The Seven Years War
This week's big question
What motivated the different groups involved in the Seven Years War to fight? Can we see, or infer, how they might have imagined victory?
Video introductionAt the end of this week you should be able to:
- describe American theatre of the Seven Years War;
- explain the significance of the siege of Louisbourg;
- draw inferences about Britons' and colonists' motivations for war;
- recognize the particular interests/viewpoints of the Wabanaki/Mi'kmaq leading into the war;
- recognize the particular interests/viewpoints of the Ottawa and Chocktaw coming out of the war.
Questions to consider, and learning activityThe Seven Years War was primarily a European war, but as our secondary source by Fred Anderson shows its first shots were fired in Nova Scotia and in the Ohio River Valley.
- What was the significance of Louisbourg?
- Discuss how some colonists understood the need for war, the war itself, and their place in the war.
- The cartoons offer one dimension of British views on the war. What factors appear to be motivating Britons to war?
- Gibson Clough was a 21-year-old mason from Salem, Massachusetts, when he enlisted in the colonial militia during the Seven Years War. His diary shows the experience of a soldier in the conflict, but also reveals the brutal discipline of the British regular army. What were Clough's impressions of military service? Clough said he enlisted "in the service of my King and Country". What did that mean for a Massachusetts man in 1765? Do we see other aspects of his patriotism? Other aspects of his worldview?
- Bancroft too saw military discipline for the first time, but he also saw the extraordinary impact on civilians. Is this how a young soldier might have imagined serving his King?
- We have little evidence from Indigenous peoples concerning their experiences in the war, but we can certainly get a sense of their political and diplomatic relations with the French and the British.
- Note that Pierre Maillard, a French missionary among the Mi'kmaq, was also writing around 1757 and was describing the same people (Mi'kmaq and Maliseet) as Lockerby.
- When Pontiac was discussing the post-war world, what was he reassessing? Can we see a pattern between what the Mi'kmaq were saying in Nova Scotia and what Pontiac was saying in the middle of North America?
- What issues seem to have defined the Indigenous response to the French-British war? How did Indigenous perspectives change after the war? Can we see evidence of their assessment of their positioning into the war? After the war?
- Two of our documents come from 1745, ten years before the Seven Years War, but date from an earlier effort by New England [note, New England, not England or Britain] to capture Louisbourg. While earlier these two documents illustrate two different features of why colonial Britons in Boston, New York, and Philadelphia saw the importance of capturing this French fortress. Explain the two positions.
BackgroundA few weeks ago, we said that few stories were as significant in their long-term impact as that as the Atlantic slave trade. That’s true, but few stories about a single set of events – in this case a war – have had so much short- and long-term impact as the Seven Years War. The Seven Years War was a global struggle for imperial, economic, and naval supremacy that took place between the mid 1750s and the mid 1760s. In its most basic form, it pitted the most powerful land-based country in the western world, France, against the most powerful naval country in the western world, Britain – and Britain won. The impact was enormous. It shifted the global balance of power not only away from France but also away from the continent of Europe and toward Britain and its colonies; it reoriented global trade patterns; it was the last serious moment of power and influence for Indigenous peoples in eastern North America; it saw the removal of France from the New World; it turned the territory for what is now Canada from a mixed French-Indigenous territory into a mixed British-French-Indigenous territory; and some argue that in allowing such a major role for the British American colonies it marked the real beginning of American independence. The geo-political world of 1765 was very different than that of 1755.
Our examination in this Lesson focuses on North America, on what we today might call the Canadian and American aspects of the war. As we saw in our week on King Philip’s War, the settler colonies of French and British North America, and their Indigenous allies, were in near constant conflict with each other. In United States people don’t call it the Seven Years War; they call it the French and Indian War, a name that aptly reflects their major concerns at the time. The western and northern frontiers were in a constant state of small-scale warfare; along the Atlantic coast, commercial shipping and fishing were subject to piracy and raiding; and antipathy to “Indians” and Catholics was reinforced by the growth of Catholicism among Indigenous nations aligned with (or at least not hostile to) the French presence.
- A high-res version of this map is available here.
In North America we tend to view many of these wars as local affairs, wars between the colonies. Sometimes they were. In 1745, for example, forces recruited and commanded by the colonies themselves (although mostly Massachusetts) successfully (if temporarily) captured the French fortress at Louisbourg on Isle Royale (what is now Cape Breton). But more often these wars related to on-going tensions between the two major powers of early modern Western Europe. Britain and France, and therefore New England and New France, had been in an almost endless series of wars dating back to the 1650s. The combination of religious differences – Catholic France versus Protestant Britain – combined with both countries’ desires to contain the power of the other meant that conflict, and war, were always close at hand. This pattern was not interrupted until the end of the Napoleonic wars in 1815 (of which what we call "the War of 1812" was a part).
