Thursday, January 11, 2007

The Seven Years War: reputations lost and won

As well as being a major geopolitical event, the Seven Years War impacted on British politics and provides a window into the politics and the wider culture of the mid eighteenth century. This can be seen by looking at the careers of some of the major protagonists.

The Rise of Pitt the Elder
The dominating political figure of the war was the charismatic outsider William Pitt (1708-78). His father’s family were of lesser English gentry origin until his grandfather Thomas ‘Diamond’ Pitt (1653-1726) , merchant, MP and East India Company Governor, made the family fortunes. In February 1735 he was returned for the family’s pocket borough of Old Sarum. He had first attracted attention as a ‘Patriot’ Whig, a protégé of the anti-Walpole, Lord Cobham, with his scathing speeches attacking the government. This made him one of the most notable of ‘Cobham’s cubs’. In 1741 he spoke vehemently on the motion for the king to dismiss Walpole. As the war with Spain merged into the War of the Austrian Succession, and Britain agreed to take 16,000 Hanoverian soldiers into British pay, he broadened his attacks. In November he argued that this but another instance of the way in which ‘this great, this powerful, this formidable kingdom, is considered only as a province to a despicable electorate’. This characteristic recklessness deeply offended the king, and (more importantly) the Prince of Wales.

Politically Pitt had now no secure base within a coherent political group. He could never be the social equal of the Whig grandees. He never sat for a metropolitan seat or one of the great ports; never stood for Middlesex, Westminster, London or Bristol - all of them building up a tradition of electing opposition members. His preferred world was that of the country estate. He built a new house at Hayes and added a wing at Burton Pynsent (Somerset). His extravagance landed him in serious financial difficulties. Most of his wealth came from legacies and annuities. By the death of Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough, 14 October 1744, inherited £10,000 ‘upon account of his merit in the noble defence he made for the support of the laws of England, and to prevent the ruin of his country’. He was an unsettling figure, unreliable and prone to manic depression, and frequently incapacitated with gout – attacks which sent him frequently to Bath - but he had the great advantage that he seemed different. He could be associated with the national interest because he seemed apart from the world of the court.

After a political crisis in 1746 George II was forced to reinstate the administration led by Henry Pelham and grudgingly appoint Pitt as Paymaster-General – a very lucrative but non-cabinet post that involved no contact with the king. Pelham’s brother the duke of Newcastle was now his patron and he sat successively for seats in the gift of the duke. His new role led him to defend the employment of Hanoverian troops as strongly as he had once opposed it. ‘If Pitt had died at any time during the next eight years he would have gone down in history as a canting patriot concerned only to raise his purchase price.’

In March 1754 Pelham died unexpectedly (through gluttony!). This led to a new period of political jockeying and a new administration was formed under Newcastle. Pitt hoped for advancement but his ambition was thwarted by the king’s hostility and by the ambitions of the new Leader of the House, Henry Fox. Meanwhile, with the defeat of Washington’s Virginia force in the Ohio valley, the country was drifting to war in America.

On 16 November 1754 he married Lady Hester Grenville (1720-1803): ‘the day from which I shall date all the real honour and happiness of my poor life’. It was a happy marriage and it allied Pitt with a powerful political family. But the honeymoon at West Wickham was short because Parliament was still in session. On 25 November he attacked Newcastle in the Commons – even though he was still in the government (though not the cabinet) and sat for Newcastle’s pocket borough of Aldeborough (Yorkshire). In the late summer of 1755 he became increasingly impatient with Newcastle’s policy of arranging subsidy treaties with Hesse-Cassel and Russia to protect Hanover in the event of war. In November he made a mocking Commons speech attacking the union of Fox and Newcastle to the confluence of the Rhône and the Saône, which was ‘one of the classical orations of the unreformed Parliament’.
At Lyons, I was taken to see the place where the two rivers meet, the one gentle, feeble, languid, and though languid, yet of no depth, the other a boisterous and impetuous torrent: but different as they are, they meet at last.

On 20 November 1755, he was dismissed as Paymaster. On the following day he attacked the ministry for being more concerned about the defence of Hanover than of America and Britain. This led him to make even more vitriolic attacks on the government, leading Horace Walpole to claim that his histrionic speech mannerisms ‘would have added reputation to Garrick’. But he was battling against a government with a 200 seat majority.

