William Pitt’s Vision, of Global Supremacy

On September 13, 1759, the British under General James Wolfe (1727-59) achieved a dramatic victory when they scaled the cliffs over the city of Quebec to defeat French forces under Louis-Joseph de Montcalm on the Plains of Abraham (an area named for the farmer who owned the land). During the battle, which lasted less than an hour, Wolfe was fatally wounded. Montcalm also was wounded and died the next day.

The First Global War: Britain, France, and the Fate of North America, 1756-1775. Seven Years’ War (1756-1763) The third war between Austria and a rising Prussia for control over Silesia, the culmination of the long Anglo-French struggle for colonial supremacy, and the last major conflict before the French Revolution to involve all the traditional great powers of Europe. There were three principal theaters of this war. Great Britain helped support Frederick of Prussia in battling Austria, France, and Russia and their allies: British finances helped purchase mercenary troops to augment Prussia’s army. The British navy battled the French navy in the Atlantic and Indian Oceans as well as the Mediterranean and Caribbean Seas. Finally, augmented by colonial militia, the British made a determined and ultimately successful effort to destroy French power in North America. When the Seven Years’ War ended, Frederick gained Silesia, though with significant manpower losses; the British gained territory in India and all of French Canada (save for tiny St. Pierre and Miquelon Islands off the Newfoundland coast).

William Pitt’s vision, of global supremacy, seemed within reach. The early course of the Seven Years War was wholly changed by the victories of Frederick of Prussia, the ally of England, who soon acquired a reputation as the Protestant hero of Europe. In November 1757, at Rossbach in Saxony, he defeated the combined armies of France and Austria. A month later, at Leuthen in Bavaria, Frederick defeated a much greater Austrian army and seized Silesia. As if emboldened by these victories another allied commander, Prince Ferdinand of Brunswick, chased the French out of Hanover and pushed them back across the Rhine. Chesterfield, so doleful before, conceded that ‘the face of affairs is astonishingly mended’.

Pitt was now free to pursue a continental strategy, with his enemy in retreat, but already he had more extensive ambitions. In the spring of 1758 an allied force captured the French fort of St Louis in Senegal; its principal commodity of slaves was now secure for the British Crown. At the end of the year an English force took Gorée, an island off the coast of Dakar, which thirty years later would contain the notorious ‘House of Slaves’. So from the boiling and fever-stricken coastlines of West Africa came slaves and ivory, gum and gold dust, that were packed for the Caribbean or for England and then stored in factories with armed guards supplied by the local chieftains.

News came in this year, also, that Robert Clive had emerged victorious from the battle of Plassey and had taken control of Bengal, with its 30 million inhabitants, in a campaign Clive himself described as a medley of ‘fighting, tricks, chicanery, intrigues, politics and the Lord knows what’. The victory led directly to British domination of South Asia and to the subsequent extension of imperial power. Yet not all welcomed these developments. There was a sense of unease over this meddling with exotic and alien foreign lands. There seemed to be no sure foundations on which to build. Only in the nineteenth century were these doubts resolved.

Within three years the French had been compelled to leave India. Without effective sea power they were destined for disappointment. The East India Company soon had all the trappings of an oriental state, with its own police force and native army. It was the tiger in the jungle, dripping with blood and jewels. India became the cockpit in which it was shown that trade was war carried on under another name. In the poetry of the period, in fact, allusions to Africa and India became commonplace; they had become part of the imagination. Yet there was still no talk of empire.

The West Indies had become the most profitable possession, even if the prize had to be shared with the French, the Spanish and the Dutch. An expedition sailed in the winter of the year and took Guadeloupe, the home of cotton, sugar and molasses; for Pitt the island of sugar was a greater prize than Canada, so much stronger were commercial than territorial ties. It sent forth each year 10,000 tons of sugar and in return required 5,000 slaves. It was considered to be a fair bargain. In the hundred years after 1680 some 2 million slaves were forcibly removed from their homes to the work camps of the West Indies.

The conditions of the enslaved workers were notorious. Another sugar island of the Indies, Jamaica, was described by Edward Ward in Five Travel Scripts (1702) ‘as sickly as an hospital, as dangerous as the plague, as hot at hell, and as wicked as the devil’. The slaves could not breed in these torrid conditions, so even more had to be transported. These were the least of the slaves’ torments. Many of England’s overseas possessions were no more than penal colonies rivalling any of those in Stalinist Russia.

