Quebec History Marianopolis College

Date Published:
July 2006

L’Encyclopédie de l’histoire du Québec / The Quebec History Encyclopedia

Les Vainqueurs -

The British Conquerors


[This text was written by Gordon O. Rothney. For the full bibliographical information, see the end of the document.]

To understand the conquest of Canada it is necessary to know the motives of the men who were responsible for it. Only if their ultimate objectives are understood will their actions become intelligible, and only in this light, also, is it possible to evaluate their attitude and that of their successors toward the conquered.


Who were the conquerers? The Canadians saw only the armed forces of Great Britain and the military and naval officers who led them. But these men, after all, were merely acting on orders from politicians in Westminster. To define the political psychology of the British at the time of the conquest of New France, it is necessary to begin with the men in Great Britain who laid down the national policies and gave the orders which were carried out by the men on the spot in Canada.


The key to British psychology in the 18th cen­tury lies in the fact that in Britain the bourgeoisie had long since obtained political influence, whereas in France the principle of absolute monarchy still survived. From about 1300 on, a new class of merchants and small landowners, distinct from the aristocracy, had been rising in England,— a development recognized in the Late Middle Ages by the appearance in Parliament of a House of Commons alongside the House of Lords. The Commons were money-makers, and, having money, their political power steadily increased. The process has been carried forward rapidly by the Tudors (1485-1603), who systematically undertook the destruction of the medieval nobility and the creation of a new aristocracy of wealth. Private money-making by Englishmen, with state assistance and control, became a major national policy. And under the new national Church of England, created by the Tudors, the ancient religious restrictions on the pursuit of private profits were forgotten. By the time that Elizabeth died (1603), the bourgeoisie had grown so important that it was already too late for the Stuarts (1603-1688) to stop the process, as Louis XIV succeeded in doing in France. This fact was proved by the execution of Charles I in 1649 and the overthrow of James II in 1688. It was in this period that the political parties of 18th century England originated. The Whigs, representing the bourgeoisie, supported the new German kings, George I and George II (1714-1760). The Tories, representing the older land-owning aristocracy, would have preferred to keep the Stuarts. Die-hard Tories were called Jacobites because they still regarded James Stuart, though exiled in France, as their true sovereign. In Scotland, where the Stuart family had originated, Jacobites still believed in the "auld alliance", which so often in the past had united French and Scots against the English.


But a country such as England, where the bour­geoisie were so strong, could not fail to participate as much as its limited resources would permit in the opportunities for commercial gain opened up by the discovery of America. John Cabot, hired by a Tudor king, appears to have first reached the shores of Canada in 1497, and the idea of taking the St. Lawrence valley from their French competitors had occurred to Englishmen long before 1759. They had actually siezed [sic] it as early as 1629, but, unfortunately for them, the English business men had not yet removed the head of Charles I, and by the Treaty of 1632 he had restored Canada to the King of France.


Meanwhile, in the English colonies in America, a development had been taking place very similar to that which had already occurred in England. A commercial bourgeois class had appeared, become prosperous, and by the 17th century had already gained a political influence which the corresponding class in France and Canada did not possess. These American business men, even more than those in the mother country, dreamed of the conquest of Canada, particularly because they had to face French com­petition in the fur trade. It was they who actually precipitated the war which resulted in the conquest of Canada. The fighting began in 1754 over the ques­tion of the boundaries between the British and French colonies in America. More fundamentally, however, it was caused by the fact that the British colonists had at last begun to move over the Allegheny mountains, and were rapidly expanding westward into the great interior valleys. Here they found the French, who, thanks to their possession of the St. Lawrence River route, had first explored this area, and valued it both for its furs and as a connecting link between Montreal and Louisiana. The result was a sociological clash which profoundly affected the history of this continent.


The principal agitation against the French in the interior had been coming from an Ohio Land Company, formed by capitalists in Virginia, Maryland, and London. The orders which started the actual fighting came from the colonial governors, Dinwiddie of Virginia and Duquesne of Canada. The Virginian commander in the first skirmish was George Wash­ington.


