6. 1763: Birth of the British Empire

During the spring of 1759 as Amherst was taking command on Lake George, British Major General James Wolfe  with a another large army at Fort Louisbourg, now under the Union Jack, planned an assault on the French city of Quebec. Assisted by the royal navy, Wolfe’s force moved slowly up the Saint Lawrence River. By June, the fleet managed to slip upstream from the city, threatening to cut it off from supply routes to Montreal. French resistance grew strong at this point and casualties were heavy. By September, however, Wolfe’s army was deployed just below the steep cliffs rising on the north side of the river some three miles west of  Quebec. Above these cliffs a broad plateau extended known as the Plains of Abraham.

The French believed the cliffs too high for any enemy to approach the city from this side, thus they posted only a light defense there. Wolfe decided to take advantage and boldly declared that here was the place from which to launch his attack. He ordered his troops to scale the steep river bank. Remarkably they succeeded, and began advancing toward the city.  Quebec commander General Montcalm – he of former Fort William Henry fame (or infamy?)- was suddenly faced with hard choices. Should he remain with his sizeable force within the fortified city, or should he move his army out to the Plains and confront the enemy head-on before they should land artillery and lay siege?   He chose the latter option, which many historians have since regarded as a tactical mistake.

Montcalm’s army advanced  in somewhat loose order toward the formidable British line which stretched a mile long, three ranks deep in classic European battle formation. While the French opened fire indiscriminately from two-hundred yards, the disciplined English held their fire until the French had approached within thirty five yards, then opened with “ a deafening crash, the most perfect volley ever fired on a battlefield burst forth as if from a single monstrous weapon, from end to end of the British line,” as one historian excitedly recorded.  Such ferocious fire power continued for just six minutes, the French line broke, and the British rushed with fixed bayonets after the blue-coats fleeing back to Quebec. General Montcalm himself was mortally wounded. Within two hours Quebec fell to the British. The day was September 13, 1759,  remembered ever after as the moment of Britain’s  most decisive victory of the French and Indian War.

A year later, General Amherst would capture Montreal, giving British control of the entire Saint Lawrence River. Meanwhile Rogers’ Rangers, after a difficult trek through the forests and swamps northeast of Lake Champlain attacked and destroyed the Abenaki village at Saint Francis, thus quelling for good the murderous raids that had so long emanated from there against the frontier settlements in New York and New England.  Henceforth the farmers in West Hoosac  could tend their fields without fear of  being scalped.   All trails from Long Island Sound through Massachusetts and New York,  and all the way from the Atlantic Ocean to the midland Great Lakes via the Saint Lawrence River were now open to further English settlement.  Canada, as well as the entire disputed area of northeast America, were at last in full British possession.[1]

The European aspect of the Seven Years War dragged on for three more years, until February 10, 1763, when Britain, France, Spain and Portugal officially ratified the Treaty of Paris. While the war had ended as somewhat of a draw in Europe,  the most important consequence of the Treaty of Paris was what it imposed on the rest of the world. As of  this date the modern age of imperial colonialism began in earnest. All of the signing powers received chunks of  the New World to maintain as their separate colonies, but Great Britain gained the lion’s share, not only in America but also in the far east where she was ceded the right to exploit the great sub-continent of India.  Indeed, 1763  marks the moment when Englishmen could truly boast that the “sun never sets on the British Empire.”

There was also a moment of tragedy during the conquest of Canada,  when General Wolfe was killed during the Battle of  Quebec. Yet even this was hyped as a martyr’s sacrifice for the sacred pursuit of empire. In 1771, the Anglo-American artist, Benjamin West painted a picture of the sad event that had already become enshrined in the hearts of every patriotic citizen of  Britain. It’s worth examining in detail just how West composed this image.  I compare it to another, a fifteenth-century altarpiece by the Flemish artist Roger van der Weyden depicting “The Deposition of Jesus from the Cross.”

I have reversed the latter in order to sharpen its obvious similarity to the former.  There can be no doubt that Benjamin West had this Biblical event in mind just as Rogier van der Weyden painted it. During the European Renaissance the above composition was the standard iconographical representation of Jesus’s removal from the cross.  In other words,  Benjamin West thought to image the dying Wolfe just like Jesus, limp as he is laid to rest, his arm drooping and pronated in the same way as the Savior’s. Note also the other figures in Benjamin West’s heavily symbolic painting.  Excluding the contemplating Indian, there are exactly twelve – Caucasian “apostles” (including one of Rogers’ Rangers) – surrounding and despairing the martyred Wolfe.

In sum, West’s extremely popular painting of the “death of General Wolfe” quite mirrored the sublime, almost sacral exhilaration Great Britain felt in regard to the whole extraordinary conquest, as if General Wolfe’s sacrifice was an apotheosis, divinely ordained to save the American colonies from the “scoundrel French” (as Wolfe himself characterized the foe). Nevertheless it would not be long before this British sense of providential imperialism began to grate on the American colonists, especially when the London government insisted that the colonists assume the full financial burden for their presumed salvation.


[1] Except for two small barren islands off the coast of Labrador, Ste.Pierre & Miquelon, where the French flag still flies proudly, and pure French, not gritty Quebecoise, is deliberately spoken.

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