Gateway to the Classics: The Struggle for Sea Power by M. B. Synge
The Struggle for Sea Power by  M. B. Synge

The Struggle for North America

"Few, few were they whose swords of old

Won the fair land in which we dwell,

But we are many, we who hold

The grim resolve to guard it well."


"I T was the volley fired by a young Virginian in the backwoods of America that set the world on fire."

So said the great English minister Horace Walpole. Let us see why that volley was fired.

While the English and French were fighting for the mastery of India away in the East, a great struggle was going on between the same two peoples—New England and New France—for the mastery of North America in the Far West. Clive had fought till the English flag waved over the cities of Madras and Calcutta. Now Wolfe was to fight in America till the English flag waved from the capitals of Quebec and Montreal.

At present the lilies of France floated over these towns. They had floated there since the early days when the first Frenchman—Jacques Cartier broke the solitude of this distant wilderness. Canada was the seat of French power in North America. French Canadian life centred round Quebec and Montreal, on the banks of the river St Lawrence. Here, in the castle of St Louis, upon the famous rock of Quebec, sat the all-powerful governor of Louis XV., King of France. A new governor had recently been sent out—a man who viewed his country's prospects in America with the keenest anxiety. He knew full well the rivalry that existed between France and England in that land of the Far West. The English had already viewed with distrust the long arms stretched out by France over the fur-bearing regions around Hudson's Bay.

But it was in the south that the coming storm was now brewing; it was to the south that the French governor was looking with those dreams of empire that inspired Dupleix to conquer Southern India.

From the Canadian lakes southwards stretched a dense "ocean of foliage," broken only by the white gleam of the broad rivers Ohio and Mississippi. The beautiful valleys formed by these large rivers reached to the French settlement of New Orleans, on the Gulf of Mexico. At distant intervals, faint wreaths of smoke marked an Indian village: otherwise all was solitude. The country was unclaimed, for the most part, by either French or English.

Now these two rivers, the Ohio and Mississippi, practically cut North America in two. A cork dropped into the small stream that rises near Lake Erie, not far from the Falls of Niagara, would flow out through the mouth of the Mississippi at New Orleans into the Gulf of Mexico.

On the sea side of these rivers lay the thirteen English colonies, fronting the broad Atlantic Ocean. These colonies were under no one local governor: each was independent, the only tie holding them together being their allegiance to the mother country. Each colony had started life on its own account. There were the colonies founded by the Pilgrim Fathers, by the Puritans, by the Quakers. There were colonies of English, Irish, and Scotch, and each colony had its own governor. Thus the English possessions at this time consisted of a long straggling line of little quarrelling Commonwealths, resting along the sea-coast between the Atlantic and the Ohio river and Alleghany mountains. Both France and England now claimed the Ohio valley, and there was little doubt that some day their respective claims must be settled by the sword. No treaty could touch such debatable ground; no one could adjust the undefined boundary in this far-distant land.

One day, in the summer of 1749, the French governor started a small expedition to explore the country about the river Ohio. It was the first of many such. Slowly but steadily the French pushed farther and farther down the valley of the Ohio. They built fort after fort, until suddenly the governor of the English colony of Virginia became aware of what was happening.

He selected a young Virginian, George Washington, to go and protest against such encroachment. He was to march to the last new French fort, with a note from his English governor, expressing a hope that the French would at once retire from British territory, and so maintain the harmony at present existing between the two countries.

It was late autumn; but George Washington pushed manfully through the dripping forests with his little band of men, till he reached the fort. He delivered his message, and started home with the first formal note of defiance from France to England. After a three months' absence and numerous hairbreadth escapes, young Washington rode into Virginia with his ominous message from the French.

There was danger ahead. The French were pushing their dreams of empire too far. The Governor of Virginia exerted himself more vigorously. He too would build forts on the Ohio. In the early spring of 1754, a little band of Virginians was sent to build a fort in a spot where two large streams meet to form the river Ohio, a spot to become famous later as the site of the city of Pittsburg. But the French were there already, and they soon tumbled the forty Virginians back again into their English settlements. Washington was now sent with 150 men to the French fort on the Ohio. He was marching on through the pathless wilderness, when news reached him that the French were advancing to clear the English out of the country.

Taking forty men, Washington groped his way through a pitch-dark soaking night to the quarters of a friendly Indian chief. The news he found was but too true. There was not a moment to be lost. At daybreak he stole forth and found the French lying in a ravine. He gave orders to fire. A volley was given by his men and returned by the French. Their commander was slain, and the French were all taken prisoners.

And so the war began.

"It was," as Horace Walpole had said—"It was the volley fired by a young Virginian in the backwoods of America that set the world on fire."

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