Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Cornwallis, William (1744-1819)

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CORNWALLIS, Sir WILLIAM (1744–1819), admiral, fourth son of Charles, fifth lord and first earl Cornwallis, was born on 20 Feb. 1743–4, and entered the navy in 1755, when his first service was on board the Newark, in the fleet sent to North America under Boscawen. Afterwards, in the Kingston, he was present at the reduction of Louisbourg in 1758, and in the Dunkirk at the battle of Quiberon Bay. The Dunkirk was shortly afterwards sent to the Mediterranean, and in December 1760 Cornwallis was moved into the Neptune, the flagship of Rear-admiral Saunders, by whom, on 5 April 1761, he was appointed lieutenant of the Thunderer with Captain Proby, in which, on 17 July, he assisted in the capture of the Achille of 64 guns off Cadiz. In July 1762 he was promoted to be commander of the Wasp sloop; in October was removed to the Swift, in which he continued till April 1765, when he was posted to the Prince Edward, which ship he paid off in May 1766. He was shortly afterwards appointed to the Guadeloupe frigate, which he commanded in the Mediterranean and on the home station till 1773; and in 1774 was appointed to the Pallas, in which he was employed on the west coast of Africa till 1776; during the latter part of the period, in arresting the ships of the American colonies, which, in that out-of-the-way locality, had established a trade in powder (Cornwallis to sec. of the admiralty, Sierra Leone, 30 Jan. 1776). He then went to the West Indies, and sailed from Jamaica in September with a convoy of 104 merchant ships. Partly from bad weather, and still more from the carelessness and obstinacy of the masters, the convoy separated, and the Pallas arrived in the Channel with not more than eight or ten sail in company. The merchants, owners of the ships, made vehement complaints, and Cornwallis was compelled, in his defence, to enter into a detailed account of the misconduct of the masters, on whom the blame ultimately fell.

Early in 1777 he was appointed to the Isis of 50 guns on the North American station, with Lord Howe, by whom he was transferred for a short time to the Bristol; was then sent home in command of the Chatham, March 1778; was moved into the Medea, May 1778; and on 5 Aug. was appointed to the Lion of 64 guns. In her, in the following spring, he went out to the West Indies in charge of convoy, and arrived at St. Lucia on 3 April 1779. Here he joined Vice-admiral Byron, and took an important part in the battle of Grenada (6 July 1779). Owing to the confused way in which Byron rushed into action, the leading ships suffered severely, the Lion in an especial degree. She was almost entirely dismasted, and drifted to leeward, so that when the French fleet tacked and returned to St. George's Bay, their line cut her off from the English fleet. She ought to have proved no very difficult prize, but D'Estaing was fortunately too prudent to risk what might bring on a renewed engagement, and the Lion went off before the wind under such sail as she could set on the stumps of her lower masts. She reached Jamaica in safety, and, having refitted there, was in the following March sent, in company of the Bristol and Janus, to cruise in the windward passage. Off Monte Christi on 20 March he fell in with a French convoy under the escort of four ships of the line and a frigate, which gave chase, and in light baffling winds succeeded in overtaking and bringing him to action on the 21st. The unequal fight was maintained at intervals during the day, and was renewed the next morning; but on Cornwallis being joined by the Ruby of 64 guns and two frigates, the French drew off and rejoined the convoy. Three months later Cornwallis had been detached with a small squadron to see the West Indian trade safely through the gulf, and was on 20 June in the neighbourhood of Bermuda, when he sighted a convoy, which was in reality the fleet of transports carrying M. de Rochambeau and the French troops to North America, under the escort of nine ships of the line and a frigate, commanded by M. de Ternay. Cornwallis's force consisted of only two ships of 64 guns, and two of 50, with a 32-gun frigate; but De Ternay, probably judging that the interests at stake were too great to run any needless risk, made no serious effort to crush it, and the squadrons separated after a desultory interchange of fire (Beatson, Memoirs, v. 98, vi. 231; Mémoires de Lauzun, 1858, 327; Adolphe de Bouclon, Liberge de Grandchain, 266–70). Towards the close of the year Cornwallis returned to England, taking with him as a passenger in the Lion Captain Horatio Nelson, who was invalided from the command of the Janus. The two had already become intimate during their stay in Jamaica, and contracted a friendship which lasted through their lives (Nelson Despatches, i. 8, 33).