Slaves were simply beasts of burden. They were already suspended on a cross of three points, known as ‘triangular’ trade: they were purchased on the west coast of Africa with the proceeds of cloth or spirits before being transported across the ocean where they were sold to the plantation owner; the merchant seamen then returned with their holds filled with sugar, rum and tobacco. It was simplicity itself. A few local difficulties sometimes marred the smooth running of the enterprise. The slaves were manacled to the inner decks with no space to move, with women and children forced promiscuously among the male prisoners. When a ship was in danger of foundering, many of them were unchained and thrown into the sea; when some of them hit the water they were heard to cry out ‘Freedom! Freedom!’ The putrid and malignant diseases from which they suffered, in close proximity to one another, spread all over the vessel. The ‘middle passage’ across the ocean often created the conditions of a death ship.

Yet the church bells were ringing all over England. Even as the stinking and putrescent slaves were marched onto Jamaican or Bajan soil the new year in England, 1759, was being hailed as an ‘annus mirabilis’. The early capture of Guadeloupe was only the harbinger of overseas victories that guaranteed England’s global supremacy. Horace Walpole remarked that the church bells had been worn thin by ringing in victories, and wrote to Pitt ‘to congratulate you on the lustre you have thrown on this country . . . Sir, do not take this for flattery: there is nothing in your power to give what I would accept; nay there is nothing I could envy, but what you would scarce offer me – your glory.’ That had always been considered the French virtue above all others; gloire and le jour de gloire were later to be immortalized in the second line of ‘La Marseillaise’. But in 1759 they had been snatched away.

After the capture of Guadeloupe, Dominica signed a pact of neutrality with the victors. Canada, or New France as it was then known, was to come. In June General Amherst captured Fort Niagara and, in the following month, Crown Point. These victories were followed by the fall of Quebec in the autumn, when Major-General James Wolfe stole up the Heights of Abraham like a thief in the night. The capital of the French province lay on a precipitous rock at the confluence of the St Lawrence and St Charles rivers. Early assaults had come to nothing against what seemed to be an impregnable position. Wolfe wrote in his dispatches that ‘we have almost the whole force of Canada to oppose’.

Do or die. He planned to land his force on the bank of the St Charles, to scale what seemed to be the insuperable heights, and then to attack Quebec from the relatively undefended rear of the town. Recovering from their surprise at the success of the enterprise the French attacked but were beaten back. The French commander, Montcalm, was shot as he stood; Wolfe received a wound in the head, followed by two other bullets in his breast and his body. Yet in death his was the victory. The beaten and demoralized French army evacuated much of Canada and retired to Montreal; a year later the garrison at Montreal also surrendered, and Canada joined the list of England’s overseas territorial possessions.

The consequences of human actions are incalculable. With the threat of the French removed from the British settlers over the ocean, they began to resent the presence of English soldiers. Who needed the protection of the redcoats now that the enemy was gone? And so from small events great consequences may arise. An action that Voltaire derided as a conflict ‘about a few acres of snow’ gave rise in time to the United States of America.

The events in the European theatre were no less promising. The threat of French invasion was diverted. The reports of an invasion force, complete with flat-bottomed boats for landing, provoked Pitt into calling out the militia to guard the shores. At Quiberon Bay in November 1759, off the coast of southern Brittany, the French navy was caught and for all purposes destroyed. There would be no further threat of a French invasion.

And that, it might seem, was that. England had achieved maritime supremacy and gathered up more territorial possessions than ever before. The economic strain at home was beginning to show, however, with multifarious taxes imposed to bolster the revenues for the war. Yet if there was a sense of war weariness, it was not evident to the first minister. Pitt had been successful in Canada, the East Indies and the West Indies but he was determined to guide the destiny of Europe and confirm the strength of his country’s global trade. The duke of Newcastle wrote to a colleague that ‘Mr Pitt flew into a violent passion at my saying we could not carry on the war another year; [he said] that that was the way to make peace impracticable and to encourage our enemy; that we might have difficulties but he knew we could carry on the war and were one hundred times better able to do it than the French . . . in short, there was no talking to him’. Pitt knew that his colleagues were now in favour of a negotiated peace; negotiation meant, for him, compromise with the French. He would not rest until their most important possessions were in his hands. But the most carefully laid plans do not always come to fruition.

Suddenly all was changed. On 15 October 1760, George II rose early to drink his chocolate; he then felt the need to visit the water closet from which the valet-de-chambre, according to Horace Walpole, who seems to have known the most arcane secrets of the royal family, ‘heard a noise, louder than royal wind, listened, heard something like a groan, ran in’ and found the king on the floor with a gash on his forehead. The king expired shortly afterwards, bequeathing a new king to a not necessarily grateful nation.