‘Motives of humanity induce me to acquaint your Excellency herewith that you may have an opportunity of making your proposals to surrender the Havannah to His Britannic Majesty and thereby prevent the fatal calamities, which always attend the storming of a town.’
Lord Albemarle, leader of the British Army besieging Havana, Cuba, to the town’s governor, Don Juan de Prado (Battle For Empire p.228)
This book is the polar opposite of John Darwin’s high-level, thematic and analytical overview of the British Empire, Unfinished Empire. By contrast, Pocock’s book is all about the characters and personalities involved in the pivotal struggle for power between Britain and France which ranged from battlefields in Europe to the forests of America, to the hot plains of India and beyond.
Pocock (1925 – 2007) served in the Royal Navy and was present at D-Day, before moving on to a long and successful career as a journalist and author of popular history and travel books. It turns out that one of the dozen or so key figures of the war was Admiral Sir George Pocock, in charge of the east Indies fleet which fought a number of key engagements with the French fleet commanded by Comte D’Aché off the east coast of India, and that Pocock was one of the great admiral’s descendants. In fact, Pocock mentions various heirlooms of the admiral which had come down in the family, including rings set with bloodstone to indicate the wounds he received at the Battle of Pondicherry. In his introduction Pocock also tells some stories about his personal visits to various of the book’s locations – Calcutta, Havana, the bloody hill of Ticonderoga. It’s that sort of book: chatty, human, anecdotal.
‘pour encourager les autres…’
The book starts as it means to go on, not with a lengthy introduction to the political, geographical, economic or cultural background to the war, but with a vivid novelist’s account of the attempt by Captain the Honourable Augustus Hervey to rescue his friend and brother officer, Vice-Admiral the Honourable John Byng, from captivity in Portsmouth, on the eve of his execution for cowardice in the face of the enemy. The French writer, Voltaire, famously mentioned the incident in his short comic novel, Candide, where the hero visits England and remarks that, in this country they periodically execute an admiral ‘pour encourager les autres’ – to encourage the others. In fact, Pocock later demonstrates that Byng’s fate did in fact encourage other naval leaders to make sure they’d done everything possible to harass and destroy the enemy.
It is by this roundabout, colourful, and very character-based method, that we approach the Battle of Minorca (where Byng failed to prevent the French fleet capturing the island) which took place in May 1756 and is generally thought to mark the start of the Seven Year’s War.
Pocock ignores the numerous battles of the war which took place in Europe, between Britain and her allies Prussia and Portugal, and France and her allies Austria and (after 1760) Spain. Instead, Battle for Empire focuses on colourful descriptions of fights in exotic locations, predominantly India and North America. The book is divided into seven long chapters, most of which start with biographical sketches of the key players involved and use contemporary diaries, journals and letters to give a lively sense of the central figures in each conflict. It is popular, ripping yarn history at its best.
We read about the rise to power of the Nawab Siraj ud-Daula whose forces captured the British trading settlement at Calcutta and forced 100 or more British captives into a tiny cell where up to half of them died of heat, asphyxiation and thirst – the infamous ‘Black Hole of Calcutta’. This prompted the British naval campaign to retake Calcutta and then capture the French base of Chandernagar before the Nawab was brought to battle at Plassey on 23 June 1757. This battle was the great victory for Britain’s military genius in India, General Robert Clive. Plassey is always referred to as a turning point in British control of India. Pocock humanises his story with plenty of description of Clive, his letters and personality, and that of his fellow and rival officers.
2. North America
I hadn’t quite realised the importance of the war to securing North America for the British. This map (sourced from Wikipedia and created by ‘Pinpin’) shows how the French controlled a great bar of territory stretching from the Arctic coast of Canada down to the Gulf of Mexico. Westward expansion of the British colonies was completely blocked, and hence the aggressive plans conceived by the war cabinet in London to seize control of France’s key strategic posts, embodied in her network of forts, the most important of which were actually in the north of the continent, along the St Lawrence waterway in what is now Canada, and in particular the great fortress town of Quebec.
The clarity of Pinpin’s online map (above) highlights the glaring shortcoming of Pocock’s book: the absence of maps. The India section has a so-so, high-level map of India indicating key cities – but there are no maps of Clive’s campaign up the river Hooghly from Calcutta and no diagrams of the key battlefields, most obviously at Plassey. One vague map just isn’t enough to convey the complexity of the Indian campaign. But it’s worse for America, because there isn’t a single map of North America in the entire book which, since the North America was one of the two key arenas of war, is astonishing.
