10 FEBRUARY 2001, Page 39

Total victory, then total defeat

Jonathan Sumption


Faber, 125, pp. 877 The Seven Years War is one of the defining moments in modern history. Between the first, largely accidental outbreak of war in 1756 and the conclusion of the Peace of Paris in 1763, Britain paid large subsidies to Prussia to fight its battles in central Europe, while it set about dismantling the maritime empire of France. In the space of three years, from 1758 to 1761. the Royal Navy achieved command of the Atlantic, and British troops, supplied and reinforced across thousands of miles of ocean, conquered almost all the French territories in North America, the Caribbean and India. 'Our bells are worn threadbare with ringing for victories', wrote Horace Walpole to a friend, after Wolfe's capture of Quebec was announced in London.

Yet there was more to these events than an occasion for patriotic Englishmen to congratulate themselves. The Seven Years' War was the only truly decisive European war of the messy 18th century, and in some respects determined the balance of power for the 19th. More than 70 years passed before France endeavoured to rebuild a great colonial empire, and then it would be based on the Mediterranean and the Far East, not the Atlantic. The war also marked the start of the long subordination of most of the world to Europe, largely in the political commercial interest of Great Britain.

At the time, the British victories in North America were hailed as the greatest of them all. Benjamin West's famous painting of 'The Death of General Wolfe' served for generations of Englishmen as one of the icons of their empire: a celebration of British destiny, Protestantism, and armed force, the dying conqueror of Quebec surrounded by his officers and men, and contemplated in awestruck silence by a single Mohawk Indian in the foreground. Yet the campaigns which led to this climactic moment have been overshadowed by the American War of Independence which began soon after West's first painting was

first exhibited in 1771. Patriotic Englishmen lost interest in provinces which seceded from the Empire so soon after their imperial future had seemed assured. Patriotic Americans preferred to concentrate on the later, greater war in which their own national myths were born. And serious historians, British or American, patriotic or no, have turned their back on the history of wars altogether. Better to study estate management, social-climbing gentry, fallen women, or pig-iron production.

Professor Anderson is not a pig-iron man. He is a serious historical scholar, yet at the same time a fine narrator who believes in men and events as well as in impersonal forces. His history of the Seven Years' War and its aftermath in North America is not only much the best book yet written on the subject, but one of the most interesting and perceptive accounts of any major war. For he has not contented himself with describing the blows, the marches and the cannonades. He has integrated his story with the turns of English domestic politics and the conflicts of Europe in a way that is unusual among the rather insular tribe of American historians, but essential if the American experience of the war is to be understood. He also understands the dynamics of war and its impact on civil societies, He therefore explains more satisfyingly than anyone else has done why Britain's total victory in the Seven Years' War was so swiftly followed by its total defeat in the War of Independence.

Before the war Britain's American colonies had been subject to the Crown and Parliament, but they were practically self-governing and self-financing. Apart from adjudicating in the frequent squabbles of the 13 colonies and regulating maritime trade, the mother country did very little. The real significance of the Seven Years' War was that it made this unspoken compromise impossible. To conduct it at all, it was necessary for Britain to maintain in North America a large professional army, recruited mainly in the British Isles. This army, together with the far larger number of locally recruited militiamen, had not only to be paid, but to be quartered and supplied with transport for its equipment. Professor Anderson is particularly good at describing the endless clashes between British professional soldiers and local politicians who supported the war but not the impressments, the billeting, and the rest of the apparatus of coercion which was inseparable from the war and had been perfectly normal in England for decades.

These differences became much more acute when the war ended, leaving Britain with a vastly enlarged North American empire to be expensively governed and defended against European interlopers and the resurgent power of the native Indian nations of the interior. All this required a more intensive style of government, and the investment of resources in the American colonies on a scale which made the old patterns of British indifference and American deference quite unsustainable, at any rate in peacetime.

Britain was unwilling, probably unable, to finance this burden alone. Yet the only alternative was a degree of central control over the American colonies, and in particular over their revenues, which proved to be unacceptable. Constitutional issues which pragmatic Englishmen on both sides of the Atlantic had ignored acquired a sudden significance and had to be addressed. Ultimately the only solutions were total integration with the mother country or complete independence. War, and the business of preparing for it, is the greatest collective enterprise of human societies, and the most destructive test of their institutions. This is what happened to the British colonies in North America in the middle of the 18th century.

If the American colonies had been populated by their indigenous peoples and a handful of British planters and officials, like the later British colonies in India and Africa, the crude exercise of force would have been enough to resolve the dilemma. If they had been populated by European settlements too small for economic self-sufficiency it might have been resolved by consent, as it was in Australia, New Zealand and Canada until the end of the 19th century. But the Atlantic seaboard of North America was inhabited by large and largely self-sustaining communities of Englishmen. The figures on the left of West's painting include an American Ranger. The man shown cradling Wolfe's body is Major Isaac Barre, who only five years after the fall of Quebec was to warn the House of Commons that taxing the American colonies would prove impossible precisely because they were filled with loyal Englishmen. They were therefore 'actuated by principles of true English liberty', i.e. prickly, curmudgeonly and more interested in rights than duties.

It is probably unprofitable to speculate on what might have been if the Seven Years' War had never been fought. But the mere fact that the questions arise underlines the importance of the war which provoked them, American independence would no doubt have come about in due course anyway, but peacefully and many decades later. France might never have had the chance to bankrupt itself by sending fleets and armies to support the rebellious colonies. A solvent French state might never have suffered the Revolution. The Indian nations of North America might have survived better under an extended period of British rule than under the ruthless settler states which succeeded them. The great migration from Europe to America and westward across America might never have happened. And to this day the North American continent might be equally divided between thinly populated and jealously independent states of French-, Spanish-, Englishand Indian-speakers.