Military history




The British fail to realize that the fruits of imperial victory can carry the seeds of an empire’s disintegration. The Cherokee War and its effects on Amherst’s Indian policy. Amherst and Pitt confront very different but equally severe challenges in 1761. Pitt’s resignation, war with Spain, and the disintegration of the Anglo-Prussian alliance. The conquest of Havana, 1762, illustrates the complex intersections of empire, trade, and war. The Peace of Paris, the reorientation of British politics, and the unlearned lessons of Manila, 1763. The effects of war’s prolongation in North America: migration, instability, and the rising potential for violence. Pontiac’s Rebellion, Britain’s humiliation, and the recall of Jeffery Amherst.


The Fruits of Victory and the Seeds of Disintegration


A FEW MONTHS more than six years separated the nightmare dawn when Washington witnessed the massacre of Jumonville and his men from the ceremonious morning when Amherst accepted Vaudreuil’s surrender at Montréal. During those years thousands of men, women, and children lost their lives from causes directly or indirectly related to the war; thousands more lost their homes; tens of thousands of men bore arms; millions of pounds and scores of millions of livres were spent to support them; Britain’s empire, engorged by a prolonged feast on the colonial possessions of France, swelled to prodigious size. But victory in North America did not determine the outcome of the conflict as a whole. In Europe, Ferdinand and Frederick fought against lengthening odds, while English ministers discovered that they could not agree on how and when, or even whether, to conclude a war that had seemingly acquired a life of its own. Two more long years of bloodshed would pass before the European powers would cease hostilities in the midst of financial collapse and military exhaustion. During those years the British ministers would largely ignore North America and its problems, leaving the colonists to deal as best they could with a prolonged and troubled transition from war to peace.

GREAT BRITAIN TRIUMPHED in North America for two related reasons. One was military and well understood at the time; the other was in the broadest sense cultural, and understood not at all. The military factor, as we have seen, centered on supplies and supply lines. Once the British navy had swept the French fleet from the seas, as it had by the end of 1759, there was no safe passage for men or munitions or provisions from France to its colonies. In the absence of these, the soldiers and militiamen charged with defending New France soon lost the ability to resist the well-supplied, vastly more numerous Anglo-American invaders. If Occam’s Razor could shave historians’ arguments as handsomely as it does those of logicians, this factor might fully account for the fall of Canada; but it does not. Only an understanding of the cultural interactions that the war had shaped, and that in turn had shaped the war, can explain the Anglo-American victory in such a way as to make sense of the problems that arose between the British and various North American groups after the conquest of Canada. It may, therefore, be worthwhile to review the course of the war in terms of those broadly influential cultural factors.

France maintained its empire in America for more than a century despite the steady increase of British power and population because the governors of Canada had generally sponsored cordial relations with the Indian peoples of the interior. Trade was the sinew of these intercultural relationships, which in time of war became the military alliances that made the frontiers of the British colonies uninhabitable and rendered a successful invasion of the Canadian heartland impossible. The tide had turned against the French only when their alliances with the nations of the pays d’en haut began to fail after the fall of Fort William Henry in 1757; it rose inexorably thereafter, as trade goods became more difficult to transport from France to North America. But the marquis de Montcalm had aggravated the situation, and accelerated the failure of the alliances, by seeking to command the Indians as auxiliaries, rather than to negotiate for their cooperation as allies. Eventually the combined effects of poor supply and Montcalm’s Europeanized command alienated even the converted Indians and the habitants, so that in 1760 the chevalier de Lévis and his regulars stood alone, abandoned by the peoples they had crossed the Atlantic to defend.

The progression had been almost precisely the opposite for the British. From 1755 through early 1758, British attempts to subject the colonists to what amounted to the viceregal command of Braddock and Loudoun had virtually destroyed the willingness of the colonists to cooperate. Only Pitt’s reversal of policy—his disposition to treat the colonists in effect as allies rather than subordinates, to ask for their help rather than to compel it, and to reimburse them in proportion to their exertions in the war effort—had arrested the decline of British military fortunes in America. Just as the French were forfeiting allies among the Indians of the pays d’en haut, then, the British were forging effective alliances between the metropolis and most of its colonies. As the French in Canada were losing access to the supplies and trade goods they needed to survive militarily, British military contracts, reimbursements, and shipments of specie in the form of soldiers’ pay were fueling an expansion in the economies of the mainland colonies and offering an alternative trading partnership, in return for a change in allegiance, to the Indians of the interior. Thus at the same time that the redcoats, supported by vast provincial levies, were winning their first victories, the strategically crucial Ohio Indians moved to realign themselves through the peace negotiations at Easton, Pennsylvania. When the Iroquois shifted from a posture of neutrality to active support of the British in 1759, the tide surged against the French, who never won another battle, and who watched their Indian allies slip away until none remained.

It was in early 1761, at the zenith of British military fortunes in America, that Amherst—soon to become Sir Jeffery, knight of the Bath— began in the name of rationality and economy to reverse the openhanded policies that had produced such remarkable cooperation between the colonists and the empire and the Indians. Perhaps nothing in the postwar period was more predictable than the effect that Amherst’s shift in policy produced among the Indians, who reacted as adversely to the restriction of trade and the end of gift-giving that he decreed in 1761 as they had to the strangulation of French commerce during the latter years of the war. Amherst’s action, however, was no more an act of caprice than it was an expression of arrogance. Rather it arose from his intention, as a conscientious European professional soldier, to impose order on a frontier that seemed, at the very moment of victory, to be slipping out of control. For reasons perfectly understandable in terms of his own culture, Amherst sought to reform Indian relations without fully understanding why they functioned as they did. He hoped to improve the character of Indians without comprehending how different from Englishmen Indians were, much less appreciating how they would understand his efforts. Despite his intentions, Amherst’s postwar efforts at reform produced not a new coherence on the frontier but a new wave of violence: the sporadic extension of the war in the west, long after the defeat of the French.

The Indians who rebelled against British control after the Seven Years’ War were trying, in the only way they knew, to maintain local autonomy and customary rights against an imperial authority heedless of local conditions. In that sense the catastrophic breakdown of Anglo-Indian relations following Britain’s great victory was both a mirror of the past and an eerily accurate predictor of the future. Like the failure of Montcalm to transform the Indians into reliable auxiliaries and the failure of Loudoun to compel the colonists to participate in the war on his terms rather than their own, the uprisings in the American interior would demonstrate the limited potential of coercion as a basis for imperial control. But this was not a lesson that the victor was prepared to learn.

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