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Imperial Wars

Imperial Wars. Although North America was peripheral to Western European rivalries in trade, revenue, and power, imperial wars strongly shaped modern North American history. Conflicts between Europeans and Indian communities were also imperial, but conflicts between European settlements and between European forces in America extended European military competition more directly. Generally, these wars reflected rather than affected European power. Their phases correspond to the dominance of Spain, the Netherlands, France, and Britain.

Spain's initial adventures in America roused little rivalry beyond the English‐sponsored explorations of John Cabot and the Portuguese voyages of the Corte‐Réal brothers. Although Portugal had fought Spain for the Canary Islands, the Portuguese crown quickly gained so much in the Far East that it seemed sensible to respect the 1494 Treaty of Tordesillas with Spain, a hemispheric apportionment of all the worlds that Iberians might discover. Other European courts made no forceful objections to Spain's modest initial colonies on Haiti and Cuba. The conquest of Mexico in 1521, however, soon changed everything.

The silver and gold of Central and South America were by far the greatest prizes any European power derived from the Americas, translating immediately into pay for armies and fleets, funds for dissidents in neighboring European countries, and collateral for a scale of borrowing that transformed European warfare. The year Mexico was conquered, rivalry between Habsburg emperor Charles V (1500–1558), who was also king of Spain, and French king Francis I (1494–1547) launched nearly forty years of Habsburg‐Valois wars in Europe (1521–1559). French privateers captured their first Mexican treasure in 1523, initiating one strategy against Spain's American‐supported power. Efforts to find riches equivalent to those of the Aztecs, Mayans, and Incas inspired French voyages by Giovanni da Verrazzano (1524) and Jacques Cartier (1534, 1535–36, 1542–43). They failed to find either North American wealth or a passage to the Orient, but Spain's rivals retained the option of stealing what Spain was taking from the New World. As Spain invested more in convoys for its American bullion fleets, French privateers attacked Spanish Caribbean ports, in the hope of diverting Spanish men‐of‐war from their primary task. When these Franco‐Spanish wars ended in 1559, the two courts informally agreed that depradations occurring west of the Canary Islands would not disturb the peace of Europe. There was to be “no peace beyond the Line.”

For the next half century, North America served primarily as a privateering base for Spain's Protestant rivals. As France collapsed in religiously inspired civil war (1559–89), French Huguenots established a refuge and privateering base at Fort Caroline (Jacksonville, Florida) in 1564. The Spanish responded decisively the following year, capturing the fort, executing most of the prisoners, and establishing St. Augustine, the first permanent European settlement in North America. English illegal traders in the Caribbean, led by John Hawkins, were succeeded by pirates, led by Francis Drake. Elizabethan colonizing ventures in North America failed, under Humphrey Gilbert in Newfoundland (1582) and Walter Raleigh at Roanoke Island (1584–87); both had been intended as bases for raiding Spanish American shipping. During the Anglo‐Spanish War (1585–1604), English privateers built fleets and gained navigational knowledge of the Americas, but failed to capture the treasure fleets.

Peace between European maritime powers allowed the English, French, and Dutch to establish permanent North American colonies. Spain took no military action against them, but the English Virginia Company destroyed French settlements at Mount Desert Island, the St. Croix River, and Port Royal (Annapolis Royal, Nova Scotia) in 1613. During the Anglo‐French War of 1627–29, English privateers captured French fishing and trading fleets in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, and seized settlements at Tadoussac and Québec.

The Dutch, emerging from their long war for independence from Spain (1572–1648), became Europe's next dominant maritime power. The only mariners ever to capture an entire Spanish treasure fleet (1628), the Dutch forced Spain to extend Europe's peace “beyond the Line” in self‐defense. The Dutch built their imperial success on efficient shipping and a global network of trade in exotic commodities for expanding European consumption. For example, Dutch traders provided capital, expertise, shipping, and markets for sugar production on English and French Caribbean Islands in the 1640s, stimulating the growth of trade in both African slaves and North American provisions, lumber, and horses. Unable to compete with the Dutch, French and English competitors sought government support for exclusionary mercantilist trade laws, and for the maritime wars to enforce them.

Three Anglo‐Dutch Wars (1652–54, 1665–67, 1672–74) reduced Dutch trading advantages by escalating their costs for battle fleets, convoys, forts, and marine insurance. Over 1,000 Dutch merchant vessels captured in the first war gave England enough ships to transport colonial commodities that the new Navigation Laws insisted must be carried in English or colonial‐owned ships. Little fighting occurred in North America during this war, but the English capture of New York in 1664 helped provoke the Second Anglo‐Dutch War. The Dutch readily recaptured New York in 1673 but, severely tested at home by the massive military power of Louis XIV's France, returned the colony to England a year later.

By the 1680s, France had become the paramount power in Western Europe, whether measured by population, tax revenues, or standing armies. Although Jean‐Baptiste Colbert (1619–1683) developed impressive naval power and mercantilist colonial policies, America was less necessary to France than it had been to Spain or the Netherlands; maritime war could never cripple a French economy based primarily upon internal markets.

The Anglo‐French struggle for North America involved four wars over a period of seventy‐five years (1689–1763). Although the British colonists persistently outnumbered their French counterparts by at least twenty to one, the manpower advantage was offset by decentralized and disunited British colonial governments. Many Indians, using intercolonial wars to gain supplies for their resistance against encroaching European settlement, helped prolong the contest by supporting the Canadians. European navies helped insulate the American contests. European courts declared each war and proclaimed each peace, but were slow to undertake serious fighting in North America.

