“Rule Britannia!”

The Seven Years War

By Chris Durbin

First published by Quarterdeck Magazine, Summer 2018.

The Battle of Quiberon Bay. Nicholas Pocock [PD-Art]

The words of the music-hall song ‘Rule, Britannia! Britannia rule the waves’ were more of a wish than a reality when the song was first publicly performed in London at the height of the War of Austrian Succession. Even though Admiral Vernon had recently sacked Spanish Porto Bello, the British Navy could not in those days claim any lasting degree of pre-eminence among European seafaring nations. Yet, within a generation, the lyrics would become literally true, as Britain’s navy and merchant marine emerged victorious from the world’s first genuinely global conflict.

The Seven Years War is known to Americans as the French and Indian War, but that name doesn’t do justice to the scale of the conflict, even though the spark that ignited the powder keg was indeed lit on the frontier lands of the American continent. The British colonies along the American eastern seaboard and the French colonies that flanked them to the north and south both wanted access to the heartland of the continent. The French in Canada and Louisiana planned to link up along the line of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers and started building a series of outposts along those two waterways. To the English-speaking people of America, those forts threatened to confine them to the narrow strip of land between the Atlantic and the Appalachians, condemned eventually to fall under the influence of the encircling French.

That is how the war started, but it quickly spread, and by its end in 1763 it was being fought in North and Central America, the West Indies, West Africa, India, the Pacific Ocean and throughout Europe. It drew in all the great empires and kingdoms of the Old World, and it was sustained by the traditional dynastic jealousies and suspicions of the ruling houses of the continent.

It has often been said of the British way of making war that the country loses every battle except the last. While not entirely accurate – think of the American War of Independence, of which more later – it contained an essential truth, particularly about the Seven Years War. Britain staggered towards its third major conflict in the century with only a small professional army and a navy that, as an economy measure, was mostly laid up in the harbours of the south coast and the rivers and creeks of the Thames estuary. The militias of the American colonies were strong on paper but divided in their command and lacking any real sense of co-operation. In India, it was worse still, with The Honourable East India Company, a commercial concern, left to defend British interests in the sub-continent. The predictable result was a series of disasters in the opening moves of the war.

John Byng. Thomas Hudson [PD-Art]

In 1755 the colonies lost their hold on the Ohio Valley when General Braddock, along with his Virginia Militia aide Colonel George Washington, was defeated at the battle of Monongahela. The British infantry was unprepared for the fluid way of fighting on the frontier, and many redcoats fell to the tomahawks and scalping knives of France’s Ottawa and Potawatomi allies. France’s new commander-in-chief in Canada, the Marquis de Montcalm, quickly exploited this success. He captured Fort Oswego on Lake Ontario and moved into winter quarters on Lake Champlain, thus securing the northern end of the noose that encircled the colonies.

At sea, Britain lost its principal Mediterranean stronghold at Minorca, and with it the ability to keep a watch on the French fleet at Toulon. Amidst the outcry that followed, Admiral Byng achieved notoriety as the only British admiral ever to have been judicially executed, throwing the country into turmoil and causing the collapse of the government.

By the end of 1756, the government was being led by William Pitt as the de facto Prime Minister. Although Pitt wanted to confine the conflict to North America, that wish was frustrated as the European powers established their alliances and began their inexorable march to war. France and Austria, so often in opposition to each other, joined forces on one side, while Britain and Prussia lined up against them. However much Pitt wanted to keep Britain out of European affairs, like leaders before and after him, his Monarch’s ties to Hanover constrained him. George II of Great Britain had inherited the Electorate of Hanover from his father; he was the hereditary ruler of that small and vulnerable German state. If France seized Hanover, then whatever French territory Britain won would inevitably have to be handed back in exchange when peace was agreed.

However, Britain had an advantage that perhaps was not evident at the time, or at least was not acknowledged in the courts of France, Austria and Spain. ‘Rule, Britannia!’ speaks of ‘the misrule of haughty tyrants,’ and Britain in the mid-eighteenth century was almost unique in its embrace of modern democracy. Unlike the absolutist regimes in virtually all of continental Europe, Britain had benefitted from some sixty years of a constitutional monarchy. Britain’s merchant classes and the institutions of the City of London were encouraged to flourish and to generate wealth. Loans could be raised at favourable rates whereas France and other continental powers struggled with what we now recognise as poor credit ratings. There was a lot of truth in the contemporary saying that France could never run out of men while Britain could never run out of money, and there was a real synergy between Britain’s navy and its financial institutions. The navy needed the City’s money to build ships and pay its sailors, while the City needed its trade routes to be secured, and only a strong navy could do that. The navy and the City of London needed each other, and both knew it.

