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Benfield, Paul (1741–1810), financier in India, was baptized on 25 January 1741 in Cheltenham, Gloucestershire. He was the eldest son of John Benfield (d. in or before 1767), carpenter and joiner, of Cheltenham, and of his wife, Anne, daughter of the Revd Stephen Cull of Cranham in the same county. In 1763 the directors of the East India Company described Benfield as ‘having been regularly bred an Architect, Surveyor and draughtsman’ and as having a good ‘knowledge in Fortification and other Branches of the Mathematicks’ (Love, 2.600). They gave him a commission as lieutenant in the company's Madras army and the appointment of assistant engineer and civil architect. In 1765 he transferred to the civil service as a writer. In his early service he earned a good reputation for his building work, but showed the turbulence and factiousness that was to mark the rest of his career. Between 1769 and 1774 he was twice dismissed from the service, reinstated, but again suspended.

Madras was a settlement transformed by British success in the long series of wars in which the East India Company had both fought off the French and intervened decisively in the politics of southern India. The outcome of the wars was that a British client, Muhammad Ali Khan, Walajah, usually known as the nabob of Arcot, had become titular nawab of the Carnatic with claims to exercise authority over much of south-eastern India. For the effective exercise of that authority he needed continuing British support, for which he had to mobilize large sums of money. Providing this money opened lucrative opportunities for many British people, among whom Benfield became pre-eminent. Acting as banker to the nawab was to make Benfield a great fortune and to earn him notoriety as the most unscrupulous of the British ‘nabobs’.

Benfield's career as a banker began in the early 1770s. He specialized in raising money from Indian banking businesses and from his fellow Europeans at high rates of interest and passing it on at even higher rates, 20 per cent or more. His first venture in large-scale moneylending was to enable the raja of Tanjore, whose territory the nawab of the Carnatic wished to absorb, to raise a large sum to buy off an attack in 1771. Two years later Benfield gave his support to the nawab, who had succeeded in conquering Tanjore with British help and needed money to pay off the obligations that he had incurred in doing so. The equivalent of at least £800,000 seems to have been advanced and more was lent over the next two years. The nawab's method of repayment was to allocate the taxation of certain of his districts to Benfield, a large part of what was owed being secured on the revenue of the recently conquered Tanjore. British support for the nawab's conquest of Tanjore was not, however, approved by the directors of the East India Company and a new governor, Lord Pigot, was sent out to Madras in 1775 with orders to restore the raja of Tanjore. This restoration put Benfield's loans at risk. Having failed to persuade Pigot to make special provision for him, Benfield resorted to the desperate step of joining—with other British people at Madras whom Pigot had alienated—in a plot to depose the governor by force. The coup was duly executed on 29 August 1776 and Pigot died in confinement shortly afterwards.

News of these events caused an uproar in Britain. Benfield was ordered home. Both the nawab of the Carnatic and the raja of Tanjore were aware of the importance for them of decisions taken in Britain and did their best to influence such decisions by appointing agents. It was Benfield's misfortune that the raja chose as his agent William Burke, who was to interest his kinsman and close friend Edmund Burke in what appeared to be the wrongs inflicted on Tanjore. The Burkes did their best to publicize what they saw as Benfield's iniquities. Benfield left claims to repayment behind him in India amounting to about £500,000. To protect his interests he tried to build up a parliamentary interest. In 1780 he became MP for the small borough of Cricklade by spending money on a scale which nearly got him unseated for bribery, and fanciful allegations were made that eight other MPs also owed their election to him. He held the seat until 1784. The government of Lord North evidently regarded him as of sufficient political significance to be worth supporting in his campaign to get back to India. In the face of Edmund Burke's passionate denunciations of him as ‘a destroyer of countries’ (Writings and Speeches, 132), Benfield was permitted to return to Madras in 1781.

Benfield remained in India for another seven years, seeking favours from successive governors of Madras, who generally regarded him as a dangerous intriguer. His Indian clients also found him difficult. The nawab's son reminded him of how in frustration at not getting his way Benfield ‘sat upon a China Pot in the Nabob's garden from early in the Morning until 4 o'clock in the afternoon, exposed to all the scorching heat of the sun’ and how ‘you tore your waistcoat and beat your own breast’ (Amir ul-Amira to Benfield, 19 Aug 1785, BL OIOC, H/290, fol. 250). In 1788 Benfield was again suspended and was permitted to return home, showing ‘symptoms of Hypochondriasis’ (Love, 3.397).

