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How Britain Came to Fight America

Written by Nick BunkerAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Nick Bunker


List Price: $14.99


On Sale: September 16, 2014
Pages: 448 | ISBN: 978-0-385-35164-5
Published by : Knopf Knopf
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Written from a strikingly fresh perspective, this new account of the Boston Tea Party and the origins of the American Revolution shows how a lethal blend of politics, personalities, and economics led to a war that few people welcomed but nobody could prevent.  

In this powerful but fair-minded narrative, British author Nick Bunker tells the story of the last three years of mutual embitterment that preceded the outbreak of America’s war for independence in 1775. It was a tragedy of errors, in which both sides shared responsibility for a conflict that cost the lives of at least twenty thousand Britons and a still larger number of Americans. The British and the colonists failed to see how swiftly they were drifting toward violence until the process had gone beyond the point of no return.

At the heart of the book lies the Boston Tea Party, an event that arose from fundamental flaws in the way the British managed their affairs. By the early 1770s, Great Britain had become a nation addicted to financial speculation, led by a political elite beset by internal rivalry and increasingly baffled by a changing world. When the East India Company came close to collapse, it patched together a rescue plan whose disastrous side effect was the destruction of the tea.

With lawyers in London calling the Tea Party treason, and with hawks in Parliament crying out for revenge, the British opted for punitive reprisals without foreseeing the resistance they would arouse. For their part, Americans underestimated Britain’s determination not to give way. By the late summer of 1774, when the rebels in New England began to arm themselves, the descent into war had become irreversible. 

Drawing on careful study of primary sources from Britain and the United States, An Empire on the Edge sheds new light on the Tea Party’s origins and on the roles of such familiar characters as Benjamin Franklin, John Hancock, and Thomas Hutchinson. The book shows how the king’s chief minister, Lord North, found himself driven down the road to bloodshed. At his side was Lord Dartmouth, the colonial secretary, an evangelical Christian renowned for his benevolence. In a story filled with painful ironies, perhaps the saddest was this: that Dartmouth, a man who loved peace, had to write the dispatch that sent the British army out to fight.



The Finest Country in the World

Let the savages enjoy their deserts in quiet.

—­Thomas Gage, commander in chief of the British army in America

In the summer of 1771, the Mississippi River marked the western boundary of the British Empire.

A few miles from the water’s edge, in the furthest corner of what is now the state of Illinois, a traveler brave enough to venture overland from the east would come to a tall, rocky bluff, pitted with caves and crevices among the trees. Reaching the top he would look down across a wide and muddy tract of land filled with corn and ripe tobacco. Beyond the fields and just before the river, his gaze would fall upon a line of battlements built with limestone quarried from the ridge. They belonged to a fort with platforms for cannon at each corner and a British flag flying above it. As the traveler crossed the plain, more details would emerge from out of the haze. He would see a moat, a sloping earthwork, and a row of huts near the fort, with the smoke from kitchen fires hanging in the sunshine.

From a distance the fort’s defenses seemed solid enough, but the traveler would soon identify odd traces of neglect. Nobody had cut the tall grass by the gate. Heaps of rubble lay beside the track, all that was left of a village or a few abandoned farms. Some broken fences remained, but the cattle they corralled had vanished long ago; the corn was running wild; and many years had passed since a field hand took a harvest of tobacco leaf. In the dusk, the traveler might exchange a greeting with the redcoats who stood sentry in this corner of the wilderness. They would offer him some rum and show him around the back of the fort, where he would find more evidence of decay. Close to the walls, the riverbank dipped away steeply in a cliff of yellow sand. From time to time parts of it crumbled and fell, to be carried off by the Mississippi in the night.

Far away at army headquarters in New York, the base by the river was officially listed as Fort Cavendish, after an English general of noble blood who never found time to cross the Atlantic. On the frontier, the redcoats chose to keep the name the French had given to the place. To a Frenchman, the post was known as Fort de Chartres, mispronounced by the British as Fort Charters. By the early 1770s, it was slipping into ruin like the rest of the imperial system to which the base belonged. From the French, the British had inherited a post constructed on moist, low-­lying ground, close to a bayou and next to a swamp, in a site so exposed that the walls needed constant repair until at last they collapsed entirely. Handsome to look at but far too costly to maintain, the fort was built on weak foundations, the British had acquired it without a cogent plan for its future, and in time it was bound to collapse. In other words, the post symbolized Great Britain’s plight in North America as a whole, a continent she did not comprehend and could not hope to rule.

