World History 2 84 - 6.2.1 The Seven Years’ War

The Seven Years’ War (1756–1763) was a global conflict that began as a fight for dominance between European powers, primarily Great Britain and France, but it quickly involved groups from India, Africa, and the Americas (Figure 6.10). Conflicts that overlapped with the Seven Years’ War were the French and Indian War in North America and the Third Carnatic War in India.

A map of the world is shown. The continents of North America, South America, Europe, Africa, and Asia are labeled. Areas highlighted green indicating the “Spanish Empire” are: the central third of the United States and the very southeastern portion including Florida, all of Central America, including Mexico, the northwestern portion of South America, the western coast of South America, including Peru and a small area extending east to the Atlantic Ocean toward the south, Spain, and the northern portion of the Philippines. Areas highlighted purple indicating the “Portuguese Empire” are: a “U” shaped area on the east coast of South America, Portugal, the southern portion of the Philippines, and a small sliver on the southeastern coast of Africa across from Madagascar. Areas highlighted orange indicating the “British Empire” are: a “U” shaped area south of the Hudson Bay in Canada, a thin strip running from east to west in southeastern Canada, a “U” shaped area in the United States running from Maine south to Georgia and back up to the Great Lakes, Great Britain, and a small triangle shaped area in eastern India. Areas highlighted yellow indicating the “Russian Empire” are all of Russia, islands north of Japan, a small island north of the Philippines, and the western portion of Alaska. Areas highlighted red indicating the “Dutch Empire” are: the western portion of Guiana in South America, the Netherlands, a small section at Africa’s southern tip, a small northern portion of Madagascar, the island of Ceylon, and the Dutch East Indies. Areas highlighted dark blue indicating the “Ottoman Empire” are: the southern, eastern, and northeastern coasts of the Mediterranean Sea, extending southeast along the Arabian Peninsula on the east side of the Red Sea, and a very thin rectangular strip on the southwest portion of Africa along the Atlantic Ocean. Areas highlighted light blue indicating the “French Empire” are: an oval area around the Great Lakes in North America extending around the St. Lawrence River into Canada, the eastern portion of Guiana in South America, and France. A dashed line indicates “Conflict zones.” These areas are: an oval area in southeastern Canada and the eastern portion of North America, an oval area in Europe which includes Poland, Austria, Hungary and the westernmost edge of Russia, and an oval area that encompasses the lower two thirds of India and the northern portion of Ceylon.
Figure 6.10 This map shows a global view of the Seven Years’ War, which began in 1756. Note the many participants and the far-flung conflict zones. (attribution: Copyright Rice University, OpenStax, under CC BY 4.0 license)

In the late 1600s and early 1700s, New France grew steadily. In 1663, King Louis XIV canceled the royal charter with the Company of New France and transformed the settlement into a royal colony. French merchants and priests gradually expanded their reach from Quebec through the Great Lakes and down the Mississippi River, founding New Orleans near the Gulf of Mexico in 1718.

The English proved a serious obstacle for the growth of New France, however. Wealthy farmers in the English colonies of North America wanted to expand into the Ohio River Valley, territory claimed by France and its Native American allies. In 1754, violence broke out between French soldiers and members of the Virginia militia near what is now Uniontown, Pennsylvania. Initially the French and their Native American allies performed well, launching skillful ambushes on English troops and forcing George Washington, a young officer in the Virginia colonial militia, to surrender Britain’s Fort Necessity.

In Their Own Words

George Washington on the French and Indian War

George Washington wrote to his mother on July 18, 1755, when he was twenty-three years old and fighting in the French and Indian War. His letter, excerpted here, describes the battle near Fort Duquesne, now Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. British soldiers and members of the Virginia militia met a surprise attack by French and Indian fighters and were defeated.

HONORED MADAM: As I doubt not but you have heard of our defeat, and perhaps have had it represented in a worse light (if possible) than it deserves; I have taken this earliest opportunity to give you some account of the engagement, as it happened within 7 miles of the French fort, on Wednesday the 9th instant.

