Before 1688, England was a marginal power. Spain’s empire was far more extensive, France had greater influence in Europe, and the Dutch dominated overseas trade and finance. Only in the eighteenth century, after numerous wars against its great rivals France and Spain, did Britain emerge as the world’s leading empire and its center of trade and banking. The War of the Spanish Succession (known in the colonies as Queen Anne’s War) lasted from 1702 to 1713; the War of Jenkins’ Ear (named after a British seaman mistreated by the Spanish) from 1739 to 1742; and King George’s War from 1740 to 1748. To finance these wars, Britain’s public expenditures, taxes, and national debt rose enormously The high rate of taxation inspired discontent at home, and would later help to spark the American Revolution.
By the 1750s, British possessions and trade reached around the globe. “Every part of the world affects us, in some way or another,” remarked the duke of Newcastle. The existence of global empires implied that warfare among them would also be global. What became a worldwide struggle for imperial domination, which eventually spread to Europe, West Africa, and Asia, began in 1754 with British efforts to dislodge the French from forts they had constructed in western Pennsylvania. In the previous year, George Washington, then only twenty-one years old, had been dispatched by the colony’s governor on an unsuccessful mission to persuade French soldiers to abandon a fort they were building on lands claimed by the Ohio Company. In 1754, Washington returned to the area with two companies of soldiers. He hastily constructed Fort Necessity. After an ill-considered attempt to defend it against a larger French and Indian force, resulting in the loss of one-third of his men, Washington was forced to surrender. Soon afterward, an expedition led by General Edward Braddock against Fort Duquesne (today’s Pittsburgh) was ambushed by French and Indian forces, leaving Braddock and two-thirds of his 3,000 soldiers dead or wounded.
For two years, the war went against the British. French and Indian forces captured British forts in northern New York. The southern backcountry was ablaze with fighting among British forces, colonists, and Indians. Inhumanity flourished on all sides. Indians killed hundreds of colonists in western Pennsylvania and pushed the line of settlement all the way back to Carlisle, only 100 miles west of Philadelphia. In Nova Scotia, the British rounded up around 5,000 local French residents, called Acadians, confiscated their land, and expelled them from the region, selling their farms to settlers from New England. Some of those expelled eventually returned to France; others ended up as far away as Louisiana, where their descendants came to be known as Cajuns.
As the British government under Prime Minister William Pitt, who took office in 1757, raised huge sums of money and poured men and naval forces into the war, the tide of battle turned. Pitt’s strategy was to provide funds to Prussia and Austria to enable them to hold the line against France and its ally Spain in Europe, while the British struck at the French weak point, its colonies. By 1759, Britain—with colonial and Indian soldiers playing a major role—had captured the pivotal French outposts of Forts Duquesne, Ticonderoga (north of Albany), and Louisbourg on Cape Breton Island, which guarded the mouth of the St. Lawrence River. In September of that year, a French army was defeated on the Plains of Abraham near Quebec. In 1760, Montreal, the last outpost of New France, surrendered. British forces also seized nearly all the islands in the French Caribbean and established control of India. In Europe, meanwhile, Prussia and Austria managed to fend off the coalition of France, Russia, and Spain.