Two hundred and fifty years ago this week, the French and Indian War ended when representatives from Great Britain and France signed the Treaty of Paris on Feb. 10, 1763. Within days, Prussia and Austria signed a similar treaty, ending what was called the Seven Years' War in Europe.
The causes for the war had been brewing for years. In the case of Great Britain and France, the conflict must be seen in the context of the great Anglo-French rivalry that began around the 1680s and continued until Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo in 1815. Some historians refer to this rivalry as the Second Hundred Years' War, echoing the conflict that occurred between the two kingdoms from 1337 to 1453.
In Europe, Frederick the Great's Prussia had been at odds with Austria and its Queen, Maria Theresa. Frederick had invaded Austria when Maria Theresa came to the throne in 1740 in hopes of grabbing the strategic province of Silesia in central Europe. The War of Austrian Succession ended in 1748, and left neither side completely satisfied — each hungering for revenge.
The French and Indian War — which had such devastating consequences throughout the world — actually began in North America when British colonists in Virginia insisted that the French abandon their fortresses in the Ohio River Valley. On his second journey to deliver a demand to the French, a young colonial officer named George Washington found himself in a firefight with the French and their Native American allies. The future president of the United States was forced to surrender his own hastily built fortification, Fort Necessity, in 1754.
The backwoods exchange kicked off a series of events in Europe. The British, who had been allied with the Austrians in their earlier conflict with Prussia, now threw their support to Frederick the Great as Maria Theresa drew closer to France. Frederick went on to become one of history's great military commanders largely because his first-class army was subsidized by London. A noose tightened around Frederick’s neck, however, as France and Austria were joined by Russia, surrounding the north German kingdom.
Just as Frederick was on his last leg, however, the Czarina Elizabeth of Russia died in early 1762, and her nephew, the pro-Prussian Peter III, quickly ended his country's participation in the war.
In his book “Frederick the Great & the Seven Years' War,” historian F. W. Longman wrote: “Peter had long entertained for Frederick the Great an admiration bordering on idolatry, and as soon as he was seated on the throne, he hastened to assure the king of his friendly disposition. Frederick adroitly replied by sending home all his Russian prisoners, whereupon the Czar publicly announced his intention of making peace with Prussia ... ”
As events played out in Europe, the battle for North America also came to a conclusion. The first few years of the war Britain had squandered resources and lacked direction, suffering defeats like that at Fort William Henry in New York and a failed 1757 expedition to take Fort Louisbourg from the French. British statesman William Pitt brought renewed energy to the war effort and by 1758 the war in North American began to turn around.
In “The Penguin History of Europe,” historian J. M. Roberts wrote: “Once British resources were allocated accordingly, sweeping victories in North America and India were followed by others in the Caribbean (some, as ever, at the expense of Spain, from which the British also seized the Philippines).”
Indeed, this conflict could rightly be called the first truly world war in history. Never had an interrelated series of war been fought in Europe, North America, Asia, the Pacific and upon countless islands, seas and oceans. So successful had Britain been in the war that it was able to make substantial gains at the peace table. The result was the Treaty of Paris, 1763. Not to be confused with the 1783 Treaty of Paris, which ended the American Revolution, the 1763 treaty profoundly altered the political landscape of North America and India.
In his book “Crucible of War: The Seven Years' War and the Fate of Empire in British North America, 1754-1766,” historian Fred Anderson wrote: “France surrendered to Great Britain all territories and claims in North America east of the Mississippi River except New Orleans and guaranteed the unrestrained navigation of the river to all British subjects ... France also surrendered all fortifications built and all territories occupied in India since 1749.”
In central Europe, Prussia and Austria singed the Treaty of Hubertusburg on Feb. 15, 1763. This treaty proved not nearly as dramatic as the one concluded between Britain and France. Rather, Frederick and Maria Theresa simply agreed to return to the status quo ante bellum. The two monarchs swore an oath of friendship and Frederick, as an elector within the Holy Roman Empire, agreed to vote for Maria Theresa's son for emperor in the next election.
For the British colonists in North America the conclusion of the French and Indian War would have profound consequences for the post-war period. For the first time, London had taken a direct political interest in colonies and had paid a substantial sum of money for their defense. Before the war, Britain made money from the colonies but had spent little.
The war left Great Britain with a total wartime debt of approximately £146 million. It was that debt that led the king and parliament to experimenting with new taxes on the American colonies in the 1760s. The new taxes ultimately proved to be a major factor in the outbreak of the American Revolution.
Cody K. Carlson holds a master's degree in history from the University of Utah and currently teaches at Salt Lake Community College. He is also the co-developer of the History Challenge iPhone/iPad apps. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org