In the following spring the Lion formed part of the fleet under Vice-admiral Darby at the relief of Gibraltar. Cornwallis was shortly afterwards appointed to the Canada of 74 guns, and in August sailed for North America under the orders of Rear-admiral Digby. When the attempt to relieve York had proved futile, Digby placed the Canada, together with other ships, under the command of Sir Samuel Hood, who was returning to the West Indies. Cornwallis had thus a very important share in the engagement with De Grasse at St. Kitts on 26 Jan. 1782 [see Affleck, Sir Edmund], and afterwards took part in the actions of 9 and 12 April to leeward of Dominica. In August the Canada was ordered to England as one of the squadron under Rear-admiral Graves and a large convoy. The greater number of the men-of-war and merchant ships were overwhelmed in a violent hurricane on 16–17 Sept. (Nautical Magazine, September 1880, xlix. 719) [see Graves, Samuel, Lord Graves; and Inglefield, John Nicholson]. More fortunate than most of her consorts, the Canada escaped with the loss of her maintop-mast and mizen-mast, and arrived in England in October.

In January 1783 Cornwallis was appointed to the Ganges, and two months later to the Royal Charlotte yacht, which command he held till October 1787. He was then appointed to the Robust, and in October 1788 to the Crown, with a broad pennant on being nominated commander-in-chief in the East Indies, where he arrived in the course of the following summer. The force under his command was small, though objected to by the French commodore as exceeding what had been agreed on, to whom Cornwallis replied that he knew of no such convention. Although the two nations were at peace, there was some jealousy of the French negotiations with Tippoo, which was intensified when war with Tippoo broke out and it was reported that he was supplied with munitions of war by French merchant ships. In November 1791 Cornwallis was lying at Tellicherry when he learned that the French frigate Résolue was leaving Mahé with two merchant ships in company. The Phœnix and Perseverance frigates, each more powerful than the Résolue, were ordered to search these ships for contraband of war. The Résolue refused to permit the search, and fired a broadside into the Phœnix, but after a short, sharp action, in which she lost twenty-five men killed and forty wounded, she struck her colours. The Perseverance had meantime examined the merchant ships, which, being found clear of contraband, were directed to pursue their voyage; but the Résolue, insisting on being considered as a prize, was taken into Tellicherry, whence Cornwallis sent her to Mahé. The French commodore, M. St. Félix, complained angrily of the conduct of the English, but made no further attempt to resist the right of search on which Cornwallis insisted, and the dispute finally merged in the greater quarrel that broke out between the two countries. On the first intelligence of the war Cornwallis seized on all the French ships within his reach, made himself master of Chandernagore, and, in concert with Colonel Braithwaite, reduced Pondicherry; shortly after which he sailed for England, which he reached in the spring of 1794. He had meantime, on 1 Feb. 1793, been promoted to be rear-admiral, and in May 1794 he hoisted his flag on board the Excellent for service in the Channel. On 4 July he was advanced to be vice-admiral, when he moved his flag to the Cæsar of 80 guns, and in December to the Royal Sovereign of 100 guns.

In the following June, still in the Royal Sovereign, and having with him four 74-gun ships and two frigates, he was cruising off Brest, when on the 16th, to the southward of the Penmarcks, he fell in with the French fleet under M. Villaret-Joyeuse, consisting of twelve ships of the line and as many large frigates, together with small craft, making an aggregate of thirty sail. Cornwallis was compelled to retreat. Two of his ships, the Bellerophon and Brunswick, proved to be very heavy sailers; in consequence of which, and a slight shift of wind to their advantage, the French were able to draw up in two divisions, one on each quarter of the English squadron. By the morning of the 17th they were well within range, and a brisk interchange of firing took place between their advanced ships and the rearmost of the English, especially the Mars, which suffered considerably in her rigging; so that Cornwallis, fearing she might be cut off, wore round to her support. This bold front led the French to suppose that the English fleet was in the immediate neighbourhood, a supposition which was confirmed by the English look-out frigate making deceptive signals, and by the fortuitous appearance of some distant sail. They bore up and relinquished the pursuit, leaving Cornwallis at liberty to proceed to Plymouth with intelligence of the French fleet being at sea. This escape from a force so enormously superior, and especially the bold manœuvre of the Royal Sovereign, raised the reputation of the vice-admiral to a very high pitch. But it is clear that had the French attacked seriously the English must have been overpowered, and so considered Villaret-Joyeuse loses even more credit than Cornwallis gains (James, Naval Hist. 1860, i. 264; Ekins, Naval Battles, p. 231).

In the following February (1796) Cornwallis was appointed commander-in-chief in the West Indies, and ordered to proceed to his station with a small squadron of ships of the line and a number of transports. In going down Channel the Royal Sovereign was fouled by one of these transports, and sustained such damage that, after seeing the convoy well to sea, Cornwallis judged it right to return. The admiralty disapproved of his doing so, and sent him an order to hoist his flag in the Astræa frigate and proceed to Barbadoes with all possible despatch. This order, conveyed—not, as has been said, in a private note from Lord Spencer, but—in a formal letter signed by the board, was dated 15 March; and on the 16th Cornwallis replied, assuring their lordships of his ‘readiness to proceed in the Royal Sovereign the moment her defects were made good, but that the very precarious state of his health obliged him to decline going out in a small frigate, a stranger to every person on board, without accommodation or any comfort whatever.’ This refusal was considered an act of disobedience, and the admiralty ordered a court-martial. The court pronounced a censure on him for not pursuing the voyage in one of the other ships of the squadron, but acquitted him on the charge of disobeying the order to proceed in the Astræa, accepting, it would appear, his defence that he had remonstrated against the order; ‘that his health would not permit him to go out under such circumstances, and that he would have resigned the command if the order had been made positive; but as to disobeying, he had no thought of it’ (Minutes of the Court-martial). Notwithstanding his virtual acquittal, Cornwallis considered himself ill-treated by the admiralty, and requested permission to strike his flag. This was readily granted, and he had no further employment under that administration.

On 14 Feb. 1799 he was made admiral, and in 1801 succeeded Lord St. Vincent in command of the Channel fleet. He resumed the command when the war broke out again in 1803, but without any opportunity of distinction. In March 1806 he was superseded by Lord St. Vincent, and had no further service. On the extension of the order of the Bath in 1815, he was nominated a Grand Cross. He was M.P. for Eye 1768–74, 1782–4, 1790–1807, and for Portsmouth 1784–90. He died on 5 July 1819.

Cornwallis is described as of middle size, stout and portly, and though strictly temperate, as having a jovially red face, which procured for him among the seamen the nickname of ‘Billy go tight.’ Other soubriquets—‘Blue Billy,’ ‘Coachee,’ and ‘Mr. Whip’—he is said to have owed to a habit of twiddling his forefinger and thumb (Naval Chronicle, xi. 100, 207, xvi. 114). His popularity is illustrated by the story told of him when in the Canada, which, though incorrect in the details, is possibly founded on fact. The men, it is said, mutinied, and signed a round-robin declaring that they would not fire a gun until they were paid. Cornwallis turned the hands up and addressed them: ‘My lads, the money cannot be paid till we return to port, and as to your not fighting, I'll just clap you alongside the first ship of the enemy I see, when the devil himself can't keep you from it.’

[Letters and official papers in the Public Record Office (the minutes of the court-martial have been printed, fol. 1796); Ralfe's Nav. Biog. i. 387; Naval Chronicle (with an engraved portrait of him, aged 30), vii. 1; Charnock's Biog. Nav. vi. 533. These memoirs are all exceedingly inaccurate in their details, and must be read with great caution.]

J. K. L.