Hon. Sir William Cornwallis
1744-1819. He was born in Suffolk on 20 February 1744, the fourth son of Charles, 1st Earl and 5th Lord Cornwallis, and of his wife, Elizabeth, the daughter of Viscount Townshend. He was the younger brother of Charles, 1st Marquess Cornwallis, who surrendered a British army at Yorktown in 1781 with grave consequences for the outcome of the American War of Revolution, and who later became governor-general of India. A cousin was Captain James Cornwallis.
Having spent two years at Eton, Cornwallis entered the navy in 1755 aboard the Newark 80, Captain John Barker, serving in North American waters under Vice-Admiral the Hon. Edward Boscawen. He was present at the reduction of Louisbourg in 1758 aboard the Kingston 60, Captain William Parry, and a year later fought at the Battle of Quiberon Bay aboard the Dunkirk 60, Captain Hon. Robert Digby. In December 1760 he moved to the Neptune 90, Captain Broderick Hartwell, serving in the Mediterranean as the flagship of Vice-Admiral Charles Saunders, and on 5 April 1761 was commissioned a lieutenant of the Thunderer 74, Captain Charles Proby, which ship captured the French Achille 64 off Cadiz on 17 July.
On 12 July 1762 he was given command of the sloop Wasp 8, moving to the Swift 14 in October, and the Prince Edward 44 at Jamaica when posted captain on 20 April 1765. This ship was paid off in April 1766, but a month later he was appointed to the frigate Guadeloupe 28 which he commanded for the next seven years, initially in the Mediterranean and, after being recommissioned in early 1769, on the Newfoundland station. He went out to Jamaica in April 1770 and also commanded her in home waters. During September 1774 he commissioned the Pallas 36, going out to West Africa in December, and in 1776 sailed for the West Indies. Returning from Jamaica with one hundred and four vessels in convoy in September, their passage was so disrupted by bad weather and indiscipline that only eight vessels reached the Channel in company of the Pallas. Following a number of claims from furious merchants Cornwallis was exonerated of any blame for this catastrophe.
In the early months of 1777 he took the three year-old Isis 50 out to North America, in which vessel he distinguished himself in the Philadelphia campaign from August to November. Vice-Admiral Lord Howe sent him home with despatches in March 1778 aboard the Chatham 50, and he commissioned the new Medea 28 in May before being appointed to the Lion 64 on 5 August in place of the dying Captain Lord William Campbell. This ship went out to the Leeward Islands under the orders of Commodore Joshua Rowley with a convoy in December, arriving off St. Lucia on 12 February 1779. Cornwallis subsequently fought at the Battle of Grenada on 6 July 1779, during which action the Lion was badly mauled and had to flee before the wind to Jamaica with only her foremast standing, having suffered fifty-one casualties. Cornwallis soon established a house on that island, taking a freed slave, Cuba Cornwallis, as his ‘housekeeper’.
On 20 March 1780 the Lion was sailing the Windward Passage near the Bahamas in company with the Bristol 50 and Janus 40 when they were intercepted off Monte Christi by two French sail of 74 guns, one of 64, one of 50, and a frigate. The enemy decided to hold over the action until the next day, but after bombarding the British for approximately three hours from distance they suddenly turned tail. Cornwallis then gave chase, being joined by the Ruby 64 and two frigates that had arrived on the scene, but he was unable to bring the superior enemy to further action. On 20 June he encountered the French General Comte de Rochambeau in convoy with his troops off Bermuda. Suffering a disadvantage of two 74’s, two 64’s, a 50 gun ship and a frigate to the Chevalier Ternay d’Alsac’s seven sail of the line and several frigates, he skilfully withdrew under desultory enemy fire. The French commander was moved afterward to write in praise of Cornwallis’ skill in avoiding an action.