In theory, Fort Charters controlled a long line of communication from Lake Michigan down to the Gulf of Mexico. In practice, the authority of King George III stretched no further than a field gun could fire six pounds of iron from the ramparts. Much the same was true in the rest of his American dominions, where his position would soon become almost as untenable as the fort.

In the story of what happened to the British in Illinois, we can find a parable about the vanity of empire. It is a tale of error and misunderstanding, of ideas only half ­thought out, of neglect and delay and occasional corruption. The occupation of Fort Charters would end in failure after a pitiful waste of lives and money: a foretaste of what was to come when, soon afterward, the British lost not only the Mississippi valley but also the loyalty of their old colonies along the eastern seaboard, as the American Revolution started to unfold.

The British involvement in the far west had begun in 1763, by the stroke of a pen at a conference in Paris. A treaty negotiated at the Louvre put an end to the Seven Years’ War, a conflict fought out on three continents between France, Spain, and Austria on the one hand, and Great Britain and its Prussian allies on the other. In exchange for peace the French king Louis XV ceded away a string of islands in the Caribbean and all his possessions on the frontier from Quebec to Alabama. Suddenly the British acquired a vast new domain beyond the Appalachians: a territory so immense that two more years passed before they could hoist their colors above every post the French had surrendered.

Caring nothing for the politics of Europe, soon after the signing of the peace of Paris the native tribes rose in rebellion, forcing the British to fight the bloody campaign known as Pontiac’s War. Even when it ended, not in outright victory but in a fragile truce, the redcoats could not occupy Fort Charters immediately. First they had to send envoys with liquor and ammunition to win over the local chieftains who had never joined the uprising or been parties to the armistice. And when at last a deal was struck, the British still had to find a way to reach the Mississippi, a journey the army had never made before.

To undertake the mission, they chose the Black Watch, a Scottish regiment used to empty stomachs and hard fighting in the rain. From their nearest camp on the Ohio River it took eight weeks by boat for the Highland soldiers to reach Fort Charters to collect the keys from the ragged platoon of Frenchmen who formed its garrison. That was in the autumn of 1765. At first, the redcoats were enthusiastic, finding the geography superb. Since every British officer either came from the landowning classes or aspired to join them, they appraised the landscape as though it were a vast estate at home, with ample capabilities for pleasure and for profit. It was, said one lieutenant, “the finest Country in the known World,” with its rich soil, its bears and buffalo, and a multitude of deer to stalk. But while the British admired the wildlife, they could not abide the people they met. Soon their letters east began to carry warnings that the fort could not be held.

“Your excellency knows the French,” the base commander wrote. “You will sooner imagine than I can describe the trouble they give me.” In the Illinois country, King Louis had left behind hundreds of settlers, men and women from Quebec who inhabited their own little world by the river, growing wheat for the West Indies and drinking wine made from wild grapes. Unwilling to remain among the redcoats, most of the French soon disappeared across the water into Spanish-­held territory, taking with them their cows and their Jesuit priest. Those who remained were defiant, demanding their own laws, free exercise of their religion, and their own elected assembly.

If the French were difficult, the native people were impossible. In the spring they would gather at Fort Charters, hoping for gifts of food to tide them over until their own harvest of corn. This was part of a system the French had created to keep the peace without using force, but the British found it hard to feed even themselves. Unable to keep the old French bargain with the Indians, the Scotsmen were encircled by hostile clans more ruthless than any cattle raider from Loch Ness. One year, a war party silently entered the cottages outside the ramparts and slaughtered a British soldier and his wife in bed. A month later they took more scalps from a community of peaceful Indians who lived nearby. Too few to fight back, the redcoats could do nothing but send another weary letter to headquarters.

Of all their adversaries, the most destructive was the Mississippi. When the snows melted far to the north, the river would begin to rise, sending a tide of brown water surging around a bend until the bastions at each angle of the fort began to shift and crack. After finishing their tour of duty the Black Watch had gone, to be replaced by Irishmen who tried to strengthen the walls by ramming stones into the bank in winter, only to see the spring floods wash them away. And when at last in late summer the river fell, it left stagnant pools filled with mosquitoes, from which disease crept up to infect the barracks and the married quarters. In a single month in 1768, fever killed sixty men, women, and children, leaving only a few dozen soldiers fit to hold a musket. “We Carried out in a Cart four and five a day,” wrote an ensign. “The poor little Infant Orphans following.”

