How the British Won the American Revolutionary War

Detail of 1781 portrait of King George III by Thomas Gainsborough. (Buckingham Palace)

No, I have not lost my mind. Of course, the Americans won their freedom from British rule. However, what started in 1775, as an American rebellion against British rule in the thirteen colonies evolved into a far-reaching global war among world’s most powerful nations. Fighting between Britain and American allies including France, Spain and The Dutch Republic spread to the Caribbean, Africa, Europe and Asia.

Britain fared well in many of the conflicts waged outside the thirteen colonies, especially those fought after 1781. Consequently, there were significant favorable outcomes of the American Revolution for Britain, especially when viewed in context of the late 18th century state of affairs.

Globalization of the American Revolution

On June 17, 1778, when Jean Isaac Timothée Chadeau, Sieur de la Clocheterie French commander of the frigate Belle-Poule formally touched off the global conflict by refusing the customary “presenting his ship” to a 20 ship British fleet, commanded by Adm. Augustus Keppel while sailing off the southern coast of England.[1] Admiral Keppel responded to this affronting slight by opening fire on the Belle-Poule, which suffered a 40 percent casualty rate.[2] The French had a causus belli (an act which justifies war) to openly support the Americans, which it had been covertly doing with increasing intensity. With the French intervening in the American rebellion, the North American war became a global conflict.

France’s principal goal was to gain equal status with Britain as a world mercantilist power with substantial colonies throughout the world providing economic and trade advantages. France sought to expand its fishing rights off the coast of Newfoundland, increase its holdings in the Caribbean, and to reestablish its commercial relations with North America. Other commercial goals were freedom of trade in India and Africa and the implementation of trade provisions of the Treaty of Utrecht (1713) that ended the War of Spanish Succession that Britain had not been honoring. In addition, as a way to cement its standing in the world, France sought to gain a measure of retribution for its loss in the Seven Years War (known in North America as the French and Indian War). France even sought to invade Britain to compel the attainment of these goals.

French foreign minister Charles Gravier, comte de Vergennes realized that control of the seas and trade routes were critical to successfully prosecuting the war with Britain. However, the British possessed a stronger navy and more ships of the line than France. To counter this deficit, Vergennes sought to bring Spain along with its navy into the war to take on Britain’s navy, the largest in the world. Since 1733, the Bourbon kings of France and Spain periodically renewed a military alliance called the Pacte de Famille (Family Compact or Bourbon Alliance). Vergennes negotiated with the Spanish chief minister José Moñino y Redondo, conde de Floridablanca to renew this alliance.[3] Under Vergennes’ and Floridablanca’s direction, a renewal of the third compact called the Convention of Aranjuez was signed on April 12, 1779, which paved the way for the Spanish to declare war on Britain in June 1779.[4] In the exchange for the Spanish entry into the war, the French agreed to militarily support the Spain’s principle war objective of capturing the vitally strategic fortress of Gibraltar. Gibraltar is the southern most part of the Iberian Peninsula and guards the western entrance to the Mediterranean Sea.

In addition, the Spanish war aims included the re-capture from Britain of both East and West Florida that it lost in the Seven Years War (1763) and the return of the western Mediterranean island of Minorca that Spain lost during the War of Spanish Succession (1713). Further, the Spanish sought to remove the British from South America including settlements on the Bay of Honduras and timber cutting on the coast of Campeche, located in the southeast coast of today’s Mexico. There is no mention of the United States in the Treaty of Aranjuez, further demonstrating the importance of the conflict outside the thirteen colonies.

As the conflict spread throughout the world, each side sought to deny armaments and naval supplies to their opponents by disrupting normal commerce and trade. Neutral countries became incensed when belligerents detained or captured commercial merchantmen. Under the leadership of Catherine the Great, Russia formed a League of Armed Neutrality that included Denmark-Norway, Sweden, Prussia and the Ottoman Empire. The alliance goals were to protect the neutrals’ ships and commercial trading rights. As neutral trade was more important to Britain’s enemies, the United States and France officially recognized and respected the League’s rights.

