CUNINGHAME, James (c.1731-88), of St. James's Place, London

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1754-1790, ed. L. Namier, J. Brooke., 1964
Available from Boydell and Brewer



3 Mar. 1786 - 10 Sept. 1788

Family and Education

b. c.1731, 2nd s. of Col. David Cuninghame of Seabegs, Stirling, fort major of Stirling castle 1740-62, by Margaret, da. of John Callander of Craigforth, Stirling; bro. of Robert Cuninghame. unm.

Offices Held

Capt. 45 Ft. 1755-75, lt.-col. 1758, col. 1772; half-pay 1775-80; maj.-gen. 1777; lt.-gen. 1782; col. 45 Ft. 1787- d.

Gov. Barbados 1780-2.


Cuninghame was closely connected with the Dorset family through his brother Robert. He served in America under Loudoun and Wolfe,1 and returned to England about 1760. In 1761 he was one of the officers selected to escort Queen Charlotte to England. After the peace he was stationed with his regiment in Ireland. In August 1773 the lord lieutenant, Lord Harcourt, forwarded to Rochford a memorial from Cuninghame mentioning his long service and asking for an appointment as lieutenant-colonel of a regiment of foot ‘in any part of the world’, or some other mark of favour.2 His application was unsuccessful and in 1775 when his regiment was ordered to America, Cuninghame went on half pay, until in February 1780, through Germain’s interest, he was appointed governor of Barbados.3

Here in February-March 1781 he initiated negotiations for the capitulation of the Dutch settlements at Demerara and Essequibo.4 ‘I flatter myself’, he wrote to Germain on 25 Feb. 1781, ‘that his Majesty will approve of the humanity to our old allies.’5 But his humanity to the Barbadians was sharply challenged. From the beginning of his administration he was at odds with the colonial assembly, whose bill granting him a reduced salary he rejected in July 1780 in a truculent speech. He wrote to Germain, 10 Aug.:6 ‘This leaves me without income and I cannot hold out at my private expense.’ Germain wrote to William Knox, 18 Sept. 1780:7 ‘I sincerely pity poor Cuninghame ... I hope the Treasury will help the poor governor.’ When Cuninghame proceeded to raise an income for himself by levying fees, the assembly raised the cry of ‘No taxation without representation’, refused to pass a supply bill, and through their agent Samuel Estwick petitioned for Cuninghame’s removal.8 Even when a devastating hurricane struck the island Cuninghame did not moderate his demands; he accepted an offer of £2,000 salary but insisted on retaining his fees and put in his personal claim for compensation for storm damage. His attitude shocked Horace Walpole:

A governor writing on the ruins of a whole island levelled by the most fatal of all hurricanes, that his chief misery was the loss of what? his bracelets with the portraits of his idols—who would dare to bring such a revolting hyperbole on the stage?9

In February 1781 the assembly’s charges against the governor came before the Board of Trade, who deferred consideration until receipt of Cuninghame’s statement in defence.10 Robert Cuninghame wrote to William Knox, 23 Aug. 1781, of his concern for his brother, ‘who seems to have been intemperate and injudicious at setting out, but, since he began to recollect himself has done better’. Thankful that none of the governor’s actions was considered censurable, Robert asked Knox to prompt North to remedy his brother’s distress for money.11

But Cuninghame remained intransigent, continued to levy the disputed fees, delayed sending his defence, and the case was not heard until 13 Apr. 1782, after the fall of North and shortly before the abolition of the Board of Trade. When Estwick suggested that, in the circumstances, ‘he supposed he should have no further occasion to trouble the Board’, Cuninghame’s counsel maintained that if there were no further proceedings, Cuninghame was entitled to an acquittal.12 Cuninghame lost his governorship, but his conduct was regarded as vindicated.13

On his return home he settled in London. Although a supporter of North and the Coalition he, like his brother, went over to Pitt. He wrote to William Eden, 16 Dec. 1785:14 ‘I have now a transaction with [the Duke of Dorset] which I shall take an opportunity of communicating to you when you come to town.’ This transaction was almost certainly the negotiation which led to his being returned on the Dorset interest for East Grinstead in March 1786. In the House, although assiduous in attendance, he is not known to have spoken.

His own precarious finances were improved by his appointment as colonel of his old regiment. Closely in touch with Irish as well as English political affairs and with the stock market, he kept Eden informed of events and opinions.15 During the crisis of 1787 over Dutch affairs he wrote, 8 June:16

Opposition seem to be laying on their oars, thinking, I presume that they have a firm game to play. Our stocks fell one day for a quarter of an hour 3½ per cent upon the report that Mr. Pitt was determined to resign—a flattering circumstance I think for him.

His loyalty to Pitt over the Regency question was not put to the test.  He died 10 Sept. 1788.

Ref Volumes: 1754-1790

Author: Edith Lady Haden-Guest


  • 1. Cuninghame to Haldimand, 22 Nov. 1757, Add. 21728, f. 1; Cuninghame to Sackville, 30 May, 4 June 1758, HMC Stopford-Sackville, ii. 262.
  • 2. Harcourt to Rochford, 10 Aug. 1773, Cal. Home Office Pprs. 1772-5, pp. 252, 279.
  • 3. Bd. Trade Jnl. 1776-82, pp. 292-4.
  • 4. APC Col. Unbound Pprs. 1006.
  • 5. Ibid. 584.
  • 6. HMC Stopford-Sackville, ii. 287.
  • 7. HMC Var. vi. 172.
  • 8. Bd. Trade Jnl. 1776-82, pp. 379, 392-3, 396.
  • 9. Walpole to Lady Upper Ossory, 9 Jan. 1781; Cuninghame to Germain, 25 and 26 Nov. 1780, HMC Stopford-Sackvile, ii. 290-1.
  • 10. Bd. Trade Jnl. 1776-82, pp. 379, 392-6, 399-401.
  • 11. HMC Var. i. 79.
  • 12. Bd. Trade Jnl. 1776-82, pp. 467-70.
  • 13. Walpole to Lady Upper Ossory, 1 Oct. 1782.
  • 14. Add. 34420, f. 259.
  • 15. Auckland Corresp. i. 436-8.
  • 16. Add. 34425, f. 92.