By 1788, however, events in Britain had gone in Benfield's favour. The administration of William Pitt had taken the highly contentious decision of ordering that all established claims of the nawab of the Carnatic should be paid off from a fund in India. Benfield, described by Burke as ‘a criminal, who long since ought to have fattened the region's kites with his offal’, was entitled to recover more than £500,000 (Writings and Speeches, 544–5, 632). Fearful of being arrested for debt in Britain, he went from India to France until he could secure a seat in parliament (for Malmesbury) in 1790. Having transferred part of his fortune to Britain, he then set himself up in great style. On 7 October 1793 he married Mary Frances (d. 1828), daughter of Henry Swinburne, with whom he had a son and two daughters. He spent £125,000 on the estate of Woodhall in Hertfordshire, £35,000 on property that established his control over the borough of Shaftesbury, which he represented in parliament from 1793 until 1802, and £16,000 on a London house.

Unhappily for him, Benfield tried to improve his fortune by entering into a partnership in a banking business with Walter Boyd. Benfield's role was to supply capital rather than to take an active role in managing the bank. Boyd was extremely ambitious, and Boyd and Benfield became the main contractor both for the British government's borrowing to fight revolutionary France and for the loans to Austria which the government guaranteed. For a time the bank prospered, but by 1797 it had overreached itself and could not meet its obligations. On 8 March 1799 Boyd, Benfield & Co. was wound up and the partners were declared bankrupt the following year, Boyd complaining that Benfield's ‘Temper, Disposition, Habits and Pursuits’ made him an impossible person with whom to do business (Boyd, 17).

Benfield's English property had been mortgaged for loans from the government in efforts to keep the bank afloat and was sold up. Loans had also been taken out on the security of Benfield's assets which were still in India. There was controversy between him and Boyd about the extent of his wealth still in India, but Benfield insisted that it had all gone to support the bank (The Case of Paul Benfield, 2). Benfield did, however, have money owing to him from Boyd in France. At the peace of Amiens he went there to try to secure it, but was interned when the war was resumed. He remained in Paris ‘destitute of pecuniary resources, and literally wanting all the comforts of life’ until his death in April 1810, when his funeral expenses—he was buried in Paris—had to be paid by subscription (Memoirs of … Wraxall, 4.94–5). After the war the French property was recovered for his wife and children.

P. J. Marshall

Sources  

J. D. Gurney, ‘The debts of the nawab of Arcot, 1763–1776’, DPhil diss., U. Oxf., 1968 · HoP, Commons, 1754–90 · HoP, Commons, 1790–1820 · The writings and speeches of Edmund Burke, ed. P. Langford, 5: India: Madras and Bengal, 1774–1785 (1981), appx C, 629–33 [Paul Benfield] · S. R. Cope, Walter Boyd: a merchant banker in the age of Napoleon (1983) · A short account of Mr Benfield's conduct in India [n.d., 1780?] · The case of Paul Benfield esq., partner in the house established in London under the name of Boyd Benfield and Company (1803) · W. Boyd, Letters to the creditors of the house of Boyd Benfield and Company (1803) · BL OIOC, Benfield MSS, MS Eur. C 307 · letter, Amir ul-Amira to P. Benfield, 19 Aug 1785, BL OIOC, H/290, fol. 250 · The historical and the posthumous memoirs of Sir Nathaniel William Wraxall, 1772–1784, ed. H. B. Wheatley, 5 vols. (1884) · H. D. Love, Vestiges of old Madras, 1640–1800, 4 vols. (1913) · biographical memorandum, BL OIOC, O/6/11, fols. 143–5 · GM, 1st ser., 63 (1793), 861 · GM, 1st ser., 80 (1810), 493 · GM, 1st ser., 98/2 (1828), 188

Archives  

BL OIOC, corresp. and papers, MS Eur. C 307 · BL OIOC, Home misc. series, corresp. relating to India |  Bodl. Oxf., corresp. with Lord Macartney


Wealth at death  

very indigent: Cope, Walter Boyd, 161; GM, 80