Admiral John Byng
The (European) war began with a ‘diplomatic revolution’ in which the Anglo-Austrian alliance collapsed and Britain formed an alliance (the Convention of Westminster) with her former enemy Frederick the Great on 16 January 1756. War was officially declared on 17 May, though by then the fighting had already begun. And from the start everything went wrong.

In March, Admiral Byng led an expedition to reconnoitre the Mediterranean and to protect Gibraltar and Minorca from French incursions. His fleet was small, for the Admiralty had decided to concentrate its ships of the line in home waters to counter an anticipated French invasion. The British and French fleets encountered each other off Minorca, and after a confusing and inconclusive battle, Byng retreated to Gibraltar to repair his vessels. This cost Britain Minorca, an island that, because of its position on the trade rout to Italy and the Levant, was strategically important for the protection of her commercial interests in the Mediterranean.

This was regarded as a massive national humiliation, and the search for scapegoats was relentless. The governor of Gibraltar had refused to reinforce Byng and the government had provided him with an inadequate force; but they were determined to punish Byng. They selectively published his dispatch, editing it carefully to impugn his reputation, and his name became a byword for cowardice. Crowds burned his effigy before his country house in Hertfordshire; at Gravesend he was hanged in effigy; at Covent Garden his ‘execution’ was preceded by a skimmington ride in which the effigy ‘was very whimsically executed in a Cart, with his back to the Horses, accompanied by chimney sweeps riding donkeys ‘with their Faces to the Tails’. Not surprisingly the main hostility seems to have come from the areas where the press gangs had been most in operation. The Admiralty was so taken aback by the fury of the demonstrations threat they changed their plans for bringing him to Greenwich for fear he would be torn apart by the hundreds on the Portsmouth road with pitchforks and clubs.
Part of the propaganda against Byng stressed his aristocratic connections (he was the son of Sir George Byng, later Viscount Torrington). Demonstrators at Richmond in Yorkshire decked out their effigy of Byng in a ‘genteel Navy Dress, a la Mode de France’. The aristocratic state was identified with ‘French interests’ and corruption at home and timidity, effeminacy and ignominy abroad.

Though Byng had been guilty of over-caution and inept seamanship rather than cowardice, he was court-martialled. On 14 March 1757 after the king brushed aside pleas for clemency, he was shot on his own quarter deck, ‘pour encourager les autres’ (Voltaire). But another motive was the need to maintain public order. The following months saw serious food riots.
In the meantime the government had changed.

Pitt as war leader
In October 1756, in the wake of the Byng affair, the loss of Fort Oswego to Montcalm and Calcutta to Siraj-ud-Daula, Newcastle and Fox resigned and in November the king agreed very reluctantly to a new government, nominally under the Duke of Devonshire, but with Pitt as Secretary of State (Foreign Secretary) the dominant figure.

Pitt inherited the problem of what do with Byng. He did not want him executed and his failure to save him contributed to an impression of weakness. In addition he was ill and could not command a Commons majority. In April 1757 he was dismissed after failure to achieve success in war. In the three-month’s confusion that followed (a caretaker ministry in the midst of an unsuccessful war), the Tories set about glorifying Pitt as a martyr. Expressions of support came in the press and the Pittites successfully manoeuvred the ‘shower of golden boxes’ (the freedoms of thirteen cities) which forced the king to take him back. In July the Pitt-Newcastle (Whig) coalition was formed, a coalition in which Pitt ran the war and Newcastle managed parliament. This was the government that finally secured victory.

Pitt’s great achievement lay not in detailed policy but in his qualities of leadership. In the eyes of his supporters he was the great ‘patriot’ minister. This is a term that needs unpicking. Before 1757 it had been the creed of opposition to Walpole and his successors, an appeal to the country over the heads of ‘corrupt’ governments. But now, in rhetoric at least, government subscribed to the ‘patriot’ programme. Pitt appealed to a sense of national destiny that defined Britain as a maritime power with trans-oceanic concerns. But he also followed Newcastle’s European policy of taking control of and paying an army in Germany (even though his role as Secretary of State for the Southern Department gave him no official say in German policy). He was later to say that ‘America had been conquered in Germany’. This was partly true, if only because the French were forced to divert men and resources to the Continent. However it laid him open to the charge of inconsistency and Frederick found him a disappointing ally. Far fewer British troops and a much smaller proportion of costs were to be devoted to the continent than in previous wars. However in the eyes of much of the public the Prussian victory at Minden in August 1759 was also a British triumph as it guaranteed the protection of Hanover and rendered French victory in Europe improbable.

