In 1771 the crowds visiting the Royal Academy’s annual exhibition flocked to admire a painting with a Christ-like figure dying at its centre. So popular was the painting that the artist produced four further copies, including one for George III. A subsequent engraving by William Woollett became one of the most commercially successful prints of the eighteenth century. Benjamin West’s ‘The Death of General Wolfe’ helped cement its subject’s status as an imperial military hero.
Mr West’s painting of Maj Gen Wolfe subverts several of the conventions of painting history. The general is aware, even in the moment of his demise, that his patriotic self-sacrifice has not been in vain and his forces have triumphed against the French. The group that surrounds him are representative of his close friends and the wider composition of his forces, including Native American allies. An added note of realism is introduced through Mr West’s self-conscious, and controversial, decision to portray Wolfe in contemporary garb, rather than classical clothing so often associated with the genre.
Maj Gen Wolfe’s death on the Plains of Abraham on 13 September 1759 came at the end of a British siege that had lasted since late June. The campaign on the St Lawrence was part of a wider conflict that we now know as the Seven Years War. In Europe, a dramatic reversal of several centuries of enmity had seen the French monarchy ally with the Habsburgs and Russia in support of Maria Theresa’s attempts to recover Silesia from Prussia. Britain had allied with Frederick the Great’s Prussia. Outside Europe, Britain was engaged in a wider struggle with France in India, the Caribbean and various parts of the North American colonies. The roots of this renewed conflict lay in the issues left unresolved by the War of the Austrian Succession (1740-1748).
Maj Gen Wolfe’s forces had been sent to the St Lawrence to prevent French forces moving down from Canada to threaten the colonies of New England. The broader strategic fear was that a combined French attack up through the Mississippi and Ohio valleys and down from Canada might encircle British North America, putting the entire region at risk. The general’s initial attempts to cross to the north bank of the St Lawrence had met with fierce resistance and the French forces, under the Marquis de Montcalm, seemed secure behind the walls of Quebec. Eventually, a plan was devised to land British forces at some point to the west of Quebec, thus cutting off the supply lines to Montreal and forcing the French to fight. On the night of 12th September 1759 Maj Gen Wolfe was able to move a considerable force across the river and scaled the cliffs immediately to the west of Quebec, meeting limited resistance. Montcalm quickly ordered his troops to attack. But the British line held and Montcalm was killed in the ensuing French retreat. In the confused aftermath of the battle, the French withdrew, to prevent further losses, and British troops were able to occupy the city.
It is tempting to see the capture of Quebec as the moment when French defeat in Canada was assured and Maj Gen Wolfe as the hero who made it happen. Caution is needed, though, not least because in Spring 1760, French troops returned to lay siege to the British occupiers of Quebec and inflicted a heavy defeat on them at the Battle of Sainte-Foy (28th April 1760). Britain’s eventual triumph in Canada and the consequences of Maj Gen Wolfe’s victory were closely connected to the wider story of British success in the Seven Years War and the structural factors that made it possible.
The longer the war continued, the stronger the British position became. Britain’s well-developed fiscal system was much better equipped to support the sustained periods of borrowing that large-scale conflict entailed than its French rival.
The war had not begun well for the British: in 1756 a Royal Naval squadron under Adm John Byng had failed to relieve a French attack on Menorca, which precipitated a period of high-political crisis. Eventually, George II was forced to accept an administration that included both the Duke of Newcastle, whom he trusted, and William Pitt the Elder, whom he most definitely did not. This administration was, slowly, able to reinvigorate the British war effort. Newcastle ensured that the credit needed to finance the armed forces and subsidise auxiliaries on the continent was not turned off. Mr Pitt, meanwhile, encouraged British forces to engage the French in a variety of theatres.
The longer the war continued, the stronger the British position became. Britain’s well-developed fiscal system was much better equipped to support the sustained periods of borrowing that large-scale conflict entailed than its French rival. British naval mobilisation had begun slowly. It took several years to redeploy experienced seamen from the merchant into the Royal Navy. Once this had happened, however, the British network of global naval bases meant that Royal Navy squadrons did not have to return to Britain to re-fit and re-supply. Britain was consequently much better placed to wage war on a global scale.