Britain tacitly agreed and did not interfere with neutral shipping with one exception. The Dutch Republic was tied by treaty to support the French. Dutch merchants provided critical naval stores that under previous treaties were not classified as military contraband and could legally be transported unimpeded to French ports. The British government was concerned that the Dutch would join the League of Armed Neutrality and therefore, any attempt to confiscate Dutch ships would bring all members of the league into the war against Britain. To counter this threat, on December 20, 1780 the British declared war on the Dutch and unilaterally re-classified naval stores as contraband.[5]

In addition to European powers, the Indian Kingdom of Mysore, which is located on the southwest coast of the Indian subcontinent, declared war on Britain in 1780. Mysore a French ally, sought to reclaim the French trading port of Mabé captured by the British. Arms and munitions critical to supply Mysore’s army flowed through Mabé. Hyder Ali,[6] the ruler of Mysore made it clear to the British that the French presence in this port was under his protection and by assaulting the French forces, Britain waged war on Mysore.

Therefore, Britain stood alone fighting a vast global land and naval conflict. It faced many threats including potential invasion of the homeland, loss of valuable colonies and associated lucrative commercial trade and mounting debts to finance a long, intensive conflict. The need to protect British interests on numerous fronts and in many military theaters thoroughly stretched army and naval assets. Difficult strategic decisions had to be made to re-position limited military assets to counter emerging threats in multiple theaters of operation.

Each belligerent sought to gain tactical advantage in one theater without exposing other theaters to peril. In many cases, the most valuable colonies received the first claim on military assets at the expense of less valuable colonies. For example, British army and naval resources were diverted from North America to counter expected new French and Spanish threats in the Caribbean.[7]

British Nadir

As 1782 began, the war was not going well for the British and they were on the defensive. The Duke of Chandos, a member of the House of Lords referred to the October 1781 Yorktown defeat as a “calamity[8] and a ”disaster.[9] It was clear to British leaders that the British Southern strategy failed and that they could not forcibly compel the American colonialists to end their rebellion.

News on the other fronts was not encouraging, either. The French were on the verge of taking control of the lucrative Caribbean sugar trade by capturing islands in the eastern region of the Caribbean called the Lesser Antilles and threatening Jamaica. Earlier in the war, French forces captured the British held islands of Dominica (1778), St. Vincent and Grenada (1779) and Tobago (1781).

After Yorktown, French Admiral de Grasse and his fleet left the Chesapeake Bay region for the eastern Caribbean and established naval superiority there. In February 1782, Admiral de Grasse attacked and captured the vital islands of St. Kitts, Montserrat and Nevis. The loss of these islands was “disagreeable news”[10] and sent shock waves among London merchants.

The British government viewed the Caribbean islands as more commercially important than North America. British leaders even discussed withdrawing from North America to protect the more economically important sugar islands in the Caribbean.[11] The Caribbean islands provided the funding to continue the war and King George III was willing to even risk French invasion of the British homeland to protect these vital territories.[12]

The British also faced a deteriorating strategic position guarding the trade routes in the western Mediterranean region. In August 1781, a combined French and Spanish invasion fleet descended upon the British held western Mediterranean Sea island of Minorca. Re-conquest of Minorca, annexed by the British in 1713, was a key Spanish war goal. The island’s deep-water port at Mahón was strategically important as a naval base and convenient port for British privateers which were ravishing Spanish and allied shipping. The French and Spanish invaders completely surprised the widely dispersed British garrison and on February 6, 1782, the last British soldiers laid down their arms. The loss of Minorca increased Spanish pressure on the British fortress at Gibraltar.

In the North American, the Caribbean and European theaters, the British were losing significant battles, its forces stretched to the breaking point and popular domestic opinion was turning against continuing the war. There were calls in the press for the British to end the war in America.

The whole history of the American War was, from one End to the other, one continued Proof that Systems and Abilities were not to be found in the Management of our Force in the Colonies; An Army was marched from Canada, and captured at Saratoga; another from Charles-town, and surrendered at York-Town. Revenue was the first Object of the War, but that was long since renounced.[13]

Further, opposition members introduced a motion in Parliament to end the war in America:

… it only asserted a Fact, that among the Operations of the War, America should not be a theater.[14]

Reacting to losses at Yorktown, Minorca and in the Caribbean, political displeasure with the conduct of the war intensified. The Prime Minister, Lord North, lost the majority in Parliament and resigned on March 20, 1782. However, there was much more at stake and the British could not simply recognize American independence and end the war. The British situation looked bleak.

