The Magazine

A Forgotten War

From the August 15 / August 22, 2005 issue: In 1759, the British won the struggle for North America.

Aug 15, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 45 • By PATRICK J. WALSH
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Empires at War

The French and Indian War and the Struggle for North America, 1754-1763

by William M. Fowler Jr.

Walker, 332 pp., $27

WHAT EUROPEANS REFER TO AS the Seven Years war, and Americans label the French and Indian, was actually the first world war, extending through-out Europe to India and the Americas, encompassing both Indies. Horace Walpole said it "set the world on fire." The conflagration first sparked in North America when, in 1754, a 22-year-old Virginia militia major named George Washington skirmished with French soldiers near present-day Pittsburgh. Lieutenant Governor Dinwiddie of Virginia had sent Washington to the French to order them out of the Ohio territory.

Relations between the two powers were always tense, and a preceding conflict, King George's war, had not settled the disputed borders. New France once extended from Newfoundland in the east to the Gulf of Mexico at New Orleans. The huge territory included Louisiana, along with the Great Lakes. Within it ran several of the most strategically important rivers in North America--the St. Lawrence, the Mississippi, and the Ohio, which dissected the continent.

English colonies huddled on the eastern Atlantic seaboard. Along their immediate western borders lay Indian land. Further west stretched the disputed Ohio territory, claimed by France, and the colonies of Virginia and Pennsylvania. For more than a century, France and her Indian allies would remain a threat to the stability and security of the English colonies, checking their westward advancement.

Although the English colonies occupied a smaller territory, they collectively outnumbered New France with a population of one million to the French 60,000. Early in the 17th century, France's great explorer Samuel de Champlain had urged a larger colonization of Canada. It never occurred, as France was embroiled in a dynastic struggle and colonial investors became more interested in establishing trading posts rather than settling and developing the country. France's colonial system was highly centralized, with Versailles directing everything to the utmost detail. Decentralization characterized the English method. In addition, when the British colonist left the motherland, his first instinct was to create institutions that involved local control.

Voltaire dismissed Canada as a "few acres of snow." William Pitt the Elder saw it as the linchpin maintaining France's overseas empire. Pitt was an imperialist who championed colonies abroad and all British commercial interests. He intended, as Winston Churchill wrote, "to humble the house of Bourbon, to make the Union Jack supreme in every ocean, to conquer, to command."

His foreign policy met with tremendous success. When the war ended, France had lost all of her North American possessions and her influence in the West Indies, while England had acquired India and a vast global empire.

William Fowler, director of the Massachusetts Historical Society, has made the French and Indian war accessible to everyone in this highly readable volume. He believes that Americans have viewed "the French and Indian War backward through the Revolution," and that this "masks its true importance"--namely, it was a "world shaping event over who would dominate the continents of the world." His brilliant narrative restores to us the war in all its epic proportions, and in so doing, pays tribute to a neglected classic, Francis Parkman's Montcalm and Wolfe, rightly called "a piece of magisterial history."

Fowler's work can be seen as a shorter companion piece to Parkman's great achievement. For he also brings to life the varied personalities, ranging from greedy colonial officials eager for land acquisition to men of great nobility, like Generals Montcalm and Wolfe. We witness the fearlessness of Scottish Highlanders, whom the British were eager to recruit into the Black Watch and get safely out of Britain. These Gaelic-speaking, clannish men in kilts were fierce fighters and considered by the Iroquois to be a "kind of Indian." And throughout, Fowler shows sympathy for the Indian's plight as a people caught between the clash of two world powers.

The struggle for North America is a story filled with passion and poetry. Before the final battle for Quebec commenced in 1759, the young British general James Wolfe surveyed the field of engagement from a nearby cemetery, and aptly quoted from Gray's "Elegy":

The boast of heraldry, the pomp of power,

And all that beauty, all that wealth ever gave,

Awaits alike th' inevitable hour--

The paths of glory lead but to the grave.