Edward Cornwallis | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Edward Cornwallis

Edward Cornwallis, founder of Halifax in 1749, governor of Nova Scotia from 1749-52, military leader and governor of Gibraltar from 1762-76, (born 22 February 1713 in London, England; died 23 January 1776 in Gibraltar).
Edward Cornwallis, soldier and politician
Edward Cornwallis, founder of Halifax (courtesy Library and Archives Canada/C-11070).

Edward Cornwallis, founder of Halifax in 1749, governor of Nova Scotia from 1749-52, military leader and governor of Gibraltar from 1762-76, (born 22 February 1713 in London, England; died 23 January 1776 in Gibraltar).

Early Life and Education

Edward Cornwallis was born in England in 1713. He was the sixth son of Lord Charles, the fourth Baron Cornwallis, and Lady Charlotte Butler, daughter of the Earl of Arran. In addition to expansive estates in Suffolk, the family kept a house at 14 Leicester Square in London to be nearer to the king’s family, who lived on the same square.

Cornwallis’s first job came at 12 when he and his twin brother Frederick were appointed royal pages to King George I.

He studied at Eton College and entered the military in 1730. He achieved the rank of major in 1742. He took the family’s seat in Parliament in 1743, when his older brother died.

Military Career

Cornwallis’s first experience of war came in 1745 at the Battle of Fontenoy during the War of Austrian Succession. On one side was the Protestant Pragmatic Alliance of British, Dutch, Austrian, and Hanoverian troops; on the other side the Catholic French forces. It was a precursor to the global Seven Years’ War (1756-1763) between imperial rivals France and Britain.

Cornwallis’s commander was killed and Cornwallis took charge of his unit. The battle was a disaster for Britain. Some 2,800 Pragmatic Alliance troops died, including almost 400 under Cornwallis’s command.

Despite the setback, Cornwallis won a prestigious post as groom of the king’s bedchamber.

Pacification of the Scottish Highlands

In 1745, the exiled Catholic Scottish leader Charles Edward Stuart, later known as Bonnie Prince Charlie, raised a Highland army and advanced to Derby, England, before retreating to Scotland. British forces commanded by William Augustus, the Duke of Cumberland, were sent to crush the rebellion. Cornwallis fought alongside Cumberland, as well as James Wolfe and others.

The final battle came 16 April 1746 at Culloden. The British soldiers routed the Jacobites, killing as many as 2,000 warriors. The British forces set out to “pacify” the Jacobite supporters of Stuart.

Cornwallis led 320 soldiers to pacify an area of the Western Highlands. Suspected Jacobite families were boarded into homes and burned to death. Properties were looted, livestock were chased off, and crops were destroyed.

Having helped achieve the British aims by the end of the summer, Cornwallis returned to London.

Founding Halifax

In 1749, Cornwallis was appointed governor of Nova Scotia and sent to found Halifax to offset the French fort at Louisbourg. The two European powers were rivals for territory in North America and had competing claims for Nova Scotia. From Louisbourg, France had attacked British settlements along the eastern seaboard.

To the British, “Nova Scotia” included modern mainland Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island. France believed Nova Scotia included just mainland Nova Scotia. Mi’kmaq leaders believed he had no claim to the territory. The site he selected for Halifax was in Mi’kmaq moose hunting grounds, an area of religious pilgrimage, and at the head of several vital waterways.

After initial overtures of peace, both sides clashed. Mi’kmaq warriors launched a guerrilla campaign to contain the English in the Halifax settlement.

Cornwallis saw only one solution. “Without force and without money, nothing can be done,” he wrote to the Board of Trade in London, which oversaw his mission.

London urged him to engage in trade with the Mi’kmaq and keep the peace with France, but Cornwallis distrusted both and believed they were working together to attack Halifax. He sent soldiers and mercenaries to drive the Mi’kmaq away from the fortified settlement.

In October 1749, he issued an order that came to be known as the Scalping Proclamation. His government would pay a bounty to anyone who killed a Mi’kmaq adult or child in a bid to drive them off mainland Nova Scotia. It is not known how many people died, but several reports detail attacks on Mi’kmaq villages and mercenaries bringing in dozens of scalps to claim bounties.

Cornwallis’s budget for the first year was £39,000, but he spent £174,000. The Board of Trade rebuked him for overspending. The settlers were still largely confined to Halifax. Little farm land had been developed, and the province relied heavily on supplies from England. Cornwallis argued that with enough funds, he could secure Nova Scotia for Britain and from there Britain could conquer North America.

Cornwallis suffered from rheumatism and was often confined to his house for days at a time. Brutal winters killed hundreds of the settlers, and others fled to the more established British presence in New England.

The Acadians, a population of neutral French settlers in Nova Scotia, refused to take a full oath of loyalty to the British Crown. Cornwallis first planned to befriend the Acadians in the hope they would convert to Protestantism and take the full oath. When that failed, Cornwallis began recruiting the so-called Foreign Protestants from across Europe to settle in Nova Scotia. When he had sufficient manpower to operate the Acadian farmlands, he intended to expel them. (The Expulsion of the Acadians was carried out in 1755.)

By 1752 Cornwallis asked that “his majesty would be graciously pleased to allow of my resignation of the government and grant me the liberty of returning home.”

He left the province in the fall of 1752 and returned to London. Halifax was firmly established. France had been kept off the mainland of Nova Scotia, confined largely to Louisbourg. Cornwallis had greatly improved the British hold on Nova Scotia.

Courts Martial and Exile

In 1756, at the outset of the Seven Years’ War, he joined Admiral John Byng’s fleet to relieve the garrison at Minorca, which was being besieged by French forces. Believing the French to be too established, Cornwallis voted with Byng to return home. Cornwallis, Byng, and other leaders were arrested. They needed an escort to the court to avoid the fury of a crowd, which later burned them in effigy. Newspapers ran cartoons lampooning Cornwallis.

Britain lost Minorca. Cornwallis and the other leaders were court-martialed. Cornwallis defended himself robustly, saying the mission was foolhardy. He was exonerated. Byng was convicted and executed.

In 1757, Cornwallis joined an expedition to attack the French port of Rochefort, on the Bay of Biscay. Under similar circumstances, the mission returned home without attacking. James Wolfe was also on the mission and pressed for an immediate assault. Cornwallis was called as a witness in a subsequent court martial, but escaped punishment.

He was appointed governor of Gibraltar. He died in office in 1776.


Cornwallis’s name was revived as founder of Halifax in 1899 when the city celebrated its 150th anniversary. A statue of him was erected in the city in the 1930s.

In 1993, Mi’kmaq historian Daniel Paul wrote a book called We Were Not the Savages, which highlighted the Scalping Proclamation and portrayed Cornwallis as a white supremacist responsible for the genocide of Mi’kmaq people. Paul campaigned to have the statue removed and to have Cornwallis’s name removed from schools and streets. In 2011, Cornwallis Junior High in Halifax was renamed Halifax Central Junior High.

The statue has been taken down at the beginning of 2018. 

Cornwallis remains a figure of intense controversy.

Further Reading