William Pitt, 1st Earl of Chatham. After Richard Brompton [PD-Art]

After its financial solvency, Pitt was Britain’s second secret weapon in this new war. He alone was able to develop and articulate a strategy that played to Britain’s strengths and exploited France’s weaknesses. Pitt understood the value of the American colonies and India at a time when most of Britain was obsessed with the wealth coming from the West Indies in the form, principally, of that essential eighteenth-century commodity, sugar. He saw that so long as Britain used its financial power to build an overwhelming navy to support its colonies and its merchant fleet, then in the long run, whatever France may do on the continent, she could neither gain new territories nor hold those she already owned. That was Pitt’s genius: to limit British continental engagement to the defence of Hanover while subsidising Prussia with gold from the merchants of the City of London. Frederick of Prussia tied down France and Austria on the continent leaving Britain free to concentrate on a maritime strategy. Pitt oversaw a massive increase in the navy and used it first to ensure the security of the kingdom, then to sever France’s colonial communications and lastly to project military power. He rolled back the French in New France (much of what is now Canada), he defeated them in India and one-by-one he picked off their wealth-producing islands in the West Indies.

Pitt masterminded the grand strategy while the Duke of Newcastle maintained the fragile political coalition, using the conventional eighteenth-century mechanisms that we today call nepotism and corruption. However, it was Admiral George Anson who managed the navy and implemented Pitt’s maritime strategy. Under Anson, the British Navy would end the war as the undisputed masters of the trade routes of the world, but first, it had to secure the homeland from the threat of a French landing. In 1759, at the battle of Lagos off the south coast of Portugal, Admiral Boscawen frustrated the French plan to concentrate the Atlantic and Mediterranean fleets to support an invasion of Britain. Later that year, as winter started to set in, Admiral Hawke led his ships into the unknown waters of Quiberon Bay on the west coast of France. In a rising gale with failing light, he utterly destroyed the opposing French squadron in what was undoubtedly the most dramatic naval battle of all time. With no enemy fleet capable of taking control of the Channel, the threat of invasion ended.

Meanwhile, the fate of New France was sealed when Admiral Saunders negotiated the treacherous waters of the St. Lawrence to land General Wolfe’s army on the cliffs below Quebec in a master-class of the new art of amphibious warfare. Wolfe defeated Montcalm’s army, which was half-starved by the British Navy’s blockade, in a short but intense battle where both generals lost their lives.

In 1759, that memorable year of triumphs, the Annus Mirabilis as it came to be known, the keel of a new first-rate man-of-war was laid down at Chatham’s Old Single Dock. It was a momentous occasion because surprisingly few new first-rates were built in Britain during the eighteenth century, only around ten, if re-builds are discounted. The Prime Minister himself attended the ceremony, and he must surely have approved of the great ship’s name – Victory.

The closing act of the war brought Spain into an alliance with France. That unfortunate country had been pressurised into joining the conflict and suffered disproportionately in the final year, losing Manilla in the Philippines and Havana in Cuba to naval assaults.

Unlike earlier European wars where it is often difficult to pin down the enduring legacies of the conflict, the Seven Years War has a wealth of consequences that we can see to this day in the ordering of world affairs. For better or for worse, India became the jewel in the crown of the British Empire, and Britain’s influence in the West Indies and West Africa increased hugely.

However, as Pitt foresaw, the most significant effect was in North America, where the British colonists along the eastern seaboard benefitted more than any others from the outcome of the war. They held the whole Atlantic coast from Canada to the Florida Keys, and it was evident that the last pockets of Spanish influence in Florida and Louisiana could not long survive. That appeared sufficient justification in itself for the expense of the war, which was very high indeed. However, the loans still needed to be serviced and the economy rebuilt, and it was not long before voices in the government pointed out the discrepancy between those who benefitted from the war – the colonists – and those who paid for it – the people of Britain. The result was the taxation of the American colonies, for which legislation was enacted without any discussion with those to be taxed. That was how taxation without representation came into being; and the rest, as they say, is history. Pitt, incidentally, was against the 1765 Stamp Act, arguing that it was unconstitutional, and he later spoke eloquently in support of the proposal to repeal it.

The history of the Seven Years War provides the background to the Carlisle and Holbrooke naval adventures. Edward Carlisle is a captain in George II’s navy and a native of Williamsburg, Virginia, a feasible if somewhat unusual arrangement at a time when the population of the American colonies was loyal to the British crown. George Holbrooke is a young master’s mate from Hampshire, England who has difficulty in coming to terms with the peacetime navy but is stimulated by his taste of battle and earns his commission in a desperate fight in the Mediterranean.

The first book in the series, The Colonial Post-Captain, deals with the events surrounding the loss of Minorca and the disgrace and execution of Admiral Byng. The second, The Leeward Islands Squadron, takes our two heroes to the West Indies to protect the vital sugar trade and to frustrate the French colonies. Later volumes will follow Carlisle and Holbrooke through the Seven Years War and into the 1760s when Carlisle’s loyalties will be tested as the thirteen colonies embark upon their long and bloody path to independence.