Britain and France collaborated in the 1720s and 1730s because both Walpole and Fleury sought stability abroad to promote economic recovery at home. The partnership, however, collapsed over the competition between the two Atlantic powers for commerce and empire.
Neither Walpole nor Fleury could prevent the worldwide war between Britain and the Bourbon monarchies that broke out in 1739 and that lasted, with intervals of peace, until the final defeat of Napoleon in 1815. This “Second Hundred Years’ War” had, in fact, already begun half a century earlier, in the days of Louis XIV.
The Utrecht settlement of 1713 had not fully settled the rivalry between Britain and France (and France’s Bourbon partner, Spain). Thus the war of 1739 was as much the renewal of an old struggle as the onset of a new one.
The specific issue behind the crisis of 1739 was the comparatively minor question of British disappointment over the results of the Asiento privilege. As the South Sea Company discovered, the Asiento gave Britain only a token share in the trade of the Spanish American colonies. What British captains could not get legitimately they got by smuggling, and Spain retaliated with a coast guard patrol in American waters to ward off smugglers.
British merchants complained of the rough treatment handed out by the Spanish guards, and in 1736 they exhibited to Parliament a Captain Robert Jenkins (fl. 1731-1738), who claimed that Spanish brutality had cost him an ear, which he duly produced, preserved in salt and cotton batting. Asked to state his reaction on losing the ear, he replied, “I commended my soul to God and my cause to my country.” In October, to the joyful pealing of church bells, Britain began the War of Jenkins’s Ear against Spain. The British fleet lost the opening campaign in the Caribbean, and France showed every sign of coming to Spain’s assistance.
In 1740 a chain of events linked the colonial war to the great European conflict over the Austrian succession. On the death of Charles VI in 1740, the Habsburg dominions passed to his twenty-three-year-old daughter, Maria Theresa (r. 1740-1780). The German princes ignored the Pragmatic Sanction guaranteeing her succession and looked forward to partitioning the Habsburg inheritance. The elector of Bavaria, a cousin of the Habsburgs, also hoped to be elected Holy Roman emperor. The first of the German princes to strike, however, was Frederick the Great (r. 1740-1786), who had just inherited the Prussian throne. In December 1740 Frederick suddenly invaded the Habsburg province of Silesia.
In the ensuing War of the Austrian Succession, England and Austria were ranged against France, Spain, Prussia, and Bavaria. The Prussian army astounded Europe by its long night marches, sudden flank attacks, and other surprise tactics quite different from the usual deliberate warfare of sieges. Frederick, however, antagonized his allies by repeatedly deserting them to make secret peace arrangements with Austria. And he did little to support the imperial aspirations of the Bavarian elector, who enjoyed only a brief tenure as Emperor Charles VII.
The Anglo-Austrian alliance worked no better than the Franco-Prussian one. Many of the English felt that George II was betraying their interests by entangling them in the Austrian succession and other German problems. Nevertheless, British preference for the Hanoverians over the Stuarts was evident when Bonnie Prince Charles, grandson of the deposed James II, secured French backing and landed in Britain in 1745. He won significant recruits only among the Highlanders of Scotland, where he was thoroughly defeated at Culloden in 1746.
In central Europe, the war was a decisive step in the rise of Prussia to the first rank of powers. The new province of Silesia brought not only a large increase in the Prussian population but also an important textile industry and large deposits of coal and iron. Maria Theresa got scant compensation for the loss of Silesia; although her husband, Francis, won recognition as Holy Roman emperor, she had to surrender Parma and some other territorial crumbs in northern Italy to Philip, the second son of Elizabeth Farnese.
The peace made in 1748 at Aix-la-Chapelle lasted only eight years. Then the Seven Years’ War of 17561763 broke out, caused partly by old issues left unsettled at Aix-la-Chapelle and partly by new grievances arising from the War of the Austrian Succession. In southern India the English and French East India companies fought each other by taking sides in the rivalries of native princes. By 1751 the energetic French administrator Joseph Dupleix (1697-1763) had won the initial round in the battle for supremacy in the Indian subcontinent.
Then the English, led by the equally energetic Robert Clive (1725-1774), seized the initiative. In 1754 Dupleix was called home by the directors of the French company, who were unwilling to commit costly resources to his aggressive policy.
In North America English colonists from the Atlantic seaboard had already staked out claims to the rich wilderness between the Appalachians and the Mississippi. But the French, equally intent on mastering the area, moved first and established a string of forts in western Pennsylvania from Presque Isle (later Erie) south to Fort Duquesne (later Pittsburgh). In 1754 a force of Virginians under a youthful George Washington (1732-1799) tried unsuccessfully to dislodge the French from Fort Duquesne, initiating a war that would end in a British victory.