Quebec History Marianopolis College

Date Published:
July 2005

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


The Fight for Oversea Empire


The Seven Year's War

A Great Imperial War


[This article was written by William WOOD and was published in 1914. For the precise citation, see the end of the document.]

IN the fourteenth century France and England began their first Hundred Years' War, a war which they were inevitably forced to renew, again and again, until the vital question of undivided sovereignty over the land   of France had been settled beyond dispute. France was the stronger power on land, and so she ultimately won this long and decisive struggle. Two centuries and a half later France and England began another mighty conflict, which may be justly regarded as a second Hundred Years' War, but which, from its nature and results, should be more aptly called the Great Imperial War. This time it was not the possession of any particular land that was the main object of contention, but rather the general command of the sea. Yet this change of object made no real difference in kind. The second war was inevitably renewed, like the first, at every crisis, till the command of the sea was settled as decisively as the actual possession of the land of France had been. But, in degree, there was a very great difference between the first war, which was waged within the limits of a single country, and the second, which was waged over every sea, sea-board and hinterland where the ubiquitous rivals crossed each other's path.


This Great Imperial War includes the seven French and English wars between the accession of William III and the battle of Waterloo . But the only British threads of connection which ran unbroken throughout the warp and woof of all the complexities of these seven wars were sea trade, sea power and oversea dominion. So it was in 1692 that the web of Canadian destiny began to be woven at the battle of La Hogue, and in 1805 that it was completed at the battle of Trafalgar, a victory which confirmed the command of the sea so decisively as to make possible the British Empire of to-day. Trafalgar made the Empire a possibility, and the navy won Trafalgar. But this by no means implies that the navy did the work alone. Apart from the general civil resources of the Empire, which are not under discussion here, there was always the mercantile side of sea power, which was indissolubly connected with the naval side. Then, the navy itself was only one, though the principal, branch of a united service which always required the close co-operation of the army, which, in its turn, often required the assistance of militia forces, especially in the Canadian campaigns. Finally, all these component parts of war power could only become effective when they and the civil resources of the Empire were duly co-ordinated under the supreme direction of a competent statesman.


The fight for Canada has three claims to great and significant distinction on all these counts. First, it is at once the archetype and best example of all imperial British wars. Its principal causes and effects were determined by sea power. It required the co-operation of navy, army and militia. It raised every cogent question of the correlations of colonies and mother country in imperial defence. And it was carried out under the supreme control of the greatest civilian war statesman of that or any other age. Secondly, its crowning battle of September 13, 1759, on the Plains of Abraham at Quebec, was the central feature of the 'Maritime War,' by which apt name the British part of the Seven Years' War was always known in contemporary England. And, thirdly, this 'Maritime War' was itself the central and most important phase of that Great Imperial War which settled the oversea dominion of the world.




The Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle was really a truce to allow the combatants to recover their breath-a pause in the game to avert a stalemate. It settled nothing and satisfied nobody. The American colonists were furious with the home government for giving back Louisbourg, which they, with the help of Warren's fleet, had captured in 1745. They chose to think that they had been sacrificed to the East India Company, as Louisbourg appeared to have been simply traded for Madras. But calmer insight would have shown them that France could have successfully invaded Holland, established a naval base there, and thus wielded a weapon dangerous enough to threaten the safety of the mother country even more than Louisbourg threatened them. The war had not been at all triumphant from the British point of view. But the mercantile marine emerged with great actual and greater potential strength; while the navy had increased to 126 ships of the line, in marked contrast to the French 31 and the Spanish 22.


In those days treaties had little effect beyond home waters, and hostilities often continued in colonies, depen­dencies and spheres of influence. In the East the French under Dupleix and La Bourdonnais were straining every nerve to found an Indian Empire, while Clive was beginning his career by defeating them. In the West they were trying equally hard to link Canada with Louisiana by taking permanent possession of the whole interior between the Great Lakes and the Gulf of Mexico . There was a general struggle of British seaboard against French hinterland. Thirteen disunited British colonies were instinctively feeling their way across the Alleghanies into the rich lands beyond ; and two French colonies were trying to prevent them by 'joining hands behind their backs.' The British had Hudson Bay, Newfoundland, and the Atlantic seaboard from Nova Scotia to Florida. The French had Cape Breton and Prince Edward Island, the present province of Quebec, and a long chain of fortified posts further west, which they were trying to extend southward along the valleys of the Ohio and Mississippi. Their line was thus an immensely long inland semicircle, flanked by the Gulfs of St Lawrence and Mexico, which were open to naval attack, and subject, along its very thin south-westward extension, to the natural pressure of a pioneering population many times more numerous than its own.




