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Antony Anderson: The Treaty of Paris set the stage for the birth of Canada

Canada's destiny hung in the balance during the Seven Years' War
Members of the Compagnie Franche de la Marine precede the funeral procession which carries the remains of the Marquis de Montcalm Thursday Oct.11, 2001, to a mausoleum at the General Hospital cemetery where he lies with fellow soldier who fought the seven-year war. Jacques Boissinot/CP Photo.

The Hub is pleased to present a weekly column from author and historian Antony Anderson on the week that was in Canadian history.

February 10, 1763: The Treaty of Paris is signed

From 1756 to 1763, the first global war erupted from a cluster of British and French colonies in North America, enveloping Caribbean islands and oceans and swaths of Europe and Asia. The conflict was about the usual stuff: power, prestige, profit, delicious things to eat. Britain, backed by German allies, went up against heavyweights France and Spain and their own assortment of allies.

Canadians tend to learn about this world war because we are such a significant part of the aftermath. Britain prevailed against France in an iconic though not conclusive battle on the Plains of Abraham in 1759, taking Quebec City, then after some tough slogging took Montreal a year later. Understandably focused on our own battlegrounds, we also tend to overlook the fact that beyond our here and now there was a world to haggle over, spoils for the victors to lust after, shiny pieces the vanquished would be compelled to surrender. Our destiny hung in the balance. It’s quite possible that Great Britain in the flush of victory would have passed up on the chance to cash in on Canada. 

In 1760, the clash of musket shot and cannon balls in the new world was joined by a war of words in Britain, unleashed through the dominant social medium of the day, the pamphlet. Thanks to the ongoing printing press revolution churning out affordable quantities of these small, portable booklets, anyone with enough pence and passion could see their rants reach far and wide. As the Seven Years’ War staggered to an uncertain close, pamphleteers in Britain began arguing about which French possession best suited Britain’s political and mercantile interests: the vast sprawling slab of northern North America, brimming with potential, or the tiny, lush, and outrageously profitable island of Guadeloupe which the British had already wrestled from France. The choice was not clear-cut. New France had furs, timber, and an unfathomable expanse of land—albeit complicated by the presence of some 70,000 Catholics who spoke another language and numerous Indigenous nations.

Guadeloupe had a very precious commodity: glorious, addictive sugar. The intoxicated British consumer couldn’t get enough. Historian Niall Ferguson notes, “The rise of the British Empire, it might be said, had less to do with the Protestant work ethic or English individualism than with the British sweet tooth…Sugar remained Britain’s largest single import from the 1750s, when it overtook foreign linen, until the 1820s, when it was surpassed by raw cotton.”1Niall Ferguson Empire: The Rise and Demise of the British World Order and the Lessons for Global Power (Allen Lane 2002) Sugar, as Ferguson also points out, was a perfect complement to another craze sweeping the British Isles, the cup of tea, the hit of coffee. Guadeloupe was a very attractive proposition. However, taking that island instead of New France would leave a potentially hostile power hovering ominously overhead the British colonies in North America. 

Joining in the volley of pamphlets was the American editor, politician, and inventor Benjamin Franklin. In April 1760, the good British subject argued against Guadeloupe and for removing the French threat from North America and by that, the prospect of continual imperial escalations:2Benjamin Franklin The Interest of Great Britain Considered, With Regard to her Colonies, And the Acquisitions of Canada and Guadaloupe.  Viewed at the U.S. National Archives The Interest of Great Britain Considered, [17 April 1760] (archives.gov). 

The present war teaches us, that disputes arising in America, may be an occasion of embroiling nations who have no concerns there. If the French remain in Canada and Louisiana, fix the boundaries as you will between us and them, we must border on each other for more than 1500 miles…Injuries are therefore frequently, in some part or other of so long a frontier, committed on both sides, resentment provoked, the colonies first engaged, and then the mother countries. And two great nations can scarce be at war in Europe, but some other prince or state thinks it a convenient opportunity, to revive some ancient claim, seize some advantage, obtain some territory, or enlarge some power at the expence [sic] of a neighbour. The flames of war once kindled, often spread far and wide, and the mischief is infinite.

His Majesty’s Government ultimately chose to avoid the prospect of infinite mischief with France and thus abandoned the treasure trove of sugar in Guadeloupe for French possessions in North America, what is now Quebec, Cape Breton Island, and most of the present-day United States east of the Mississippi river—all this and many other deals wrapped up in the Treaty of Paris. This imperial arrangement was another early draft of the Canada to come. 

There must be something so satisfying about the spectacle of a treaty ratified. Well-fed rulers scratch their names on parchment and peace seemingly returns. Former adversaries agree not to kill each other anymore. The document gives one the sense that balance has been restored, that harmony will prevail. But then of course the real world keeps unfolding and nothing is really ever settled for too long. In the decade after, the continent would be on fire again in its first civil war between British subjects who clamoured for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness and British subjects who dreamed of peace, order, and good government. 

Another draft of Canada would emerge. 

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