Grove Press
Grove Press
Grove Press


The Year Britain Became Master of the World

by Frank McLynn

 McLynn’s ability to bring history alive triumphs again in this vivid and elegant story of a pivotal moment in world history.

  • Imprint Grove Paperback
  • Page Count 432
  • Publication Date March 20, 2006
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-4228-3
  • Dimensions 6" x 9"
  • US List Price $16.00

About The Book

The entire history of the world would have been different if not for the events of 1759. Called the “Year of Victories,” it was the fourth year of the Seven Years’, or the French-and-Indian, War and crucial victories against the French in this two-front conflict laid the foundations of British supremacy throughout the world for the next hundred years. The defeat of the French not only paved the way for the global hegemony of the English language but also made the emergence of the United States possible. Here, in 1759, Frank McLynn focuses on the deadly duel between Britain and France in the climactic year of the first truly global conflict.  

Guiding us through England’s conquests (and often extremely narrow victories) in India, North America, and the Caribbean, McLynn controversially suggests that the birth of the great British Empire was more a result of luck than of rigorous planning. Along with stirring depictions of key battles, McLynn includes anecdotes of the intellectual and cultural leaders of the day–Swedenborg, Hume, Voltaire–and interweaves primary sources, ranging from material in the Vatican archives to oral histories of Native Americans, in a brilliant chronicle of this pivotal year in world history.  


“Elegantly explicating the geopolitical tensions, military technology, tactics and topography behind each battle, McLynn portrays the leadership of stalwarts on both sides. . . . Splendidly narrated . . . McLynn’s book will enthrall all lovers of history told well.” –Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“Deftly parades monarchs, generals, and politicians in full regalia through his big book about a short historical span. A zealous attack on a jam-packed moment of world change.” –Kirkus Reviews

“McLynn has a wonderful ability to bring history alive. He has produced a marvelous book: elegantly written, convincingly argued and packed with fascinating detail.” –Saul David, The Sunday Times (UK)

“McLynn makes a good case . . . his is never a dry account; he brings alive the human element of conflict, and describes the technology of killing in vivid detail.” –The Independent

“A stylish and fascinating account of the first global struggle.” –The New Statesman



If we were to judge only by the long-term impact of human beings at the height of their powers in 1759, there is a strong argument for awarding pride of historical place to John Wesley, the founder of Methodism. Originally inspired by the notion of a return to primitive Christianity and the creation of a “new man” who would be an exemplar of responsibility, sobriety, respectability, piety and probity, the vegetarian, teetotal, diminutive Wesley was, at fifty-six, still pursuing his punishing regime of itinerant preaching which would see him clock up 280,000 miles of horseback travel by the end of his long life. He had originally intended his ‘methodist Connexion” to be a splinter group within the Church of England, but the breach with the Anglican communion widened once Wesley began advocating ordination by priests rather than bishops, the institution of lay preachers rather than parsons with “livings’, outdoor worship, miracles and “enthusiasm”, and reaching out to the poor and dispossessed.

As has been well said, the Church of England emphasised churches and pulpits, ordained clergy and local incumbent vicars, while Methodism emphasised open-air meetings, itinerant preachers and nationwide evangelism.

The year of 1759 was a busy one for the restless Wesley, whose flock had grown steadily to the point where his revivalist movement was already holding its fifteenth Annual Conference. Two very different snapshots from either end of the year evince the different faces of the would-be “Pope” of Methodism. When French invasion threatened at the beginning of the year, Wesley appointed 16 February as a day of national prayer and fasting, in the hope that God would support England against France. That morning Wesley preached at Wandsworth at 5 a.m. and 9 a.m. and again at 3 p.m. at Spitalfields and at 8.30 p.m. at Methodist headquarters. The Countess of Huntingdon attended the evening service and afterwards invited Wesley to preside over a prayer meeting at her house. There he preached to a select company, including the Earl and Countess of Dartmouth, the Earl and Countess of Chesterfield, Sir Charles and Lady Hotham, plus assorted members of the Cavendish and Carteret families. But the autumn of 1759 found Wesley chiding his termagant wife Mary, with whom he lived in a marriage of quite exceptional unhappiness. His letter to her of 23 October listed ten things he disliked about her conduct, with ten items of advice whereby she could expunge her behaviour. “I will tell you simply and plainly the things which I dislike . . . sharing any one of my letters and private papers without my leave . . . being myself a prisoner in my own house . . . talking about me behind my back . . . laying to my charge things which you know to be false.”

