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Index |  History |  Highlights |  WhatWhenWhere
16th - 17th century
North America
West Indies
France and Britain
     Newfoundland and Nova Scotia
     French and British empires
     Rivalries in India
     Seven Years' War

The Caribbean
Cape Colony
Anglo-Russian rivalry
Heyday of empire
South Africa
To be completed

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Newfoundland and Nova Scotia: 1670-1745

During the 17th and early 18th century the main area of friction between France and Britain is in northern waters, on the approach to the St Lawrence seaway. This region has long been disputed for its valuable cod fisheries. With the growth of imperial and trading interests on the mainland it also becomes of strategic importance.

The Cabot Strait, between Newfoundland and Nova Scotia, is the only practical route to the territory of New France, strung out along the St Lawrence river and seaway. It is also the route to the Hudson Bay, where the British have fur-trading interests after the foundation of the Hudson's Bay Company in 1670.


The land on the south side of the strait changes hands several times during the 17th century between the French (who call it Acadie, its American Indian name) and the British (who prefer Nova Scotia, 'New Scotland').

Similarly there are regular skirmishes in Newfoundland in the late 17th and early 18th century. The French attack British trading settlements on the coasts of Newfoundland during the European wars of the Grand Alliance and of the Spanish Succession. But the treaty of Utrecht, in 1713, brings considerable advantages to Britain in the region.


France accepts British sovereignty in Newfoundland (though retaining fishing rights) and on the shores of Hudson Bay. Moreover Nova Scotia is ceded to Britain, except for the island of Cape Breton at its northern and most strategic point.

On Cape Breton the French build the powerful fortress of Louisbourg, to protect their maritime interests. It proves, however, less impregnable than expected. It is even besieged and captured rather cheekily, in 1745, by a volunteer militia of colonists from New England during the war of the Austrian Succession.


French and British empires: 1748-1763

In 1748, at the end of the war of the Austrian Succession, the French and British empires are restored to the status quo. In the New World the fortress of Louisbourg reverts to the French; in India Madras is returned to the British.

Yet it is clear that there is unfinished business needing attention. In America a direct clash is developing between French and British interests in the Ohio valley; it will break out in the French and Indian War of 1754. In India fighting between the rival East India Companies of Britain and France continues spasmodically from the end of the war of the Austrian Succession. Both regions, therefore, are at war before the beginning of a wider European conflict, the Seven Years' War, in 1756.


Rivalries in India: 1748-1760

Both the French and the English East India Companies, to advance their commercial interests, offer military support in dynastic struggles within powerful Indian states. Helping a candidate to the throne opens a new region of influence, a new market.

The death in 1748 of the Moghul viceroy in Hyderabad is followed by French and English assistance for rival sons of the dead ruler. Soon the two European nations are also fighting on opposite sides in a war of succession in the Carnatic (the coastal strip north and south of Madras).


The French candidate succeeds in Hyderabad, and the English favourite prevails in the Carnatic. But the most striking event in either campaign is a dramatic intervention by Robert Clive in 1751. With 200 British and 300 Indian soldiers he seizes Arcot (the capital of the Carnatic) and holds it through a seven-week siege.

His action, and his subsequent defeat of a French and Indian force in battle, wins the throne for his candidate. It also has the effect of diminishing the prestige in Indian eyes of the French army. Until now the French have had the better of the British in India (most notably in their capture of Madras in 1746).


France and Britain remain rivals in southern India for the rest of the century. It is in the north that the balance changes significantly in Britain's favour, after a disaster of 1756. In that year the nawab of Bengal, Siraj-ud-Daula, overwhelms the British settlement in Calcutta and locks some of his captives overnight in a room of the fort. The details of precisely what happened that night are obscure, but the event becomes known to the British as the Black Hole of Calcutta.

To recover Calcutta, Clive sails north from Madras in October 1756. The fort is back in British hands by January 1757. But Clive now decides to intervene further in the politics of Bengal.


He aims to place a more compliant nawab, Mir Jafar, on the throne of Bengal, and he achieves his purpose after defeating Siraj-ud-Daula at Plassey in June 1757. For the next three years Clive virtually rules the rich province of Bengal, using Mir Jafar as his political puppet. In doing so he establishes the pattern by which British control will gradually spread through India, in a patchwork of separate alliances with local rulers.

In 1760 Clive returns to England, the possessor of vast and rapidly acquired wealth. Here too he sets a pattern, this time an unmistakably bad one. He is the first of the 'nabobs', whose fortunes derive from jobbery and bribes while administering Indian affairs.


Seven Years' War: 1756-1763

At the start of the Seven Years' War the balance between the empires of France and Britain looks much as it has been since the late 17th century. By the end of it, in 1763, the situation is transformed. The change is less great in India. Even so, British rule in Bengal, established informally from 1757, represents an unprecedented level of European involvement in the subcontinent - and a level unmatched by France.

If the difference in India appears as yet slight, these years change out of all recognition the colonial situation in America. British victory over the French, clinched in the capture of Quebec in 1759, is followed by dramatic French concessions in the Paris peace treaty of 1763.


France cedes to Britain all the territory which it has previously claimed between the Mississippi and the Ohio rivers, together with the original territories of New France along the St Lawrence. This brings to an end the French empire in continental America (only New Orleans and its district remain in French hands under the treaty). The British become unmistakably the dominant power in the northern half of the continent, in one of the major turning points of history.

The lands more notionally claimed by the French between the Mississippi and the Rockies are ceded to Spain. (They are later acquired by the USA, in 1803, in the Louisiana Purchase.)


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