1759: The Year Britain Became Master of the Worldby Frank McLynn
If not for the events of 1759, the entire history of the world would have been different. Called the "Year of Victories," 1759 was the fourth year of the Seven Years, or the French-and-Indian War and defeat of the French paved the way for the global hegemony of the English language. Guiding us through England's conquests (and often extremely narrow victories),… See more details below
If not for the events of 1759, the entire history of the world would have been different. Called the "Year of Victories," 1759 was the fourth year of the Seven Years, or the French-and-Indian War and defeat of the French paved the way for the global hegemony of the English language. Guiding us through England's conquests (and often extremely narrow victories), Frank McLynn (Wagons West) brilliantly interweaves primary sources, ranging from material in the Vatican archives to oral histories of Native Americans. In a stunning chronicle of a pivotal year in world history, he controversially concludes that the birth of the great British Empire was more a result of luck than of rigorous planning.
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By Frank McLynn
Grove Atlantic, Inc.Copyright © 2004 Frank McLynn
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Chapter OneTHE STRUGGLE FOR NEW FRANCE
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 restlessWesley, 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 Pérouse, 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.
Excerpted from 1759 by Frank McLynn Copyright © 2004 by Frank McLynn. Excerpted by permission.
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