The disputed borderlands were inhabited by Indians, who were still a force to reckon with. Naturally enough, the Indians, as a whole, resented the intrusion of all whites. Wherever white men went in bodies they were certain, sooner or later, to change the whole face of the country in a way abhorrent to the Indian manner of life. But the whites were very much stronger than the Indians, and thus compelled them to take sides, whether they would or no. The Indians, therefore, chose what appeared to them to be the lesser of two evils for the time being. Both white races constantly accused them of treachery. But they simply fought for their own interests, just as the dominant whites did for theirs. In making up their minds the Indians looked at the three main chances which always affected them - which race was the more congenial, which was the better one to trade with, and which one was going to win.


The first question was almost invariably answered in favour of the French. Partly because of their pleasanter manners, partly because of their greater adaptability, and partly because of their very failure to grow as a colonizing power, the French nearly always proved the more naturally attractive to the Indian. The French-Canadian habitants were only some sixty thousand, and they were mostly settled on the banks of the St Lawrence, without .any decided tendency to expand into the hunting grounds. The French officials made much of the chiefs at all the ceremonial pow-wows, and their flowery rhetoric was always acceptable, as somewhat akin to Indian oratory. The French mission­aries had been first in the field, were unsurpassable in heroism, and, with all their devotion to their God, had never forgotten their king. The 'wilderness' French, too, were still less uncongenial. They loved war and the chase and the fur trade like the Indians, with whom they often intermarried ; and they were so few and so nomadic that their presence rarely threatened to upset the existing order of things to any unwelcome extent.


The American colonists, on the other hand, were nearly always uncongenial. They were an expanding race of farmers, uprooting and destroying the Indians like weeds wherever they went. One of their pioneers was soon followed by a dozen, and these by a hundred, and so on, till the red man was completely displaced. Even in the untamed wilderness the American was no more congenial than the British officials in the towns. The one really, notable exception was Colonel (afterwards Sir) William Johnson, an Irishman who loved the Indians as they loved him, who never cheated them in trade, spoke Indian fluently, became a Mohawk war-chief, and marched into Albany in 1746 at the head of the tribe, dressed up and painted like the others, and singing the war-song with the best of them. Nor was this all. Some time after his wife's death he saw a Mohawk chieftain's daughter, the beautiful young Molly Brant, witching the little backwoods world with daring horsemanship, and then and there took her to live with him for the rest of his life. He became the universally trusted counsellor and friend of all the Indians on the British side, and stood high in the confidence of the authorities. He was a most remarkable man, equally at home at court or in the wilds which is probably one reason why he was so successful with the Indians. But he was an exception. And his exception t proves the British rule.


Decidedly, the French were the more congenial to the Indians. But which was the better race to trade with ? Both French and British cheated as a general rule, and both were, of course, entirely devoid of conscience about the liquor traffic. But the French trade, always hampered by government restrictions, was still more adversely affected by the British command of the sea, before which it finally withered away, while its rival ultimately triumphed.


The last and most momentous question was, which side is going to win ? Owing to various causes, of which congeniality was always the principal, the Indians, who knew nothing of the outside world, were generally inclined to believe more in French than in British prowess, especially as the French understood so much better how to make the greatest show of whatever force they had. So in this, as in other questions, the bulk of the Indians threw in their lot against the British and with the French.




Within a year of the treaty the French governor, La Galissonière, sent Céloron de Blainville to claim the Ohio valley for the crown of France. But at the very same time the British Ohio Company obtained a grant of half a million acres in that region, and the next year, 1750, sent the trader, Christopher Gist, to prospect for them. In 1751-52 they began to follow up their claims ; while in the latter year the French took the British post at Pickawillany, near by, to secure their position at Detroit. After the two frontiers had thus crossed each other there could be no more peace on either side. In 1753 Governor Duquesne sent the Canadian officer Marin to build forts along the upper Ohio. In October of the same year Robert Dinwiddie, governor of Virginia, sent a sort of diplomatic mission to protest against this encroachment. The British envoy was George Washington, then a young surveyor of twenty-one, who had been befriended and employed by Lord Fairfax, the owner of five million acres in Virginia. Sixty miles north of the modern Pittsburg he saw the French flag flying over a British trader's house at Venango, now Franklin. Joncaire, the French officer, received him 'with the greatest complaisance,' and that night, after some heavy drinking, 'They told me, That it was their absolute Design to take Possession of the Ohio, and by God they would do it: For that altho' they were sensible the English could raise two Men for their one ; yet they knew their Motions were too slow and dilatory to prevent any Undertaking of theirs.'