When Prime Minister William Pitt dispatches three armies to attack three different French positions in North America, there are no maps of the locations – if you’re interested, you have to google them all and try and find maps of the country as it was in the 1770s. For the build-up to and execution of the key battle to take Quebec from the French on 13 September 1759, the only visual aid the book supplies is this contemporary diagram (below). It is as difficult to read reproduced below as it is in the book where, even worse, the fold of the book cuts through it, making the larger scale insert map at the top indecipherable.
After quite a lot of hard study I managed to make out the tiny writing and sort of figure out what happened at the battle of Quebec, but this book would have been soooo much better with a proper complement of clear, explanatory, modern maps.
Having lost badly in North America and India, the French pursued European diplomacy, invoking the so-called ‘Family Pact’ between the Bourbon kings of Spain and France to persuade the former, King Carlos III, to ally with France. Together they launched an unsuccessful invasion of Portugal. But the British government took the pre-emptive move of declaring war on Spain in January 1762 and immediately conceiving bold plans to seize Spain’s two most important overseas possessions: Havana capital of Cuba, gateway to the Caribbean; and Manila, capital of the 5,000 Philippines Islands, gateway to the Pacific and crucial to Spain’s enormously lucrative trade with China and other Far East countries.
The campaign against Havana took place between March to August 1762. When a substantial British fleet, carrying a large army, navigated the tricky eastern channel and anchored close to the city, we now know that if they had mounted a frontal assault they would have penetrated Havana’s rickety defences and taken the garrison unawares. Instead, faulty intelligence suggested they had to first take the massive fort overlooking the city, El Morro and this turned into a protracted and painful siege lasting months, during which every drop of fresh water had to be carried manually from freshwater streams miles away, across burning rocks and scrub, to a force which was often pinned down by fire from the fort.
Eventually it was taken using the medieval strategy of mining beneath it and setting off an enormous explosion then rushing the resulting breach in the wall. Once possessed of the fort, the general leading British forces, George Keppel, 3rd Earl of Albemarle, issued an ultimatum to the governor of the city. When the latter hesitated, Albemarle launched a sustained bombardment forcing him to accept. The British entered Havana on 14 August 1762.
They had obtained possession of the most important harbour in the Spanish West Indies along with military equipment, 1,828,116 Spanish pesos and merchandise valued around 1,000,000 Spanish pesos. Furthermore, they had seized 20% of the ships of the line of the Spanish Navy. (Wikipedia).
The Battle of Manila was fought from 24 September 1762 to 6 October 1762, and took the same shape as the Havana campaign, except on a smaller scale and not dragging on for so long. This was reflected in the fact that the British lost only five officers and 30 other ranks killed, and only 100 wounded. There was no El Morro fortress to besiege and after a relatively brief period of bombardment, and given that the city’s defences weren’t even completely built, the acting governor – an archbishop – surrendered. There was some looting by British forces until brought under control, at which point the commanders settled down to extort the maximum amount of money and matériel from the conquered Spanish. The city remained under British rule for 18 months but was returned to Spain in April 1764 under the Treaty of Paris, which formally ended the war.
Besides the battles, and the campaigns they form parts of, and the over-arching strategy to ‘whip the French’, which are the book’s main subject – a number of other themes emerge:
1. Bloody battles
The battles were often a bloody shambles. The Battle of Carillon, also known as the Battle of Ticonderoga, on July 8, 1758, involved badly-prepared British soldiers being ordered to scramble up a hill towards French defences. They were told these were only flimsy palisades but they turned out to be an impenetrable wall of hewn fir tree logs reaching up to eight foot tall, with all the roots and branches sticking outwards like spikes and French musketeers firing from every cranny. The British had drawn up artillery on an adjacent hill and to this day nobody knows why the commander, General Abercrombie, didn’t do the obvious thing and order it to fire on the log wall. Instead, wave after waves of Brits were slaughtered either slogging up the hillside or completely failing to climb over the log wall, ‘falling like pigeons’, lying strewn screaming along the slope or dangling from the branches of the trees. The handful that made it over the palisade were immediately bayoneted on the other side. It was a bloodbath. (pp. 102 – 111)
2. Sentiment and humanism
It’s striking how many times grown men cry during this era. When various leaders fall (like Howe or Wolfe), eye witnesses record numerous officers and soldiers shedding tears at the loss. This was, after all the great Age of Sentiment, so it’s possible that noble sentiments and manly tears were inserted into the narratives, journals, diaries and letters which Pocock quotes, because both writers and readers expected this kind of behaviour. Or – simpler explanation – men were just more sensitive and emotional back then.
