Ensuring natives got the rum deal

Crucible of War
June 14, 2002

The most decisive war of the 18th century in North America was not the war of independence, but the seven years war that followed the outbreak of fighting on the Allegheny frontier in 1754. That great struggle against the French Empire - with its undeniable element of ethnic cleansing by the British - finally ensured that North America would be dominated by the English language, English institutions and British ways. Moreover, it generated the problems and tensions that provoked Anglo-American colonists to protest against metropolitan power in 1765-66, and so began the process that led to independence within a decade.

This argument, lying at the heart of this splendid book, is by no means new. Lawrence Henry Gipson emphasised the significance of the "great war for the empire" 40 years ago, producing a 15-volume compendium that provides much of the evidence used here. But Fred Anderson's gripping narrative of the military action in North America not only makes Gipson's argument accessible to a wider audience, it sets it firmly within the context of European diplomacy and British politics, and illuminates it with cultural insights and understandings from recent studies of native peoples and military conflict.

In line with recent work such as Richard White's The Middle Ground (1991), Anderson properly appreciates the role played by native tribes. The war broke out largely because of the instability on the northwestern frontier caused by the decline in the influence of the Iroquois confederation. The defence of Canada, with its tiny French population, then depended largely on the use of numerous tribes from the pays d'en haut to harass the western frontiers of the northern colonies. Enjoying their overwhelming support in 1754-55, the French commander, the marquis de Montcalm-Gozon de Saint Veran, did not understand that the tribes went to war not to conquer, but to win plunder, trophies and captives. Their barbarity towards their prisoners disgusted Europeans of Montcalm's upbringing, but his attempts to restrict these practices lost the support of essential allies and allowed the Americans to turn the balance of power against him.

The British, in turn, found they could win native support if they provided gifts and essential trade goods, including guns and alcohol, and promised not to expand their settlements. Thus when, after securing victory locally in 1760, they failed to restrain white settlers, ended official presents and restricted trade, they provoked Cherokee hostilities in the south and Pontiac's uprising in the northwest in 1763. Only the restoration of gifts, guns and rum appeased the Indians, teaching the imperial authorities that they must try to control their new native subjects through negotiation and cooperation. Thus the British government turned to a policy of restraining western settlement that brought them into direct conflict with colonial land speculators and the hordes of settlers looking to the west for their future prosperity.

Similar cultural differences also determined the relationship between imperial and colonial governments. The demands of successive commander-in-chiefs for improved military coordination and increased contributions of men and money in 1755-57 merely provoked resistance and non-cooperation from the colonial legislatures. Quite apart from their concern for their traditional rights, the northern and middle colonies could not provide troops because colonial society lacked the marginal men who traditionally made up the British army. As Anderson argued in his earlier work, A People's Army (1984), most white adult male colonists could command good wages or owned farms, and regarded themselves as full citizens enjoying the right to enter into contractual obligations and serve under men they knew and respected. They were unwilling to enter into a military discipline that was based on coercion, extreme physical punishment and strict hierarchical authority, but would volunteer for well-paid, short-term enlistments in a provincial force raised to meet an immediate military need.

Thus William Pitt the Elder could transform the war effort in December 1757 by shifting British policy and inviting colonial cooperation. Calling on pride in a common British identity, and promising repayment of colonial war expenditure, Pitt's blandishments immediately produced a massive outpouring of 50,000 volunteers and the provision of unprecedented financial resources. But once taught to regard themselves as equal partners in empire, operating on the basis of free choice, the legislatures reacted angrily when, after the war, the imperial authorities resorted to revenue measures and imperial reforms that bespoke dictation, the ignoring of traditional right and colonial subordination.

The cultural training of British officials had led them to misinterpret the independent spirit of Americans as signs of disaffection and an insufficient respect for law. Believing that the empire could survive only if Americans were given a proper sense of subordination to constituted authority, they advocated firm direction and control by the central imperial authority after the war. Thus they failed to recognise the key lesson of the war's conquests: that force might win an empire but colonial dependencies could be maintained only by the voluntary attachment of their people and the seductions of British trade.

On balance, it is arguable that Anderson exaggerates the political impact of the war. After all, plans to impose a more standardised system of control on the colonies had been developed by British ministers before 1754, and the war had simply postponed their implementation. The colonies already had a long-cultivated ideology based on contractual rights that had informed their resistance to viceregal demands in 1755-57. Yet the impassioned popular support for the protests against British assertions of superiority in 1765-66 are all too plausibly explained by the experience of close contact with the British officer class. As Anderson says, future colonial loyalty depended on emotional ties that had limits that the metropolitan mind could all too easily exceed, since the colonists, like the Indians, were determined to maintain local autonomy and traditional rights in the face of those arrogantly confident of their right to hold sway.

Donald J. Ratcliffe is reader in history, University of Durham.

Crucible of War: The Seven Years' War and the Fate of the Empire in British North America, 1754-1766

Author - Fred Anderson
ISBN - 0 571 20535 6 and 20565 8
Publisher - Faber and Faber
Price - £25.00 and £12.99
Pages - 862

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