In Europe the dramatic shift of alliances called the Diplomatic Revolution immediately preceded the formal outbreak of the Seven Years’ War, which had already begun in the colonies. Britain, which had joined Austria against Prussia in the 1740s, now paired off with Frederick the Great. And in the most dramatic move of the Diplomatic Revolution, France, joined with its hereditary enemy, Habsburg Austria.
In 1755, the British touched off this Diplomatic Revolution. To enlist a second power in the task of defending Hanover, they concluded a treaty with Russia, which had taken a minor part in the War of the Austrian Succession as an ally of England. The Anglo-Russian treaty alarmed Frederick the Great. In January 1756 the Prussian king concluded an alliance with Britain that detached it from Russia.
The alliance between England and Prussia isolated France and gave the Austrian chancellor the opportunity he had been waiting for. What Austria needed to avenge itself on Frederick and regain Silesia was an ally with a large army; this required an alliance with France, not Britain. The last act of the Diplomatic Revolution occurred when Russia joined the Franco-Austrian alliance.
The new war, like its predecessor, was really two separate wars—one Continental, the other naval and colonial. In the European campaigns of the Seven Years’ War, Frederick the Great confronted the forces of Austria, France, and Russia, whose combined population was more than fifteen times larger than Prussia’s. Frederick had almost no allies except Britain, which supplied financial subsidies but little actual military assistance.
To fill up the depleted ranks of his army, he violated international law by impressing soldiers from Prussia’s smaller neighbors, Mecklenburg and Saxony. Since British subsidies covered only a fraction of his war expenses, he seized Saxon, Polish, and Russian coins and melted them down for Prussian use.
A final factor in saving Prussia was the shakiness of the coalition arrayed against it. Russia’s generals were unexpectedly timid, and those of France and Austria proved incompetent. Moreover, the French, the strongest of the allies, had to fight a two-front war, in Europe and overseas, without the financial resources to do both.
The grand alliance created by the Austrian chancellor, Prince von Kaunitz (1711-1794), suffered to an unusual extent from the frictions, mistrust, and cross-purposes typical of wartime coalitions. In fact, the coalition did not last out the war. When Elizabeth of Russia (r. 1741-1762) died in January 1762, she was succeeded by Czar Peter III, a passionate admirer of Frederick the Great, who at once placed Russia’s forces at Frederick’s disposal. Although he occupied the Russian throne only until July, Peter’s reign marked a decisive turning in the Seven Years’ War. In 1763 Prussia won its war.
Meanwhile, Frederick’s British partner was losing abroad. During the first year and a half of the fighting the British suffered setbacks on almost every front. At sea they lost the important Mediterranean base of Minorca in the Balearic Islands. In North America the British lost time and again, but the most dramatic of Britain’s misfortunes occurred in India. In June 1756, the nawab of Bengal, an ally of the French, crowded 146 British prisoners at Calcutta into a small room with only two windows. The resulting incident, as described by an officer of the English East India Company, came to be known as the Black Hole:
It was the hottest season of the year, and the night uncommonly sultry. . . . The excessive pressure of their bodies against one another, and the intolerable heat which prevailed as soon as the door was shut, convinced the prisoners that it was impossible to live through the night in this horrible confinement; and violent attempts were immediately made to force the door, but without effect for it opened inward. At two o’clock not more than fifty remained alive. But even this number were too many to partake of the saving air, the contest for which and for life continued until the morn… .
An officer . . . came with an order to open the prison. The dead were so thronged, and the survivors had so little strength remaining, that they were employed near half an hour in removing the bodies which lay against the door before they could clear a passage to go out one at a time; when of one hundred and forty-six who went in no more than twenty-three came out alive. *
It was William Pitt (1708-1778) who turned the tide in favor of Britain. He strengthened the Anglo-Prussian alliance by sending Frederick substantial subsidies and placing English forces in Hanover under an able Prussian commander. He replaced blundering generals and admirals and took energetic measures that transformed the naval and colonial campaigns.
After the Royal Navy defeated both the French Atlantic and Mediterranean squadrons (1759), Britain commanded the seas. Britain could thus continue trading abroad at a prosperous pace, while French overseas trade rapidly sank to one sixth of the prewar rate. Cut off from supplies and reinforcements from home and faced by generally superior British forces, the French colonies fell in quick succession.
In Africa, Britain’s capture of the chief French slaving stations ruined the slavers of Nantes; in India Clive and others avenged the Black Hole by punishing the nawab of Bengal and capturing the key French posts near Calcutta and Madras; in the West Indies the French lost all their sugar islands except for Santo Domingo. In North America the sixty-five thousand French, poorly supplied and poorly led, were helpless against the million British colonists, fully supported by their mother country.
Fort Duquesne was taken at last and was renamed after Pitt, and the British went on to other triumphs in the war that the English colonists called the French and Indian War. In Canada the English general James Wolfe (1727-1759) took Louisburg (1758); in the next year he lost his life but won immortal fame in a great victory on the Plains of Abraham above Quebec. When the remaining French stronghold, Montreal, fell in 1760, France’s American empire was over.
Though Pitt had won the war, he did not make the peace; George III (r. 1760-1820) dismissed him in 1761. In the Peace of Paris (1763) the French recovered their islands in the West Indies, highly valued as a major source of sugar. While British planters in the Caribbean were much relieved, since their markets had been flooded by sugar from captured French islands during the war, it seemed to outraged patriots as though Britain had let a grand prize slip through its fingers.
France, however, lost all its possessions on the mainland of North America. Britain secured both Canada and the disputed territories between the Appalachians and the Mississippi. Moreover, Spain, which had joined France in 1762 when the war was already hopeless, ceded to Britain the peninsula called East Florida and the coast of the Gulf of Mexico as far as the Mississippi called West Florida.
In compensation, France gave Spain the city of New Orleans and the vast Louisiana territories west of the Mississippi. In India, France recovered its possessions on condition that it would not fortify them. For Britain the Seven Years’ War marked the beginning of virtually complete ascendancy in India; for France it marked the virtual end of its “old Empire.”