Wednesday, December 13, 2006

The Seven Years War

This post owes a great deal to Frank McLynn, 1759: the Year Britain became Master of the World (Pimlico, 2005) and Jeremy Black, The British Seaborne Empire (Yale University Press, 2004).

This is what McLynn says about the war.
‘The year 1759 should really be as well known in British history as 1066 for this was when the British finally achieved the global supremacy they would maintain for at least another hundred years.’
The Peace of Aix-la-Chapelle seemed almost irrelevant to the British and French settlers and the traders across the oceans. The fundamental problem was that Franco-British colonial and commercial ambitions were mutually incompatible, and their rivalry extended to the West Indies and West Africa, as well as North America and the Far East. The war was the last major conflict before the French Revolution to involve all the great powers of Europe. Generally France, Austria, Saxony, Sweden, Spain and Russia were aligned on one side against Prussia, Hanover and Great Britain on the other. In Europe it was a struggle for dominance between France and Prussia. Abroad it was a colonial war between Britain and France. Some historians have seen it as the ‘first world war’.

The war made the reputation of a politician (William Pitt), two military leaders (Clive and Wolfe) and an admiral (Edward Hawke). It also destroyed the reputation and life of another admiral (John Byng).

In North America, where it is known as the French and Indian War, the war did not have a definite beginning. In 1748 the British government gave the Ohio Company, a group of Virginia landowners and London merchants, title to half a million acres in the Ohio valley. In 1749 the French sent a small force into the valley, and between 1752 and 1754 they drove out British traders and intimidated British Native American allies. In 1754 they began the construction of Fort Duquesne where the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers meet to form the Ohio River (now downtown Pittsburgh).

In India Joseph Dupleix, Governor of Pondicherry from 1742 followed an assertive and expansionist policy becoming a player in the volatile situation created by the decline of the Mughal Empire and in particular the disputes over the control of Hyderabad and the Carnatic (the major territories in south-central and south-eastern India). In 1749 the Nizam of Hyderabad, a protégé of the British, was defeated and killed by a mixed French-local force and a Frenchman, Charles de Bussy, became the key adviser to his two successors. The French were making important gains in Hyderabad, while separately a French protégé was recognized as the Nawab of the Carnatic.

At this stage it seemed possible that France would at least manage to contain Britain in both North America and India. Thanks to an influx of funds, the French fleet had been built up since 1749. She was also allied to Spain and Prussia (and this alliance was threatening Hanover) There was nothing inevitable in the ultimate British victory, though she had two leading advantages: a leading navy and a more prosperous colonial base than France in North America.

The French position unravelled first in India when they attacked the Maratha Confederacy, the most dynamic force in India. This diverted their attention from the British. In 1751 Robert Clive, a clerk in the East India Company’s service in Madras, captured Arcot in the Carnatic, a fort belonging to the Chanda Sahib, an ally of the French, and then held it against a siege of fifty-three days. This victory was followed up the following year when the French were defeated at Trichinopoly. These two victories made Clive, a hitherto obscure figure with no military training or powerful connections, famous and wealthy. Pitt described him as a ‘heaven-born general’.

These two victories wrecked Dupleix’ strategy and caused the collapse of his alliance system. He was recalled in 1754 and a provisional peace was reached with the British that winter, leaving Britain the dominant European power in south Asia.

In North America it was not so easy to reach a settlement as the British could not accept French claims in the Ohio valley. On 17 April 1754 a 500-strong French force forced the surrender of the garrison of 40 men in Fort Prince George. In May George Washington advanced at the head of a small Virginia detachment and defeated the French. But the French advanced in greater numbers and on 3 July Washington was forced to surrender at Fort Necessity. The British had fewer than 900 troops in North America and felt increasingly vulnerable.

In 1755 the British pursued an extremely aggressive policy in North America. They dispatched regulars to attack French bases and used the navy to attack the forts which threatened Nova Scotia. The Acadians, who were accused of disloyalty, were expelled. But in that year Britain suffered one of the great disasters in colonial history which convinced many that the French would win the war. On 9 July the inexperienced Major-General Edward Braddock was ambushed and defeated at the Monongahela River near Fort Duquesne. His defeat left the frontier wide open.

The early stages
The war began badly with the loss of Minorca (which will be looked at in a subsequent post).

