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Most histories would begin the account of Britain, France, and their empires not in the East, but in the West: in North America, where Britain’s thirteen colonies and New France commanded the Atlantic seaboard, and where the two powers had been vying for dominance since the early 1600s. Their competition reached its climax in the middle of the eighteenth century, during the Seven Years War. The focus of their antagonism was access to the alluring expanse of land beyond the Pennsylvania frontier. With that struggle, Britain and France were effectively fighting for the future of North America: who would win the right to shape it, and whose empire would thrive. Perhaps this story should begin in the West, too, on the banks of the St. Lawrence River, in the summer of 1759, where the best-known eighteenth-century scene of Anglo-French imperial war unfolded—the battle of Quebec, whose set-piece quality brought recurrent patterns of British and French conflict vividly to life.
Since the declaration of war in 1756, British attempts to advance into New France had been frustrated. But in the early summer of 1759, a British offensive advanced into Canada along the lower St. Lawrence, arriving at the key French city of Quebec. All summer long the British lay camped by the river, besieging the heavily fortified town perched on the cliffs above. But the French, secure in their position and numbers, remained implacable, while British attempts to attack the city from below were repulsed. In September, British commanders fixed on a plan to strike Quebec from above and so lure the enemy out to battle on the Plains of Abraham, to the north. It was a bold maneuver. The cliffs were steep, the city was strong, the British severely outnumbered. But now, three months into the siege, it was time for such a move. On the night of September 12, 1759, a silent flotilla of British boats crossed the perilous St. Lawrence River and landed nearly five thousand men, who scrabbled up the beetling cliffs in a thin red line.
With the sun rising in a low mist, the black, pungent smell of waterlogged soil, damp, but no more rain: it was as good a day as any for battle. Behind Quebec’s thick stone walls, the sleepless French commander, the Marquis de Montcalm, had heard cannon fire in the night and knew that some sort of trouble was at hand. In the morning, he gathered his men and trooped out of the city to see what had happened. Perhaps the British had managed to squeeze a few hundred men up the cliff? Instead he confronted a stunning sight. There, not one mile ahead of him, stood the entire British force, thousands of redcoats like beacons in the mist. There was no choice but to attack. At ten o’clock, the French charged, only to be cut down, just forty paces from the British line, by a barrage of musket fire. Through the clearing smoke and chaos of bodies, the British began their counterattack; the French, confused and terrified, scattered in the face of attack. “They run; see how they run!” cried a British soldier. “Never was a rout more complete than that of our army,” reported a Frenchman. At nine o’clock that very night, the French began to retreat from Quebec, leaving the city—and the keys to French Canada—in the hands of their British foes.
What had been months, even years, in the making, was over in a matter of hours. So were the lives of the French and British commanders. The Marquis de Montcalm took a ball in the torso late in the action, and was carried back to the town, bleeding profusely and saying, “It’s nothing, it’s nothing.” Through the long night of retreat, he lay dying; his burial the next day, in the words of the historian Francis Parkman, “was the funeral of New France.” Out on the Plains of Abraham, the young British general James Wolfe aimed to achieve a more glorious death. While he was leading the charge against the French lines, his wrist was shattered by a bullet; still he rushed, till two more hit him in the belly and the chest, and he fell to the ground. Some officers said that on the river crossing the previous night, Wolfe had been reciting Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard.” If so, one line would have particularly resonated: “The paths of glory lead but to the grave.” As if on cue, Wolfe expired near the battlefield, while his men charged to victory around him.