Canada itself, however, was in no danger until war was formally declared between the two "mother countries", Britain and France. This became inevit­able when negotiations broke down in 1755. "France was on the defensive: not, indeed, in defence of a profitable empire — for profitable New France never was — but in defense of a colonial possession upon which depended the balance of power, not only in America, but in the Old World as well" (1). In marked contrast, however, the British government was, as usual, driven forward by the private profit-seekers of capitalism. "The land speculators, the Indian traders, and the squatters of a community of British colonies bursting with robust expansiveness were moving over the mountains, and they had the support of the Board of Trade and its imperialistic president, the Earl of Halifax." (2) With their own party the Whigs, in power, the British bourgeoisie of England and America usually got their way. All that they now needed before issuing a formal declaration of war was an ally who could be counted upon to keep the French busy in Europe. This they found in Prussia, "a Power inherently aggressive, spending five-sixth of its revenue upon armaments, and fettered neither by geography nor by morality in its advance" (3). Frederick II needed British money, and not foreseeing the troubles into which the rise of this state would eventually plunge them, the British eagerly signed the Treaty of Westminster with him on January 16, 1756.


The French attacked Minorca, the British Mediterranean naval base, in April, and the British issued a formal declaration of war on May 17, 1756. The prime minister under whom this step was taken was the Duke of Newcastle, a Whig leader who had risen to power because of his success in organizing corrupt election machinery. It is not likely, however, that he had any idea of conquering Canada. "Vacillating, timid, unfit for any strong decision, blown this way and that by every clamour and rumour" (4), he was a complete failure as a war minister. The British got off to a bad start.


Financial gain from trade supremacy was a poor moral basis upon which to stand in such crisis, and that to most was the true object of the war.


The real conqueror of Canada was William Pitt. Here was the representative of the commercial bour­geoisie of England if ever there was one. Of English yeoman stock, he had been born into the bourgeoisie at Westminster in 1708. His grandfather, Thomas, had been highly successful in the East India Company, and became Governor of Madras. The old man had violently denounced his son, William's father, who had married aristocracy, for his "hellish acquaintance" with Tories and with "cursed Tory principles". But his grandson, William, was no Tory. He first chose the army as a career, but soon switched to politics and joined the more radical Whigs who vigorously criticised the government formed by the leaders of their own party. A thoroughgoing nationalist, Pitt loved England and understood her merchant class. Naturally, he loved Shakespeare too, especially "Henry IV" and "Henry V", plays written to glorify his England (5). When war broke out in 1756, he was bitterly criticising the Newcastle admi­nistration for its blunders. And he knew how to get tremendous support from the big business men of the City of London. By November, 1756, the war policy was in such a muddle that Newcastle was forced to resign, and Pitt became Secretary of State. Pitt was to Newcastle as Churchill was to Chamberlain. The perfect representative of the bourgeoisie, he became known as the "Great Commoner". His object was frankly world power.


Pitt had advocated an attack on Canada ten years earlier, following the capture of Louisbourg in 1745 during the War of the Austrian Succession, but the adventure had been prevented then by Newcastle and the party leadership (6). Now, with Newcastle out of the way, he revived the idea. In February, 1757, he told his land and sea commanders that they should capture Louisbourg as soon as possible, and then, in June, make a dash for Quebec (7).


But King George II, Whig though he was, did not like Pitt, and in April, 1757, he dismissed him. A remarkable series of demonstrations by the business classes in England, Scotland, and Ireland forced the King to reappoint him in June. This time he formed a wartime coalition government, with the Duke of Newcastle once again nominally Prime Minister. Pitt had resigned his seat in the House of Commons, but in July he was unanimously elected to represent the bourgeois "corporation" of Bath, a city to which he had often been forced to retire in an effort to improve his very bad health.


On the continent, Prussia was saved from defeat only by the money sent by Pitt. The famous 19th century historian, J. R. Green, in A Short History of the English People writes: "Pitt recognized the genius of Frederick the Great, and resolved to give him firm and energetic support. The Londoners hung after Pitt's dismissal from office on his carriage wheels, hugged his footmen, and even kissed his horses."