He returned home towards the end of the year with the Jamaica convoy, spending a good deal of the voyage personally nursing the sick Captain Horatio Nelson who had taken ill during the San Juan expedition, and had been brought aboard the Lion as a passenger. Having had his command refitted and coppered at Portsmouth, he participated in Vice-Admiral George Darby’s relief of Gibraltar on 12 April 1781, and in June was appointed to the Canada 74 in succession to Captain Sir George Collier. Whilst at sea his crew refused to fight as they had not received a backlog of pay, but they soon changed their tune when Cornwallis threatened to place them alongside an enemy. In August the Canada sailed to North America as part of Rear-Admiral Hon. Robert Digby’s force, and there transferred to Rear-Admiral Sir Samuel Hood’s Leeward Islands-bound fleet.
On 25/ 26 January 1782 he fought at the Battle of St. Kitts, affording great support to the beleaguered rear in the approach to the anchorage and suffering one man killed and twelve wounded. He subsequently fought in the centre at the Battle of the Saintes on 12 April 1782, where he received the surrender of the Hector 74 and brought the mighty French flagship Ville de Paris 104 to action, thereby allowing ships of Hood’s division to come up and capture her. His zeal in pursuing the fleeing French ships was contrary to that of his commander-in-chief, and in consequence he was quite critical of Admiral Sir George Rodney’s conduct. During the battle the Canada lost twelve men killed and thirty-three wounded.
At the end of July 1782 the Canada left for England with the prizes from the battle in convoy under the orders of Rear-Admiral Thomas Graves, suffering damage in Central Atlantic Hurricane of September which claimed the Ville de Paris and many other vessels, and eventually arriving home in October. Many years later Cornwallis responded publicly to Graves’ accusation that he had ensured the safety of the Canada without thought for the flagship by stating that at the time the Canada was also in a sinking condition.
Cornwallis was appointed to the year-old Ganges in January 1783 but left her in the following month. In March he joined the yacht Royal Charlotte which he retained until his appointment for two months to the Robust 74 at Chatham during the Dutch armament from October 1787, the year in which he also enjoyed an elevation to the honorary rank of colonel of marines.
At the end of the 1788 he was appointed commodore and commander-in-chief in India where his brother was the governor-general, sailing with his flag in the Crown 64, Captain James Cornwallis, and with a small squadron of two frigates and two sloops in company. Such was the anxiety amongst the junior officers of the fleet for active service that he was inundated with requests for employment. After arriving in the summer of 1789 he joined the war against Tippoo Sahib, and this led to difficulties with the French in that part of the world when the old enemy declared that his force exceeded that agreed between the great powers. Matters came to a head on 19 November 1791 when his frigates overpowered the French frigate Résolue 32 after a brief engagement. He also had to deal with several petty affairs, such as that over Captain Isaac Schomberg’s dispute with the Madras authorities on 13 September 1790.
In November 1791 Cornwallis shifted his broad pennant to the Minerva 38, which would later be commanded by the young, and at that time poorly regarded, Captain John Whitby, and on 1 February 1793 he was promoted rear-admiral. Following the French declaration of war in 1793 he reduced Pondicherry in a joint operation with army forces under Colonel James Braithwaite on 23 August. By now his squadron had been reduced to the Minerva and three armed Indiaman, but apart from a failed sortie by the frigate Sybille 44 the French failed to arrive in force, and before leaving for England on 12 January 1794 Cornwallis had captured all their ports in India.
Whilst entering the Channel on her return to European waters the Minerva ran in with a French frigate squadron, and after giving information of their position to Commodore Sir John Borlase Warren Cornwallis had the satisfaction to hear of this officer’s victory over the enemy on 23 April 1794. He raised his flag aboard the Excellent 74, Captain John Whitby, in the Channel in May 1794, and on 22 June departed with twelve sail of the line in escort of the East India convoy before taking up his cruising ground in the Bay of Biscay. After being promoted vice-admiral on 4 July he moved to the Caesar 80 for several months from August, prior to joining the new Royal Sovereign 100 in December, both vessels being commanded by Captain John Whitby, although he did not replace Captain Henry Nicholls aboard the latter vessel until March 1795. Meanwhile, on 3 December 1794 Cornwallis had been one of three admirals sent aboard the Culloden 74 in an attempt to bring her men back to duty after they had mutinied against their captain, Thomas Troubridge.