For all his religious fervour and undoubted achievements, John Wesley was not a very pleasant man. Disingenuous, duplicitous and mendacious, he liked to rewrite his own life story in his letters and journals, so that he appeared omniscient, omnipotent and infallible. But occasionally Wesley was faced by phenomena so overpowering that he confronted the truth with a steady eye. He liked to litter his autobiography with “turning points’ and lights on the road to Damascus, but one defining moment of truth certainly occurred. On his first visit to America in January 1736, Wesley endured a four-month voyage of tribulation before making landfall and was extremely lucky to survive a severe storm. His diary for 17 January explains the situation: “The sea broke over us from bow to stern, burst through the cabins of the state room where three or four of us were and covered us all over.” On 23 January the storm renewed its full ferocity: “The sea broke over, split the mainsail to pieces, covered the ship and poured in between the deck as if the great deep had already swallowed us up. A terrible screaming began among the English. The Germans (Moravians) calmly sang on.” According to Wesley, the steadfastness of the Moravians converted him to their view of religion though, naturally, it was not long before he had jettisoned them in turn.

What impresses the chronicler of the eighteenth century, rather than the student of religion, is the extreme hazard of a North Atlantic crossing. Historians talk blithely of entire armies crossing the ocean from Europe to America as if a mere train journey was at issue, but seldom is there any appreciation of what a truly terrifying and diabolical experience it was. In the age of sail the intrepid mariners had few defences against hurricanes, typhoons and high seas, and we now know that the usual track for America-bound vessels from northern Europe, passing the Newfoundland Banks is especially perilous. Tens of thousands of sailors and hundreds of ships vanished without trace in this area in the 300 years after Columbus’s discovery of the New World, including some of the most gifted seamen of the times. In 1498 John Cabot left Bristol with five ships, hoping to consolidate the discoveries he had made the year before at Cape Breton and Cape Cod. Only one ship returned to Bristol, and Cabot was never seen again. In this era England’s rivals for the fisheries of the Grand Banks off Newfoundland were the Portuguese, but even their most eminent mariners fared no better. Portugal’s great maritime pioneers, the Corte-Real brothers, both perished in the North Atlantic. Gaspar Corte-Real left Lisbon in May 1501 with two ships, but disappeared for ever into the Atlantic maw. When his second ship limped back to Portugal in October with news that Gaspar was lost at sea, his brother Miguel organised another expedition to search for him. In May 1502 he departed Lisbon for Labrador but he too vanished without trace.

Modern science has conclusively established the main cause for the tragedy that befell so many brave men in the age of sail. Giant waves, almost vertical walls of green water seemingly appearing from nowhere, 100 feet or more from trough to crest, were long thought to be the tall tales of old salts who had spent too many years before the mast. Only recently has it been appreciated that such freak waves occur relatively frequently and are a deadly threat to shipping. No vessel ever constructed, even in the era of ocean liners, is equipped to deal with such monsters, and those ships that have had close encounters with these watery leviathans have survived more by good luck than anything else. To give just two examples of the perils posed by the rogue wave, we may cite the following chilling statistics. Even today most ships are designed to deal with maximum wave heights of forty-five feet, producing a maximum pressure of fifteen tons per square inch. Yet a 100-foot wave would produce a pressure of 100 tons per square inch. Similarly, even the largest ocean liner today is built on the principle that the maximum distance between two successive wave crests is 800 feet. Yet unimpeachable evidence has shown that ships in the North Atlantic caught between two different 100-foot waves fall into a trough fully 1,200 feet between the two crests.

Older maritime “experts’ hypothesised that freak waves of these dimensions could occur only in exceptional circumstances: off the coast of South Africa, where the wind pushes against a very strong current, thus piling up a pyramidal wave; or off the coast of Norway, where a shallow sea bottom focuses waves on one spot. But it is now known that previous models of wave behaviour at sea were seriously deficient, since they assumed that all waves obeyed a single “linear” pattern. Unassailable research has now established as a certainty that there is a different kind of unstable, non-linear wave that can suck in energy from nearby waves, creating a monster that will quickly grow to massive proportions. Wave heights are normally determined by a threefold combination: speed of wind, duration of storm and extent of oceanic “fetch” or open sea. But in a prolonged storm when the average wave height is already steep, several large waves can combine to produce the all-devouring Moloch of the oceans. The situation is made even worse when some 100-foot waves are preceded by a deep trough, producing the phenomenon known to sailors as the “hole in the ocean” – another nightmare, like the rogue waves themselves, long thought to be the product of mariners’ overwrought imaginations.

And so, as the French and British fought each other in the 1750s for control of the New World, they always faced a common enemy. The Atlantic in winter is a fearsome place, and for those limited by the technology of sailing ships, its terrors must have been so much greater. The unyielding, grey, white-capped, lumpy cross-seas and the pyramidal waves taxed the endurance of even the greatest masters of sail. For those coming from the St Lawrence and preparing to sail the mighty ocean to Europe, as a brilliant twenty-nine-year-old envoy did in the autumn of 1758, there were the additional perils of the Newfoundland Banks, notorious for its high seas, where waves 100 feet from crest to trough were encountered when the winds reached a three-figure velocity. Louis Antoine de Bougainville, mathematical genius but working within the limited scientific knowledge of his age, thought that the North Atlantic in this region was a statistical freak, for according to the laws of probability such heights should occur only three times in every million waves. But Bougainville was rarely surprised by anything, for he knew about life as well as mathematics. In many ways he was the perfect combination of French rationalism and Anglo-Saxon empiricism. And the sea was in his blood.