On Tuesday 22 March 1757 a squadron commanded by Admiral Charles Watson attacked Chandernagore (modern Chandannagar) upriver from Calcutta. The British ships were raked by cannon placed on the walls of the French Fort d’Orléans. All Watson’s officers were wounded and killed as well as hundreds of men. Among them were Captain Speke and his 16-year-old son Billy. The events were recorded in the account of Watson’s surgeon, Edward Ives:
When Admiral Watson had the unhappiness of seeing both father and son fall in the same instant, he immediately went up to them and by the most tender and pathetic expressions tried to alleviate their distress… The captain, who had observed his son’s legs to be hanging only by the skin, said to the admiral, ‘Indeed, sir, this was a cruel shot, to knock down both the father and son!’ Mr Watson’s heart was too full to make the least reply.
As both men were being carried below, the quarter-master who was carrying the boy, was killed outright by a cannon ball. As Ives was examining the boy, the latter indicated a wounded man lying next to him and said, ‘Pray, sir, look to and dress this poor man, who is groaning so sadly beside me.’ Then of his own wound he said, ‘Sir, I fear you must amputate above the joint,’ and Ives replied, ‘My dear, I must.’ Captain Speke survived but his son died of gangrene and Lockjaw a few weeks later. On being asked, ‘Well, Ives, how fares it with my boy?’ Ives could not reply and later wrote in his diary: ‘He immediately attributed my silence to the real cause. He cried bitterly, squeezed me by the hand and begged me to leave him for one half-hour… When I returned to him, he appeared as he ever after did, perfectly calm and serene.’ (Battle For Empire pages 74 to 76.)
When Admiral Watson died of illness in Calcutta in August 1757, a huge funeral was held at the church of St John attended by thousands of mourners and Ives wrote, ‘Nor was there an individual among them all that did not shed a tear.’
Not only sentimental tears but chivalry and politesse was displayed by fine ladies and gentlemen, even in the midst of the conflict. For example, when Major General Jeffrey Amherst led the British forces besieging Louisbourg, which protected the mouth of the St Lawrence Waterway, the gateway to French North America,
The Governor of Louisbourg, the Chevalier Drucour, sent a message to Amherst that he would be happy to send a French surgeon under a flag of truce to attend any wounded British officer. Amherst responded by forwarding messages into the town from captured French soldiers. He sent Madame Drucour a present of pineapples from the West Indies and she sent him bottles of French wine. (p.120)
3. Indian savagery
These very 18th century sensibilities were all the more shocked and outraged by the behaviour of the Red Indians, or native Americans, mostly allied with the French, especially their scalping of the dead, and especially their scalping of women and children. Contrary to Wolfe’s chivalry towards the French ladies, is the story of what happened to the expeditionary force under Major-General Edward Braddock, sent to attack Fort Duquesne. After struggling 100 miles through forest and swamp they were ambushed by French and Indian forces, tried but failed to form up in the traditional square and over 500 men were slaughtered, including Braddock himself. But here’s the point:
Those captured by the Indians were tortured to death, including eight women; one of these was Braddock’s mistress, who was seized from the French-Canadians who were trying to save her, stripped, used as a target for arrows and finally killed and eaten. (pp.90-91)
Wherever the British lost to Franco-Indian forces, captives were liable to be horrifically tortured before being scalped. Pocock retells a steady trickle of atrocities with the same emphasis on the actual, human level of the experience as he brings to his descriptions of strategy and battle. On another occasion, when Brigadier John Forbes finally took Fort Duquesne, the scene of Braddocks’s disaster, in November 1758, he and his men found it abandoned and burnt by the French,
the Indians having decorated the charred ruins with the heads of captured Highlanders on spikes, festooned with their tartan plaids. (p.123)
British soldiers, throughout the North American campaign, were terrified of falling into the hands of the Indians. When Fort William Henry, a British fort at the southern end of Lake George, was captured by French and Indian forces in August 1757, the 600 or so provincials from New York surrendered but the 2,000 or so Indians broke open the fort’s liquor supply and ran wild, butchering up to 200 of the unarmed civilians, including women and children, with tomahawks and scalping knives.
This was such a notorious incident that James Fenimore Cooper used it in his classic novel The Last of the Mohicans, published 69 years later (in 1826).
Chivalry and savagery are combined in a brutal anecdote from the British siege of Manila, which took place from September into October 1762. The besieging British forces seized a frigate approaching the port which turned out, besides the usual treasure which the British stole, to contain the nephew of the Spanish cleric commanding the garrison in Manila, Governor-General Archbishop Manuel Rojo del Rio y Vieyra, one Antonio Tagle. In the chivalrous tradition we’ve become used to from reading this book, Tagle was entertained in the officers’ mess and the British commander, Brigadier-General William Draper, sent a note accompanied by a gift of fruit and wine to the archbishop warning him of Draper’s intention to send him into the besieged city. Unfortunately, as Tagle and his British guard approached the city, Filipino ‘irregulars’ spotted them and launched an attack. The Brits fired back and a full fight developed in which the officer accompanying Tagle was killed ‘and shockingly mutilated’ and Tagle himself, going to his defence, was also killed. Draper sent the archbishop an angry note threatening to hang all the Spanish prisoners unless the archbishop took control of his irregular forces. From that point onwards, the tone of the conflict became more savage. (pp.238-239)
But although the accounts of the battles are unpleasant and the reports of Indian atrocities are chilling, the fact is that military casualties in both were dwarfed by the ravages of disease. The campaign against Havana was the worst of the four. Of the 14,000 or so troops who landed in June and July 1762, by August only about 3,000 were still on their feet. During the nine weeks of the campaign the Royal Navy lost 86 killed and the Army 305, with about the same number dead or dying of wounds and about 100 missing.
