the battle for north america book review – francis parkman

Overview: The Battle for North America

They don’t write them like this anymore. The Battle for North America was originally published in seven volumes between 1865 and 1882. It is grand and bold, beautifully written, and at times shockingly un-PC, which is why I suspect it isn’t now lauded on the same level as Gibbon’s Decline and Fall. Native Americans are constantly referred to as ‘savages’ and we are reminded time and again that they are by nature untrustworthy – Indians, we are told, are as unstable as water and therefore it (was) no easy task to hold them to any plan of action. They are also extremely bloodthirsty.

Parkman tells the story of the first French to occupy the North American continent and their relationships with Native Americans and the English settlers, up to the ceding of Canada to the British at the end of the Seven Years War. We are taken from the initial French settlement of Canada, and the English settlement of the east coast, through the French establishing a second settlement around Louisiana, the skirmishings and wars between the French, British and Indians through to the eventual expulsion of the French from Canada. It’s a fascinating story, and well told. As is common with books of this era, there is excessive concentration on the characters of the main players, and an almost encylopeadic cataloguing of every skirmish and battle, but it rewards persistence.


For me, the main themes of the book are the various differences between the French and British approaches to North America, and the implications these had: aspects such as the differing roles of religion, the differing relationship between settlers and the home country and differing relations with Native Americans. Another important theme is the relationship between activities in North America with activities in Europe, and how over time the North American sphere became more independent of the European mother countries.

Differing roles of Religion

For the French in North America, religious conversion of the Indians was part of the mission, and religion in this context meant the Jesuits and the Recollets – a branch of Franciscans. The Catholics felt threatened in France and Europe by the rise of Protestantism and saw the opportunity to win new converts in the New World. After 1607 the French King agreed that any new colony should combine the spiritual with the temporal, and religious men should be included in the group of colonists. At the time it doesn’t seem that the King had a preference between Hugenots and Jesuits, although the Jesuits came to dominate. Over many years the Jesuits did manage to convert some of the tribes, and groups within some of the other tribes – but the quality of the conversion must in some cases be doubted. There’s also a sense in which the Jesuits ‘backed the wrong tribe’. Their initial focus was on the Huron, and when this tribe eventually succumbed to prolonged pressure from the Iroquois the best hope of the Canadian mission fell with it. Consequently, the Jesuits lost some of their purpose in being in Canada, some of them went home and within a few years Canada ceased to be a mission.

For the English, the various settlements were not centrally planned, and tended to consist of religious groups of various stripes that wished to seek a new life away from oppression in the home country. Religion was a reason to emigrate, and a common bond for the communities, but the English settlers largely kept their religion to themselves and didn’t trouble the Indians.

Differing relationship of settlers with the mother country

French colonisation was largely directed by the French crown. Emigrants were nominated nobles or religious men, soldiers and pressed or forced settlers – often prisoners released for the purpose. The purposes of colonisation were to spread the Catholic faith and to turn a profit. Initially the king granted feudal-style monopolies, but gradually became directly involved when many of the early monopolies failed.

In 1627 the King of France granted a monopoly to a new company, the ‘Company of New France’. This company became the feudal proprietor of all French North America. As part of the deal, every settler must be a Frenchman and a Catholic, and for every new settlement at least three ecclesiastics must be provided. There was however little incentive for emigration. Since only Catholics were permitted in New France, and Catholics weren’t persecuted in France itself, there wasn’t any religious incentive, and since the settler couldn’t trade with the Indians, except on condition of selling again to the Company at a fixed price there wasn’t much commercial incentive.

In contrast, English and Dutch settlers came to North America largely independently from their respective crowns – they were often members of religious groups that were being persecuted in their home country, or saw an opportunity to establish a purer religious community in the new world. Although providing some funding and governance in the form of governors for each state had virtually no control – each state made it’s own decisions, and each resented the influence of the royal governors.

There were two main implications of this difference for the history of North America. Firstly, while the French crown and their agents were able to exert central control over their subjects to fight or explore, the British crown had very little control, and indeed the colonies themselves often had different interests and would not coordinate together. Secondly, the types of people that were colonists meant that while the French struggled to establish viable colonies, the British and Dutch colonies thrived.

The British colonies had no conscious community of aims and interest and no shared central authority capable of uniting them to a common purpose. If they started to flow westwards it wasn’t due to any command or assistance from the King or the royal governors. As they did move west, they rubbed up against the French, and small scale conflict ensued. Indeed in some cases the interests of different colonies clashed, and this held up any impetus to the interior. A large part of the valley of the Ohio for example was claimed by both Pennsylvania and Virginia and each was worried that whatever money they spent there might end up profiting their rival. It was this heterogenous structure, clashing interests, internal disputes and misplaced economy of penny-wise and shortsighted assemblymen that provided the best hope for France to maintain or extend it’s position in North America.

Things changed about 1708 when the colonies decided to protect themselves from constant raids by war parties by driving the French from Canada. However, although New York was now aligned with the plan – a peaceful English Canada would be better for trade than a peaceful French Canada – Pennsylvania was controlled by pacifist Quakers and would not contribute, and New Jersey was safe from French war parties so also refused to provide troops.

