The Seven Years War

Casanova’s second stay in Paris coincided with the early years of the Seven Years War, which raged from 1756 to 1763.   This was a global conflict which spilled over from long-standing European rivalries, intensified by colonial and economic ambitions, encompassing Europe, North America, the Caribbean and India.  It was the costs of the Seven Years War and the Crown’s desperate need for funds that lead to Casanova’s involvement in the creation of the Paris lottery and to him being employed as an agent selling state bonds in Amsterdam.

In Europe an alliance of France, Austria, Russia, Sweden, Saxony and Spain lined up against Prussia, Great Britain, Hanover and Portugal.   One of the primary causes of hostility was an unresolved territorial dispute over Silesia (present day South-Eastern Poland) which had been lost by Austria to Prussia following upon the War of the Austrian succession (1740 to 1748).  Russia’s aim was to curb the power of Prussia while Great Britain’s concern was to safeguard the Hanoverian interests of George II from an invasion by the French.

In North America, the Caribbean and India the conflict was more directly one between France and Great Britain.   In this struggle the British, under William Pitt the Elder, were determined to quash any military, political or commercial threat their colonial rival might pose.  While not as dominant an imperial force as the British, nonetheless the economic benefits to France of global trade, and, in particular, the slave plantations, were considerable.  It must be remembered that at this time global trade was not a free and open affair.  Markets were restricted to whoever had political dominion over those markets.  French merchants, therefore, would have monopolies or preferential rights over the trade conducted with those colonies governed by the French.  One of the jewels in the crown of European territories overseas, the pearl of the Antilles, was the French colony of St Domingue, on the Caribbean island of Hispaniola (Haiti, as it is today), where half a million slaves toiled under barbaric conditions to earn huge fortunes for their owners and for France.  Prior to the French Revolution, St Domingue was producing around 40 percent of the sugar and 60 percent of the coffee consumed in Europe.

In India, France was a European Johnny-come-lately.  It wasn’t until the second half of the seventeenth century that it began to build up a presence under the auspices of the French East India Company, some sixty years after the English and the Dutch.  From the early 1740s, however, the newly empowered governor of French India, Joseph Francois Dupleix, harboured ambitions of constructing a territorial empire that went beyond the establishment of trading posts.  The prize was a rich one: India was producing about a quarter of the world’s textile supply in addition to its traditional spice and pepper trade.  But the hopes of Dupleix foundered.  By 1754 the British, led by Major Stringer Lawrence and Robert Clive (Clive of India), had managed to thwart French expansion.  Clive, future Commander-in-Chief of India, had been a lowly employee of the East India Company who enlisted in the Company army after the French captured Madras in 1746.  A young and inexperienced officer with no formal military training, Clive distinguished himself against the French in various encounters, notably the Siege of Arcot in 1751.  But although French imperial expansion in India was halted, the French, along with the British (and despite treaty commitments between the two powers) looked to extend their influence further.

In the Americas, French colonisation had begun in the sixteenth century.  It founded colonies in eastern North America (New France – extending from Newfoundland to the Rocky Mountains and from Hudson Bay to the Gulf of Mexico), among the Caribbean islands (including Dominica, Hispaniola, Grenada, Guadeloupe and Martinique) and in South America (French Guiana).  Although impressive looking on a map, New France was not very densely populated and in reality was a long string of isolated settlements that depended upon alliances and trade with the indigenous population.  At the time of the Seven Years War the British population outnumbered the French by twenty to one.  Its economy was dominated by the fur trade as well as the supply of goods such as timber, dried fish, salted beef and flour to the Caribbean slave plantations which, in turn, shipped sugar and coffee back to France.

The event that set off the Seven Years War in 1756 was the French invasion of the British-held island of Minorca in May.  Two weeks later Frederick II of Prussia, on the basis that attack was the best form of defence, invaded and defeated Saxony.  Despite the overwhelming might of the forces facing Prussia, poor strategy and planning and a failure to properly coordinate their resources undermined their cause.  Prussia, of course, benefitted enormously from the fact that all decision-making and control was in the hands of one man, Frederick II.  On 5th November, 1757 he crushed the Franco-Imperial army at Rossbach, followed, exactly a month later, with a decisive victory against the much larger Austrian forces at Leuthen.  By 1758 the French had been pushed back across the Rhine and by 1759 the main aim of France was to try to force the British into peace.  To this end the new French Chief Minister, the Duc de Choiseul, was making plans to invade Britain.  These plans were scuppered, however, by two major defeats at sea at the hands of the British – the Battle of Lagos and the Battle of Quiberon Bay.  While the British had not been very active on the European mainland their dominance at sea had put a stranglehold on France, making it difficult for them to support their allies.  From 1759, with victories and defeats on both sides, a stalemate ensued.

On the imperial stage, land forces under the command of Sir Eyre Coote and Robert Clive in combination with the British navy eliminated French power in India without much difficulty.  A decisive victory at Plassey (23rd June, 1757 under Clive) against the Nawab of Bengal and his French allies removed France as a significant power in the north while victory in the south against the French at Wandiwash (22nd January, 1760 under Coote) ensured British control of the sub-continent. However, the North American conflict, (also known as the French and Indian war), was a different matter.  This dispute had been ongoing since 1754, sparked off by the battle of Jumonville Glen in May when a group of militiamen under 22-year-old George Washington ambushed a French patrol.  Initially the French, along with their indigenous and Canadian allies, managed to foil the various plans of the British, inflicting a major defeat upon them in July, 1755 at the battle of Monongahela.  Down to 1757, all the British campaigns foundered but with the accession to power of William Pitt and the injection of significantly greater resources, in 1758 the tide began to turn.  British naval blockades, a poor harvest the preceding year and a major smallpox outbreak among the western tribes, which made them wary of trading, had all served to weaken the position of the French.  The British now conducted three major offensives, two of which were successful, leading to the fall of Louisbourg and Fort Duquesne.  The third failed as 3,600 Frenchman scored a stunning victory against a much larger British force of 18,000 at the battle of Carillon.  In 1759, however, defeats at Quebec, Fort Niagara and Carillion and, in 1760, the capitulation of Montreal ended French ambitions in North America.

In 1763 the Treaty of Paris concluded the Seven Years War, with France obtaining surprisingly lenient terms from the British.  Nonetheless, in terms of blood, treasure, imperial possessions and national pride the cost to France had been enormous.  In fact, it was the desire of the French crown to avenge their humiliation at the hands of the British, in particular the loss of New France, which drew them into the American War of Independence – a suicidally expensive venture that bankrupted the French state and sparked the French Revolution of 1789.

Dave Thompson (2017)

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