Customer Review

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Focus on this historical turning point, gentle reader, 15 Jun 2007
This review is from: 1759: The Year Britain Became Master of the World (Hardcover)
This book isn't perfect, but I found the character sketches alone worth the admission price.

My knowledge of this part of history is not substantial; nevertheless McLynn manages to give the reader a sufficiency of human goings-on around this pivotal year, which only helps to give weight to the costs and benefits of the achievements and losses. Some more maps would be a better investment than the monochrome plates that are reproduced, to no advantage (McLynn even debunks some of them in the text!).

The battle between the two colossi, the nascent British Empire and ancien régime, still speaks to the reader over the centuries. Ultimately, McLynn concludes, the paradoxical indecisive absolute monarch causes the French to implode. Little is said of the Bourbon King, however, and what makes the next page more interesting than the last is tracking the structural fissures that streak through the edifice of bureaucracy, ultimately manifesting in the greed and morally expedient functionaries with little to fear from the crumbling system.

The style give hint to the quantity of research, without extracting specifics where none can reasonably be drawn, for example, page 39:

"The grandiloquently styled Intendant of New France, responsible for finance and trade and -- in an evil hour -- also given responsibility for supplying the armed forces, Bigot was an embezzler and larcenist on the grand scale, who had erected a pyramid of corruption and defalcation in which major scams ran in tandem with a casual network of backhanders, sweeteners, kickbacks and payola, extending all the way down to the simple butcher and greengrocer. Vaudreuil knew all about Bigot's corruption and venality, but did nothing about it. Historians are undecided about the reason: perhaps Bigot had established a psychological ascendancy over Vaudreuil so that the Governor-General was afraid of him; maybe, having clashed bitterly with his Finance Minister when in Louisiana and having suffered for it in his career, Vaudreuil was determined not to make the same mistake again; or it could be that Vaudreuil was simply being paid to keep his mouth shut and covered his tracks well. Montcalm was to suffer hugely from the looming influence of the Intendant: this was a hidden and underrated factor in France's eventual loss of Canada."

On pages 92-3 McLynn demonstrates the stark difference in global realities between now and then: "The West Indies were widely seen as a prize supremely worth fighting for, since sugar was the biggest business of eighteenth-century colonial empires. In 1775 sugar made up one-fifth of all British imports and was worth five times Britain's tobacco imports. What this meant was that to British ministerial minds, the West Indies was a more important area than North America and Britain's great leader in 1759, William Pitt[,] explicitly stated that he thought the French sugar island of Guadeloupe was worth more than the whole of Canada and that the West Indies were worth more than North America: 'The state of existing trade in conquests of North America is extremely low; the speculations of their future are precarious, and the prospect, at the very best, very remote.' He had a point, even though a limited and unimaginative one -- since even at the time of the Boston Tea Party in 1773 the value of British imports from Jamaica was five times greater than from all of the American colonies."

The book is detailed (some might argue to a fault), and it gives a window on the world of (geo-)politics (from Pompadour to Pitt, the Wild Geese to the Compagnie des Indes Orientales, from Jacobites to Freemasons), warfare (muskets rifles and cannonade), religion (the French Jansenist heresy that her secular courts could rule over clergy; the fall of the Jesuits), and even a smattering of philosophy; perhaps the most vivid imagery comes from the lives of the ordinary people and their fates.

I recommend this book.
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