The shared pattern of the first three Anglo‐French wars helps explain their inconclusiveness. British Americans rather optimistically named them after their monarchs: King William's War (1689–97), Queen Anne's War (1702–14), and King George's War (1744–48). Monarchs declared war, then hurried the news to the West Indies to snatch a rival's unsuspecting sugar colony. In North America, it was the Canadian governors who invariably initiated serious belligerence, putting stronger enemies on the defensive and consolidating Indian alliances. The first devastating blows in 1690 fell on Schenectady, New York; Salmon Falls, New Hampshire; and Forts Casco and Loyal in Maine. These were paralleled in 1703–04 by attacks on Wells, York, Saco, Winter Harbor, Casco, and Deerfield, and in 1744, by the capture of Canso.

The northern British colonies responded, in each case, with a major siege in Acadia as preliminary to a two‐pronged attack on Québec. This type of offensive suited provincial armies recruited on eight‐month contracts, trained for only a few weeks, and reliant on shipborne cannon. Such campaigns could promise to “extirpate” an otherwise elusive enemy at predictable costs. William Phips led New England volunteers who profitably captured Port Royal in 1690, then formed a larger expedition that failed to take Québec. Meanwhile, New York and Connecticut volunteers joined Mohawk and Mohegan warriors in the overland force, stalling at Lake Champlain and sending a small raiding party that attacked La Prairie too early to divert Canadian forces from Québec. In the next war, New Englanders twice failed to take Port Royal in 1707. They awaited British assistance before capturing that base again in 1710, then became junior partners in the British Walker expedition that failed to reach Québec the following year. In King George's War, the New England provinces responded to the capture of Canso by conquering Louisbourg. Plans for an attack on Québec in 1746 collapsed when Britain diverted the intended battle fleet to Portugal, but the British government showed growing commitment when it reimbursed colonial expenses.

In all three wars, the failure of a massive British‐American endeavor against Québec heralded reduced colonial effort on both sides, as though a balance of usable force had been confirmed. Profitable raiding, of Hudson Bay fur posts and Newfoundland fishing stations, continued, and colonists claimed to be pursuing the imperial war while “settling with” their Indian enemies as the wars ended. In 1697, the New Englanders fought the Abenaki while New France fought the Iroquois. After 1711 the Carolinas were embroiled in war, first with the Tuscarora, then with the Yamasee. British and French colonials struggled to control the Indians of the Upper Ohio Valley from 1747 in a contest that would defy the peace of 1748 and start a new imperial war six years later.

Whenever European governments contemplated peace negotiations, they became more willing to divert martial resources to America. Captured forts and colonies were useful bargaining items at the peace talks. Thus the French captured English St. John's, Newfoundland, in 1696, but it was retaken the following year while the French captured Spanish Cartagena. Peace negotiations had begun in the second war before the Walker expedition sailed to Québec. As the War of the Austrian Succession seemed decided in Europe, a massive French fleet set off on its disastrous attempt to retake Louisbourg in 1746.

This pattern of intercolonial warfare was broken in 1754, when Virginia troops clashed with Canadians and Indians near the forks of the Ohio River, launching the French and Indian War two years before the European courts declared what would be known as the Seven Years' War (1756–63). Both Britain and France committed regular ground troops to North America from 1755, and this increased regular army and navy commitment reinforced unprecedented colonial military and financial efforts. French, Canadian, and Indian successes marked the first five years of the war, from the defeat of Virginians under Col. George Washington (1754) and British regulars under Gen. Edward Braddock (1755) through the capture of Fort Oswego (1756) and Fort William Henry (1757), to the defense of Fort Carillon (Ticonderoga, 1758). A comparatively unified command gave France advantages not matched until William Pitt inaugurated a subsidy system to encourage colonial participation and end a crippling series of disputes between colonial assemblies and military commanders. British and American victories followed: the recapture of Louisbourg and the taking of Fort Duquesne (1759); successful sieges of Fort Niagara and Québec (1759); and the surrender of Montréal (1760).

Spain belatedly joined its French ally in 1761, marking the fourth time the British and Spanish had been at war since 1717. The wars of 1717–18 and 1727–28 had been brief maritime confrontations, though South Carolina forces and their Indian allies besieged St. Augustine unsuccessfully in 1728. The British and British colonials enthusiastically undertook the War of Jenkins' Ear (1739–44), only to fail at St. Augustine (1740) and more miserably at Cartagena (1741). Spanish entry into the Seven Years' War proved less fortunate, for British forces supplemented by American volunteers captured Havana, which would be exchanged for Florida at the Peace of Paris (1763).

The protracted Anglo‐French struggle had fulfilled Indian and Canadian objectives by limiting the expansion of British American settlement and trade. These wars climaxed in a ruinously expensive contest after which the victorious British government felt compelled to reduce North American expenses drastically. Indians were soon at war with a government that eliminated traditional gifts. American colonists, expecting the benefits of peace, soon replaced their celebration of imperial victory with resistance to new imperial taxation, a resistance that could be more confident because French power had been eliminated from the continent.
[See also Braddock's Defeat; Louisbourg Siege; Native Americans: U.S. Military Relations with; Native American Wars: Wars Between Native Americans and Europeans and Euro‐Americans.]


J. H. Elliott , Imperial Spain, 1469–1716, 1963.
J. H. Elliott , The Old World and the New 1492–1650, 1970.
Douglas Edward Leach , Arms for Empire: A Military History of the British Colonies in North America, 1607–1763, 1973.
Fred Anderson , A People's Army: Massachusetts Soldiers and Society in the Seven Years' War, 1984.
Geoffrey Parker , The Military Revolution: Military Innovation and the Rise of the West, 1500–1800, 1988.
G. V. Scammell , The First Imperial Age: European Overseas Expansion c. 1400–1715, 1989.
William John Eccles , France in America, 1972; 2nd ed. 1990.
Ian K. Steele , Warpaths: Invasions of North America, 1994.

Ian K. Steele

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