Slave resistance, rebellious colonies and pirates challenged European dominance in the Atlantic.

War and sea power

By the 18th century, Britain had overtaken the Netherlands as the leading European maritime power.

The Royal Navy expanded in firepower and size. Its success was closely related to the strength of the mercantile fleet, where many sailors learned their craft.

The training and employment supplied by the merchant fleet in peacetime were vital to the Royal Navy in times of war. In return, the Royal Navy provided vital protection during wartime to British merchant vessels, protecting them from privateers and enemy warships.

A succession of victories over France, from King William’s War (1689–97), bolstered national pride and prestige. But naval dominance came at a price. The number of men killed by enemy action was relatively low but many more died from disease. Women and children were left behind at home, separated from loved ones whose return was uncertain.

Rebellion, war and conflict in the Caribbean

All slave-holding societies in the Americas experienced organized violent rebellions by their enslaved populations. The most successful was in the French colony of Saint Domingue in 1791. Inspired by revolutionary ideas from France and led by Toussaint L’Ouverture, the enslaved majority soon took control of the colony. In 1795, a British fleet attempted to seize the territory and stop the rebellion from spreading. By the time L’Ouverture had defeated the British, 60% of the British troops had perished. Saint Domingue became the Republic of Haiti in 1804.

There were similar revolts in British colonies, such as the insurrection in western Jamaica led by Samuel Sharpe, a deacon in the local Baptist church. Beginning on 27 December 1831, this involved some 20,000 people and caused damage of over £1 million. Sharpe and 344 other rebels were executed.

The War of American Independence, 1775–83

North America had been one of the key fighting grounds for European powers in the Seven Years’ War (1756–63). For the British, the cost of defending the colonies was high and the government expected Americans to contribute. This added to the unrest fomented by other unpopular legislation, by radical politicians and by those merchants who wanted to break away from the pro-British elite.

The descent into armed conflict was gradual. It was punctuated by events such as the Boston Massacre (1770) and the Boston Tea Party (1773). Such incidents showed that British authority was weak and even the official colonial militia were soon taken over by anti-British patriots.

The British had the advantage of sea power but George Washington, who had been appointed military commander-in-chief of the rebels, raised a regular army and continued to fight. Other European powers joined against the British. French intervention in spring 1781 trapped the last major British army in North America at Yorktown, where it surrendered. In 1783 the Treaty of Versailles marked the formal end of the war and the recognition of American independence.

Native nations and European wars

Native American peoples were important allies to European powers. Diplomatic and commercial alliances, such as the Covenant Chain between British colonists and the Iroquois, were important for trade.

Each side saw the relationship differently. The British thought that alliances gave them control over Indian territories, and that the Iroquois were their subjects. The Iroquois saw themselves as equal partners with the British and were prepared to wield their own power. In 1753, when they felt that the British had not addressed their grievances, they stated that the Covenant Chain had been broken and that they would no longer act as intermediaries with other Native American groups.

Conflict began between Britain and France in 1754 for possession of the heart of the North American continent. Many indigenous peoples allied with the French and they helped France to a string of early successes. The Iroquois played a key role, shifting their allegiance to the British and helping to capture French forts. Britain’s victory, however, paved the way for settlers to move westwards, further and further into Indian lands.

War for an Atlantic Empire, 1756–63

The Seven Years’ War (1756–63) was essentially a struggle between Britain and France, rivals for territory and trade in North America. This conflict became a global war, with fighting in the Caribbean, Africa, South America, Asia, and in Europe.

Naval power enabled the British to wage a ‘blue-water war’ against France and her ally, Spain. Britain captured Fort Louisbourg, the base of the French fishery in the North Atlantic, seized Québec and gained control of the fur trade by taking major French posts in the Great Lakes. With Montréal’s capture, Britain had conquered most of New France.

Because of their economic importance, Britain also attacked France’s major centres of sugar production in the West Indies. In Africa, Senegal and Gorée were also attacked, to eliminate French competition in the slave trade and other lucrative commerce.

The Treaty of Paris marked the end of the war. In it, Britain gained control over virtually the entire North American continent and made important acquisitions in the Caribbean.

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