The campaigns in India and North America were unquestionably his area of responsibility. It was Pitt who devised the successful North American policy of an ambitious two-pronged attack on Canada and operations in the Ohio. Commanders were instructed to communicate directly with him and their precisely detailed instructions gave them little scope for discretion. In September 1758 news reached Britain of the capture of Louisbourg – an event that transformed Pitt’s morale. (In 1758 it was agreed to rename Fort Duquesne Pittsburgh.) His policy regarding India, seen as a subordinate theatre of war, was to respond to Company requests for help rather than to initiate policy. Although he famously described Clive as the ‘heaven-born general’ he did not respond to his requests to lure the government into acquiring more territory.

When he addressed Parliament in November 1759 Pitt was in triumphalist mood. He proposed a monument to Wolfe but asserted that he (Pitt) had done more for Britain than any orator for Rome.
And for the Grecians, their story were a pretty theme if the town of St Albans were waging war with that of Brentford.
He had become the most powerful figure in British political life.

Robert Clive (1725-1774)
For Clive's career, see here.
Like Pitt, Clive was a difficult colleague, a manic depressive who often acted erratically. But the way in which he held Arcot for fifty days in 1751 marked him out as a military genius. In 1757 he recaptured Calcutta from the forces of Siraj-ud-Dawlah. After his victory at Plassey, he replaced Siraj-ud-Dowlah as nawab of Bengal by Mir Jafir and was able to report to the directors of the East India Company that ‘this great revolution, so happily brought about, seems complete in every respect’.

Following Plassey Clive received lavish gifts from the new nawab, Mir Jafir, including a jagir, a grant of land revenue worth around £27,000 a year to the recipient. He invested £30,000 in Golconda diamonds at Madras in 1757, and was also able to negotiate the purchase of £230,000 bills to be drawn on the Dutch East India Company. Such actions later encouraged others to follow Clive's example and seek similar rewards, and they also began to attract considerable attention from those in Britain who were becoming increasingly uneasy about the ill-gotten gains being obtained by rapacious company servants, or ‘nabobs’ as they became known.

In November Clive 1757 he was appointed governor of the presidency of Bengal. Clive had not sought a position of political power in India but in January 1759 he outlined in a famous letter to Pitt, the suggestion that the British government should now take a fuller responsibility for the territories now under the company's control. Declaring that
so large a sovereignty may possibly be an object too extensive for a mercantile Company
he asked Pitt to consider whether the nation would derive greater long-term advantage from the Indian territories if they were brought under the management of the state.

Much of Clive's later career was overshadowed by controversy about how he had made his money. In the 1760s his jagir became deeply controversial, with a vigorously contested propaganda war fought out in pamphlets and newspaper articles. This did not prevent his unopposed election for Shrewsbury in 1761. He acquired substantial new properties and enriched his family.

By the early 1770s criticism was mounting and there was a growing debate about the respective roles of the government and the (now dangerously insolvent) East India Company in managing the vast new territories that had come under British control. The Commons set up a committee of inquiry in 1772, which gave Clive the opportunity to justify his conduct. His best known comment came when he recalled the riches offered to him by Mir Jafar in 1757:
Mr Chairman, at this moment I stand astonished at my own moderation!
In May 1773 he spoke for three hours in the Commons. Members unanimously passed a motion that ‘Robert Clive did at the same time render great and meritorious service to this country’.

Following the high drama of these proceedings, the East India Company was reformed by a series of legislative actions, most notably Lord North's Regulating Act of 1773.

In early November 1774 Clive fell ill, as a common cold steadily worsened. He travelled first to Bath for the waters and then moved on to London. By the time he arrived at Berkeley Square on 20 November he had been in considerable pain for some time, and his old ailments had returned with a vengeance. He resorted to large doses of opium, which brought some respite, but on 22 November, having abandoned a game of cards being played with friends, he was found dead on the floor of an adjoining room. There is controversy about whether he committed suicide by plunging a penknife into his throat but it has also been claimed that he was the victim of a fatal seizure after a larger than usual dose of opium.

Clive emerged as one of the heroes of the Seven Years' War, but a flawed one. He came to stand for an uneasy combination of military greatness, greed and love of power.

The sacrificial hero
For the iconic representation of the death of General James Wolfe at the moment of the taking of Quebec in September 1759, see here.

The American painter, Benjamin West, represented Wolfe in the manner traditionally associated with depictions of the body of Christ when it was taken down from the cross (Lamentation). But he departed from the traditions of history painting by depicting his characters in modern dress.