We marched onto that place, without any considerable loss, having only now and then a straggler picked up by the French scouting Indians. When we came there, we were attacked by a body of French and Indians, whose number (I am persuaded) did not exceed three hundred men; ours consisted of about 1300 well-armed troops, chiefly regular soldiers, who were struck with such a panic that they behaved with more cowardice than it is possible to conceive. The officers behaved gallantly, in order to encourage their men, for which they suffered greatly; there being near sixty killed and wounded; a large proportion of the number we had. The Virginia troops showed a good deal of bravery, and were near all killed; for I believe, out of three companies that were there, there is scarce thirty men left alive. . . . In short, the dastardly behavior of those they call regulars exposed all others that were inclined to do their duty to almost certain death; and, at last, in despite of all the efforts of the officers to the contrary, they broke, and run as sheep pursued by dogs; and it was impossible to rally them. . . .

I luckily escaped without a wound, though I had four bullets through my coat, and two horses shot under me. Captains Orme and Morris . . . were wounded early . . . I was the only person then left to distribute the General’s orders, which I was scarcely able to do, as I was not half recovered from a violent illness that had confined me to my bed, and a wagon, for above ten days. I am still in a weak and feeble condition, which induces me to halt here two or three days in hopes of recovering a little strength, to enable me to proceed homewards; . . .

I am, honored Madam, your most dutiful son.

—George Washington, Letter to Mary Ball Washington, July 18, 1755

  • Why does Washington want to explain to his mother what happened during the battle?
  • What is Washington’s opinion of the regular British soldiers, British officers, and Virginia militia in the battle?
  • What obstacles did Washington face during the battle?

However, the early success of the French in forcing the British to retreat did not last. In 1758, the Shawnee tribe, the Delaware tribe, and the powerful Iroquoian Confederacy agreed to ally with the English in exchange for their promise to respect Indigenous rights to contested lands on the frontier. The Iroquois Confederacy was a collection of allied Native American tribes who called themselves Haudenosaunee, which means “people of the longhouse.” The name referred both to the rectangular homes in which they lived and their geographic territory, which extended from what is now Vermont in the east all the way to Lake Erie in the west, an area roughly the shape of a longhouse. The Iroquoian tribes had formed a military and economic alliance by 1600 that consisted of the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, and Seneca tribes. The Tuscarora tribe joined the confederacy in 1722. Other, non-Iroquoian Native Americans, including several Algonquin tribes, remained loyal to the French until the end of the war in 1763. With Native American help, the English launched successful offensives against New France. The British turned in the tide in 1759, with a series of victories culminating in their capture of French Quebec after the Battle on the Plains of Abraham (Figure 6.11).

A map of the eastern portion of the United States and the Atlantic Ocean is shown and titled “The French and Indian War 1754–1763.” Areas highlighted purple indicating “British” are Nova Scotia in Canada, an unmarked island north of Nova Scotia, the states of New Hampshire, Massachusetts, New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Maryland, Delaware, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia. Areas highlighted pink indicating “French” are all of the area in Canada shown, labeled “New France,” as well as Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, and lands shown to the west. Florida is highlighted green indicating the “Spanish.” Areas highlighted yellow indicating the “Disputed areas” are Maine, a thin strip of land along the southern part of Canada along Lake Ontario and Lake Erie, western Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, and the unlabeled lands to the west. Blue dashed arrows indicating “British forces” are shown heading from New Jersey north through the Atlantic up to Ft. Louisbourg and then on from there to Quebec. They are also shown with blue dashed arrows heading from New Jersey to Ft. Duquesne, from Maryland to Ft. Duquesne, from Delaware to Ft. Necessity, and from southern New York west to Ft. Frontenac and then east toward lake Champlain. Red dotted arrows indicating “French forces” are shown heading from Lake Champlain to Ft. William Henry and to Ft. Oswego. A black “X” is shown indicating “Forts.” The forts listed from the north to the south are: Ft. Louisbourg, 1758; Ft. Beausejour, 1755; Ft. Ticonderoga, 1758; Ft. William Henry; Ft. Stanwix; Ft. Frontenac, 1758; Ft. Oswego; Ft. Niagara, 1759; Ft. Duquesne; and Ft. Necessity, 1754. Black asterisks are shown indicating “Important battles” at Quebec, 1759; Ft. Louisbourg, 1758; and an area in northern New York. Purple boxes indicate “British win battle” at: Quebec, 1759; Ft. Louisbourg, 1758; Ft. Frontenac, 1758; and Ft. Niagara, 1759. Red boxes indicate “French win battle” at Ft. Ticonderoga, 1758; Ft. William Henry; Braddock’s defeat, 1756 at Ft. Duquesne and Ft. Necessity, 1754.
Figure 6.11 This map shows the key battles of the French and Indian War (1754–1763), including Britain’s loss at Fort Duquesne where George Washington fought and its decisive victory in Quebec. (attribution: Copyright Rice University, OpenStax, under CC BY 4.0 license)

