1759: The Year Britain Became Master of the World

Jeremy Black | Published in History Today

1759: The Year Britain Became Master of the World
Frank McLynn
Jonathan Cape   432 pp.   £20 
ISBN  0-224-06245-X

In a characteristically well-written work, Frank McLynn takes on the difficult task of saying something new about 1759. He does so by prefacing his chapters, which are organised round the campaigning of the year, with discussions of aspects that are apt to be neglected beneath the din of drums and trumpets. Thus the chapter on Pitt and the West Indies begins with a discussion of Swedenborg, who in 1759 greatly enhanced his reputation as a clairvoyant by describing a fire in Stockholm; and then moves on via Jung, Hume, and the beliefs of ‘primitive people’ to mention slaves and voodoo. And thus to the West Indies. Similarly, the chapter on Canada begins with a section briefly discussing, or at least mentioning, Hume, Burke, Freud, Sartre, Voltaire, Sterne and Johnson, in order to consider landscape, and then the Canadian sublime. India comes via Johnson, whose Rasselas appeared that year, and Lagos Bay via a longer preface on Charles Edward Stuart, John Holker, the Jacobite economist Sir James Stewart, Hume, histories of Britain, and Adam Smith.

I found this invigorating, and at times fascinating, but others may feel confused, and there is a marked tension in the book between the attempt to write an account of how Britain became the world empire and the wider history of 1759. McLynn is good on counterfactuals, and is also clear on consequences. He argues: no 1759, no victory in the Seven Years’ War; no victory in North America, no expansionist British Empire, no breakaway colonies and therefore, conceivably, no United States of America. Thus, 1759 becomes the hinge on which all of world history turned.

This of course is not an original argument, and nor indeed is the discussion of the Seven Years’ War as the first ‘world war’. The victories of 1759 were clearly important but cannot be abstracted from a wider context. McLynn claims that victory at Plassey (1757) and the capture of Pondicherry (1761) ‘delivered all of eastern India to the triumphant East India Company’, which would have been news to the East India Company’s troops fighting hard to win victory at Patna and Buxar in 1764. As McLynn himself notes, the French were briefly victorious outside Quebec in 1760. In 1762, Spain entered the war on France, unsuccessfully so, but that was not inevitable. Furthermore, the success won in the Seven Years’ War had subsequently to be defended: in the War of American Independence and later in the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars. Triumph in the Seven Years’ War helped ensure a better position for later conflicts, but the latter had to be waged before the British became, as McLynn puts it, ‘masters of the world’, a term that would have made no sense to the Qianlong emperor of China whose alliance the British fruitlessly sought in the 1790s.

There are of course other questions to consider about turning points. How far does one allow for preparations: was the crucial step in the conquest of Canada not the seizure of Quebec in 1759 nor its defence in 1760 and the subsequent advance on Montreal, but, rather, the capture of Louisbourg in 1758? and so on. McLynn’s book raises many stimulating questions. His work is also full of interesting details. For example, when the first British troops entered Quebec, there were no reprisals, no incidents of looting, and no atrocities. This was because Brigadier George Townshend knew that it was vital to secure the cooperation of a civilian population that could not be held down indefinitely by force.

McLynn is most interesting when he ranges widely to consider subjects other than the struggle between Britain and France. The idea of taking a year and writing about developments then around the world is not new, but, judged by his prefaces, McLynn is well placed to try this genre.

  • Jeremy Black is the author of Kings, Nobles and Commoners: States and Societies in Early Modern Europe (I.B. Tauris, 2004).
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