It is one of history’s curiosities that all four of the eighteenth century’s great circumnavigators served in the Seven Years War. The naval commander, George Anson, it is true, was past his glory days and largely sailed a desk at the Admiralty. But Bougainville, like his countryman the Comte de la P”rouse, and like the greatest navigator of all time, Captain James Cook, saw action in the Canadian theatre. Perhaps it is the prerogative only of the multi-talented near-genius to sample life in all its forms and to achieve a synoptic global vision. Bougainville certainly qualified on all counts. At the age of twenty-five, influenced by the French mathematician and philosophe d”Alembert, he published his Treatise on Integral Calculus, written two years earlier, a stunning achievement of great lucidity, which secured him election to the prestigious Royal Society in London in 1756. A great career in mathematics beckoned, but Bougainville’s restless intellect had already sought out new domains. Joining the army in 1754, he was selected two years later to accompany the new commander in “New France” (as the French termed Canada). Now it was as the Marquis de Montcalm’s trusted envoy that Bougainville made the perilous crossing of the Atlantic to lobby Montcalm’s political masters at Versailles. Ahead of Bougainville were all his greatest triumphs. In his circumnavigation of the globe in 1766–69 he claimed Tahiti and the Tuamotu archipelago for France. His name would be given to an island in the Solomons group and to a brilliant tropical plant. An original member of the Institute of France, he lived to see Napoleon’s greatest triumphs and died a Senator in his eighty-second year.

Bougainville left Montreal on 3 November 1758 and boarded the Victoire at the mouth of the St Lawrence eight days later. Landfall was at Morlaix after a month’s tempest-tossed travail. When Bougainville arrived at Versailles on 20 December, he found his own fascination with the Indian tribes of North America matched by that of King Louis XV and the Marquise de Pompadour – formerly the King’s mistress but now his confidante, procuress and, to all intents and purposes, Prime Minister in all but name. Much of the attention fastened on the Iroquois or Six Nations, in many ways the key to supremacy in North America. Who were they and why were they so consistently hostile to France? Bougainville, who would later popularise the notion of the Polynesians as “noble savages’, had no illusions, but his sociological flair was acute and he brought all his customary lucidity to bear. Properly known as the Hodenosaunee, the five original nations of the Iroquois (Mohawks, Oneidas, Senecas, Onondagas and Cayugas) lived in long strips of territory that ran in parallel north–south along the lakes of what would later be New York State. The people of the Hodenosaunee, or “people of the longhouse”, were so called from their characteristic dwellings – long bark-covered longhouses with barrel roofs, about 200 feet long and twenty-five feet wide. They were hunter-gatherers, who added corn, beans, squash, nuts and berries to the diet of deer, trout and salmon caught by the young warriors. Kinship was the key to Iroquois society. Since the longhouses could shelter up to a dozen families, from about ad 1000 clans tended to form from these extended families, and the clans in turn comprised the tribe; clan membership was by descent through the mother. But to prevent inbreeding and to foster solidarity in the tribe at large, each young person in a clan had to marry outside the clan – what anthropologists call exogamy.

Division of labour within the Iroquois was traditional. Men hunted and made war; women looked after children and oversaw domestic arrangements. But, as in many traditional societies, both males and females functioned as priests and seers. Like many North American Indian societies, the Iroquois prized power very highly. A complicated pantheistic cosmology was based on the overall notion of orenda – the totality of power, both material and spiritual. Since orenda was linked to population size, and the aggregate of tribal power was held to decrease with a single death, the Iroquois had a permanent motive for expansion and aggression, for they needed constant fresh blood, either from captives or newly adopted tribes. At the end of Canada’s bloodiest war, in 1689, after the rampaging Iroquois had slaughtered the French in their hundreds, Hodenosaunee warriors numbered 2,550, but after the warfare of the 1690s they were down to just 1,230. They recovered their fighting strength partly by adopting captives into the tribes, but most of all by absorbing an entirely new tribe, the Tuscaroras, into the Hodenosaunee League, which thereafter became the League of Six Nations. By 1720 the Iroquois could once again put 2,000 warriors in the field.

