Benfield, Paul (DNB00)

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BENFIELD, PAUL (d. 1810), Indian trader, has become notorious principally in consequence of the attack made upon him by Burke in his celebrated speech on the debts of the Nawáb of the Carnatic, in which Benfield was denounced as 'a criminal who long since ought to have fattened the region kites with his offal.' Benfield went out to India as a civil servant of the East India Company in 1764, and during the greater part of his residence in that country never drew a higher salary than two or three hundred rupees a month; yet he is reported to have amassed a fortune considerably exceeding half a million sterling. Shortly after his arrival at Madras he appears to have entered into partnership with a native Soukar, half trader, half banker, and to have made his money partly by trade, partly by loans at high rates of interest, and partly by contracts. He had very extensive money transactions with the Nawáb of the Carnatic, and he entered into and completed contracts with the government for the construction of fortifications for the town of Madras and for Fort St. George. One of the most important of his loans was made for the purpose of enabling the Nawáb, who, with the aid of the English, had recently invaded and conquered the Mahratta state of Tanjore, to satisfy certain claims held by the Dutch at Tranquebar upon a portion of the Tanjore Rajah's territories. The character of this transaction having been called in question, and Benfield having been charged with having aided and abetted the malcontents in the Madras council, he was ordered by the court of directors in 1777 to return to England. He accordingly resigned the company's service, and on reaching London in 1779 lost no time in demanding an investigation into his conduct. He made no attempt to conceal his loans to the Nawáb, stating that though they had been extensive, they had not been of a clandestine nature, and that they were well known to the governor, to the council, and, indeed, to the whole settlement. He alleged that 'by long and extensive dealings as a merchant he had gained credit at Fort St. George, and confidence with the natives of India, and with the moneyed people in particular, to an extent never before experienced by any European in that country.' He urged that by his loans he had prevented war, and had promoted 'the most essential interests of his honourable employers.' He was subsequently restored to the service and permitted to return to Madras: the court of directors resolving that there was nothing in the company's records that warranted 'a conclusion of his having acted wrongly on the occasion of the loan' above referred to, but that, on the contrary, his conduct, so far as it respects the loan to satisfy the claims of the Dutch, was productive of public benefit.'

Benfield finally returned to England in 1793, and in the same year married Miss Swinburne, of Hamsterley, Durham, upon whom he settled a jointure of 3,000l. a year, besides 500l. a year for pin-money. Each of their children was to have 10,000l., and an estate in Hertfordshire, valued at 4,000l. a year, was settled upon his eldest son. He presented his bride on their wedding day with a ring valued at 3,000l. About the same time he established a mercantile firm in London, called Boyd, Benfield, & Co., and engaging in speculations which turned out badly, his fortune collapsed as rapidly as it had been acquired. He died in Paris in indigent circumstances in 1810. During his stay in England in 1780, Benfield was returned to Parliament as member for Cricklade. He brought an action for bribery against his opponent, S. Petrie, which was tried at Salisbury 12 March 1782, when Petrie was defended by (Richard) Burke and William Pitt. Petrie was acquitted, and published an account of the trial with a letter giving his history of the case in 1782. It was said in the case that Benfield returned nine members to parliament. His daughter was married in 1824 to G. C. Grantley F. Berkeley [q. v.]

[Mill's History of British India, vols. iv. and T.; Case of Mr. Paul Benfield, with opinions of Loughborongh, Dunning, and Hargrave (1780); Opinion of W. Grant on Mr. Benfield's claims (1781); Letter to E. I. Company from P. Benfield (1781); Letter to creditors of Boyd, Benfield & Co. from Walter Boyd (1800); Mr. Burke's speech on the debt of the Nabob of Arcot.]

A. J. A.