- The French Navy and the Seven Years’ War by Jonathan R. Dull
With the recent publication of Fred Anderson’s Crucible of War: The Seven Years’ War and te Fate of Empire in British North America, 1754–1766 (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2000) and William M. Fowler’s Empires at War: The French and Indian War and the Struggle for North America, 1754–1763 (New York: Walker and Co., 2005), the Seven Years’ War has drawn renewed attention from historians interested in the world’s first global conflict. Dull joins these authors with a study that serves as a prequel to his book The French Navy and American Independence: A study of Diplomacy 1774–1787(Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1975) in that it explains how, a decade later, the defeated French navy could play such an important role in the American War for Independence.
Arguing that historians have failed to fully synthesize the North American (1754–60) and European (1756–63) phases of the war, Dull attempts a more cohesive analysis by tracing the fortune of French naval power in the waters of the Atlantic and Indian Oceans. By using the arms race between Britain and France involving ‘ships of the line’ (warships with three masts, square rigs, and at least 60 cannon) as means to connect the multiple theaters, he demonstrates how European imperial ambitions in the periphery influenced metropolitan conduct of the war and visa versa. His richly detailed study does not merely encompass the maritime, but rather utilizes naval history as a window onto the complex fusion of politics, diplomacy, and war that characterized eighteenth-century European statecraft.
Dull asserts that originally imperial aspirations did not propel the long term conflict between the two European powers during the “Second Hundred Years’ War,” but that it was motivated instead by British fears of French absolutism and geopolitical rivalry over the Netherlands, Mediterranean, and Baltic. These regions supplied strategic ports, as well as timber and masts for ship production. However, during the Seven Years’ War, the center of gravity shifted to the Caribbean and North Atlantic, territories without which France would lose the resources to train sufficient numbers of sailors to maintain itself as a colonial power. The cod fisheries in Newfoundland and the Gulf of St. Lawrence emerged as the focus of the peace negotiations throughout 1761 and 1762. As the primary training center for the French navy, the fisheries provided a quarter of France’s 40,000–16,000 sailors and produced up to 2,000 new men a year (14).
In contrast to traditional interpretations, he argues that France found itself in a better position at the peace treaty of Paris than has been previously assumed. Though militarily defeated, France salvaged a diplomatic victory through the foresight of Louis XV. The French king and his ministers retained French naval power through costly land wars in Germany and Portugal, forcing Britain to negotiate and relinquish their monopoly of the fisheries in Canada. As a result of the increased commerce and fishing after the war, the French navy rebuilt and become a decisive factor in the American Revolution—the French once again attempting to defend their colonial possessions from the British by occupying their forces with a revolt in North America.
Dull, a trained diplomatic historian and senior associate editor of The Papers of Benjamin Franklin (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1959–2003), has produced a comprehensively researched history of the Seven Years’ War that succeeds in tracing the political and military ramifications of warfare in North American and Europe. He also fills a crucial historiographic gap by focusing on the long neglected French navy and placing its operational history in a wider political context. By examining warfare at land and sea in conjunction with diplomacy, Dull does much to answer the recent call of Jeremy Black in Rethinking Military History (New York: Routledge, 2004). However, his book, as well as the recent scholarship on the war, suffers from the weakness of some military history: extensive narrative detail with not enough critical analysis. Dull’s...