The great mythical founding father of the Iroquois was Hiawatha – mythical in the sense that the entire social structure of the Hodenosaunee confederation was attributed to him. Hiawatha was an Onondaga chief, who ended the self-destructive practice of vendetta and blood vengeance among the original five Iroquois nations and substituted a code of laws – according to Native American tradition a combination of the Ten Commandments, the laws of Solon and the US Constitution. This established a Grand Council of the Five Nations at the seat of the Onondagas. The oldest tribes, the Mohawks and the Senecas, traditionally sat on the eastern side of the council fire, the younger tribes of the Oneidas and Cayugas on the west, while the Onondagas sat in the northern position. A primitive form of grass-roots democracy was practised: first the individual tribes would hammer out and resolve their differences, then the inter-tribal disputes would be settled until finally (at least in theory) an overall consensus would emerge. Where there was a clear division of interests between the tribes – with, say, the Mohawks and Senecas ranged on one side and the Oneidas and Cayugas on the other – the Onondaga would exercise a casting vote (the paramount chief of the Onondagas, usually known as “the Onondaga”, was recognised as the supreme ruler). The overlordship of the Onondaga seems puzzling from our vantage point, since the Senecas were in many ways far the most important tribe: they could muster as many braves as the other four tribes put together. Each Iroquois tribal headman was known as a Half King and had considerable local power, subject only to the overlordship of the Onondaga. The Hodenosaunee League, in short, was a primitive form of federalism. This political structure was certainly a key factor in the rise and rise of the Iroquois as a military power. They reached their zenith in the seventeenth century when, armed with muskets obtained from Dutch fur traders, they conquered the Hurons, Eries, Monongahelas and Shawnees before stuttering to a halt around 1665–67. Exhausted by constant warfare, truncated by Jesuit conversions and deprived of the supply of weapons once the English conquered Dutch North America, the Iroquois throttled back on expansionism for the rest of the century.

The Iroquois always fascinated European observers: their admirers in the eighteenth century included Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson and, in the nineteenth century, Lewis Morgan, Friedrich Engels and Karl Marx. Three things particularly impressed the outsider: Iroquois democracy, the lack of a state apparatus and the role of women. To Europeans it was axiomatic that social consensus could not exist without the threat of force and the entire panoply of soldiers, gendarmes, police, kings, governors, nobles, prefects, judges, trials and prisons. But the Iroquois had society without the state – defined as a situation where no one has the full-time job of enforcing society’s norms, values and laws. Moreover, the Iroquois achieved another “impossible” target – a democratic system meshed with a communal economic system, or economic levelling without coercion. Their political sophistication was remarkable, and Franklin, an avowed white supremacist, paid them a grudging, backhanded compliment for their ability to form a harmonious federal league: “It would be a very strange thing if Six Nations of Ignorant Savages should be capable of forming a scheme for such an Union and be able to execute it in such a manner, as that it has subsisted Ages, and appears indissoluble, and yet a union should be impracticable for ten or a dozen English colonies.”

The Six Nations operated on a kinship principle whereby the gens or clan was more important than the nuclear family. In its emphasis on clans and societies (phratries), as much as in its democratic decision-making, the Iroquois League recalled the city-states of Ancient Greece, although in some respects it was ahead of the Greeks. The female principle was highly valued among the Iroquois. Descent among them was matrilineal or through the mother, whereas the normal pattern among North American Indians was patrilineal. Moreover, women could take part in the Council of the Gens, the democratic assembly in which every adult male and female had a voice on questions before it. Women were particularly influential among the Senecas and did not hesitate to “knock off the horns’ from the head of a chief or to bust him down to the ranks, though capital punishment for members of the league was forbidden except in the case where a leader turned out to be unrepentant, incorrigible or abusive. But we should not exaggerate sexual equality or turn the league into a gender-free paradise. Males retained the ultimate power in an all-male executive council which determined “emergency” issues (that is, all those relating to war), and naturally, as with all such ‘senates’ they themselves decided what constituted an emergency.

Yet it was not Iroquois mores, folk ways, politics or decision-making that most fascinated Bougainville’s avid listeners at Versailles. They were more interested in the Indians’ status as ‘savages’ and, lolling in comfort in the parkland of Versailles, indulged in the luxury of vicarious thrill as they listened to the young genius’s description of Iroquois massacres and atrocities. Scalping, tomahawking, torture, war-whooping, arson, destruction and even cannibalism featured largely in Bougainville’s recital for, as he wrote elsewhere: “The very recital of the cruelties they committed on the battlefield is horrible. The ferocity and insolence of these black-souled barbarians makes one shudder. It is an abominable kind of war. The air one breathes is contagious of insensibility and hardness.” He told his entranced listeners that the mere sight of painted warriors in scalplocks yelling their war cries could freeze the blood of European soldiery. But this aspect of North American Indians was not restricted to the Iroquois. Bougainville also related that a party of 300 raw New Jersey provincials had once been ambushed by the Ottawas, who were allies of the French, and were speared like fish as they ran panic-stricken into a river: “Terrified by the sight of these monsters, their agility, their firing, and their yells, they surrendered almost without resistance.”

It is worth stressing that, although his voyages in the South Pacific later popularised the notion of the “noble savage”, Bougainville himself was no Rousseau-like admirer of the primitive or of ‘man in a state of nature”. He was habitually scathing about Native Americans and scoffed at the Ottawas, who were so dependent on their manitous or deified spirits; recently, he said with contemptuous condescension, they had added two Masters of Life to their cosmology: one brown and beardless, who had created the Indians, and the other white and bearded, who had created the French. He chafed at the necessity to form alliances with ‘savages’, to humour them and buy them off with presents, and complained particularly about the obligation “of being a slave to these Indians, of hearing them night and day in council and in private, when caprice takes hold of them, when a dream, or an excess of vapours and the constant objective of begging wine or brandy leads them on . . . an eternal little detail, petty, and one of which Europe has no idea”.