British Turnaround

However, the winter of 1782 turned out to be the British low point in the global war against its European foes. A dramatic turnaround for the British started in the economically vital Caribbean region, continued in Europe and later spread to Asia.

In the Caribbean, the Spanish and French planned a large-scale invasion of Jamaica, the largest of the British held sugar producing islands and vital to the British economy.[15] They assembled a 150-ship invasion fleet to transport 15,000 French and Spanish soldiers for the assault. A 35-ship French fleet under the command of Adm. Francois-Joseph Paul, Comte de Grasse provided escort ships.[16]

On April 9, 1782 a 36-ship British fleet under the command of Adm. Sir George Rodney intercepted the Franco-Spanish invasion force in the waters between the windward islands of Dominica and Guadeloupe in the Eastern Caribbean. Over the next four days, the two fleets fought a destructive and bloody engagement later referred to as the Battle of the Saintes.

Using superior speed and maneuverability, the British captains cut the French fleet into three groups with an effective “breaking of the line,” an innovative naval tactic designed to concentrate firepower without exposing oneself to counter fire. While controversial as to whether it was intentional by Admiral Rodney, this highly successful maneuver led to the defeat of the French fleet.[17] While there is retrospective controversy that Admiral Rodney could have more thoroughly defeated the French Caribbean fleet, it was largely degraded as an offensive fighting force. The balance of power shifted to the British.

Given the strategic and economic importance of Jamaica, the British press lauded Admiral Rodney’s victory and he received the title of baron and was recognized by the House of Lords:

… thanks of the House to Sir George Rodney, and the officers and the seaman, who gained the glorious and compleat victory on the 12th of April last, in the West-Indies; a victory which his Lordship allowed to be the most brilliant of any which the naval history of this country …[18]

The victory greatly improved the British negotiating position in the peace talks as the French and Spanish lost the military initiative and realized that they could not defeat the British in the Caribbean and capture Jamaica.

The British military turnaround continued in the European theater. In September 1782 a joint Franco-Spanish force of over 35,000 troops escalated a siege of the British fortress at Gibraltar held by 7500 men.[19] However, Gibraltar’s natural defenses made a land assault very difficult without disabling key waterfront gun batteries. Chevalier d’Arcon, a French military engineer and Colonel devised and built a new floating gun battery to assault these gun batteries.

However, anxious Spanish commanders rushed the new vessels into action without adequate testing and crew training. As a result of unfavorable winds, poor seamanship and a lack of coordination with the Spanish fleet, the British destroyed all of the unprotected floating gun batteries. With no other way to blast a route into Gibraltar, the French and Spanish called off their attack.

The next month Adm. Richard Howe led a fleet of 35 ships of the line and a large convoy of merchantmen to re-supply Gibraltar. The blockading Spanish fleet under the command of Adm. Luis de Córdova sailed out to engage the British fleet. The two fleets fought an inconclusive battle off the coast of modern day Morocco (the Battle of Cape Spartel). While the two fleets maneuvered for a fighting edge, Admiral Howe’s transports slipped into Gibraltar with needed food and military supplies. As a result of the floating gun battery debacle and a successful resupply, the Franco-Spanish force lifted the siege and the British gained a vital victory by holding the Spanish coveted Gibraltar.

On a second front in the European theater, the British effectively blockaded the Dutch Navy at its principal navy base on Texcel Island preventing any offensive operations. The one attempt by the Dutch Navy to engage the British Navy resulted in a 3 hour and 40 minute encounter called the Battle of the Dogger Bank. Each side suffered the same level of battle damage and the engagement was a bloody, tactical draw.[20]

After this ineffective attempt, Dutch naval forces remained in their anchorages unable or unwilling to sortie with Franco-Spanish fleets and leaving their merchant shipping fleet unprotected. The Dutch were ready for peace, but continued the conflict due to alliance obligations to France. Dutch military forces contributed little to the anti-British alliance other than tying up valuable British ships of the line that could have been deployed in other military theaters.

Finally, the British successfully thwarted the French and their Indian Mysore allies’ attempts to seize British held territories in southeastern India. Starting on February 17, 1782 French and British Naval Forces fought a series of inconclusive naval engagements off India’s eastern shore. The French did land 3000 troops to assist Mysore.[21] However, without clear naval superiority, the French/Mysore alliance could not recapture the British held territories.

