The most important phase of the Seven Years’ War was not fought in Europe, for there it effected only minor changes in the map of power. It was fought on the Atlantic, in North America, and in India. In those areas the results of the war were immense and enduring.
The first step in the formation of the British Empire had been taken in the seventeenth century, by the passage of naval supremacy from the Dutch to the English. The second was marked by the Treaty of Utrecht (1713), which granted England the monopoly of supplying African slaves to the Spanish and English colonies in America. The slaves produced rice, tobacco, and sugar; part of the sugar was turned into rum; the trade in rum shared in enriching the merchants of England (old and New); the profits of trade financed the expansion of the British fleet. By 1758 England had 156 ships of the line; France had seventy-seven.57 Hence the third step in building the Empire was the reduction of French power on the seas. This process was interrupted by Richelieu’s success at Minorca, but it was resumed by the destruction of a French fleet off Lagos, Portugal (April 13, 1759), and of another in Quiberon Bay. Consequently the commerce of France with her colonies dropped from thirty million livres in 1755 to four million in 1760.
Supremacy on the Atlantic having been won, the way was open for the British conquest of French America. This included not only the basin of the St. Lawrence River and the region of the Great Lakes, but also the basin of the Mississippi from the Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico; even the Ohio River Valley was in French hands. French forts dominated Chicago, Detroit, and Pittsburgh—whose change of name from Fort Duquesne symbolized the results of the war. The French possessions blocked the westward expansion of the English colonies in America; had England not won the Seven Years’ War, North America might have been divided into a New England in the East, a New France in the center, and a New Spain in the West; the divisions and conflicts of Europe would have been reproduced in America. The pacific Benjamin Franklin warned the English colonists that they could never be safe in their possessions, nor free in their growth, unless the French were checked in their American expansion; and George Washington came into history by attempting to take Fort Duquesne.
Canada and Louisiana were the two doors to French America; and the nearer to England and France was Canada. Through the St. Lawrence came supplies and troops for the habitants, and that door was guarded by the French fort of Louisbourg on Cape Breton Island at the mouth of the great river. On June 2, 1758, Louisbourg was besieged by an English flotilla of forty-two vessels, bearing 18,000 soldiers, under Admiral Edward Boscawen. The fort was defended by ten ships and 6,200 men; reinforcements sent fromFrance were intercepted by the British fleet. The garrison fought bravely, but soon its defenses were shattered by British guns. The surrender of the fort (July 26, 1758) began the British conquest of Canada.
The process was only slightly retarded by the strategy and heroism of the Marquis de Montcalm. Sent from France (1756) to command the French regulars in Canada, he advanced from one success to another until frustrated by corruption and discord in the French-Canadian administration, and by the inability of France to send him aid. In 1756 he captured an English fort at Oswego, giving the French control of Lake Ontario; in 1757 he besieged and took Fort William Henry, at the head of Lake George; in 1758, with 3,800 men, he defeated 15,000 British and colonial troops at Ticonderoga. But he met his match when, with 15,000 men, he defended Quebec against the English general James Wolfe, who had only 9,000 soldiers under his command. Wolfe himself led his troops in scaling the heights to the Plains of Abraham. Montcalm was mortally wounded in directing the defense; Wolfe was mortally wounded on the field of victory (September 12-13, 1759). On September 8, 1760, the French governor of Canada, Vaudreuil-Cavagnal, surrendered, and the great province passed under British control.
Turning their ships south, the English attacked the French islands in the Caribbean. Guadeloupe was taken in 1759, Martinique in 1762; all the French possessions in the West Indies—St.-Domingue excepted—fell to Britain. To add to the profits of victory Pitt sent squadrons to Africa to capture the French slave-trading stations on the west coast; it was done; the French trade in slaves collapsed; Nantes, its chief port in France, decayed. The price of slaves in the West Indies rose, and British slave, merchants made new fortunes in supplying the demand.58 We should add that the English were not any more inhumane in this imperial process than the Spanish or the French; they were merely more efficient; and it was in England that the antislavery movement first took effective form.
Meanwhile British enterpris—naval, military, commercial—was busy absorbing India. The English East India Company had set up strongholds at Madras (1639), Bombay (1668), and Calcutta (1686). French merchants established domination at Pondicherry, south of Madras (1683), and at Chandernagore, north of Calcutta (1688). All these centers of power expanded as Mogul rule in India declined; each group used bribery and soldiery to extend its area of influence; already, in the War of the Austrian Succession (1740-48), France and England had fought each other in India. The Peace of Aix-la-Chapelle had merely interrupted the conflict; the Seven Years’ War renewed it. In March, 1757, an English fleet under Admiral Charles Watson, aided by troops of the East India Company under a Shropshire lad named Robert Clive, took Chandernagore from the French; on June 23, with only 3,200 men, Clive defeated 50,000 Hindus and French at Plassey (eighty miles north of Calcutta) in a battle that assured British mastery in northeast India. In August, 1758, an English fleet under Admiral George Pococke drove from Indian waters the French squadron that had been protecting French possessions along the coast; thereafter, with the British free, the French unable, to bring in men and supplies, the triumph of England was only a matter of months. In 1759 the French siege of Madras by the Comte de Lally was frustrated by the arrival of British provisions and reinforcements by sea. The French were decisively defeated at Wandiwash on January 22, 1760; Pondicherry surrendered to the British on January 16, 1761. This last French outpost was restored to France in 1763, but everyone understood that French possession continued only by British consent.
India and Canada remained, until our own time, two bastions, east and west, of an empire that was built with money, courage, cruelty, and brains, in full accord with the international morals of the eighteenth century. In tardy retrospect we now perceive that that empire was a natural product of human nature and material conditions, and that the alternative to it was not the independence of helpless peoples, but a similar empire established by France. In the long run, despite its Clives and Hastingses and Kiplings, the rule of half the world by the British navy—the comparatively humane and urbane maintenance of order amid ever-threatening chaos—was a blessing rather than a bane to mankind.