Although Bougainville doubtless enjoyed curdling the blood of foppish courtiers and elegant ladies at Versailles, he was right to place so much emphasis on the Iroquois, for sober historical opinion inclines to the view that it was the Hodenosaunee League that triggered the global conflict known as the Seven Years War. The abiding ambition of the French in the first half of the eighteenth century was to secure the Ohio Valley as a kind of Suez Canal of the American interior, facilitating lines of communication between eastern Canada and New Orleans and the Mississippi. Yet it was on this precise Ohio Valley that a supreme Seneca chief of the Iroquois, Tanaghrisson (originally a Catawba captive), known as the Half King, who rose to power in the 1740s, had set his heart and he had already sent Indian settlers there. A meeting between Tanaghrisson and a French military delegation ended badly when the Seneca chief revealed his ambitions. The French commander raged at him: “I am not afraid of flies or mosquitoes, for the Indians are such as those. I tell you, down that river [the Ohio] I will go. If the river is blocked up, I have the forces to burst it open and tread under my feet all that oppose me. I despise all the stupid things you have said.” He ended by throwing at Tanaghrisson the belt of wampum which the chief had brought as a sign of friendship, then stamping on it and kicking it around with heavy gestures of contempt.

The Iroquois and the French were on a collision course, but to muddy the waters, there were two major complications. Under the impact of British and French machinations in the early eighteenth century, the Iroquois Confederacy was no longer as solid as it had once been and was actually in danger of political fragmentation. Although the Hodenosaunee League was always inclined to be pro-British, some severe military setbacks early in the century made them more circumspect and inclined to hedge their bets: they therefore began to splinter into Anglophile, Francophile and neutral factions. By and large the policy of the Iroquois was to play off the British against the French and, under a guise of neutrality, advance a threefold strategy of war, peace and co-optation. They wanted peace with the French-allied Algonquin Indians of the upper Mississippi Valley and war against the southern tribes, especially the powerful Cherokees and Catawbas of South Carolina. Meanwhile the Iroquois sought accommodation with the colonial government of Pennsylvania with the ulterior aim of co-opting other important Indian peoples, such as the Shawnees and Delawares. The Treaty of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, in 1744 is sometimes set down in history as a defining moment, when Iroquois power was at its apogee, for here the confederacy received the green light for all three phases of its overall strategy. The colonial government acknowledged the Onondaga’s suzerainty over the southern tribes; it paid the people of the longhouses “800 in cash and “300 in gold, with which they could buy off putative opponents or finance a new war; and Virginia granted Hodenosaunee warriors transit rights for the purpose of attacking the Cherokees and Catawbas.

But this was also the moment when the Iroquois League started to come apart at the seams. Basically, the Onondaga had duped the British into thinking that the Iroquois Confederacy was all-powerful and that it could control the Ohio Valley with a rod of iron. Official gullibility was increased by the confident pronouncements of Pennsylvania’s Indian “experts’ to the effect that the Iroquois could put 9,300 warriors into the field; the true figure for “effectives’ (warriors that could actually be put in the field) was no more than 1,100. On paper this seemed plausible, for between 1713 and 1744 the Five Nations had staged a comeback by adding the Tuscaroras to their league as the sixth nation. But this seemingly powerful position masked all manner of cracks. The Senecas, the most westerly tribe, had settled the Ohio country from the 1720s, entering into informal alliances with the Delawares and Shawnees, who had also been forced west by European immigration. Now the entire political structure of the Iroquois depended on obedience to the Onondaga by the Half Kings. In the 1740s two things happened. First, Tanaghrisson increasingly asserted his independence from the Onondaga. Then the disgruntled Shawnees and Delawares in the Ohio Valley, making common cause with the Mingoes (the most westerly sept of the Senecas), grew increasingly restive and independent, asserting their autonomy not only from the Onondaga but even from Tanaghrisson. Some said that Iroquois hubris was finally beginning to produce its nemesis.

Yet even as the Iroquois geared up to confront French aspirations in the Ohio Valley, a third power staked its claim. By the Treaty of Lancaster, which they had considered such a triumph, the Iroquois, who did not understand the small print in European treaties and never had the subtle implications explained to them, gave up all claims to land in Maryland and Virginia, not realising that this would in fact negate their own claim to the Ohio Valley. Virginia’s colonial charter granted its settlers rights to all land westwards to the Pacific – a point the Treaty Commissioners at Lancaster certainly did not spell out to the Iroquois. Nor was this some mere theoretical or paper right. In 1745 Virginia explicitly granted the land in the Ohio country to a consortium of twenty real-estate speculators. The Onondaga’s neutralist strategy was further undermined in 1748 when the Mohawks, the most easterly and Anglophile of the Iroquois, abandoned neutrality in favour of cooperation with New York State. The Onondaga thus found himself outflanked and facing four lots of potential enemies: the British and their Mohawk allies in the east; the dissident Mingoes, Delawares and Shawnees in the west; the French in the north and west; and the ambitious Tanaghrisson on his own doorstep.

