|Seven Years’/French and Indian War |
(1754 - 1763)
That unofficial beginning is one distinctive aspect of this war for empire, which was the fourth struggle in 65 years between Britain and France over control of North America. The Seven Years’/French and Indian War was unlike these earlier wars, and not only because it began in North America. In the 1750s, in fact, neither London nor Paris wanted a war in North America or anywhere else for that matter.
Although both imperial powers desired to expand their influence from their current colonial boundaries into the Ohio and Mississippi River valleys, neither wanted to risk war to do so. British colonists had other ideas. More heavily populated than New France, British North America by the 1750s was beginning to experience overpopulation and land shortages along the Atlantic seaboard.
Settlers agitated to expand beyond the Appalachian Mountains in order to squat on Western land, no matter the consequences with the French or their very powerful Algonkin allies. Additionally, moneyed interests in the British colonies, such as the Virginia-based Ohio Company, were also promoting frontier settlement.
By 1753 clashes seemed inevitable, as the French sought to increase their influence into the Ohio River valley by extending fur trading posts, while British colonists “on the spot” in the same area tried to acquire land of their own. In 1754 the first confrontation of British colonists with French and Algonkin forces resulted in Virginia militia leader and Ohio Company investor George Washington’s forced surrender to the French, as he and his men marched back to Williamsburg in defeat.
In the summer of 1755 British and New England troops retaliated by capturing Fort Beauséjour in Acadia (now Nova Scotia), deporting almost 10,000 French colonials, most to Louisiana.
Just a month later, a British regular force under Major General Edward Braddock was devastated by French Canadian and Algonkin fighters near present-day Pittsburgh, beginning two years of reverses for the British at the hands of a small but highly competent force of French regulars, Canadian militia well-versed in winter and forest warfare, and powerful Algonkin tribes who were the real arbiters of power in the region. At one point, the French and Indian coalition pushed the English frontier back 150 miles, most significantly in Pennsylvania and Virginia.
In Europe, the fighting revolved around Frederick the Great of Prussia’s attempt to prevent dismemberment of Prussia by Austria, France, and Russia. With fewer than 6 million people but Europe’s best army and his own strategic and tactical brilliance, Frederick was able to maintain his independence with financial and limited military assistance from Britain and Hanover. With France occupied against the British elsewhere, and the Austrians and Russians suspicious of each other, Prussia was able to win significant victories in 1757 and retain Silesia in 1763.
The turning point for the British came in 1757 when William Pitt became prime minister. Personally and politically committed to victory whatever the cost, Pitt convinced Parliament to use Britain’s advantages, primarily its financial and naval power, to overcome France.
This strategy entailed sending small numbers of regulars to the Continent to bolster Britain’s Germanic allies, while using British money to subsidize these allies to carry the brunt of the fighting against the French in Europe.
This gave the British navy the operational flexibility to ensure its supremacy in the Atlantic and Indian Oceans, which in turn allowed Great Britain to defeat the French in the Caribbean with relatively small forces, as well as successfully deploy small regular forces and subsidized Indian allies on the subcontinent.
The British soon occupied the French colonies of Guadeloupe and Martinique, as well as French slave stations in Africa. More important for the future of the British Empire, Robert Clive of the British East India Company used British and Sepoy troops to seize Bengal from its local Muslim ruler, Suraja Dowla, thereby preempting the French East India Company’s presence on the subcontinent.
While Clive’s actions, like those on the North American frontier, were not welcomed by a British government, which wanted to avoid additional engagements, the Royal Navy was dispatched to ensure Clive’s survival and avoid the British being forced out of India by French countermoves. By 1763 the French presence in India, as in North America and the Caribbean, was at the mercy of British naval power.
British naval superiority also meant that Great Britain could send regular forces to the North American frontier and cut the French off from reinforcement and re-supply. British financial power meant that London could not only cover the cost of Britain’s war in Europe, India, and the Caribbean, but also subsidize and reimburse its American colonies for the cost of providing supplies locally and raising militias—such as British Army Major Robert Roger’s Rangers—that were well versed in forest and frontier warfare. Additionally, Pitt made sure that younger, more aggressive officers, such as Lieutenant General Jeffrey Amherst and Major General James Wolfe, were sent to command in the New World.
The result was a string of victories in North America and elsewhere that caused France to cede almost its entire North American empire to the British and Spanish in 1763. Although it had been allied with France, Spain was given the western bank of the Mississippi River in compensation for its loss of Cuba to Great Britain. While Martinique, Guadeloupe, and its African slave stations were restored, in North America France retained only the city of New Orleans and two fishing islands off Newfoundland.
In addition, France was forbidden to erect fortifications or pursue political ambitions in India. After 1763 a British Raj would eventually replace the Mughal Empire, and India would become a mainstay of the British imperial and economic system in the 1800s.
This war clearly demonstrated what the British Empire could achieve when it emphasized its advantages of naval superiority, Continental allies, and financial clout. The war, however, also doubled the British national debt, greatly extended the empire, and demonstrated real fissures between the mother country and its American colonies. Attempts to deal with these problems would lead in a dozen years to the American Revolution that would prove to be one of the British Empire’s most significant defeats.