Similarly there was a shift towards opening up the West when the colonies realised that King and Parliament would give them more respect if they occupied the ocean to the Mississippi.

The difference in settlement also had implications for the vitality of the two camps. The British colonies were made up of willing immigrants who ruled themselves through laws of their own making, and who depended on their own efforts and reaped the benefits of those efforts for themselves. The French immigrants were often forced, were gathered from prisons, and were, in Parkman’s view, essentially lazy dreamers.

Lousiana, which was seen as a drain on royal resources, was granted out as a monopoly to an individual, and then a company. When both failed to make a profit from the land, it was returned to the Crown.

Differing relations with Native Americans

After one of the earliest French settlers, in the interest of being able to explore the Canadian interior safely with a view to finding a route to China, was persuaded to support the Huron and their allies the Algonquins against their enemies the Iroquois or Five Confederate Nations, the French became deeply entrenched in manipulating Indian tribes to their advantage. By joining the Hurons and Algonquins against their Iroquois enemies, the French leader hoped to make himself the indispensable ally and leader of the tribes of Canada and at the same time fight his way to discovery in regions which otherwise were barred against him.

Initially the French impressed their Indian allies by their possession and use of the arquebus, but this advantage was soon matched by the Iroquois who were able to obtain the same from Dutch traders of Albany. Their aim was to create of the enemies of the Iroquois a ‘virtual league’ of which the French colony would be the heart and the head and which would continually widen with the widening area of discovery. With French soldiers to fight their battles, French priests to baptize them and French traders to supply their needs, they would become completely dependent on the French.

The English seem to have adopted a much more passive policy – the scheme of English colonization took no account of the Indian tribes. The Five Nations however, by virtue of French policy became natural allies of the English, and at times the English stepped in to actively protect this alliance when French policy changed and the French attempted to woo them, but aside from that there doesn’t seem to be much active engagement. At one stage Parkman does tell us though that the Dutch and English traders of New York were encouraging the Iroquois to attack the western tribes, with the object of gaining control of the fur trade of the interior and diverting it from Montreal to Albany.

Relationship between activities on the North American continent and those in Europe

The distance between North America and Europe, and the difficulty and length of time taken for communications between the two spheres meant that actors in North America had a degree of independence in action in the short term. Control was influenced by the continual requests of the colonists for food and more troops. Whether more troops could be sent depended on other callings on the same troops, and given the lower priority both Britain and France considered North America compared to Europe, the existence of conflict in Europe tended to reduce the appetite to send additional troops to support their respective colonists. Over time the two spheres became more closely tied together, to the extent that, as Voltaire said, ‘Such was the complication of political interests, that a cannon shot fired in America could give the signal that set Europe in a blaze’.

The colonies were part of a global balance of power, and on occasion the cessation of hostilities reversed with a stroke of the pen battles and campaigns that had taken a significant amount of time and cost many lives. On two occasions the British took Port Royal from the French, only to have it returned to them by treaty following the cessation of European hostilities. Louisbourg was conquered by the New England colonies (to prevent it from harassing their fishing operations), but was returned to France in return for Madras as part of a deal between the British and French crowns.

The fall of French Canada, the French Revolution and the American Revolution were all ultimately – Parkman suggests – the responsibility of Madame Pompadour’s influence over Louis XV in changing his traditional alliances to side with his historic enemies, the Austrians. This sparked a European war, which meant that he was not able to fortify French Canada, which by nature was very easy to defend as there were only three possible routes to attack, and each was easy to defend. At the same time, the British had an incentive to keep the French on the North American continent as the threat, or at least perceived threat, meant that the colonies could not break with Britain as they needed her help. America, according to Parkman, owes much to the imbecility of Louis XV and the ambitious vanity and personal dislikes of his mistress.

The Seven Year’s War was instrumental in making England what she became. It crippled the commerce of the French, her main rival, gave her control of the seas, mastery of North America and India and prepared that vast colonial system that planted new Englands in every quarter of the globe. It appears that the Seven Years War ended when George II died and was succeeded by George III. The latter broke the alliance with Frederick of Prussia, and allied instead with Austria, Russia and France. 1763. While the war hastened the inevitable downfall of the French monarchy, it produced still more notable effects. Before the war, France’s possessions in North America dwarfed those of every other nation. She had built up a powerful navy and created an extensive foreign trade. All this was now changed. She had scarcely forty ships remaining, her North American possessions had been reduced to two small islands, and although she was still great on the continent of Europe, England was mistress of the seas and the world was thrown open to her merchants, explorers and colonists. Scarcely, however, were the colonists free from the threat of France than they started to show symptoms of revolt against the crown.

One outstanding question for me is the low impact the Western disease seems to have had on the Indian tribes when compared to the impact on the Mexican and South American tribes. Maybe the tribes had been impacted by the earlier Spanish settlement, and the damage had already been done and some immunity achieved?

And on a completely different note, Parkman obsessively documents the many forms of torture that the Native Americans apparently practiced and revelled in.

An excellent book – 9/10.