But a prominent Scots historian, writing in London in 1941, declared: "The foundation-stone of our present-day Europe was laid on the 16th December of the year 1740, when Frederick 'the Great' invaded Silesia. It was tamped down in 1757, when the British Government... just in time, saved Frederick from crushing disaster. As a result of these things, in the present year, small children have been shot down in Scottish streets" (8).


Meanwhile, in America, the commanders had not carried out Pitt's plans against the French. Both the army and the navy were late with their preparations at the British naval base of Halifax,—and then, when at last all was ready, they decided that the French naval base at Louisbourg, on Cape Breton Island, could not be taken, and no attack was made. The experience of 1757 made it clear to Pitt that young blood was needed as badly in the command of armed forces as it had been in the government. He was by this time in a position to introduce it, for in spite of the misgivings of the King, Pitt had become the complete master of the government. Moreover he had now had time to collect much information about Canada, and to prepare the plan of attack in detail. He now hoped that both Louisbourg and Quebec would fall in 1758. For the task he chose a man of about his own age, Colonel Jeffrey Amherst.


According to Pitt's biographer, the "King made great difficulties about promoting so junior an officer, and yielded only to the entreaties of Lady Yarmouth [the King's mistress], backed by Pitt's threat that he would abandon the Louisbourg expedition if he did not have his way. Amherst was a cautious man of no brilliance and of few words... His very slowness inspired confidence in his men, helped by the belief he showed in them" (9). As quartermaster to the Louisbourg contingent, Pitt chose James Wolfe, a youth just over thirty whom he had noticed as almost the only military officer who showed any spirit during an unsuccessful attack on the French port of Rochefort in 1757.


These young men made no mistakes. Wolfe landed near Louisbourg in July 1758, and in mid-August the fortress, along with Cape Breton Island and Prince Edward Island, surrendered to General Amherst. The attack on Quebec was postponed, however, due to the fact that a supporting army from New York under the aged commander-in-chief, Abercromby, was stopped at Ticonderoga by a much smaller French force under Montcalm.


Pitt received the good news from Louisbourg on August 18. The colors taken there were paraded before the King and then deposited in St. Paul's Cathedral in London. The House of Commons passed a motion of thanks to Amherst and the naval commander, Boscawen. The Duke of Newcastle now wanted to make peace, but Pitt, strongly backed by the London business men and even by the King, determined to take Canada in 1759. He began by putting Amherst in the place of Abercromby as the supreme army commander in America, with the special task of making the overland attack on Canada from New York. He then ordered James Wolfe to command the main attack to be made on Quebec from Louisbourg.


Wolfe had been in the army since the age of fifteen. His father, too, had been a soldier. A native of Kent in southern England, he had fought against the French in Germany and against "Bonnie Prince Charlie" in Scotland. He had ugly red hair, a gawky figure and a very frail body. But he was a serious student of military science. His maxim, he said, was "quick and sure".


Pitt allowed Wolfe to choose his own officers. The King "objected to the young colonels he found there", and especially to Guy Carleton, "who had spoken disrespectfully of the Hanoverians",— for George II was very fond of his possessions in Germany. But Pitt insisted that Wolfe must be trusted com­pletely. It was Wolfe himself who chose the Scots James Murray, as one of his brigadiers.


Wolfe, full of confidence, set out with his men on naval transports from Louisbourg in June, 1759. He had little respect for the Canadians, whom the English colonists believed were responsible for the Indian massacres from which they suffered. "I own it would give me pleasure", wrote Wolfe in 1758, "to see the Canadian vermin sacked and pillaged and justly repaid their unheard-of cruelty" (10). In his final order, he asked his men to remember "what a determined body of soldiers inured to war is capable of doing against five weak French battalions mingled with a disorderly peasantry !" (11)


When news of the fall of Quebec reached England, bonfires were lit in every town and village except Westerham, where he was born, and Blackheath, where his mother mourned his death. Pitt, himself, prepared the form of prayer for the thanksgiving service in St. Paul's, and in November moved in the House of Commons for a monument to Wolfe in Westminster Abbey. And if the joy was great in Britain, it was even greater among the British colonists, in America, whose economic interests had come most frequently into conflict with those of the French, and whose aversion to the Roman Catholic religion was intense.


