French-British Conflict pre-Seven Years’ War


Attack on the French Fleet at Louisbourg.

The French naval and colonial ministry offered little guidance to the respective governors general. In April 1749 the experienced Maurepas was relieved of his duties and exiled from Versailles by his rivals at court. The French Council of State, whose members were beholden only to the king, was more faction-ridden than the British cabinet, which had not yet arrived at the principle of collective responsibility but did need some degree of cohesion to face Parliament. Maurepas’s successor, Antoine-Louis Rouillé, was a sixty-year-old career bureaucrat with little knowledge of the navy or colonies. Although his inclinations were far from warlike, Rouillé deferred to the advice of the French authorities at Quebec, who feared that the British penetration of the area would lead to the eventual severing of Canada from Louisiana; this concern was related to the long-standing fear that once British Americans crossed the Appalachian Mountains they could not be stopped before they menaced Spanish Mexico.

The main trade route from Montreal to Louisiana passed from Lake Erie along the Maumee and Wabash rivers to the Ohio River and then to the Mississippi; penetration of the upper Ohio River watershed would place the British dangerously close to this route. The traditional French policy had been that of cultivating the friendship of the Indian nations of the region through generosity and respect in order to use them to deter British American expansion.

The inexperienced new French governors general now sought a more direct military solution to the threat, after having first made a ludicrous attempt to assert French claims by burying lead tablets at strategic locations. When this failed they turned to violence. Their Indian allies destroyed the area’s major British trading post, the town of Pickawillany, in 1752. The following year Governor General of New France Ange Duquesne de Menneville, marquis de Duquesne, who like his predecessors was a senior naval officer, conscripted Canadian militia to begin a string of forts linking Lake Erie with the place where the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers joined to form the Ohio River.

This building of forts angered and frightened not only the Shawnees, Delawares, and other Indians of the area but also British Americans and the British government, who mistakenly saw it as the prelude to an attack on the American frontier. Lieutenant Governor Robert Dinwiddie, the acting governor of Virginia, was particularly concerned. Dinwiddie was actively involved with a group of land speculators who wished to attract settlers to the same area in which the French were building forts. When his representative, George Washington, was unsuccessful in warning off the French, Dinwiddie sent him back with a party of 150 Virginia militia. The hotheaded Washington ambushed a French Canadian patrol on 28 May 1754 and then built a makeshift fort to await the French response. When a large party of French Canadians and Indians attacked, Washington was forced to surrender, precipitating a diplomatic crisis. Ironically, the person who had to respond was Rouillé. The able Puyzieulx had been forced by health reasons to resign the foreign ministry in late 1751. When his successor died in office in July 1754, Rouillé switched offices from the naval and colonial ministry to the foreign ministry.

The crisis of 1754 caught the French navy by surprise. Reduced to only thirty-three ships of the line on 1 January 1749, it had grown to fifty-seven ships of the line by 1 January 1755. Thirty-four of these ships had been launched during the previous six years, while some older ships were retired. Although apparently it frightened the British, this construction program was not aggressive in nature, as the ships were built chiefly for convoy protection; the only ships carrying more than 74 guns were four new 80’s. During the same six years, the British repaired a number of ships of the line, including seventeen during the years 1751-54, but launched only thirteen new ones. On 1 January 1755, however, the British navy contained more than 100 ships of the line. The Spanish navy, reduced to some twenty ships of the line at the end of the previous war, launched twenty-six during the period. 7 France was so far from expecting war that in 1752 the French navy reduced its purchases of timber and other naval materiel in order to save money. When war broke out, the British navy was not only far larger than the French but also better prepared for war. Moreover, it had the expert guidance of the brilliant Anson, who became first lord of the admiralty in 1751.

