How did Great Britain win the French Indian War (Seven Years War)?
The French and Indian War was the North American conflict in a larger imperial war between Great Britain and France known as the Seven Years’ War. The French and Indian War began in 1754 and ended with the Treaty of Paris in 1763. The war provided Great Britain enormous territorial gains in North America, but disputes over subsequent frontier policy and paying the war’s expenses led to colonial discontent, and ultimately to the American Revolution. In the terms of the treaty, France gave up all its territories in mainland North America, effectively ending any foreign military threat to the British colonies there.
The French and Indian War resulted from ongoing frontier tensions in North America as both French and British imperial officials and colonists sought to extend each country’s sphere of influence in frontier regions. In North America, the war pitted France, French colonists, and their Native allies against Great Britain, the Anglo-American colonists, and the Iroquois Confederacy, which controlled most of upstate New York and parts of northern Pennsylvania. In 1753, prior to the outbreak of hostilities, Great Britain controlled the 13 colonies up to the Appalachian Mountains, but beyond lay New France, a very large, sparsely settled colony that stretched from Louisiana through the Mississippi Valley and Great Lakes to Canada. (See Incidents Leading up to the French and Indian War and Albany Plan)
The Nebulous Border between French and British Colonies
The border between French and British possessions was not well defined, and one disputed territory was the upper Ohio River valley. The French had constructed a number of forts in this region in an attempt to strengthen their claim on the territory. British colonial forces, led by Lieutenant Colonel George Washington, attempted to expel the French in 1754, but were outnumbered and defeated by the French. When news of Washington’s failure reached British Prime Minister Thomas Pelham-Holles, Duke of Newcastle, he called for a quick undeclared retaliatory strike. However, his adversaries in the Cabinet outmaneuvered him by making the plans public, thus alerting the French Government and escalating a distant frontier skirmish into a full-scale war.
The war did not begin well for the British. The British Government sent General Edward Braddock to the colonies as commander in chief of British North American forces, but he alienated potential Indian allies and colonial leaders failed to cooperate with him. On July 13, 1755, Braddock died after being mortally wounded in an ambush on a failed expedition to capture Fort Duquesne in present-day Pittsburgh. The war in North America settled into a stalemate for the next several years, while in Europe the French scored an important naval victory and captured the British possession of Minorca in the Mediterranean in 1756. However, after 1757 the war began to turn in favor of Great Britain. British forces defeated French forces in India, and in 1759 British armies invaded and conquered Canada.
France's faces Defeat
Facing defeat in North America and a tenuous position in Europe, the French Government attempted to engage the British in peace negotiations, but British Minister William Pitt (the elder), Secretary for Southern Affairs, sought not only the French cession of Canada but also commercial concessions that the French Government found unacceptable. After these negotiations failed, Spanish King Charles III offered to come to the aid of his cousin, French King Louis XV, and their representatives signed an alliance known as the Family Compact on August 15, 1761. The terms of the agreement stated that Spain would declare war on Great Britain if the war did not end before May 1, 1762. Originally intended to pressure the British into a peace agreement, the Family Compact ultimately reinvigorated the French will to continue the war, and caused the British Government to declare war on Spain on January 4, 1762, after bitter infighting among King George III’s ministers.
Despite facing such a formidable alliance, British naval strength and Spanish ineffectiveness led to British success. British forces seized French Caribbean islands, Spanish Cuba, and the Philippines. Fighting in Europe ended after a failed Spanish invasion of British ally Portugal. By 1763, French and Spanish diplomats began to seek peace.
Negotiating the Treaty of Paris
News had reached Europe of the British capture of Havana, and with it the Spanish colony of Cuba. Spanish King Charles III refused to agree to a treaty that would require Spain to cede Cuba, but the British Parliament would never ratify a treaty that did not reflect British territorial gains made during the war.
Facing this dilemma, French negotiator Choiseul proposed a solution that redistributed American territory between France, Spain and Great Britain. Under Choiseul’s plan, Britain would gain all French territory east of the Mississippi, while Spain would retain Cuba in exchange for handing Florida over to Great Britain. French territories west of the Mississippi would become Spanish, along with the port of New Orleans. In return for these cessions, along with territory in India, Africa, and the Mediterranean island of Minorca, France would regain the Caribbean islands that British forces had captured during the war. The British Government also promised to allow French Canadians to freely practice Catholicism and provided for French fishing rights off Newfoundland.
Choiseul preferred to keep the small Caribbean islands of Martinique, Guadeloupe, and St. Lucia rather than hold on to the vast territory stretching from Louisiana to Canada. This decision was motivated by the fact that the islands’ sugar industry was enormously profitable. In contrast, Canada had been a drain on the French treasury. The loss of Canada, while lamentable to French officials, made sense from a mercantile perspective.
The diplomats completed their negotiations and signed the preliminary Treaty of Paris on November 3, 1762. Spanish and French negotiators also signed the Treaty of San Ildefonso at the same time, which confirmed the cession of French Louisiana to Spain.
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The Treaty fundamentally altered the balance of power in North America
Although British King George III and his ministers were in favor of the treaty, it was unpopular with the British public. However, the treaty contained enough concessions to war hawks that the British Parliament ratified the Treaty of Paris by a majority of 319 to 64, and the treaty went into effect on February 10, 1763.
For Anglo-American colonists, the treaty was a theoretical success. By confirming the conquest of Canada and extending British possessions to the Mississippi, the colonists no longer had to worry about the threat of a French invasion. For the American Indians in what had been frontier territory, the treaty proved disastrous. They could no longer pursue what had been a largely effective strategy of playing the French and British against each other to extract the most favorable terms of alliance and preserve their lands against encroachment by Anglo-American colonists.
Despite what seemed like a success, the Treaty of Paris ultimately encouraged dissension between Anglo-American colonists and the British Government because their interests in North America no longer coincided. The British Government no longer wanted to maintain an expensive military presence, and its attempts to manage a post-treaty frontier policy that would balance colonists’ and Indians’ interests would prove ineffective and even counterproductive. Coupled with differences between the imperial government and colonists on how to levy taxes to pay for debts on wartime expenses, the Treaty of Paris ultimately set the colonists on the path towards seeking independence, even as it seemed to make the British Empire stronger than ever.
Republished from Office of the Historian, United States Department of State