‘The remaining 10,000 were either sick, or dead of tropical sickness or disease, heat exhaustion, dysentery and malaria but mostly of yellow fever.’ (p.231)
Major Thomas Mante kept a journal:
From the appearance of perfect health three or four hours robbed them of existence. Many there were, who endured a loathesome disease for days, nay weeks together, living in a state of putrefaction, their bodies full of vermin and almost eaten away before the spark of life was extinguished.
Losses to sickness were almost as severe in India and the Philippines. At some moments the accounts of the battles and these ‘great British victories’ are stirring for a patriotic boy reader and the accounts of the Indian atrocities are as stomach-churning as they’re meant to be; but what mostly comes over is the immense futility of the whole thing, the countless pointless deaths in what really amounts to an epic crime wave carried out by Britain’s ruling class. They sailed up to Havana and battered it into submission, and then stole all its goods and treasure. Same at Manila. Pocock goes into fascinating detail about the victory money i.e loot, apportioned to the senior officers in each attacking force, from £123,000 for the two commanders of the assault on Manila down to the £3 14s 10d given to each sailor.
Vast fortunes were to be made from what was, at the end of the day, little more than armed robbery. When Clive returned to England in 1760 to be given a hero’s welcome, the thanks of the King and an Irish peerage, he had amassed a fortune of nearly quarter of a million pounds, an annual annuity of £30,000, and the resentment of many in High Society at the astonishing wealth these foreign adventures lavished on mere soldiers.
The book ends with an entertaining counterfactual speculation: As the British took over the vast area of North America (formerly New France) ceded to them by the defeated French, they alienated the native Indians who a) had pledged their allegiance to King Louis b) got on better with the scouting, hunting French than with the land hungry British settler-farmers. Eventually this led to the outbreak of an Indian War, led by an Ottowa chieftain Pontiac, which spread across the frontier until as many as 40,000 Indians from 80 tribes were involved in attacks on the British. The British response was to build a network of forts across the area and secure them with garrisons but still, it took over a year to suppress the rebellion. The forces of Lord Albemarle, returned from the long siege of Havana, were pitifully weakened by disease and exhaustion and so were unable to repress the rebellion, without reinforcements being sent from Britain.
The cost of putting down Pontiac’s rebellion and then of maintaining the forts was high and the British government decided to pass it onto the colonists who, after all, were the main beneficiaries and so passed a Sugar Act and a Stamp Act in 1764 to raise money. Angered by the failure of the authorities to stamp out the Indian threat, and restrictions on what land they could settle, colonial traders were now incensed by this tax on their business. Little by little complaints became protests and protests burst out into scuffles and violence. These were the seeds of the general resentment at Britain’s rule which were eventually lead to armed uprising in 1775 and to the American War of Independence generally dated from 1776.
Pocock’s counterfactual is this: What if Lord Albemarle had decided to storm Havana immediately on arriving (as many critics with the benefit of hindsight said he should have) instead of spending long bitter months wearing down his own forces and exposing thousands of his men to sickness and death in the siege of El Morro?
What if the whole campaign had been wrapped up in a few weeks and the army returned healthy and in good fighting condition to New York and the other coastal American cities which they mostly came from? They would then have been armed and ready to suppress Pontiac’s rebellion much more quickly; the cost of the campaign would have been less, and the expensive forts need never have been built, or not on the same scale.
In which case the British government would never have been prompted to levy the new taxes on their colonial subjects.
In which case the American War of Independence might never have happened, and Britain would still own the whole of North America!
Other blog posts about Empire
- Artist and Empire @ Tate Britain (2016)
- Unfinished Empire by John Darwin (2012)
- Civilisation: The West and the Rest by Niall Ferguson (2011)
- Colossus: The Rise and Fall of the American Empire by Niall Ferguson (2004)
- Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World by Niall Ferguson (2003)
- King Leopold’s Ghost by Adam Hochschild (1999)
- The Scramble For Africa by Thomas Pakenham (1991)
- The Boer War 1899-1902 by Thomas Pakenham (1979)
- Reviews of Rudyard Kipling’s imperialist writing