But British power did not manifest itself only in the form of the property speculators of Virginia. The government in London feared that unless decisive action was taken, its colonies would be confined for ever between the Appalachians and the Atlantic by a French cordon. The British government would then have to spend so many naval and military resources on defending the beleaguered thirteen colonies in North America that it would be reduced to impotence in Europe. So for its own reasons London wanted control over the crucial Ohio country. The fall of Louisbourg to the British in 1745, during the War of Austrian Succession, increased both motive and opportunity for British expansion into the Ohio Valley and seriously alarmed the French. The consequent closure of the St Lawrence river to French shipping opened up Ohio to British trade and entrepreneurship. Pennsylvanian merchants began to offer low prices as “loss leaders’ in order to gain a footing in the Ohio country; soon they were reaching and making over tribes like the Miamis and Wyandots, who had never previously traded with anyone but the French.

From 1749, when Virginia speculators started building a permanent settlement in Ohio, tensions quickly escalated to breaking point. Tanaghrisson rapidly found himself out of his depth. He agreed to the building of a ‘strong house” at the confluence of the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers, but to get the Delawares to agree to this he had to accept their chief Shingas as another Half King; by this time the links between the ostensible Iroquois and their allies in Ohio and paramount chief Onondaga were the most tenuous imaginable.

Meanwhile, by the early 1750s the French were seriously alarmed. The advent of Anglo-American traders and land speculators into the Ohio Valley raised fears that the British would eventually drive a wedge westwards, cutting off New France (Canada) from the French hinterland in Illinois and from the Mississippi. Their fears were enhanced by growing uncertainty about the stance and likely behaviour of the Iroquois; their increasingly centrifugal factionalism introduced a dangerous element of unpredictability into the power equation. With whom should the French deal: the Onondaga, Tanaghrisson or Shingas? The problem was compounded by poor political leadership in North America. Had they been more subtle and nuanced in their approach, the French leaders might have spotted that the dreaded Anglo-Saxons no more constituted a monolithic entity than did the Iroquois. The government in London was at odds with the colonials, who were in turn divided among themselves. The Pennsylvania traders and Virginia speculators might have looked like a well-coordinated advanced column for British aggression, but they were in fact deadly rivals. But by opting to use force to solve the issue of the Ohio Valley, the French turned a somewhat sordid jockeying for commercial advantage between Pennsylvania and Virginia into an issue of national credibility, setting Britain against France. This inevitably had the effect of uniting the Anglo-Saxon factions at a stroke.

First blood was drawn by the French. In 1752 thirty regulars, together with 180 Chippewas and thirty Ottawa warriors, attacked the Pickawillany settlement established by George Groghan in western Ohio, killed a trader and the post’s head man, and burned the place to the ground. Since the provincial governments in the east declined to back up the ousted settlers, the French got clean away with their first act of aggression. Emboldened, they raised more troops and built four forts in Ohio, positioning one of them defiantly in the exact place that the newly formed British Ohio Company had chosen for its own post. This was something the government in London could not ignore, so it ordered Lieutenant-Governor Robert Dinwiddie of Virginia to make a vigorous response to the French. He in turn sent a twenty-two-year-old lieutenant named George Washington (America’s future hero and monument) to the Ohio country. There he met Tanaghrisson, still smarting at his humiliation at the hands of the French and incandescent with rage as he contemplated the obvious fact that the Delawares and Shawnees would no longer obey him.

Tanaghrisson made common cause with Washington and in the bloody campaign that followed distinguished himself by slaughtering French prisoners after they had surrendered on the express understanding that their lives would be spared. The most notorious episode occurred when the French commander Contrecoeur, at the newly established Fort Duquesne, sent an ensign named Coulon de Jumonville on a reconnaissance mission. Tanaghrisson, accompanying Washington, murdered Jumonville and his men, scalped them, then sent word to the French that George Washington had killed their troops. The double game was an obvious ploy: the Half King knew that his only chance of hegemony in the Ohio country was by turning the French and British against each other. But the episode left a dark stain on Washington’s reputation which has exercised his biographers ever since.

Contrecoeur’s response was shrewd. He summoned the Delawares, Shawnees and Mingoes and, utilising the belt of wampum rather more skilfully than his fellow countryman had with Tanaghrisson, invited them to take up the war hatchet and drink wine as a pledge for the enemy blood they would soon spill. The Indians accepted, thus irretrievably splitting the Iroquois; they were now divided into the pro-English Mohawks, the pro-French Mingoes and the central rump of neutralists or undecideds. At all events, Tanaghrisson’s dream of carving out his own fief in Ohio was over; perhaps fittingly, he died in October 1754 of disease (possibly smallpox) and did not live to see the conflagration that his scheming had produced. The French counterattacked vigorously. Contrecoeur’s deputy, Coulon de Villiers, routed Washington, allowing him to depart in peace with a safe conduct on condition that he retreated from the Ohio country and promised never to return.