Dinwiddie resolved to strike back, and again selected Washington, this time as a militia officer in command of a hundred and fifty men under orders to garrison the British fort which was being built at the Forks of the Ohio, where Pittsburg now stands. But while still crossing the Alleghanies Washington heard that Contrecoeur had just taken the fort with an overwhelming force. The French immediately set to work to improve their position, renamed it Fort Duquesne, and sent a detachment under Coulon de Jumonville, as a corps of observation, to see what Washington was doing, and to deliver to the English a summons requiring them to withdraw from the domain of the king of France. Washington took up his position at the Great Meadows, on the western foot-hills of the Alleghanies and about fifty miles from Fort Duquesne . Presently a friendly Indian told him that the French force could be surprised in a ravine within a few hours' distance. He at once set out, marched through the dense woods all night, and attacked the French at dawn. Jumonville was killed, and only one of his men escaped either death or capture. Warned by the Indians that a much stronger French force was coming against him, Washington fell back on the Great Meadows and entrenched himself in what the condition of his men induced him to call 'Fort Necessity.' He had not long to wait, for de Jumonville's brother, Coulon de Villiers, was hastening to avenge what the French called the 'murder' of an 'ambassador.' Nine hours of desultory firing in a downpour of rain convinced Washington that his men could not hold out against such a superior force, and he sent Captain Van Braam to arrange terms in reply to the summons of de Villiers. Van Braam, in reading aloud the French articles in English, without a good knowledge of either language, translated 'l'assassinat du Sieur de Jumonville' as 'the death of Sieur de Jumonville,' and Washington, who was listening on the other side of the sputtering candle, accepted the terms as he then understood them. The next day Washington marched out with the honours of war, leaving Van Braam and Stobo as hostages for the due return to Fort Duquesne of the French prisoners taken when de Jumonville was killed. The French now had the Ohio to themselves, with a strong base at the Forks, and a greatly increased prestige among the Indians.


Meanwhile the common danger had at last induced seven of the colonies to send commissioners to a conference at Albany with the chiefs of the Iroquois. Hendrick, the famous sachem of the Mohawks, spoke the Indian mind with unpalatable plainness and truth. Taking a stick and throwing it over his shoulder he said, 'This is the way you

have thrown us behind you . . . . The Governor of Virginia and the Governor of Canada are quarrelling about lands which really belong to us, and their quarrel may end in our own destruction.' A liberal distribution of presents mollified some of the Indians. But they were still distrustful; and small blame to them, for, while the conference was actually in session, two land companies obtained grants without the consent of the occupants, who were naturally embittered against the British more than ever. The conference led to no better practical result in another important direction. Some sort of union for the common defence of the frontier was felt to be necessary. Its urgency had been graphically illustrated in the Pennsylvania Gazette by a woodcut of a snake cut into thirteen pieces, representing the disunited colonies, with the significant motto underneath - 'Join or Die.' Benjamin Franklin records in his Autobiography that his own plan of union 'happen'd to be preferr'd . . . the general government was to be administered by a president­ general, appointed and supported by the crown, and a grand council was to be chosen by the representatives of the several colonies, met in their respective assemblies . . . . Its fate was singular : the assemblies did not adopt it as they thought there was too much prerogative in it, and in England it was judg'd to have too much of the democratic. ' The net result was that the British authorities on both sides of the Atlantic were stirred to action ; but only to action of the old disunited kind.

[Next Chapter]

Return to the Seven Years' War home page

Source: William WOOD, "The Fight for oversea Empire - The SevenYears' War", in Adam SHORTT and Arthur G. DOUGHTY, eds., Canada and Its Provinces, Vol. I, Toronto, Glasgow, Brook & Company, 1914, 312p., pp. 231-238.



© 2005 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College