By 1759 these advantages were becoming more prominent. British forces in India and the Caribbean were on the offensive. Yet, symbolically, a series of three battles led to the year being dubbed an Annus Mirabilis in which, as Horace Walpole remarked, ‘our bells are worn threadbare with ringing for victories…’
The Battle of Quebec was the middle victory in this series. On 1st August 1759 a British-German force had triumphed at the Battle of Minden, halting the French advance into Westphalia and removing the threat to Hanover for another campaigning season. News of Maj Gen Wolfe’s victory at Quebec did not reach London until late October 1759. In late November 1759 Adm Edward Hawke savaged the French Atlantic squadron in Quiberon Bay. France’s attempted invasion of Britain was thwarted and the French Navy was contained within its home waters. French credit collapsed because of the likelihood that the Royal Navy would now be able to seriously disrupt French overseas trade. Moreover, the plans to send a relief force to Canada had to be scrapped, meaning that French attempts to retake Quebec were derailed and, instead, further British forces were sent to cement Britain’s victory in Canada in Spring 1760.
The victories of 1759 restored confidence in the British war effort. Yet these victories seemed so complete that questions were soon asked about whether the war should be continued. Shortly after George III’s accession, Israel Mauduit, a prominent merchant, published Considerations on the present German war in November 1760. Mr Mauduit argued persuasively that continuing the conflict was a luxury Britain could ill-afford. Mr Pitt and Newcastle countered that letting down allies, such as Prussia, was a strategy that had not served Britain well in the past. Nevertheless, popular sentiment was becoming war weary and the administration was reshuffled to include those more amenable to making peace quickly.
Office allowed Mr Pitt to appreciate properly the realities of power and the compromises that international politics necessarily entailed. Like Newcastle, he came to realise that British security relied on close involvement with both Atlantic and European politics.
After the Peace of Paris (1763), which brought the Seven Years War to an end, Britain was diplomatically isolated. The Eastern powers (Prussia, Russia and Austria) were engaged in a struggle for control of east-central Europe and France was eager to revenge her recent defeat. For much of the first half of the eighteenth century Britain had sought to portray itself as a balancer of power – intervening in conflicts on the side of the weaker to prevent one power from becoming dominant or overmighty. After the Seven Years War, other European powers treated such claims sceptically. Britain, it was argued, sought to maintain a balance within Europe to ensure that its dominance outside of Europe was preserved. Mr West’s portrayal of Maj Gen Wolfe as the patriotic hero could only partially cloak the wider reality of Britain’s status as a global superpower.
After the war, successive British administrations argued that their North American subjects should contribute more directly to the costs of imperial defence, including the stationing of British regular troops in North America. The same colonists became interested in the relationship between taxation and representation. More pertinently, though, they were naturally concerned, given the eviction of French forces from Canada, about why the British troops actually needed to be there at all. Mr West, born in Pennsylvania, created a vision of an imperial hero whose victory at Quebec actually paved the way for the imperial crisis that was the American War of Independence.
Mr West’s focus on the importance of America misconstrued the strategic lessons of the Seven Years War. In opposition, William Pitt the Elder had been a staunch critic of Britain’s over-involvement in European affairs and the supposedly distorting effects of the Hanoverian connection. His populist patriot rhetoric was one reason why the political establishment kept him at arm’s length for so long. When he eventually came into office, however, Mr Pitt rapidly came to realise that the choice between an Atlantic or imperial foreign policy and a European one was a false binary. He famously remarked that he was ‘winning America in Germany’ but his actions suggested that his interest in Europe was much more than a means to a wider imperial end. Office allowed Mr Pitt to appreciate properly the realities of power and the compromises that international politics necessarily entailed. Like Newcastle, he came to realise that British security relied on close involvement with both Atlantic and European politics.
Britain’s diplomatic isolation during the American War of Independence was a disaster – William Pitt the Younger did not repeat this mistake when it came to dealing with revolutionary France. Mr Pitt the Elder and Newcastle both eventually left government because of their refusal to abandon treaties of alliance when George III and the Earl of Bute, the Prime Minister, saw short-term political advantage in doing so. They were mindful of the longer term damage to Britain’s credibility that such actions had caused after the Treaty of Utrecht (1713). Eighteenth-century administrations could indulge in playing the role of ‘Perfidious Albion’ for a while because of Britain’s broader fiscal-military strength. This luxury is not open to their twenty-first century successors who would do well to model themselves on Mr Pitt and Newcastle in office, rather than taking the simplistic approach of Mr Pitt in opposition.
This article was made possible due to the kind support of the Engelsberg Programme for Applied History, Grand Strategy and Geopolitics at the Forum on Geopolitics, supported by the Axel and Margaret Ax:son Johnson Foundation for Public Benefit.