As each season went by, new tales of woe flowed back to New York to reach the desk of Thomas Gage, the British commander in chief. The dispatches made sorry reading for the officer who had drawn up the original scheme for occupying the frontier. After the truce with Pontiac, General Gage had planned to secure the wilderness with a series of posts like Fort Charters, slung like an iron chain around the pays d’en haut, the high country, between the Great Lakes and Tennessee. Further east, the British hoped to keep the peace with their old treaties with the Iroquois, which left the tribes free to enjoy their ancient hunting grounds safe from interference by settlers from the colonies along the coast. Between them, the forts and the treaties would give the British control of the fur trade, the only kind of wealth Gage believed the wilderness could yield.

From Manhattan the strategy might have seemed plausible, but it rested on foundations as flimsy as those of the fort. For their supplies and trading goods, the British in Illinois had to rely on shipments from Philadelphia, a thousand miles away, coming by a route so costly that they could rarely turn a profit from dealing in skins. How much easier it would have been if the knives and blankets could have sailed upriver from New Orleans; but when the British signed the Paris treaty, they misread the map, giving the king of Spain all the open channels from the Mississippi to the gulf. And meanwhile, closer to home the old British deal with the Iroquois amounted to another bargain they could not guarantee. It would only survive while Gage maintained the flow of gifts and gunpowder and kept his promise that Pennsylvania and Virginia would leave the tribes unmolested. With each year that passed, these conditions grew harder to fulfill.

Gage could not even trust his own subordinates. Rumors began to circulate about bullying, fraud, and embezzlement in the Illinois country: this was a way of life in the British army, where for years the officers went on claiming pay for men who were long since dead, but on the frontier the colonels and the majors plumbed new depths of scandal. Embarrassing, expensive, and impossible to manage, the western wilderness swiftly became a luxury that General Gage could not afford.

Across his whole command from Nova Scotia to the Bahamas, he could deploy only fifteen battalions of foot. He had no cavalry at all. Including their engineers and their artillery, the redcoats in North America amounted to fewer than six thousand men, half as many as the British kept in Ireland. With such a small army and a budget that never seemed to be enough, the general could not police a continent. Although he was rarely a bold commander in the field, Thomas Gage understood the logistics of his army, and he kept careful accounts of every shilling he spent. Soon he bowed to the inevitable and began to plan the evacuation of the frontier barely two years after his soldiers had arrived in Illinois.

By the spring of 1767, the general’s letters home about the frontier had become essays in despair. Repeatedly, he made the case for abandoning it entirely, not only the post at Fort Charters, but also Pittsburgh and Detroit and all the others in the wilderness. Time and again, he met with little more than procrastination. As early as 1768, Gage’s new strategy of withdrawal from the wilderness received the backing of the relevant minister, Lord Hillsborough, the colonial secretary, a pessimist about the prospects for America, but Hillsborough could not make the rest of the British cabinet see sense. Compared with the affairs of Europe or the endless maneuvers for power at home, the Mississippi valley seemed too trivial to bother with. Decisions about it were continually deferred.

Even the experts in London disagreed about the role the wilderness should play in the empire’s destiny. None at all, said some, because, according to a royal proclamation, dating from the same year as the peace of Paris, the American colonists were supposed to remain firmly behind the Appalachians, hugging the seaboard as docile subjects of the Crown. Allow them to cross the mountains, and they would provoke another Indian war like Pontiac’s. Worse still, the settlers might shake off their loyalty to the king and begin to build workshops and factories on the frontier to compete with those of England. But while the official doctrine reserved the interior for the tribes, others took a different view, lobbying hard for expansion in the wilderness as a way to make money for the king or for themselves. Adrift between competing opinions, the British preferred to do nothing about the region, as though somehow or other the problems it posed would resolve themselves.

And then at last, in the autumn of 1771, a moment came when a decision about the Illinois country could no longer be postponed. Sent out by General Gage, an officer of engineers arrived at Fort Charters, surveyed the post, and then under cover of night slipped out by canoe to avoid an Indian ambush. After many detours he made his way back to New York with the damning evidence that Gage required. By now, only a few yards of solid ground remained between the river and the walls. Another spring flood would cause the fort to collapse.