Entering peace negotiations in the fall of 1782, the global strategic situation for the British was significantly more favorable than the situation right after Yorktown. While the British could not quell the American rebellion, in North America they held the valuable port cities of New York, Savannah, Charleston, Penobscot, St. Augustine and all of the territory of Canada. Against its European enemies, Britain controlled the balance of naval and commercial power in the West Indies, Europe and Asia. Further the United States, France and Spain were all running out of money and resources to further prosecute the war.

The Treaty of Paris and its Impact

To maximize leverage, the British insisted on negotiating a separate treaty with the Americans and each of its European allies. This allowed the British to “give up” American independence while preserving maximum advantage over the French, Spanish and Dutch. The allies realized that only by coordinating their treaties and staying together, could they keep a strategic balance to maximize leverage during the negotiations.

Therefore, negotiations proceeded in parallel and final separate treaties were not signed until there was an agreement with all parties. Britain signed final individual peace treaties with America, France and Spain on September 3, 1783. War with the Dutch formally continued until a fourth Treaty of Paris was signed on May 20, 1784. Mysore concluded a peace agreement with the British on March 11, 1784.

British newspapers heralded the peace treaties as containing terms more favorable than expected.

The Definitive Treaty having been signed by the French, Spaniards and Americans, peace may be said to be fairly established, and to the honor of the present Ministers, upon terms greatly more advantageous to this country than could have been hoped for from some Preliminary articles settled by the late Administration.[22]

After fighting the world’s most powerful nations with no military allies, the British only lost the 13 colonies to independence and Florida and Minorca to the Spanish. The resulting peace agreement preserved British control of its most valuable colonial assets, the sugar producing islands in the West Indies, some of which had been captured by the French. Colonial control of most West Indies islands largely reverted to pre-war status. The British regained the French held islands of Grenada, St. Vincent, Dominica, St. Kitts, Nevis and Montserrat. Only the small island of Tobago was transferred from British to French control. Spain also returned the Bahamas to the British, which it captured in May 1782.[23]

With respect to North America, Britain maintained its Canadian colony and in conflict with the final peace treaty, retained military forts in American territory to protect valuable trade with Native Americans. These northwest frontier forts of Oswego, Niagara, Detroit and Michilimackinac were not turned over to the Americans until 1798. Britain further benefited by no longer funding military security for the thirteen colonies and continued to impress American sailors at will.

The subsequent rise in commercial relations with America further validated the British strategy of pursuing international trade dominance. The United States became extremely valuable to British manufacturing and trading industries. In the ten year period following the war, Britain exported over £25 million of goods to the new United States while importing £8 million of principally raw materials and food. This large balance of trade surplus financed commerce with other trading partners and was vital to the Britain’s economic prosperity.[24]

In Africa and India, the pre-war situation was restored with a minor exchange of a few territories. The British protected and expanded trade in India and Asia, a key wartime goal. The British gained valuable trading rights in the Dutch East Indies and employed Indian ports to illicitly trade valuable goods with Dutch holdings on Ceylon.

Although a “victor,” France gained almost nothing from its considerable war investment. The French monarchy received a modicum of retribution for losses during the Seven Years War and gained pride in assisting the thirteen colonies become independent from its archenemy. However, France did not unseat Britain as the preeminent commercial and naval power and did not gain equal geopolitical status with Britain, its principle war objective.

The final treaty granted France minor territorial concessions. Britain returned Saint Lucia to France and surrendered the small island of Tobago in the Caribbean. France re-affirmed its rights gained in the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713 to fish off North America and reconfirmed its ownership of two small islands south of Newfoundland in the Atlantic Ocean. Also, France won the right to re-fortify the English Channel port of Dunkirk that it lost in the peace treaty ending the Seven Years War. These small gains came at a huge financial cost. War cost estimates range from 772 million[25] to 1250 million livres.[26] This financial burden almost bankrupted the French government and severely weakened its monarchy. And the King of Great Britain could continue to call himself King of France; a claim that dated back to the 14th Century and one that the Britain would not relinquish until 1800.[27]

Although almost bankrupt at the end of the war, Spain fared better in the final peace terms than France and at a much lower military and financial cost. The Spanish negotiated to keep their military conquest of East and West Florida that it lost in the peace agreement ending the Seven Years War and maintained the valuable port city of New Orleans, thereby controlling trade on the Mississippi River. They kept possession of Minorca, which they captured, from the British. However, they did not gain Gibraltar, their principal wartime goal.