But Washington’s well-publicised defeat simply screwed tensions up another notch and brought Britain and France closer to outright war. Dinwiddie’s report to London panicked the never steely-nerved Duke of Newcastle, ace political fixer and machine politician who was the real decision-maker on colonial affairs. With his ally the Duke of Cumberland, with whom he had combined effectively during the Jacobite Rising of 1745, Newcastle concocted a threefold plan for a North American offensive. Two regiments would be sent to the New World under General Braddock, a tough, ruthless soldier wedded to Cumberland’s own notions of butchery and repression. With this “invincible” army, Braddock was to secure the Ohio country, destroy the French post of Fort St Frederic on Lake Champlain, and expel the French from the forts on the isthmus connecting Novia Scotia to the Canadian mainland. Behind Newcastle’s back Cumberland expanded this plan and in effect hijacked it: he added to Braddock’s instructions an order to occupy the whole of Novia Scotia and to destroy the French Fort Niagara on Lake Ontario. The departure of Braddock was essentially the start of a worldwide war between Britain and France, though the formal opening of hostilities had to await developments in Europe in 1756. Undaunted by London’s aggressive designs, Louis XV dramatically raised the stakes in North America by sending eight new regiments to Canada. While he entered into protracted negotiations with London over the future of the American colonies, he also manoeuvred to overturn and reverse the system of alliances in Europe on which Britain relied for her security.

Braddock’s arrival in North America in 1755 saw the first large-scale hostilities since the 1740s, but Cumberland’s minion was the worst conceivable man to conduct a successful colonial campaign. A brutal sponger, fond of duelling, who lived off women and had a veritable harem of them in London (including the celebrated actress George Ann Bellamy), Braddock despised both colonials and Indians. His distaste for Native Americans was in one respect surprising for, according to his enemies, he himself was a kindred spirit under the skin; Horace Walpole declared that “Braddock is a very Iroquois in his disposition”. He began by alienating the American colonists, rebuking them for their sordid economic self-interest and the jockeying for places and political advantage. Since the colonists at their conference in Albany in June–July 1754 had clearly shown themselves uninterested in concerting measures for common defence, Braddock should have tried to win them round by diplomacy instead of alienating them by giving a good impersonation of his dreadful master “Butcher” Cumberland. But he went one better (or worse) by alienating his Iroquois allies, insulting them with his arrogance and high-handed, racist behaviour. The result was that when he marched out of Fort Cumberland at the beginning of July 1755 with a force 2,200 strong, almost all his putative Indian allies were absent and he had no more than a dozen Iroquois guides in his ranks.

Braddock’s campaign was one of the great disasters in colonial history and convinced many that the French would win the war for North America. He divided his troops and sent a “flying column” on ahead to advance on Fort Duquesne by forced marches. Contrecoeur, defending the fort with 1,600 men, sent his deputy with half of these troops and 637 Indian allies to intercept the British at the Monongahela river, ten miles away. Contrecoeur’s Indians were a mixed batch of fighters from the most famous warrior tribes: Abenakis, Hurons, Potawatomis, Ojibwas, Ottawas and Mingoes. On 9 July Braddock’s flying column fell into an ambush as classically sprung as Hannibal’s encirclement of the Romans at Cannae. Brought to a halt in an Indian hunting ground which favoured the local snipers, the British sustained terrible casualties, with two-thirds of the column killed or wounded; the roster of fatalities fell just short of 1,000. Monongahela proved there could be no success in this frontier war without the cooperation or at least the acquiescence of the Indians.

Braddock’s defeat left the frontier wide open, with more and more tribes sucked into the power vacuum. The Shawnees, Delawares and Mingoes formally declared themselves allies of the French, and were joined by Wyandots, Ottawas and others. Aware that Nova Scotia was in the British sights, the French counterattacked by stirring up the Micmacs and Abenakis of Maine and north-eastern Canada. But the British soon wrapped up their conquest of Nova Scotia and began a mass expulsion of French-speaking Acadians (“Cajuns’) to the mainland: forced flight and deportation at gunpoint made Nova Scotia the scene of one of the first modern instances of “ethnic cleansing”. Astonishingly, for nineteenth-century propagandists of Anglo-Saxon superiority such as Francis Parkman, this pogrom was somehow performed by the French, not the British. Parkman’s study of the Jesuits had certainly taught him casuistry, for he commented in all seriousness: “The government of Louis XV began with making the Acadians its tools and ended by making them its victims.”