Keen to concentrate his army on the eastern seaboard to deter the colonists from disobedience to the Crown, Gage relayed the report to London, where, in November, it reached Lord Hillsborough, who immediately took it to the cabinet and the king. Reluctantly, they gave the order to evacuate. The following spring, as the walls of Fort Charters began to slide into the Mississippi, the redcoats left the post for good. On the rim of the empire the army gave up one fort after another, but the orderly withdrawal that General Gage intended soon became a rout, as even bases that he meant to keep fell apart for lack of money to maintain them.
Nick Bunker|Author Q&A

About Nick Bunker

Nick Bunker - An Empire on the Edge

Photo © Steve Hill Photography,Lincoln

Nick Bunker is the author of Making Haste from Babylon, a history of the Mayflower Pilgrims, described by The Washington Post as “a remarkable success.” Educated at King’s College, Cambridge, and Columbia University, he was a journalist for the Liverpool Echo and the Financial Times, and then an investment banker, chiefly with the Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation. During his careers in journalism and finance, he traveled widely in China, India, the former Soviet bloc, and the United States. He now lives in Lincolnshire, England.

Author Q&A

A conversation with Nick Bunker, author of

How Britain Came to Fight America

Q: For Americans, the Revolutionary War is an epic narrative of  heroism, to which we return again and again. In AN EMPIRE ON THE EDGE, you’ve written a new account of the war’s origins—but you describe the story as “a tragedy of errors.” What do you mean by that?

As I worked on the book, I always had in mind the words of  the Roman poet Virgil, writing after the civil wars of his own era. Sunt lacrimae rerum, Virgil said, “there are tears in things.” Because the records that survive are incomplete, we’ll never know precisely how many British soldiers and sailors lost their lives trying to subdue the rebel colonies. But on the British side, the death toll came to at least 20,000: a very high number. Even in 1778, after  Saratoga, the British army had fewer than 55,000 troops deployed in the West Indies and America, and so the casualty rate was truly dreadful. That’s why I call the war a tragedy, and that’s why my book has an elegiac tone. The question a historian has to answer is this: how and why did Great Britain embark on a conflict so lamentable? In AN EMPIRE ON THE EDGE, I’m trying to get inside the heads of  the politicians in London. I want to understand why they started a war that killed so many young men for nothing.

Q: You say that the British started the war, and yet the Boston Tea Party lies at the heart of your book. Wasn’t the destruction of  the tea in Boston Harbor an act of  provocation—some would say a form of  terrorism—to which the British had to respond in defence of  law and order?

I see the Boston Tea Party as a historical accident that had been waiting to happen for many years. The  British had created a loose, ramshackle empire whose only purpose was to make a profit for the mother country. Because it was based upon speculation in commodities—tea, sugar and tobacco—and because it was financed by debt, this commercial empire was inherently fragile. Worse still, the British had forgotten a lesson their own history should have taught them: that the exercise of  hegemony over a subject people requires tact, sensitivity and the utmost respect for local laws and customs. Britain’s ruling elite simply never took the  trouble to understand their American cousins. They never reached out with sympathy to people such as George Washington and John Hancock who should have been their friends.

Q: Two British statesmen occupy center stage in your book: the premier, Lord North, and his kinsman Lord Dartmouth, the minister responsible for the colonies. How did you approach them?

I immersed myself in their letters and papers—not only those that directly concern America, but also their family correspondence—and I visited what remains of their country estates. In Lord North and Lord Dartmouth, I  found two men who, in their private lives, displayed many admirable qualities. They were loving husbands, they gave freely to charity—especially Lord Dartmouth—and they were sincerely Christian. Indeed, I came to feel affectionate towards them both, but only up to a point. Public life requires other virtues, of  forethought and analysis, that they did not possess. Addicted to social hierarchy and to protocol, they could not  think outside their little box of  privilege.  They could not appreciate the values of  farmers in New England and Virginia. And so, in January 1775, they issued  the  orders that sent the redcoats up the road to Lexington.

Q:  How does AN EMPIRE ON THE EDGE shed new light on the Tea Party’s origins?

There’s a riddle we have to solve: exactly why, in 1773, did Lord North decide to ship the East India Company’s tea  to America in such huge quantities? Since the tea carried a tax that Americans bitterly  resented, he ought to have known what a fuss it would cause. I made it my business to investigate all the relevant archives. I examined those of the East India Company, the Bank of England and the British government, and also the newspapers and the letters of  Thomas Hutchinson, the Governor of  Massachusetts. What did I find? When all the facts are in, what emerges is a tale not of tyranny but of  incompetence. Lord North saw the shipping of the tea as a cunning ploy to make the Americans see sense and pay at least one of the taxes they owed to the empire. That was a very big mistake.