The Dutch yielded nothing from their participation and suffered significant economic losses due to capture of their merchant ships and loss of trade. Fortunately, the French pressed the British to principally return Dutch holdings in Asia and the Caribbean to the pre-war status. However, the British forced the Dutch to provide access to trade in the Dutch East Indies. Never again would a Dutch fleet represent a meaningful threat to the British Navy and their economy would require many years to recover. Symbolically, Dutch ships were required to salute the British flag when they met in the open ocean.[28]

The Indian Kingdom of Mysore also did not gain any advantages from its alliance with France and its participation in the American Revolution. The resulting peace treaty restored the pre-war territorial ownership and control. Over the next few years, Mysore and Britain would go on to fight two more wars.[29]

So from a European and global view, the aftermath of the American Revolution was relatively positive for the British. In fact, some British political observers believed that American independence was a good development for Britain.

I say, I am glad, that America had declared herself independent of us, though the Reasons very opposite to theirs. America, I have proved beyond the Possibility of a Confutation, ever was a Millstone hanging around the Neck of this Country, to weigh it down: And as we ourselves had not the Wisdom to cut the Rope, and to let the Burden fall off, the Americans have kindly done it for us.[30]

The British were not the big losers as depicted in American historical accounts and may have “won” as much as they could and made the best of a difficult geo-political situation. Their European opponents did not achieve their war objectives: France did not become a geo-political equal of Britain, Spain did not win Gibraltar and the Dutch economy was severely injured. Victories over its European foes preserved Britain as a global trading colonial empire, which strengthened, and endured through the 19th Century. Lastly, Britain turned the United States into a major trading partner and a central component of its commercial empire.

 

[1] As a result of this service to the King, de la Clocheterie was promoted to Captain and given command of several ships of the line. He died in the pivotal Battle of the Saintes in 1782.

[2] Jonathan R. Dull, The French Navy and American Independence (Princeton, NJ: The Princeton University Press, 1975), 118-9.

[3] Spain’s ambassador to France Conde de Aranda and the French ambassador to Spain Armand-Marc Comte de Montmorin-Saint-Hérem also played key roles.

[4] Treaty of Alliance between France and Spain, concluded at Aranjuez, April 12, 1779, Ratification by Spain, May12, 1779, and Ratification by France, April 28, 1779, full text Charles Oscar Paullin, European Treaties Bearing on the History of the United States and its Dependencies (Clark, NJ: The Lawbook Exchange, LTD., 2004), Vol. IV, 145-6.

[5] David Syrett, The Royal Navy in European Waters during the American Revolutionary War (Columbia, SC: The University of South Carolina Press, 1998), 128.

[6] Indian sources spell Hyder, Haider.

[7] In March 1778, Britain moved 5000 soldiers from New York to the West Indies. They were employed to capture the Caribbean island of St. Lucia on December 13, 1778.

[8] Salisbury and Winchester Journal, February 11, 1782, 2.

[9] Hampshire Chronicle, February 4, 1782.

[10] Derby Mercury, March 21, 1782, 4.

[11] Andrew Jackson O’Shaughnessy, The Men Who Lost America (New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2013), 294-5.

[12] Andrew Jackson O’Shaughnessy, “Empire Divided: The American Revolution and the British Caribbean” (Philadelphia: The University of Pennsylvania Press, 2000), 208.

[13] Northampton Mercury, December 17, 1781, 2.

[14] Northampton Mercury, December 17, 1781, 2.

[15] Jamaica’s population was estimated at 219,600 in 1775 surpassing Cuba at 172,000 as the next most populace. Granville W. and N.C. Hough, Spanish, French, Dutch and American Patriots of the West Indies During the American Revolution Part 7 Spanish Borderland Studies (Midway, CA: Society of Hispanic Historical Ancestral Research, 2001), 4.