Needless to say, Braddock’s debacle was not allowed to redound to the discredit of his adipose, porcine master, Cumberland, George II’s favourite and indulged son. But Cumberland drew the line at sending another of his cronies out to the New World; instead Governor William Shirley of Massachusetts became the new Commander-in-Chief. Yet it was the new dispositions of the French which were a more significant consequence of Monongahela. A new commander of the American theatre, Baron Dieskau, was appointed. Even more significantly there arrived in North America Pierre de Rigaud, Marquis de Vaudreuil, bearing the title of Governor and Lieutenant-General for His Most Christian Majesty Louis XV throughout New France and the lands and countries of Louisiana. Vaudreuil made his headquarters in Quebec, where he had been born sixty years earlier and where his father had been Governor-General. The younger Vaudreuil had achieved his ambition of treading in his father’s footsteps by his efficient administration of Louisiana from 1742 to 1753. But he was an unimpressive figure, described in a damning-by-faint-praise way by one of his contemporaries: “Good sense, no insight, too much indulgence, an optimism about future events that often leads to precautions being taken too late, nobility and generosity of feeling, much affability – these are the principal traits which seem to me characteristic of M. le Marquis de Vaudreuil.”

The French, now perhaps over-confident, next tried to do to Shirley’s advancing troops what they had already done to Braddock. Correctly intuiting that the Niagara campaign posed the greatest threat, Dieskau planned to use 200 French regulars, 600 Canadian militiamen, plus 700 Abenakis and contingents of Caughnawaga Mohawks, to ambush the redcoats as they advanced on Fort St Frederic. All seemed set fair for a repeat of Monongahela, as both sides had numbers almost identical to those at the first encounter. But when battle was joined at Lake George in September 1755, things began to go badly wrong for the French right from the start. Once again Iroquois factionalism was crucial: in this instance the Caughnawaga clan refused to attack their fellow tribesmen, the Mohawks, who were fighting for the British. Their refusal had a knock-on effect: the Abenakis would not move unless the Caughnawagas charged alongside them and the Canadian militiamen in turn would not attack without Indian support. The result was that the British won the day, but their victory was no Monongahela, for they seemed at once to lose heart, their morale doubtless affected by an epidemic of sickness that ran through the camp. Instead of advancing on Crown Point, they set to work constructing Fort William Henry, to consolidate their position on Lake George. The winter of 1755–56 saw both sides stalemated, with the French anchored at Fort Carillon at the north end of the lake and the British established at Fort William Henry in the south.

In 1756 new commanders arrived on either side. In a remarkably short space of time Governor Shirley fell from favour, was disgraced and eventually replaced by another appointment from England and another of Cumberland’s henchmen, Lord Loudoun, a veteran of the 1745 Rising in Scotland memorably described by Parkman as “a rough Scotch lord, hot and irascible”. More significant was the new French commander. The luckless Baron Dieskau got himself captured on his first military foray. Vaudreuil, who rated his own strategic abilities highly, loftily informed Versailles that no replacement was necessary. Louis XV overruled him and sent out the forty-four-year-old Louis Joseph, Marquis de Montcalm Gezan, who had been a front-line veteran since the late 1720s, serving in Italy and Germany.

Born in the Ch”teau de Candiac near N’mes, Montcalm had had an erratic childhood. The eighteenth century, the age of Rousseau and Pestalozzi, was a great era for educational innovation, but none of these ideas had percolated through to Montcalm’s father, who entrusted his formation to a pedantic natural son of his father (i.e. Montcalm’s grandfather) named Dumas. This unprepossessing pedagogue dinned a smattering of Latin, Greek and history into the young Montcalm, but left him with a taste for the classics and a vague ambition to become a member of the French Academy. The other peculiarity of Montcalm’s boyhood was that he had a brother who was a genuine infant prodigy. The John Stuart Mill of his time, the brother mastered Latin, Greek and Hebrew by the age of six and had a good knowledge of arithmetic, history, geography and heraldry. His death at the age of seven deeply affected Montcalm and left him with a strong strain of melancholy.

At fifteen Montcalm joined the army, and was blooded at seventeen when he came under fire at the siege of Philipsburgh in 1734. The following year his father died, leaving him heir to a great titular fortune, but one, sadly, deeply encumbered by mortgages and liens. His friend and mentor the Marquis de la Fare rescued him from his financial embarrassment by arranging a marriage with a rich heriress – Ang”lique Louise Talon du Boulay. The marriage was happy and productive: the new Madame de Montcalm (for Louis Joseph’s formidable mother was still living) bore him ten children, of whom four died, leaving two sons and four daughters. Montcalm had a deeply sentimental feeling for his children rare in the eighteenth century and was in many ways a simple soul, devoutly Catholic, conventional in his political opinions, staunchly royalist, with a profound love of the Chateau de Candiac, which he often remembered wistfully when in the Canadian wilderness. “Quand reverrai-je mon cher Candiac!” was a sentiment frequently repeated in his journal. Montcalm was an attractive human being whose uxoriousness and feeling for his children speak to us across the ages. “May God preserve them all,” he wrote in his autobiography, “and make them prosper for this world and the next! Perhaps it will be thought that the number is large for so moderate a fortune, especially as four of them are girls; but does God ever abandon his children in their need?”

©2004 by Frank McLynn. Reprinted with permission from Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.