The British responded to Washington’s surrender by sending two regiments of regulars commanded by Major General Edward Braddock to Virginia. Rouillé began negotiations to avert war, but they had little chance of success. Newcastle, now prime minister, was not anxious for war, either, but he was undercut by the interference of a war party headed by the king’s favorite son, the Duke of Cumberland. By the middle of March 1756, the negotiations were doomed, although Rouillé was foolish enough to let them drag on while Britain prepared for war. Meanwhile the French prepared to send 2,400 troops to Quebec and 1,200 to Louisbourg in response to the sending of Braddock’s regiments. This did not really pose much of a threat to the British American colonies. Braddock’s regiments alone would total 1,500 men when they were completed by recruiting in the colonies, which contained twenty times the population of Canada. Other regiments were being raised in the British North American colonies, too. On 24 March 1755, however, the inner cabinet ordered a squadron to intercept the French before they reached Louisbourg; on 27 April Vice Admiral Edward Boscawen sailed for Louisbourg with eleven ships of the line. Six days later the French squadrons for Louisbourg and Quebec sailed together from Brest; to save time, the French had temporarily converted nine ships of the line into troop transports, while their escort consisted of only four ships of the line.

The French were saved by fog off the coast of Newfoundland, which scattered their ships but kept most of them from Boscawen’s grasp. On 10 June he attacked and captured the Alcide, 64, and one of the transports, the Lys, but the rest of the French fleet arrived safely at Louisbourg and Quebec. A month later General Braddock’s army was virtually destroyed by Indians and marines (French-born troops with Canadian officers, who were under the control of the French naval and colonial ministry) as it approached the new French fort at the junction of the Allegheny and Monongahela. By now the British had expanded their objectives well beyond the Ohio country. The inner cabinet now planned to seize all of Canada south of the St. Lawrence River using mostly troops raised by the British American colonies. It also planned to occupy the French-held portion of Acadia.

The remaining British offensives of 1755 were only partly successful. A large force to attack Fort Niagara proceeded as far as Oswego on Lake Ontario, but was stranded there when winter set in. Another large force en route to attack Fort St. Frédéric on Lake Champlain was attacked on the shores of nearby Lake George by a French force, including the newly arrived French regular troops. It beat back the attack and captured the French commander, but was unable to follow up the victory. The British governor of Nova Scotia captured the nearby French forts and then expelled the defenseless French-speaking civilian population of Acadia. Such cruelty threatened to become the norm; the British American frontier was swept by Indian raids once Braddock was defeated.

Louis XV and his Council of State now faced massive problems, particularly the French navy’s lack of preparation for war. The navy would suffer irreparable damage unless France could manage the safe return not only of the remaining eleven ships of the line at Louisbourg and Quebec but also of France’s returning overseas trade, whose sailors would be needed for manning the navy’s ships. Luckily it had the advice of Rouillé’s replacement as naval minister, former finance minister Jean-Baptiste de Machault d’Arnouville.

Throughout the eighteenth century the British navy had far better trained ship crews and captains and, on balance, somewhat more skilled admirals. Ever since the reign of Louis XIV, however, France had the benefit of talented administrators serving as naval ministers. Generally they were highly competent, and occasionally they were brilliant. Machault was one of the most astute. He decided to send a squadron of six ships of the line to visit Lisbon and then cruise off Cape Ortegal, the northwest tip of Spain. This distracted the British navy, which feared that the squadron was the vanguard of another invasion attempt. France carefully avoided declaring war in response to Boscawen’s aggression, even releasing a captured British frigate. This confounded the British inner cabinet, the informal group of Newcastle and half a dozen or so other senior officials who set policy and made strategy. By the time they ordered a general attack on French commerce, most of the overseas trade had arrived safely; even the ships from Canada returned safely except for one old ship of the line.

The long-term problems facing France were even more daunting than the recent crisis had been. In spite of Machault’s enthusiasm and confidence, France had virtually no chance of winning an extended predominantly naval and colonial war against Great Britain. Canada barely could feed itself and its Indian allies in the Upper Country, let alone sustain a large army of French troops. The British in contrast could draw on many thousands of British American colonial troops, while the colonies easily could feed as many troops as Britain chose to send; by the summer of 1759 British regular battalions in North America would outnumber the French by three to one (twenty-four battalions against eight). France could not send enough food to feed substantial reinforcements unless the French navy controlled the Gulf of St. Lawrence. It could not count on doing this indefinitely, because it was greatly inferior in financial resources and badly outnumbered in both sailors and ships of the line. Sixty-one British ships of the line were in service on 1 June 1755 against 21 French, 88 were in service on 1 June 1756 against 33 French, 96 were in service on 1 June 1757 against 42 French, and 104 were in service on 1 June 1758 against 25 French.

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