The war in North America can be seen to have had four major theatres:
- the interior (what the French called les pays d’en haut, what we would today call the Mid-West of the United States),
- the campaign for Louisbourg (and the related issue of the expulsion of the Acadians),
- the campaign for Quebec/Canada, and
- the naval battle for control of the North Atlantic (obviously crucial in getting any supplies or troops to North America).
The British knew that if they were to win the North American campaign, they had to take Canada, because it was the base of supplies for the interior. It was clear by 1757 that they were not going to capture Canada by land; they would have to take it by sea. And if they were to do so, they would first need to conquer the fortress at Louisbourg. Located on the eastern end of Cape Breton Island, Louisbourg was the largest and best-defended fortress in North America, and together with its French fleet it patrolled the waters of Nova Scotia and effectively controlled access to the Gulf of St. Lawrence and thus the St. Lawrence River.
Do you know Canada's first national anthem? "The Maple Leaf Forever", celebrated Canada's birth in the British defeat of France (can you see why French Canadians never really embraced that anthem?).
But as our readings this week demonstrate, the simple tale of military conquest obscures the complex preparations (here notably the efforts to maintain Indigenous alliances), the development of war sentiment in Britain and the colonies (see the British cartoons) and the brutality of not only the military campaign, but also civilian casualties (see Bancroft's diary of part of the Expulsion) and even the peace (as Gibson Clough recorded in his diary of the seige of Louisbourg). The defeat of France ended French aspirations for North American colonies. But it also increased the vulnerability of the many Indigenous peoples who had allied with the French. Our final documents offer perspectives from Indigenous leaders of the time assessing their place in the new post-war world.
In Days of yore,
From Britain's shore
Wolfe the dauntless hero came
And planted firm Britannia's flag
On Canada's fair domain.
A high-res version of this map is available here.
Like last week, this week's Toolbox is about drawing inferences. The skills of inference drawing are really important, and each of you can improve your work in this area.
To view last week's Toolbox, as well as all previous Toolbox entries, visit the Toolbox Overview.
Read the map and three other primary sources
- What does Chabert's map of northeastern North America tell us about the strategic importance of Louisbourg? [hi-res version here].
- Pennsylvania Gazette, 6 June 1745
- Thomas Prince, Extraordinary events the doings of God, and marvellous in pious eyes. Illustrated in a sermon at the South Church in Boston, New-England, on the general thanksgiving, Thursday, July 18, 1745, occasion'd by taking the city of Louisbourg on the Isle of Cape-Breton, by New-England soldiers, assisted by a British squadron (Boston, 1745), 13-23.
- Two Mi'kmaw descriptions from 1749 and 1755.
Note that these two Mi'kmaw descriptions are from before the war, and Pontiac's is after. But keep in mind that we're asking you about people's motivations to fight which all of these suggest.
- Extracts from Gibson Clough’s war journal, 1759. (Source: Historical Collections of the Essex Institute, Volume III (Salem, MA, 1861), 99-106.)
- "Treaty of Peace and Friendship" between Jonathon Belcher and Francis Muis, Halifax, 1761.
- Pontiac Calls for War, 1763
- Daniel Baugh, The Global Seven Years War, 1754-1763: Britain and France in a Great Power Contest. Routledge, 2021), Chapter 5 (focus your attention on the section that focuses on Nova Scotia and Virginia, pp. 101-115), and Chapter 10 (the section on Louisbourg, pp. 297-313).
- Fred Anderson, The War That Made America: A Short History of the French and Indian War (New York, Penguin, 2005), 55-87.
- Ann Little, "The Many Captivities of Esther Wheelwright", Ben Franklin's World, podcast. (For those of you pursuing our first assignment option, this podcast will give you even wider historical context regarding the practice of captive taking in Indigenous warfare, as well as providing you with some idea of the competing interests we see coming to a head in the Seven Years War. Esther Wheelwright was taken captive during the Queen Anne's War 1702-1713, so later than the King Philip's War, but still 40 years prior to the Seven Years War.)
This page references:
- Map of English and French territories in North America during the Seven Years War
- Joseph-Bernard Chabert, Carte réduite des costes de l'Acadie, de l'isle royale et de la partie méridionale de l'isle de Terre-Neuve (Paris, 1751).
- Join, or die
- Plan d'une partie du Bastion Princesse et de la Batterie du cap noir, 1737 [detail].
- Plan de la Ville du Port de Louisbourg (1745).
- Emanuel Bowen, Particular draughts and plans of some of the principal towns and harbours belonging to the English, French, and Spaniards, in America and West Indies (London, 1747).
- William Herbert, A new and accurate map of the English empire in North America; Representing their rightful claim as confirmed by charters and the formal surrender of their Indian friends; likewise the encroachments of the French
- Map of Royal Proclamation Territories, 1763