ to regroup and fight on. Ultimately, in an advance into Virginia in 1781, Cornwallis’s army was trapped at Yorktown between Washington’s forces and a French fleet, and was forced to surrender on 19th October 1781. It was the effective end of the Revolutionary War. In honourable defeat, Cornwallis wrote himself into British, American, and Global History.

In India, as Governor General between 1786 and 1793, Cornwallis is noted for two things: introducing clean and honest government and removing indigenous people from the Indian administration, which led to the reconstruction of government there on racial lines. But in another example of historical complexity, these two developments were closely linked. He set out to purge the example set by corrupt British forerunners like Clive and Warren Hastings who had preceded him, and also to remove Indians who were notoriously keen to enrich themselves from the public purse. What looks like racism to modern eyes, was, in fact, to Cornwallis and his contemporaries, a necessary measure if India was to be governed more effectively and fairly.

After India, he returned to become  a member of Pitt’s cabinet in the mid-1790s, charged with preparing British defences against the threat of a French invasion. In Ireland between 1798-1801 he prepared the ground for the Act of Union in 1801 which gave the Irish representation for the first time in the British parliament: 100 seats in the House of Commons. He sought good relations with the Catholic religious hierarchy and with secular leaders of the Catholic community in Ireland. He wanted not only a union of parliaments but the equalisation of political and civil rights for Catholics, what was known as ‘Catholic Emancipation’. Ever the advocate of religious freedom and peaceful co-existence, Cornwallis was so dismayed by George III’s opposition to this that he resigned the Lord Lieutenancy and his seat in cabinet in early 1801.

There was still one more service to the nation: in 1801 Cornwallis led the British delegation to France where he negotiated the 1802 Peace of Amiens. So upright and straight a man knew from the outset that he would likely be outwitted by the wiles of Joseph Bonaparte and Talleyrand, the French foreign minister. He did his best for king and country.

How can such a figure  – liberal, reformist, dutiful and loyal – be removed and perhaps cancelled? He was one of the most outstanding administrators in modern British History, a man whose life was bound up with world-historical events. Far from being a stereotypical ‘imperialist’, Cornwallis was a person of independent judgment and high moral probity, frequently an open critic of the policies of the governments he served.

Few colleges in Cambridge can claim a statesman among their alumni of such global importance and integrity. And a college like Clare, with its extensive connections to the Mellon Foundation and other American organisations, should surely want to retain in a prominent position one of the key participants in the creation of the United States.

Would Clare’s English fellows remove Samuel Johnson, Walter Scott and the later Wordsworth from the canon because they were Tories? Would the Biology tutor not teach Darwin because some of the things he wrote would now be accounted racist? Would the Fellows in Physics encourage students to ignore the history of cosmology because Copernicus and Galileo were ‘wrong’? Cornwallis was a servant of empire, but if he’s to be removed because of that, three centuries of British History will have to be cancelled with him. Clare should surely be teaching its students, whatever subject they study, to appreciate the complexity of the history on which we build. It should also be proud of the service of its alumni. Why ever would a college wish to cancel a figure like Charles Cornwallis?

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Lawrence Goldman