General Wolfe’s victory at Quebec is one of the grand scenes of British imperial history, a rare individual battle that really did (seem to) turn the tables. And like so many acclaimed victories, its drama rested in part on a string of depressing defeats that had preceded it. Now, three years into the fighting, Britons finally had something to celebrate: voices were raised in hymns and prayers of thanksgiving, church bells rang, fireworks exploded. Wolfe’s fatal heroism was applauded and retold in popular ballads, stage plays, published firsthand accounts, paintings and prints. By far the most famous representation appeared a full decade later, however. The Death of General Wolfe, painted by an up-and-coming Pennsylvania-born artist called Benjamin West, was exhibited at the Royal Academy in the spring of 1771. Promptly reproduced in a bestselling etching, relentlessly emulated—and satirized—the painting became an instant icon of British art. Part of its appeal lay in an arresting immediacy: rarely if ever had a grand-manner history painting depicted its protagonists in modern dress rather than classical togas. But more lay in its subject matter. This was the ultimate clash of civilizations. The Seven Years War is known in America as the French and Indian War, and those were the villains: effete French aristocrats, Jesuits, natives of blood-curdling savagery. Arrayed against them, in West’s picture, stood the best of the British Empire: bluff John Bulls in their red coats, tartan-wrapped Scots, sturdy colonials from New England farms, and a pensive, statuesque Indian fresh from the Ontario woods. (The Indian, among other things, was a pure invention of West’s; none fought with Wolfe.) This was the British Empire of the 1760s as it liked to be seen. No accident that it was painted by a colonial—and at a tense moment in Anglo-American relations, at that.
Thanks partly to its flattering misrepresentations, West’s painting conveyed two key points about the Seven Years War: this was a war between Britain and France for imperial power, and a war that Britain triumphantly won. Yet the painting’s enduring popularity takes attention away from what, in retrospect, may well have been the defining imperial battle of this defining imperial war. For while Wolfe at Quebec seized the imagination of his peers (and many since), it was a near-contemporaneous victory on the other side of the world that would ultimately have more effect on the shape of the British Empire. It had been won two years earlier, at Plassey, on the steamy banks of the River Hooghly, in Bengal. There, in 1757, East India Company troops under the command of Robert Clive defeated the nawab of Bengal and asserted military dominance in a territory larger than Britain itself.
Distant though it was from the European and North American flashpoints of the Seven Years War, and an Anglo-French battle only by proxy (the nawab was said to be cultivating French allies), the victory at Plassey set in train a series of events that affected Britain’s global position as profoundly as the defeat of the French in Quebec. With the nawabs beaten and an East India Company puppet installed instead, the Mughal power structure in Bengal was decisively dislodged. The Company sealed its victory in 1765, when the emperor granted it the right to collect Bengal’s valuable tax revenue, the diwani. From this point onward, the East India Company took on the functions of a state in addition to those of a merchant body. Soon it was India, not the thirteen colonies, that would claim the heart of the British Empire.
If one had to announce a time and place for the birth of the modern British Empire, then it would be in the far-flung contests of the Seven Years War. Many of the consequences of that conflict, such as a strengthening of British imperial patriotism, had long antecedents. And many of the changes wrought by the war were in some ways merely a prologue to the epochal upheavals of the Revolutionary-Napoleonic Wars to come. Nevertheless, the Seven Years War marked a watershed in the history of the British and French empires.
In territorial scope alone, the war surpassed previous conflicts. Since 1689, Britain and France had fought three long wars already, on the European continent and increasingly overseas. But this was the fiercest, most expensive, and most expansive war that Britain and France had waged to date. They clashed everywhere, from Montreal to Martinique, from the mouth of the Gambia in West Africa to the sudden rock outcroppings of South India. And almost everywhere, Britain won. The scale of British victory surprised even the victors. The prime minister William Pitt the Elder, who trumpeted patriotism as his watchword, dubbed 1759 his annus mirabilis: in that year alone, Wolfe secured British dominance in Canada; the French navy was demolished and Britain won access to the Mediterranean; and at Minden, in Hanover, British forces helped score that most precious of feats, a decisive land victory over France. Less than a year later, Sir Eyre Coote continued to rout France in India with his victory at Wandewash, in the south. The Americas, the Continent, and India: it seemed as if the whole world was falling into British hands, and at France’s expense.
But victory had its price. After peace was signed in the Treaty of Paris in 1763, Britain faced an empire that was larger, costlier, and more far flung than ever before. Manpower had to be found to defend it, manpower for which Britain regularly turned to its margins and colonies—Scotland, Ireland, America, and increasingly India. Money had to be found to pay for it, money that Britain also looked to its colonies to provide. The notorious Stamp Act, passed in 1765, imposed a tax on printed material in the thirteen colonies. In 1767 followed the Townshend Duties on various British imports in America, including tea, which had fast become a staple of imperial trade and of the Anglo-American palate. Britain could justify these duties in part as a way of asking the colonists to contribute to the costs of their own defense. To some colonists, however, the taxes seemed to be little better than the despotic measures of the Oriental tyrants in the empires of the East. If the Seven Years War won Britain a greater empire than ever, it also touched off the financial and political crises that would cause the thirteen colonies to break away not twenty years later.