The King and the masses were now highly excited and wanted to keep all the conquests. But the ministers, including even Pitt, did not yet think peace would be possible on such a basis. "If you keep Quebec, you must keep all Canada, and Louisbourg as the key to it", wrote Lord Hardwicke to Newcastle, "and is that possible without fighting on for ever ?" Pitt was still disposed to negotiate with regard to Louisbourg and Canada, and to surrender them, for a consideration (12). The peace talks which were opened in December, 1759, however, came to nothing.


For 1760, Pitt declared the capture of Montreal to be "the great and essential object remaining to complete the glory of His Majesty's arms in North America" (13). Amherst had taken Ticonderoga in 1759, but had been so cautious and careful that he had not reached the St. Lawrence.


Murray, who succeeded Wolfe in command at Quebec, almost lost the city in April, 1760, but was saved in May by the arrival of a ship from England, followed by a fleet from Halifax. In October, William Pitt had the satisfaction of receiving a dispatch from General Amherst reporting the surrender of Montreal and all Canada. The city had been surrounded in September by General Murray, Colonel Haviland, and the commander-in-chief himself. The British bourgeoisie had won a resounding victory over the absolute monarchy of France and the bureaucracy which had been built up to contribute to its glory. The great commercial doctrine of the Whigs, that war meant wealth, seemed amply justified.


Ironically enough, Pitt's power began to decline as soon as these successses had been achieved. George II died in the month following the surrender of Montreal. His grandson, a gentle, stupid youth of twenty-two, became King George III. It happened that the new king's father had had a Scottish friend, John Stuart, Earl of Bute, and that since the death of his father, young George had looked to this scholarly gentleman, with adoration, for friendship and advice. Bute thought that the King should himself become the head of a government of both parties as the leader of national administration. In 1761, to the horror of the Whigs, the Scot was appointed to the cabinet alongside of Pitt. With the accession of a British-born king, Tory opposition to the House of Hanover at last was ended.


Pitt by now had decided that Britain should not only keep Canada, both for its economic value and for the security of British North America, but should also drive the French entirely from the fisheries. Old Newcastle, on the other hand, warned that to keep Canada would encourage the old British colonies to think of independence. The Government's Board of Trade, however, backed Pitt with regard to Canada,— and added that the fishery was worth more than Canada and Louisiana put together.


The British cabinet in 1761 agreed that all Canada must be kept. But on the fisheries question there was disagreement. Pitt, speaking for the business men, wanted to exclude the French entirely. Bute did not think the war should be prolonged for this purpose. Finally Pitt was forced to compromise. It was agreed that the French should be excluded only from the fisheries of the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Their participation in the Newfoundland fisheries, on the other hand, they have preserved to the present day.


With Pitt in the cabinet, peace with France, short of total victory, was really impossible. When he urged that Britain should now attack Spain, it was too much for the "precise old gentlemen" of the new king's cabinet, and on October 5, 1761, William Pitt, the organizer of conquest, was forced to resign. Bute offered to make him Governor of Canada, and to put through legislation to allow him to keep his seat in Parliament at the same time, but this offer from his rival Pitt declined.


The Scot was now Prime Minister and he at once pushed forward peace negotiations with France which resulted in the Treaty of Paris of February 10, 1763. The treaty was bitterly denounced by Pitt, and the Whigs managed to get rid of Bute before 1763 was out. The Peace terms had been too easy, they said: "England had trounced the Froggies, and that "bloody Scotchman" had traitorously omitted to strip them bare." (14) But so far as Canada was concerned, the Great Commoner's work was not undone. The French remained in the Newfoundland fisheries, but le Canada ainsi que l'Ile du Cap Breton were ceded à sa majesté britannique.