[16] Alfred Thayer Mahan, The Major Operations of the Navies in the War of American Independence (London: Sampson Low, Marston & Company, 1913), 207.

[17] For a complete description of the “Breaking of the Line” naval tactic, see Bob Ruppert, Who really crossed the T in the Battle of the Saintes?, Journal of the American Revolution, http://allthingsliberty.com/2014/09/who-really-crossed-the-t-in-the-battle-of-the-saintes/, accessed June 5, 2015.

[18] Stamford Mercury, May 30, 1782, 4.

[19] René Chartrand, Gibraltar 1779-83: The Great Siege (Oxford, UK: Osprey Publishing, LTD., 2006), 62-3.

[20] David Syrett, The Royal Navy in European Waters during the American Revolutionary War, 130-1.

[21] Piers Mackesy, The War for America 1775-1783 (Lincoln and London: The University of Nebraska Press, 1964), 497.

[22] Stamford Mercury, Reprinted from the London Gazette, September 9, 1783, 1.

[23] For an overview of the West Indies region and a graphical depiction of the change of control of the West Indies islands see a web page: http://www.xenophongroup.com/mcjoynt/WI2.htm, accessed June 7, 2015.

[24] Antonio de Alcedo and George Alexander Thompson, The Geographical and Historical Dictionary of America and the West Indies (London: Carpenter & Son, 1815), xvi-xvii.

[25]James Breck Perkins, France in the American Revolution (Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1911), 498.

[26]Jonathan R. Dull, “France and the American Revolution: Questioning the Myths,” Proceedings of the First Annual Meeting of the Western Society for French History (1974): 110-119.

[27] Samuel Flagg Bemis, The Diplomacy of the American Revolution (Bloomington and London: Indiana University Press, 1935), 254.

[28] Samuel Flagg Bemis, The Diplomacy of the American Revolution, 254.

[29] Mysore and Britain fought two more wars, the first of which Lord Cornwallis personally commanded the British forces. Although a loser at Yorktown, Cornwallis was a successful Governor General and Commander in Chief in India.

[30] Josiah Tucker, Four Letters on Important National Subjects, ed. Max Beloff, The Debate on the American Revolution, 1761-1783 (New York: The British Book Centre, 1949), 297.

Written By
More from Gene Procknow

Ethan Allen: Patriot, Land Promoter or Turncoat?

The Controversy In the region we call Vermont today land claims were...
Read More

21 Comments

  • Well done, Gene. It’s puzzling to review the events of 1775 – 83 and wonder why the British failed to thoroughly destroy the American rebellion. For example, they left Boston in 1776 and simply never went back; they left Philadelphia in 1778 without a whimper; Clinton stayed in New York City for years without taking his troops out to chase Washington. Even after Yorktown the British had ten thousand troops available and did little to nothing. It’s very strange. Your article reveals a lot about what else was on their plate.

    • Thanks for your comment. I concur with your point that limited military and financial resources stretched thin over a global theaters played a big role in British military strategies and goals.

  • Glad to see somebody else read Andrew Jackson O’Shaughnessy’s “The Men Who Lost America: British Leadership, the American Revolution, and the Fate of the Empire”!

    Great Britain did not have enough forces to follow up every victory in the 13 Colonies with an occupation force. Especially after those other countries joined in–many, fighting far away from what we’ve been taught was “the main event.” The Royal Navy & the Army were needed to defend the rest of the British Empire. And they mostly succeeded…..

    • Yes, O’Shaughnessy’s book adds a valuable interpretation! British leaders had differing perspectives and motivations which are important to understand their war strategies and decision making. All of us benefit from looking at the Revolutionary War events from the differing points of view of various constituents. Too often we just focus on the American Patriot point of view.

  • If you view it as merely a “rebellion” and almost entirely motivated by commerce and finance, and not the social and political “revolution” it is seen to be by many others, then this analysis has some merit, but is limited.

    • Thanks for your comment. I believe that each side had differing motivations but both achieved positive outcomes.

      British leaders believed that large colonial empires were critical to the growth and vitality of their economies; a strong mercantilist viewpoint. This is a major reason why they fought so hard and so long to retain America and why they devoted substantial resources to the defense of colonies in other regions from French and Spanish attack. King George III was especially concerned with any risks to the British holdings in the Caribbean which at the time, were more valuable that America to the British economy.

