BENFIELD, Paul (1741-1810), of Wood Hall Park, Watton, Herts.
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Family and Education
bap. 25 Jan. 1741, s. of John Benfield of Cheltenham, carpenter and joiner, by Anne, da. of Rev. Stephen Cull of Cranham, Glos. m. 7 Sept. 1793, Mary Frances, da. of Henry Swinburne, of Hamsterley, co. Durham, author and traveller, 1 da.
Benfield, one of the most notorious of the nabobs who sat in Parliament during this period, went out to India in 1764 as a civil architect at Madras with the rank of lieutenant in the East India Company’s army. Five years later he resigned his commission, and became, still in the Company’s service, a contractor for building ramparts at Black Town. Next, he began lending money,1 was twice dismissed the service for disobedience, and twice restored. By 1774 he had become chief banker to the Nawab of the Carnatic, and was on the way to compiling an enormous fortune. The Nawab, after his invasion of the territories of his feudatory the Rajah of Tanjore, borrowed large sums from Benfield on the security of lands in Tanjore, which the Rajah, on being reinstated by Lord Pigot in 1776, refused to honour. ‘Benfield’s enmity against Lord Pigot is incredible’, wrote George Smith to Robert Palk on 20 Sept. 1776.2 A month later Benfield was threatening Pigot with charges of corruption, and declared ‘he would spend one hundred thousand pounds to obtain satisfaction of him’.3The plot which resulted in Pigot’s kidnapping and deposition as governor of Madras was hatched in Benfield’s house. After Pigot’s death the court of directors suspended Benfield and ordered him home.
Back in England, Benfield opened his campaign to secure reinstatement by procuring a seat in Parliament. In 1780 he bought John Nesbitt’s Cricklade estate, and at the general election stood for the borough with another nabob, John Macpherson. By wholesale bribery Benfield and Macpherson carried their election, but Macpherson was unseated and Benfield narrowly escaped being so. He now made up to Administration, and was able to engineer his return to India.
He arrived there in October 1781, and was soon on the worst of terms with the new governor of Madras, Lord Macartney.4 After Macartney’s resignation in 1785, and while Macpherson was acting governor-general, Benfield continued his activities undisturbed, but the arrival of Cornwallis ended his Indian career. ‘His conduct’, wrote Cornwallis to the directors on 6 Nov. 1788,5 had been ‘far more offensive and exceptionable’ than that of any other of the Nawab’s creditors; and he was suspended from the service and ordered home. Again, on returning to England, his first step was to get himself into Parliament.
Benfield died bankrupt at Paris in April 1810.