Q: You call the American Revolution “a lawyer’s war.” Why do you say that?

In the 21st century, the closest bond of friendship between Great Britain and the United States ought not to be a military alliance, but instead a shared commitment to civil liberties and the rule of  law. However, we should never forget that the phrase “the rule of law” means different things to different people. Even now we disagree about its definition, but in the 1770s  the gulf of  misunderstanding was almost bottomless. At every step on the road to war, the British government took legal counsel; and each time the lawyers told them that Americans had committed high treason, for which they had to be punished. Technically, the British lawyers were correct, but I suppose the moral of the story is this: don’t blindly follow your attorney’s  advice. The other side has lawyers too. Their arguments also need to be heard.

Q: You’re about as British as an author can be, born and raised in and around London, a former journalist for the Financial Times, and you live next to a medieval cathedral. But you choose to write about American history—first the Mayflower Pilgrims, and now the Boston Tea Party and the origins of the  Revolutionary War. What attracts you to Americana?

: It all began with National Geographic! Our dentist’s waiting room was piled high with back numbers, and that was how—at the age of  six—I learned about Lincoln and the Civil War. In one issue, I found an advertisement from a company called Sinclair Oil offering a free map of  the battlefields. So my mother and I wrote to Sinclair’s home office in California, and a month or two later the map arrived. Stonewall Jackson became my boyhood hero: I was too young to understand the wickedness of  slavery. And then, in the 1970s,  when Vietnam and Watergate filled our television screens, I began to study American history seriously. I was taught at my grammar school by a brilliant man, Denis Winter, who wrote superb narratives of  the trench warfare of  World War I. “Forget the Tudors,” Mr Winter told me. “If you want a real challenge, try to puzzle out American politics —there’s no subject more complex or more demanding.” He lent me books by two great American historians,  Samuel Eliot Morison and Richard Hofstadter, both of whom I still regard with reverence. From that moment, I was hooked.

Erica Hinsley / ehinsley@randomhouse.com / 212-572-2018

Praise | Awards


"Bunker's tightly argued and deeply researched book shows how a broader perspective can shed new light on even the most familiar events." —Journal of the American Revolution Book of the Year (Honorable Mention)

"Bunker's tightly argued and deeply researched book shows how a broader perspective can shed new light on even the most familiar events." —Foreign Affairs
"[A] bracing gallop through the three years leading up to the 'shot heard round the world' at Lexington, Mass., in April 1775. Mr. Bunker provides an especially lucid portrait of the woes of the East India Co., a privately owned company so closely connected to the political elite that it effectively functioned as an instrument of British state power." —The Wall Street Journal

"Lively, well-researched and replete with many unexpected twists and turns, “Empire on the Edge” succeeds in deepening our understanding of a war Bunker clearly believes the British should never have fought." —Rosemary Michaud, The Post and Courier

"Bunker’s is a fascinating historical account, with implications that go beyond its subject matter into the question of how empire-building works — or doesn’t." —The Columbus Dispatch

"Utterly absorbing and full of colour, we learn afresh what a mess Britain made of leaving America and, crucially and importantly, how that mess shaped the American psyche." —Justin Webb, The Today Programme (BBC)

"Nearly two and a half centuries after the fact, it would seem all but impossible to shed fresh light and insight into the origins of the American Revolution. And yet, this is precisely what journalist-turned-financial analyst-turned-historian Nick Bunker has accomplished in a majestic new study of the events leading up to shots being fired at Lexington and Concord in 1775." —The Manchester Journal

“A nuanced global analysis of Britain’s failure to hold onto its American colonies. . . . riveting. . . . With a sharp eye for economic realities, Bunker persuasively demonstrates why the American Revolution had to happen.” —Publishers Weekly (boxed review)

“An eye-opening study of the British view of the American Revolution and why they were crazy to fight it. . . . the failure of British leadership to recognize the warning signs will astonish readers who thought the Revolution was just about tea. A scholarly yet page-turning, superbly written history.” —Kirkus (starred review)

“Nick Bunker dazzles the reader with a deeply researched and clear-eyed accounting of the dissolution of the mighty—but woefully overextended—British Empire, and in particular its 13 colonies in North America. Bunker's mellifluous prose fairly jumps off the page, drawing the reader deeper and deeper into this intricate and fascinating tale.” —William D. Cohan


NOMINEE 2015 George Washington Book Prize

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