      The American Patriots, as you point out sought social and political goals in addition to economic ones. As American/British economic ties remained strong (and even strengthened) after the war leads to my conclusion that the British also won.

      • But not in military sense mr Procknow. Loses in imperial prestige and territory cannot be discarded. It’s reasonable to say that British “lost the war, won a peace”. They didn’t reached their short-term political goals despite sacrifice of many men and resources. The outcome still remains military defeat nethertheless.

  • Well done Gene. Insightful look into the broader world issues driving the Brits. I wonder if they understood what America would become if they would have given up the Caribbean properties and defended the continent? Its fascinating to think of how much of the globe England had to cover in a time with limited communication and slow decision making.

    • Thanks Pat!

      You make great points about slow communications over vast distances making for difficult decisions. Your question about whether the British would have changed their priorities and the outcome would have been different if they recognized the vast potential in North America and shifted more resources to the rebellion in the 13 colonies is an interesting one. Certainly at several pivotal moments, the Patriot cause held on by the barest of threads!

      As you point out, what is more evident is that the leaders of the British Government were more capable than commonly represented in American sources. They were discerning strategists, made the most use of limited resources and operated with tiny staffs. The American Patriots were fortunate that the British had so any other colonies to defend!

      • The point about distances separating metropolitan London from far off colonies is a profound one that directly affected the nature of colonial relationships, and, thus, the happenstance of war itself. One need look no further than to consider how London interacted with Cornwall, Wales, Scotland, and Ireland, which were all in close proximity, in contrast to what happened in the North American and Caribbean colonies.

        Distance directly affected the ensuing constitutional conversation taking place after the Stamp Act in which the colonists argued for their right as Englishmen to be treated as though they were Londoners verses Parliament’s focus on asserting its supremacy. Distance exacerbated the difficulties between them in understanding each other’s point of view, and, as a result, they never were speaking on the same plane. If there were no distance factors, it is likely that the Revolution would have taken an entirely different course; that is, if it even happened in the first place.

        With regard to the deployment of resources, the British certainly did recognize the crucial economic role the Americans, particularly the south, and Caribs played. Indeed, post-Saratoga, those areas became the new focus of British efforts in 1778 as they sought to keep them within their sphere of influence and away from French intervention.

  • “They were discerning strategists, made the most use of limited resources and operated with tiny staffs.”

    I thought we were talking about the British.

    • The British were adept at keeping strategic parity or a small advantage in each of the major theaters. For example they proficiently allocated critical ships of the line. The British leaders deployed just enough ships to bottle up the Dutch at Texal, protect Gibraltar and the home isles, counter French and Spanish invasions fleets in the Caribbean and sustain parity in the Indian Ocean. In each theater they had enough, but not too few or too many to counter French and Spanish threats.

      The complex, five continent military deployment with supporting supply units was accomplished with small numbers of people. For example George Germain had a staff of less than 10 to manage his military and political communications.

      As you point out, the American Patriots were severely resource constrained, but so too were the British given their global military requirements.

  • Very decent article, but not terribly new. That your point of view is surprising to Americans says more about the sorry state of American historiography than any radical revelations. The rest of the world has mostly seen the British loss of the 13 colonies as a sideshow in the really large battle – that over the really important colonies – viz. Jamaica, India, etc., and control of the seas. On that score, the Brits knew precisely what they were doing, and did it splendidly. On balance, they were only making £40,000 annually off American trade, while their holdings in the Caribbean amounted to £51,000,000 – half of it in Jamaica alone. Yes, they were stunned at losing their naval war against the French in the American theater (which some call the ‘American Revolution’) at Yorktown, but mostly because it threatened the big prize – the West Indies. 18th century America’s stature in the global sphere may mistakenly loom large to some tin-hat patriot historians, but only in hindsight from the perspective of the later fabulous wealth produced by the American slave economy, conquering Indian lands and industrial revolution. In 1775 America was more a narrow strip of hinterland of limited value to the empire – they didn’t own it lock, stock and barrel as they did the British West Indies.

  • This is a terrific piece. A good addendum to O’Shaughnessy’s recent book on the men who “lost” America.
    Could you help fill in a blank. What island did the French want in return for not supporting the Americans?
    Thank you.