On 8 June 1795, whilst cruising with five sail of the line, two frigates and a sloop off the French coast, he chased a small French squadron of three sail of the line and six frigates into Belleisle. He then took a Dutch ship after seeing off two more French frigates the same day, and captured eight merchantmen shortly afterwards. Nine days later, on 17 June, his five sail of the line and two frigates fell in with Vice-Admiral Villaret-Joyeuse’s twelve sail of the line, two of 50 guns, and nine frigates off the Penmarcks, and he was obliged to conduct a brilliant withdrawal over the next twelve hours. His exceptional skill and endeavour in what popularly became known as ‘Cornwallis’ Retreat’ was rewarded with the thanks of both houses of parliament.
In February 1796 he was appointed commander-in-chief of the Leeward Islands, and he set sail on 1 March with a small squadron, only to return to port on the 15th after the Royal Sovereign had been fouled by a Hessian transport which sank with the loss of one hundred and forty two men. The Board of Admiralty took a dim view of his refusal to shift his flag into the frigate Astrea 32, Cornwallis citing reasons of ill-health and the discomfort that a move to a smaller unknown ship would bring. He was subsequently court-martialled on 7 April with Admiral Lord Howe acting as president of the court, and he was censured for not having shifted his flag, although the court’s admonition was tempered by his action being termed a ‘mistake’. Feeling somewhat aggrieved, Cornwallis nevertheless struck his flag and saw no further service under that administration.
On 14 February 1799 he was advanced to the rank of admiral, and in February 1801 succeeded Admiral Lord St. Vincent as commander-in-chief of the Channel fleet with his flag aboard the Ville de Paris 110, Commander Tristram Robert Ricketts, which officer was replaced in June by Captain John Whitby but then rejoined in September. Cornwallis’ initial captain of the fleet was Captain John Sutton, this officer being replaced on his return from the Baltic in October 1801 by Captain William Domett, who then remained with Cornwallis until the peace.
After the renewal of hostilities on 16 May 1803 Cornwallis returned to the Channel command of forty sail of the line, many of which were detached along the French coast. Initially he flew his flag aboard the Dreadnought 98, Captain Edward Brace, moving to the Ville de Paris 110 on 9 July, with his flag-captains being Tristram Robert Ricketts from 1803, Thomas Le Marchant Gosselin from February to June 1804, William Champain briefly, and thereafter John Whitby. Rear-Admiral William Domett was his captain of the fleet until 1804, Vice-Admiral Charles Nugent held the post in 1805, and Lieutenant Francis Beauman was his flag-lieutenant from 1803-5.
Cornwallis kept Vice-Admiral Honoré Ganteaume bottled up in the port of Brest for three years, using Ushant as his rendezvous when he was blown off station, Cawsand Bay near Plymouth for taking in stores, and Torbay in the event of really rough weather, as in December 1803 when the stores were sent overland from Plymouth. His blockade would become recognised as being as vital as Vice-Admiral Lord Nelson’s victory at Trafalgar, although it took its toll on Cornwallis’ health. From July-August 1804 it was necessary for him to temporarily relinquish the command to Vice-Admiral Sir Charles Cotton, and between 20 March and 6 July 1805 he convalesced in England with Admiral Lord Gardner temporarily replacing him at sea. This was not his only convalescence however, for in January 1805 he sprained his foot and was confined to his cabin whilst a storm blew the Ville de Paris four hundred miles off her station. Nevertheless, after putting into Plymouth his flagship was back off Brest the next day in order to prevent the Brest fleet replicating the breakout of the Rochefort squadron which had occurred on 11 January.
Cornwallis was a key player in the Trafalgar campaign, when he carefully made his dispositions to thwart Napoleon’s intentions. Even so, some said that the detachment of Vice-Admiral Sir Robert Calder after the Battle of Finisterre on 22 July 1805 was a mistake, given that Cornwallis’ weakened fleet could have been overwhelmed by Vice-Admiral Pierre Villeneuve’s arrival and the release of the Brest fleet. On 22 August Cornwallis was superficially injured during an action with the Brest fleet when it did try to break out and join up with Villeneuve, necessitating a further short period of convalescence. On 22 February 1806, being in poor health and somewhat frustrated with perceived political intrigues against him, he struck his flag for good at Spithead to be replaced by Admiral the Earl of St. Vincent who had long coveted his position as commander-in-chief of the Channel fleet.
Cornwallis was awarded the G.C.B. on 2 January 1815 and died in Hampshire on 5 July 1819, being buried at Milford-on-Sea.
Serving his family’s interest, Cornwallis was M.P. for Eye from 1768-74, and from 1782-4 and M.P. for Portsmouth from 1784-1790 at Lord Howe’s instigation, there being a concern that the government might lose that seat if he did not fill it. He was M.P. once more for Eye from 1790-1807. His was a somewhat reluctant political career, and he showed his disdain and lack of commitment to it by getting very drunk at one election. Cornwallis’ early career was patronised by the Duke of Newcastle and much later he was a supporter of William Pitt, but he never spoke in Parliament and rarely attended. During the 1770’s he was an opponent of the first lord of the Admiralty, Lord Sandwich, and he made petulant demands upon him for the furtherance of his protégés.
A wealthy man, Cornwallis had a splendid estate called Newlands at Milford-on-Sea near Lymington in Hampshire, which was renowned for its library and stables. His longstanding flag-captain, John Whitby, lived there with his wife, and after he died in 1806 his widow Mary, the daughter of Captain Thomas Symonds, and famous in her own right as a writer and artist, remained with her daughter and looked after Cornwallis into his dotage, inheriting the estate upon his death. In addition to his relationship with the lively and influential Cuba Cornwallis, whom he had freed from slavery and who looked after the convalescent Nelson, Cornwallis had previously enjoyed a relationship at Jamaica in the 1760’s with a mulatto woman, Ann Arnot, whose sister mothered several children with Hon. Frederick Maitland.
Represented sometimes as a woman-hater in spite of the close relationships he enjoyed with Mary Whitby, Cuba Cornwallis and Ann Arnot, the admiral was a single man of few words, was religious, reserved in manner, quiet, retiring, calm, sound, easy tempered, modest, warm-hearted and very popular with his men. At the same time he was regarded as being ‘able, tough and eccentric’, awkward, cussed, and decisive. ‘Society’ considered him to be a slightly odd old sea-dog, who for an aristocrat and nephew of an archbishop was somewhat uncouth. In turn he did not appear at ease amongst the high and mighty, being a fish out of water in the drawing room and clearly preferring to be at sea or visiting remote lands. He had a habit of twiddling his forefinger and thumb and was of medium height, pleasant looking, but corpulent, despite being a virtual vegetarian. During the early 1800’s his eyesight deteriorated. Cornwallis was known to bear grudges and this was illustrated by his animosity to Captain George Hopewell Stephens some twenty years after berating this officer, then a lieutenant, over his failure to let the terminally ill Captain Bonovier Glover die on the quarterdeck of his frigate, the Janus, during the engagement on 20 March 1780.
As a commander-in-chief, Cornwallis always strove to employ the best captains, and he soon got rid of any shirkers or those not up to the job. Some saw this as his promoting his favourites at the expense of his enemies, but he was nevertheless an excellent mentor to all his young officers and set them a great example. He had many affectionate nicknames such as ‘Billy-Go-Tight’ in respect of his ruddy features, although being a non-drinker this could not be put down to a love of wine,, ‘Billy Blue’ for his insistence in flying the Blue Peter prior to putting to sea with the Channel fleet, and ‘Coachee’ or ‘Mr Whip’, due to the wig he sported in the style of a carriage driver. His wish was to be buried at sea in common with the seamen who fought for him. Nelson, who counted him as an old friend, admired him greatly, as did St. Vincent, and he was also a good friend of Admiral Sir Charles Henry Knowles.