The French and Indian War ended with the victory of Great Britain and Prussia over France and Spain in the Seven Years’ War and the signing of the Treaty of Paris in February 1763. Under the treaty, the French government surrendered all its territory in North America, as well as outposts in the Caribbean, India, and Africa. Britain became the undisputed controller of eastern North America, from Canada in the north to the Florida border in the south, and from the Atlantic Ocean in the east to the Mississippi River in the west.

The Seven Years’ War had begun in Europe in 1756 when Frederick the Great of Prussia invaded Saxony and annexed the area as part of his broader plan to expand Prussian territory. In response, France, Spain, and Russia joined forces with Austria to oppose him. Great Britain allied itself with Prussia to maintain the balance of power in Europe, a situation in which competing nations have approximately equal military power. Maintaining this balance was a key feature of British foreign policy meant to prevent the domination of Europe by any one nation. Military alliances thus transformed what could have been a small border dispute in Europe into a major war that quickly spread around the world (Figure 6.12).

A map shows Europe and a portion of Russia. The Baltic Sea, the North Sea, the Atlantic Ocean, the Bay of Biscay, the Strait of Gibraltar, the Mediterranean, the Tyrrhenian Sea, the Adriatic Sea, the Ionian Sea, the Aegean Sea, the Sea of Marmara, and the Black Sea are labeled. Two colors are shown indicating which countries allied with each other. Areas highlighted green include Great Britain, Portugal, Prussia, and Hanover indicating “Allies: Great Britain, Portugal, Prussia, Hanover.” Areas highlighted orange include Spain, France, Austria, Sweden, Saxony, and Russia indicating “Allies: Spain, France, Austria, Sweden, Saxony, Russia.” All other areas are not highlighted.
Figure 6.12 This map shows the many alliances made in Europe during the Seven Years’ War. (attribution: Copyright Rice University, OpenStax, under CC BY 4.0 license)

In 1758, a British expeditionary force captured the French outpost of Senegal in West Africa, and other French outposts were taken during a series of subsequent offensives. The loss of valuable trading ports damaged the French economy at the very moment France desperately needed money to fund the war effort. More importantly, it deprived French military forces of strategic bases they could have used to raid British shipping and resupply their warships.

In Asia, the British East India Company, a joint stock company founded in 1600 with the original goal of trading in the Indian Ocean, was by now providing the British with a much stronger economic as well as military and diplomatic foundation than their French rivals had. To thwart these British advantages and gain control of valuable territory in India, the French formed an alliance with the Mughal Empire. At its height, this powerful Muslim realm had once ruled more than 150 million people living across 1.5 million square miles in what is now Afghanistan, India, and Bangladesh. The British defeated the French forces in 1761, however, when they captured Pondicherry, the most important French outpost in India. The Mughals continued to resist British domination even after the French had largely withdrawn from India.

In 1762, the British launched attacks on Spanish colonies in Asia and the Caribbean, capturing the port of Manila in the Philippines and occupying it until the end of the war in 1763. They were less successful in expanding their control over the islands, despite the assistance of Indigenous Filipinos who disliked Spanish rule. In the Caribbean, however, Britain succeeded in capturing Havana, Cuba, one of the most important ports in the Western Hemisphere, and held it until the end of the conflict.

Furthermore, with the signing of the Treaty of Paris, the French surrendered their imperial possessions in North America and India to the British, while the Spanish surrendered Florida to the British and France gave control of the Louisiana Territory to Spain. The subsequent Peace of Hubertusburg guaranteed Prussian control of Silesia, an area in central Europe, and confirmed Prussia’s status as a major force in Europe. The British, for their part, emerged from the Seven Years’ War as the world’s leading economic, military, and political power.

The content of this course has been taken from the free World History, Volume 2: from 1400 textbook by Openstax