    • Peter, thank you! I agree that the O’Shaughnessy book is outstanding. It provides a unique British perspective on the war strategy and its prosecution.

      I’m not sure that any island would restore the French pride after they lost New France in 1763. The French even contemplated an invasion of Britain and waged total war throughout their respective colonial empires.

      However, in the strategically important and economically valuable Caribbean, one of the principal French territorial objectives was the capture of Jamaica. Probably more war resources including ships and men were devoted to its capture than resources in any other theater. The Battle of Saintes was pivotal and the French decided that they did not have the military resources nor funds to try a second attempt.

  • Interesting analysis, in a Monty Python “Black Knight” sort of way.

    “‘Tis but a scratch!” Very, very British.

    So the Brits gave up on the American colonies, in order that they preserve their Caribbean holdings, which were o so much more profitable at the time than the American colonies.

    Hmmm … lets see, the GDP of the United States today is, what, somewhere around $19 trillion USD, while the combined GDP of Britain’s colonies in the Caribbean today is … oh pshaw, silly me, WHAT British colonies in the Caribbean today? Well, in any case, even if the Brits had held on to their sugar-producing colonies in the Caribbean for the long haul, today the combined GDP of Grenada, St. Vincent, Dominica, St. Kitts, Nevis and Montserrat, plus Jamaica and the Bahamas is something a bit less than $33 billion USD. That was some trade-off, John Bull!

    Not to mention that the American Revolution – which was (contrary to what others may assert) at its heart mostly an ideological revolution, not a mere commercial venture, and which greatly undermined and eventually helped cause (along with the two world wars) the total loss of the British Empire. The American Revolution proved to be a key inspiration for numerous other revolutions and independence movements undertaken by a many other holdings of the British Empire in later centuries, not the least of which included India and Ireland. The American Revolution also certainly fed into and inspired the French Revolution, which ultimately resulted in the Napoleonic wars which cost the Brits dearly to defeat 30 some years later.

    “‘Tis but a scratch!”

  • Duane, thank you for your perspectives and comment.

    British newspapers before and after Yorktown describe the importance of the sugar trade to the British economy. Prioritizing limited forces, significant military resources were diverted from North America to protect the valuable Caribbean colonies.

    In the peace negotiations, one of Britain’s principal objectives was to keep other countries outside the British/US bilateral trade agreements. Over the subsequent years burgeoning, intertwined trade, led to a special US/UK geopolitical relationship that persists to today.

    I agree with you about the ideological implications of the American Revolution. Interestly, these ideas also influenced needed changes in the British political environment such as limiting the King’s power, ending slavery and elongating pocket boroughs.

    And most importantly for the reigning monarchs, King George IIi kept his head and Louis XVI lost his!

    • Gene,

      Thanks also for your response. I certainly don’t disagree with you that the PERCEPTION of the value of the Caribbean sugar industry was what drove much of the British desire to suppress the American colonies, and then later on to suppress the American Revolution itself. I was remarking rather upon the short-sighted, corrupted, and perverse thinking behind that perception.

      Much of what was behind the suppression of the American colonies in the middle of the 18th century was a result of the “rotten boroughs” that corrupted the British Parliament. Many of these low-population borroughs (emptied out by the industrial revolution and mass migration to industrial centers) ended up in the hands of wealthy sugar planters who perceived the American colonies as a growing challenge to their livelihoods and their power.

      The power of the sugar planters resulted in the Molasses Act of 1733, and its successor the Sugar Act of 1764, both designed to suppress American colonial trade with the French Caribbean islands. The net result of the Molasses Act was to increase smuggling (and therefore non-payment of the tax), especially by American rum distillers … while the net result of the Sugar Act was to actually enforce the taxes in an effort suppress smuggling. The overall result of these efforts to protect the rich British sugar planters in their rotten boroughs was, in effect, the American revolution, in reaction to “taxation without representation” in Parliament.

      The Brits worked themselves into their own corrupt bargain. Though it took them a couple of generations for this to all pan out, the Brits managed to convince the American colonists that Parliament and the King had clearly chosen sides against them, in favor of the corrupt planters and their corrupted Parliament.

      Very bad bargain by the Brits. That’s why they ended up a second rate power and a supplicant of their former colony, in a world they used to dominate.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *