The Importance of William Pitt
The Seven Years’ War represented an important watershed in the course of British imperial history. In some ways, it was the beginning of the end for a major part of the first empire, while in others it sowed the seeds of the second. The Seven Years’ War began with a king who concerned himself with his German possessions nearly as much as he did England, while it ended with a king who took a much more active role in imperial affairs after about fifty years of “wise and salutary neglect.”
The early days of the Seven Years’ War went badly for Britain and her allies, but with the accession of William Pitt to the position of Prime Minister, the tide turned. Pitt emphasized the empire and focused most of his attention overseas, while allowing his Prussian allies handle the fighting on the European continent. This strategy was quite successful, and by 1760 all of New France had capitulated to the British.
The year 1760 was quite impactful for another reason, as it was the year in which George III ascended to throne. This George was much more concerned with Britain and its empire than the earlier Hanoverians had been. He forced Pitt, the author of British success in America, out of his office as Prime Minister if favor of his Tory friend Bute.
Taxation without Representation?
The Seven Years’ War and Pontiac’s Rebellion along the western frontier of British North America led the British to consider leaving regular troops in North America to defend their possessions because the colonists had trouble defending themselves. Pontiac’s Rebellion was an early pan-Indian movement that wanted to rid their world of the white devils. This uprising saw raids against forts and settlements on the western edges of British North America.
The Seven Years’ War left Britain with a debt of about 150 million pounds and about 4.7 million in interest payments per annum. This debt was about twice what it had been before the war, and the cost to administer the colonies came to about 350,000 pounds per annum. (Lloyd 86-87) George Grenville decided to make the colonists pay for the 7,000-10,000 troops that he estimated necessary to defend the western frontier. In 1764 he had Parliament pass the Revenue (Sugar) Act that attempted to raise revenue to offset the cost of colonial defense.
The following year, Parliament passed the infamous Stamp Act for the same reason. The British government expected the Stamp Act to raise about 50,000 pounds per annum by forcing colonists to have government stamp placed on every piece of printed material. A Quartering Act, also passed in 1765, called for colonial legislatures to feed and shelter these British regulars in their colonies. These new pieces of legislation did not sit well with the American colonies, and the Sons of Liberty arose to stir up the people against the new (perceived) impositions on their liberties.
While the British government repealed these acts in response to the massive outcry and boycott against them in the colonies, Parliament passed the Declaratory Act in the same 1767 session that repealed the Stamp Act. The Declaratory Act stated that the British government retained the right to tax the colonies if they wanted to. At this point all of the taxes had the intent of offsetting the costs associated with the defense of the colonies.
Another restriction, not related to taxes, which particularly incensed the American colonies after the Seven Years’ War was the Proclamation Act of 1763, which set up the infamous Proclamation Line that followed the peak of the Appalachians. The Proclamation Act prohibited settlement to the west of the line, and this angered the colonists, who had just fought the war against France and her Indian allies to gain control of this very land. The act also set up the constitutions of Quebec, the Floridas and Granada, but the Proclamation Line was its most onerous outcome for the American colonists.
The Transfer of New France to Britain
In addition to the situation in British North America, New France came under the control of the British as a result of the 1763 Treaty of Paris. This official transfer of power was unique in that it brought 70,000 French-speaking Catholics under the control of the British crown, although the British had had effective control since the French surrender in 1760.
The British and French had a long-standing animosity against each other, so this transfer could have been an especially tedious undertaking. The British government set up James Murray, an army officer, with effective control over the conquered territory. The government gave Murray direct orders to crack down on the people and disarm them. He noticed, however, that the French leaders of the colony failed to stay behind after the defeat, leaving a power vacuum. Murray also had orders not to deal with the Catholics. The plan was to assimilate these French-speaking Catholics into the British Empire as seamlessly as possible.
The one institution that had the allegiance of the people was the Roman Catholic Church. Murray allowed the church to maintain its operations and to collect its tithes. He also worked with the local militias in an attempt at pacification. His activities between 1760 and 1763 set the tone for his later work in what would become Quebec after the Treaty of Paris.
Murray obtained a peerage as the king knighted him and made him the civilian governor of the new British colony of Quebec after the treaty. He again had orders to assimilate the French Catholics and was told not to deal with the Catholics.
No bishops were left in the colony, and without a bishop, there could be no consecrations of new priests. The Catholic Church could theoretically die out after a generation or two. Understanding that the Catholic hierarchy could be a major ally for him from his previous service, Murray sneaked a monsignor out of Quebec so that he could go to France and be consecrated a bishop. This was, in effect, a de facto establishment of the Catholic Church (the Quebec Act of 1774 effectively accomplished the general practice).
Murray also understood that an order to set up an elected legislative assembly was low on the order of importance for these people who amounted to French peasants. Instead of holding elections, he appointed Francophones and French Catholics to this assembly. The leniency to Catholicism and the lack of a democratically-elected assembly concerned subjects in the English-speaking colonies. They looked at the new colony of Quebec as a preview of British designs for their own lives.
Robert Clive and the Aftermath of the Seven Years' War in India
On the other side of the world, the Marathas in India suffered a major defeat at Panipat in January 1761. British expansion could proceed unchecked at this point with the defeat of the Marathas and the retreat of Afghans. (Wolpert 184) Both T. O. Lloyd and Stanley Wolpert point out how the British forces went on to win victories against the French at Wandiwash and Pondcherry in 1760 and 1761. (Wolpert 184-185, Lloyd 77)
The East India company’s “plunder of Bengal became so rapacious by 1762 that even Mir Kasim, willing puppet though he was, found his position as nawab intolerable.” After Kasim attempted to consolidate Mughal power against the British, he lost at Buxar in 1764. Wolpert considers this British victory even more important than Plassey had been. Robert Clive began acting as Dupleix had for France and began a lucrative system of providing “protection” for local rulers. This practice also gave the East India Company a semblance of legitimacy. (Wolpert 185-186)
Company officials in India abused their positions for personal gain, and the company made little money. Between 1765 and 1767, Robert Clive attempted to institute order within the company. Under Clive, the EIC paid the nawab a pension of 400,000 per annum and gave the Mughal emperor another 300,000. These pensions allowed the company greater control over Bengal.
Clive also instituted a prohibition against company officials taking “presents” for political services. These officials received shares in a subsidiary company in an attempt to keep them from making money trading instead of attending to their duties while, and, although the situation improved, officials continued their trading activities.
In 1766 the company turned a profit and made a promise to pay 400,000 pounds annually into the exchequer. (Lloyd 91) The next year, however, the situation deteriorated, and after attacks on the British bases in the south of India and a famine in Bengal (from the nawab’s over-taxation), the company needed a 1.4 million pound loan. The company received this loan, but had to lower dividend rates to 6% and submit to greater government control.
Clive returned to England, and while the cat was away, the mice returned to their play. The agents again began fleecing the Indians for profit. After Robert Hastings became governor, the right to trade privately ended. These events set the stage for more even more direct British government control of India.
The Seven Years’ War was in many ways a watershed in imperial history. The war sowed the seeds for both the end of the first empire and the beginning of the second empire. The original colonies in British North America perceived their rights eroding from British attempts at taxation, while the British government began taking greater control of the Indian subcontinent and began its long-term control of what had been New France.