The most important reason for the conflict which resulted in the fall of New France had been the rapid expansion of British settlements westward. Great land speculators had hoped to exploit this population movement, and had been powerful enough politically to force the British government into a war on behalf of their interests.


But another important cause of the war had been the old dispute over control of the fur trade. The fur merchants had used their influence to push the British diplomats toward war in the effort to keep the western tribes and the routes leading to them open to British traders. Whereas the land speculators were not interested in Canada itself except as the centre in which French resistance to their expansion had been organized, the British fur merchants were the first British interests to rush into Canada after the conquest and establish themselves in Quebec and Montreal. Representatives of the powerful English-speaking bourgeoisie had already appeared on the banks of the St. Lawrence before the end of the year 1759.


It was not long before the mercantile element was having trouble with General Murray. Fortunately for the French Canadians, though unfortunately for the newly arrived capitalists, the Governor had a background very different to that of William Pitt.


James Murray was born in 1721, not in England but near Edinburgh in Scotland; he was born, not the son of a bourgeois commoner, but into a family which had been raised to the aristocracy in 1643 by Charles I, during the Civil War, as a reward for its services to the Royalist cause. His father had dabbled unsuccess­fully in the stock market, but had contributed greatly to an improvement in Scottish agricultural science, for Scotland at that time was economically a poor country,— so much so that he had voted with the majority in the Scottish Parliament for union with England in 1707, hoping to feed a starving nation by getting a share in English transatlantic trade. James was the fourteenth child in a family of fifteen, and he was only a fourteen year-old schoolboy at Selkirk, in Southern Scotland, when his father died. The next year he left to earn his own living as a cadet with a regiment of Scottish mercenaries employed by Holland. It was thus decided that he was to become a professional soldier. But in 1739 war broke out between Britain and Spain, and in 1740, at the age of nineteen, Murray joined the British army with his first commission from King George Ill (15).


In 1745 a Jacobite rebellion broke out in Scotland when the Catholic "Bonnie Prince Charlie" attempted to recover the throne of his Stuart ancestors from the Whigs and their German king. But whereas Wolfe fought in Scotland against the Jacobites, Murray was severely wounded that year on active service against the French in Belgium, and took no part whatsoever in the fighting at home.


Some of his family, however, were actively Tory. In fact one brother, Alexander Murray, opposed the Whig government so violently, in a by-election in Westminster in 1750 that he was imprisoned. He was denounced by Pitt, but when he was ordered by the House of Commons to apologize on his knees, he replied, "I never kneel but to God", and went back to prison. Later, in 1751, he escaped to France where he joined the exiled Stuart court, and did not return to Britain until the Whigs were definitely, out of power in 1771, some years after the conquest of Canada. The fact that James Murray, in Quebec, after 1759, showed no sign of bitterness toward the French Canadians was undoubtedly to some extent at least, the result of his Scottish and family background.


As a soldier, he had managed to make progress in spite of the Tory reputation of his brothers. At London in 1748 he had married the daughter of a very influential English Whig (16). This new family con­nection helped him with Newcastle and Pitt. Like Wolfe, he was one of the officers who showed up well in the unsuccessful attack on Rochefort in 1757. Using all his political influence, Murray succeeded in getting orders to take his regiment to Halifax in 1758, and so obtained the opportunity to become famous in the campaigns of 1758, 1759 and 1760, notwithstanding the fact that, because of the politics of his brothers, promotion for him was slow. In 1759 he almost automatically became military governor of Quebec, an appointment confirmed by Pitt in 1760.


Governor Murray's attitude to Canada can be summed up in his own words of 1759-60: the colony "should remain, as it is a guarantee for the good behaviour of its neighbouring colonies", therefore "I am to do everything in my power to convince them [the inhabitants] how happy they would be under the influence of British laws". (17)


The permanent appointment as civil governor of the Province of Quebec however, was strongly desired by an important Whig member of parliament, John Wilkes, who had the support of Pitt. But Pitt was out of office before the appointment was made in 1763, and the King insisted that it should go to Murray. Wilkes accused Bute of deliberately appoint­ing "four hungry Scottish governors" to rule the new colonies of East Florida, West Florida, Granada, and Quebec, and deplored "the appointment of military men to civil governments".