The Seven Years War had a profound effect on Britain’s imperial geography, winning Britain important footholds around the world but also fatally weakening its ability to rule the thirteen colonies. These changes in where Britain had its empire were accompanied by changes in the kind of empire it now possessed. Historians used to treat the American Revolution as a dividing line between two distinct eras of British imperial history: a “first” British empire that was Atlantic, colonial, and mercantile; and a “second” empire, based in Asia and characterized by conquest and direct rule. The opposition of these two misleads. For what the Seven Years War heralded was the emergence of a British Empire that could be both Atlantic and Asian, commercial and conquering. It marked the beginning of a modern British Empire that was global and land-based, one that needed enormous resources—human, economic, and cultural—to keep it going.
The Seven Years War also had tremendous significance for the French empire—but not, as conventional wisdom would have it, simply by ringing its death knell. (Almost no historians write about the overseas French empire between 1763 and the invasion of Algeria in 1830.) Indeed, though France lost the war, it pursued its ongoing struggle with Britain with renewed vigor. The ink was hardly dry on the peace treaty before Louis XV’s shrewd chief minister, the Duc de Choiseul, began to prepare for the guerre de revanche. France reformed and modernized its army, and substantially increased the size of its navy—a navy that performed against Britain to devastating effect at Yorktown in 1781, precipitating Britain’s surrender in the American Revolution. It built up its continental alliances, and its Caribbean commerce flourished. Finally, France turned its imperial eyes keenly toward the East. Choiseul and his successors actively researched the possibility of invading Egypt—the stepping-stone to India—and sent Admiral Bougainville scouting for new colonies in the Pacific, thus provoking Britain. Because French history is so often divided up by political régimes (the Ancien Régime, Napoleon’s First Empire, the Restoration, and so on), continuities across periods often get neglected. But if one looks at French imperial policy, a more unified picture emerges. Notably, some of Choiseul’s undertakings would find echo under Napoleon a generation later. French imperialism did not die after the Seven Years War; it just changed its tune.
Rather than put an end to Anglo-French imperial rivalry, then, or tip the scales definitively in Britain’s favor, the Seven Years War opened a new chapter in the history of both the British and French empires. It signified a turn toward territorial gain and, with it, direct rule over manifestly foreign subjects. It also, critically, marked a swing to the East as a site of imperial desire. From this point on, the history of British and French imperial rivalry would unfold there, and in India in particular. Over the course of the next century, British power dramatically expanded in India and steadily reached beyond it, to Egypt, China, Afghanistan. France dedicatedly worked to thwart British expansion in India and to build its own influence in the Middle East and North Africa, where by 1900 it would be the dominant European power. In short, the Seven Years War fueled an Anglo-French competition for Eastern empire that would burn on and explode, in India and Egypt, more than thirty years later. So what did the British Empire look like viewed from the mango groves of Plassey, instead of from the Plains of Abraham? In many ways, rather different. Unlike Quebec, Plassey was not fought for the open conquest of territory, nor was it fought explicitly against the French. It was chiefly fought not by Crown troops but instead by the private army of the East India Company and its native Indian troops, or sepoys, in defense of commercial interests. And to stand in contrast to the youthfully gallant (if also neurotically self-absorbed) Wolfe of Quebec, Plassey cast into the public eye an altogether more complicated and more equivocal hero: Robert Clive, who, while hailed by some in Britain as the “heaven-born general,” would also find himself, and the empire he represented, the target of public attack. The history of British imperial collecting in the East began with the battle of Plassey and with Robert Clive. For it was there that Britain began to collect its empire in India and began the process of its own imperial refashioning, from a mercantile, Atlantic-based, colonial power to a global territorial ruler and an imperial nation-state. It was also at Plassey that Robert Clive became British India’s first major imperial collector, acquiring a vast personal fortune that he would use to transform himself into the greatest—and most reviled—potentate of Britain’s emerging empire in the East.
From the Hardcover edition.