North America: There were also defeats on land in North America. In August 1756 the new French commander, Louis Joseph, Marquis de Montcalm, captured Forts Ontario, George and Oswego, taking 1,620 prisoners and driving the British from Lake Ontario. The government, preoccupied with defending Britain from possible French invasion, did not devote enough time to North America. In 1757 Montcalm captured Fort William Henry at the head of Lake George.

In the same year William Pitt (the Elder) became one of the two Secretaries of State and the key figure in planning war policy. For 1758 he planned a three-pronged offensive on New France and Louisbourg gell to a successfully organized amphibious operation. At the same time a force mostly of Americans captured Fort Duquesne.

India: The British position in Bengal was challenged by the newly acceded Nawab of Bengal, Siraj-ud-Daula. In June he stormed the poorly defended Fort William at Calcutta after a brief siege and imprisoned between 60 and 150 prisoners in what became known as the ‘Black Hole’.
Clive was instructed to take Calcutta. In December 1756 he reached Bengal in command of 850 British troops and 2,100 sepoys and regained Fort William. He then marched inland to the Nawab’s capital of Murshidabad. On n 23 June he defeated Siraj-ud-Dowlah force of 50,000 at Plassey. Soon after the Nawab was killed and replaced by a British protégé. Clive became governor of Bengal. Although the fighting was not over, the situation had been radically transformed. Britain had triumphed though she owed her triumph as much to Indian factionalism as to any other factor.

The ‘Annus Mirabilis’
1759 was the annus mirabilis.
In Europe a British-German army defeated the French at Minden.
On 13 September Quebec fell to the British though General Wolfe died as the city was taken.

At sea the British were challenged by the pre-war increase in Bourbon naval strength. Together, France and Spain launched warships with a total displacement of c. 250,000 tons in 1746-55 while Britain launched only 90,000. But Spain did not join the war until 1762, by which time France had been defeated at sea. On 20 November 1759 Edward Hawke’s victory at Quiberon Bay (Brittany) in the teeth of a 40 knot gale guaranteed the Royal Navy complete command of the sea.

At the end of year David Garrick's 'Heart of Oak' was composed to commemorate the great events.

The end of the war
In 1760 the French forces in Canada surrendered (after a failed attempt to recapture Quebec. In 1761 the French surrendered at Pondicherry; Britain conquered Dominica, and Martinique, Grenada, St Lucia and St Vincent in 1762. When Spain entered the war, Britain captured Havana and Manila.

The achievements of the year of victories were sealed by the Treaty of Paris in February 1763. Britain returned many of its conquests including Guadaloupe, Martinique, Gorée (the slave port), Pondicherry, Cuba and the Philippines, but it retained Canada, Senegal, Grenada, Tobago, Dominica and St Vincent, and East and West Florida from Spain. The concessions led to a political crisis in Britain, but nevertheless this was the most successful war in British history.

One thing was decided irrevocably: India would be British and not French. Under the Treaty of Allahabad (1764) the Mughal Emperor granted the East India Company the civil administration (the diwani) of Bengal, Bihar and Orissa. This gave the company the right to tax over 20 million people. Long-term the British gained in India a huge market for its products and an almost inexhaustible supply of manpower for its armies.

However it is only in retrospect that this can be seen as a decisive turning point. The Indian historian, Rajat Kanta Ray has written in the Oxford History of the British Empire: the Eighteenth Century:
‘Which usurpation [of Mughal power] [the Maratha or the British] would finally gain supremacy was an issue that was not resolved until 1803, when the British captured Delhi and gained permanent control over the person of the Emperor and over the Red Fort.’
The British victory was based on naval superiority, but this in turn was only possible because Britain had one crucial advantage over France: the ability to borrow money. More than a third of British war expenditure was financed by loans. Pitt’s government spread the cost of war by selling low-interest bonds to the investing public. The National Debt grew from £74 million to £133 million during the war.

Before the war, Britain’s empire had been small enough and homogeneous enough to seem reasonably compatible with British values. But the post-war Empire included Quebec, with its 70,000 French (Roman Catholic) inhabitants as well as large stretches of Asia (Hindus and Muslims). This multi-ethnic, multi-cultural Empire was to pose new problems and challenges.