Murray replied that "Wilkes may say what he will, but every one must allow that Sandy [i.e. the Scotsman] is a good soldier", though he regretted that, contrary to their reputation for "avarice", his Scots soldiers "have spent all their money in ribbons for the Canadian girls!" (18) As for his own views, he declared himself "an honest Briton, who blushes for the man who makes distinctions between the north and south of the Tweed", the river which separ­ates England from Scotland.


A thorough Tory at heart, he agreed entirely with Lord Bute that the King himself should govern in the interests of all classes, and should not be forced to choose his ministers from any one party. For the Whigs, be it emphasized, abhored democracy and desired merely government in the interest of their own class, the capitalistic bourgeoisie. This fact made it impossible for the French Canadians to join with the American Whigs when, with the full approval of Pitt in England, they struck for independence from [an] Empire headed by a Tory King and government. Toryism lost thirteen old bourgeois-domin­ated British colonies, but with the help of the British fleet, it managed to preserve the Catholic agricultural province of Quebec. As compared to the United States of America, the British Empire was, for the French Canadians of that day, the lesser of two evils.


How different the course of events in Quebec would have been had Pitt or some other English Whig become its first governor is indicated by the views which he expressed in Parliament in 1774 on the Quebec Act. Opposing this bill, introduced by a government composed of Tory friends of George III, Pitt (Lord Chatham) attacked the extension of the boundaries, the lack of an assembly, the restoration of French civil law, and the Roman Catholic religion. "Popery," he declared, "is established, the Protestant Church devoted, and the veil of its temple rent assunder: as well pull down all Protestant steeples !" (19)


In short, had Pitt been here or anywhere else in America, he would have conducted the government as much in the interest of the mercantile bourgeoisie as he did in England. The fact that in Quebec this group consisted of a small English-speaking Protestant minority would merely have intensified his attitude. They would have had their way. But Murray resisted them and consistently refused to allow them to run the province in their own interest. The result was that they forced Murray to return to London in 1766. The Whigs were back in office, at that time, and under pressure from the business groups in London and Canada, they had publicly repulsed him by order-in-council. But the Governor so stoutly defended himself that, in 1767, he was publicly vindicated by another order-in-council.


Yet while Murray's military accomplishments in Canada proved permanent, his political victory over the new bourgeoisie was not so complete. It was the relentless search for profits which had led Great Britain to conquer the country, and English-speaking capitalists were bound to follow up this accomplishment. Their struggle with the mass of the people for control of the Province of Quebec had, in fact, but just begun.


(1) Max SAVELLE, The Diplomatic History of the Canadian Boundary 1749-1763, (Toronto: The Ryerson Press, 1940), p. 77.


(2) Ibid.


(3) The Cambridge History of the British Empire, (1929), vol. I, p. 462.


(4) James A. WILLIAMSON, A Short History of British Expan­sion, (Macmillan, 1931), I, 396-7.


(5) Basil WILLIAMS, The Life of William Pitt, (Longmans, Green and Co., London, 1914), I, p. 213.


(6) Ibid., I, 163


(7) Ibid, II, 298.


(8) Agnes Mure MACKENZIE, Scotland in Modern Times, (Chambers, London, 1941), p. 58.


(9) WILLIAMS, op. cit., I, 367.


(10) Ibid, II, 13.


(11) Ibid, II, 11.


(12) Savelle, op. cit. 96-7.


(13) King's Speech, Nov. 13, 1759.


(14) MACKENZIE, Op. Cit., 66.


(15) R. H. MAHON, Life of General the Hon. James Murray, London, 1921.


(16) Ibid., 41, 48.


(17) Ibid., 281-3.


(18) Ibid., 310-1.


(19) WILLIAMS II, 300-1.


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Source: Gordon O. ROTHNEY, “ Les vainqueurs”, in Action nationale, Vol. XXVIII, No 4 (December, 1946) : 289-307.

© 2006 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College