HIST2F90: Money & Power in the Atlantic World

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 introduction

Learning outcomes

At the end of this week you should be able to:

Questions to consider, and learning activity

The 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. 


A 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.

In New France, people said pretty much exactly the same thing, but it was Protestants and “les sauvages” that needed to be dealt with. Indigenous peoples had their own conflicts - sometimes tied to their relations with the Europeans, sometimes not – and their own strategies for dealing with the French-British conflicts. For the Haudensaunee (Six Nations Iroquois), centred along the southern shore on Lake Ontario, the strategy was to maintain if not expand their existing territories and the control of the fur trade in central North America; they aligned with the British, seeing a mutual interest in limiting the penetration of French and Algonquian interests, particularly in the Ohio and Mississippi River Valleys. In the northeast the Abenaki, Maliseet, and Mi’kmaq formed a powerful alliance – the Wabanaki Confederacy – and maintained strong ties with the French while blocking British incursions into northern New England and weakening Britain's hold on modern-day Nova Scotia.

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:
  1. the interior (what the French called les pays d’en haut, what we would today call the Mid-West of the United States),
  2. the campaign for Louisbourg (and the related issue of the expulsion of the Acadians),
  3. the campaign for Quebec/Canada, and
  4. the naval battle for control of the North Atlantic (obviously crucial in getting any supplies or troops to North America).
We can only cover one of these, and so we’ve chosen the campaign for Louisbourg, which was in many ways a direct outgrowth of King Philip’s War. For generations of New Englanders, those who had fought in King Philip’s War, Dummer’s War, Queen Anne’s War, the War of the Spanish Succession, and now the Seven Years War, these battles were all struggles in the campaign against “Indians” and the Catholic French who harassed them on their ever-expanding frontier. For the Acadians (French settlers), the French imperial government, and the Mi’kmaq and Maliseet, these battles represented on-going efforts to contain British expansion. Both sides thought that right and God protected their causes.We’ll focus our attention this week on Louisbourg in 1758. The war to this point had been largely a war on the frontier (mostly the Ohio River Valley), and one where the French and their Indigenous allies were if not winning certainly doing better than the British. Part of the reason for this was that the French knew the interior much better than did the British; another was that the French had far more Indigenous allies, a direct function of France's less aggressive settlement strategy and their much greater willingness to trade. 

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?).

In Days of yore, 
From Britain's shore
Wolfe the dauntless hero came
And planted firm Britannia's flag
On Canada's fair domain.

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.

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.

Primary sources

Read the map and three other primary sources

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.

Secondary source

Supplementary Sources

This page references: