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Finalist for the 2015 Pulitzer Prize in History
Written from a strikingly fresh perspective, this new account of the Boston Tea Party and the origins of the American Revolution shows how a lethal blend of politics, personalities, and economics led to a war that few people welcomed but nobody could prevent.
“A great Empire, like a great Cake, is most easily diminished at the edges,” observed Benjamin Franklin, shortly before the American Revolution. In An Empire on the Edge, British author Nick Bunker delivers a powerful and propulsive narrative of the road to war. At the heart of the book lies the Boston Tea Party, when the British stumbled into an unforeseen crisis that exposed deep flaws in an imperial system sprawling from the Mississippi to Bengal. Shedding new light on the Tea Party’s origins and on the roles of such familiar characters as Benjamin Franklin, John Hancock, Thomas Hutchinson, and the British ministers Lord North and Lord Dartmouth, Bunker depicts the last three years of deepening anger on both sides of the Atlantic, culminating in the irreversible descent into revolution.
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Nick Bunker is the author of Making Haste from Babylon, a history of the Mayflower Pilgrims, described by The Washington Post as “a remarkable success.” Educated at King’s College, Cambridge, and Columbia University, he was a journalist for the Liverpool Echo and the Financial Times, and then an investment banker, chiefly with the Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation. During his careers in journalism and finance, he traveled widely in China, India, the former Soviet bloc, and the United States. He now lives in Lincolnshire, England.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
The Finest Country in the World
Let the savages enjoy their deserts in quiet.
—Thomas Gage, commander in chief of the British army in America
In the summer of 1771, the Mississippi River marked the western boundary of the British Empire.
A few miles from the water’s edge, in the furthest corner of what is now the state of Illinois, a traveler brave enough to venture overland from the east would come to a tall, rocky bluff, pitted with caves and crevices among the trees. Reaching the top he would look down across a wide and muddy tract of land filled with corn and ripe tobacco. Beyond the fields and just before the river, his gaze would fall upon a line of battlements built with limestone quarried from the ridge. They belonged to a fort with platforms for cannon at each corner and a British flag flying above it. As the traveler crossed the plain, more details would emerge from out of the haze. He would see a moat, a sloping earthwork, and a row of huts near the fort, with the smoke from kitchen fires hanging in the sunshine.
From a distance the fort’s defenses seemed solid enough, but the traveler would soon identify odd traces of neglect. Nobody had cut the tall grass by the gate. Heaps of rubble lay beside the track, all that was left of a village or a few abandoned farms. Some broken fences remained, but the cattle they corralled had vanished long ago; the corn was running wild; and many years had passed since a field hand took a harvest of tobacco leaf. In the dusk, the traveler might exchange a greeting with the redcoats who stood sentry in this corner of the wilderness. They would offer him some rum and show him around the back of the fort, where he would find more evidence of decay. Close to the walls, the riverbank dipped away steeply in a cliff of yellow sand. From time to time parts of it crumbled and fell, to be carried off by the Mississippi in the night.
Far away at army headquarters in New York, the base by the river was officially listed as Fort Cavendish, after an English general of noble blood who never found time to cross the Atlantic. On the frontier, the redcoats chose to keep the name the French had given to the place. To a Frenchman, the post was known as Fort de Chartres, mispronounced by the British as Fort Charters. By the early 1770s, it was slipping into ruin like the rest of the imperial system to which the base belonged. From the French, the British had inherited a post constructed on moist, low-lying ground, close to a bayou and next to a swamp, in a site so exposed that the walls needed constant repair until at last they collapsed entirely. Handsome to look at but far too costly to maintain, the fort was built on weak foundations, the British had acquired it without a cogent plan for its future, and in time it was bound to collapse. In other words, the post symbolized Great Britain’s plight in North America as a whole, a continent she did not comprehend and could not hope to rule.
In theory, Fort Charters controlled a long line of communication from Lake Michigan down to the Gulf of Mexico. In practice, the authority of King George III stretched no further than a field gun could fire six pounds of iron from the ramparts. Much the same was true in the rest of his American dominions, where his position would soon become almost as untenable as the fort.
In the story of what happened to the British in Illinois, we can find a parable about the vanity of empire. It is a tale of error and misunderstanding, of ideas only half thought out, of neglect and delay and occasional corruption. The occupation of Fort Charters would end in failure after a pitiful waste of lives and money: a foretaste of what was to come when, soon afterward, the British lost not only the Mississippi valley but also the loyalty of their old colonies along the eastern seaboard, as the American Revolution started to unfold.
The British involvement in the far west had begun in 1763, by the stroke of a pen at a conference in Paris. A treaty negotiated at the Louvre put an end to the Seven Years’ War, a conflict fought out on three continents between France, Spain, and Austria on the one hand, and Great Britain and its Prussian allies on the other. In exchange for peace the French king Louis XV ceded away a string of islands in the Caribbean and all his possessions on the frontier from Quebec to Alabama. Suddenly the British acquired a vast new domain beyond the Appalachians: a territory so immense that two more years passed before they could hoist their colors above every post the French had surrendered.
Caring nothing for the politics of Europe, soon after the signing of the peace of Paris the native tribes rose in rebellion, forcing the British to fight the bloody campaign known as Pontiac’s War. Even when it ended, not in outright victory but in a fragile truce, the redcoats could not occupy Fort Charters immediately. First they had to send envoys with liquor and ammunition to win over the local chieftains who had never joined the uprising or been parties to the armistice. And when at last a deal was struck, the British still had to find a way to reach the Mississippi, a journey the army had never made before.
To undertake the mission, they chose the Black Watch, a Scottish regiment used to empty stomachs and hard fighting in the rain. From their nearest camp on the Ohio River it took eight weeks by boat for the Highland soldiers to reach Fort Charters to collect the keys from the ragged platoon of Frenchmen who formed its garrison. That was in the autumn of 1765. At first, the redcoats were enthusiastic, finding the geography superb. Since every British officer either came from the landowning classes or aspired to join them, they appraised the landscape as though it were a vast estate at home, with ample capabilities for pleasure and for profit. It was, said one lieutenant, “the finest Country in the known World,” with its rich soil, its bears and buffalo, and a multitude of deer to stalk. But while the British admired the wildlife, they could not abide the people they met. Soon their letters east began to carry warnings that the fort could not be held.
“Your excellency knows the French,” the base commander wrote. “You will sooner imagine than I can describe the trouble they give me.” In the Illinois country, King Louis had left behind hundreds of settlers, men and women from Quebec who inhabited their own little world by the river, growing wheat for the West Indies and drinking wine made from wild grapes. Unwilling to remain among the redcoats, most of the French soon disappeared across the water into Spanish-held territory, taking with them their cows and their Jesuit priest. Those who remained were defiant, demanding their own laws, free exercise of their religion, and their own elected assembly.
If the French were difficult, the native people were impossible. In the spring they would gather at Fort Charters, hoping for gifts of food to tide them over until their own harvest of corn. This was part of a system the French had created to keep the peace without using force, but the British found it hard to feed even themselves. Unable to keep the old French bargain with the Indians, the Scotsmen were encircled by hostile clans more ruthless than any cattle raider from Loch Ness. One year, a war party silently entered the cottages outside the ramparts and slaughtered a British soldier and his wife in bed. A month later they took more scalps from a community of peaceful Indians who lived nearby. Too few to fight back, the redcoats could do nothing but send another weary letter to headquarters.
Of all their adversaries, the most destructive was the Mississippi. When the snows melted far to the north, the river would begin to rise, sending a tide of brown water surging around a bend until the bastions at each angle of the fort began to shift and crack. After finishing their tour of duty the Black Watch had gone, to be replaced by Irishmen who tried to strengthen the walls by ramming stones into the bank in winter, only to see the spring floods wash them away. And when at last in late summer the river fell, it left stagnant pools filled with mosquitoes, from which disease crept up to infect the barracks and the married quarters. In a single month in 1768, fever killed sixty men, women, and children, leaving only a few dozen soldiers fit to hold a musket. “We Carried out in a Cart four and five a day,” wrote an ensign. “The poor little Infant Orphans following.”
As each season went by, new tales of woe flowed back to New York to reach the desk of Thomas Gage, the British commander in chief. The dispatches made sorry reading for the officer who had drawn up the original scheme for occupying the frontier. After the truce with Pontiac, General Gage had planned to secure the wilderness with a series of posts like Fort Charters, slung like an iron chain around the pays d’en haut, the high country, between the Great Lakes and Tennessee. Further east, the British hoped to keep the peace with their old treaties with the Iroquois, which left the tribes free to enjoy their ancient hunting grounds safe from interference by settlers from the colonies along the coast. Between them, the forts and the treaties would give the British control of the fur trade, the only kind of wealth Gage believed the wilderness could yield.
From Manhattan the strategy might have seemed plausible, but it rested on foundations as flimsy as those of the fort. For their supplies and trading goods, the British in Illinois had to rely on shipments from Philadelphia, a thousand miles away, coming by a route so costly that they could rarely turn a profit from dealing in skins. How much easier it would have been if the knives and blankets could have sailed upriver from New Orleans; but when the British signed the Paris treaty, they misread the map, giving the king of Spain all the open channels from the Mississippi to the gulf. And meanwhile, closer to home the old British deal with the Iroquois amounted to another bargain they could not guarantee. It would only survive while Gage maintained the flow of gifts and gunpowder and kept his promise that Pennsylvania and Virginia would leave the tribes unmolested. With each year that passed, these conditions grew harder to fulfill.
Gage could not even trust his own subordinates. Rumors began to circulate about bullying, fraud, and embezzlement in the Illinois country: this was a way of life in the British army, where for years the officers went on claiming pay for men who were long since dead, but on the frontier the colonels and the majors plumbed new depths of scandal. Embarrassing, expensive, and impossible to manage, the western wilderness swiftly became a luxury that General Gage could not afford.
Across his whole command from Nova Scotia to the Bahamas, he could deploy only fifteen battalions of foot. He had no cavalry at all. Including their engineers and their artillery, the redcoats in North America amounted to fewer than six thousand men, half as many as the British kept in Ireland. With such a small army and a budget that never seemed to be enough, the general could not police a continent. Although he was rarely a bold commander in the field, Thomas Gage understood the logistics of his army, and he kept careful accounts of every shilling he spent. Soon he bowed to the inevitable and began to plan the evacuation of the frontier barely two years after his soldiers had arrived in Illinois.
By the spring of 1767, the general’s letters home about the frontier had become essays in despair. Repeatedly, he made the case for abandoning it entirely, not only the post at Fort Charters, but also Pittsburgh and Detroit and all the others in the wilderness. Time and again, he met with little more than procrastination. As early as 1768, Gage’s new strategy of withdrawal from the wilderness received the backing of the relevant minister, Lord Hillsborough, the colonial secretary, a pessimist about the prospects for America, but Hillsborough could not make the rest of the British cabinet see sense. Compared with the affairs of Europe or the endless maneuvers for power at home, the Mississippi valley seemed too trivial to bother with. Decisions about it were continually deferred.
Even the experts in London disagreed about the role the wilderness should play in the empire’s destiny. None at all, said some, because, according to a royal proclamation, dating from the same year as the peace of Paris, the American colonists were supposed to remain firmly behind the Appalachians, hugging the seaboard as docile subjects of the Crown. Allow them to cross the mountains, and they would provoke another Indian war like Pontiac’s. Worse still, the settlers might shake off their loyalty to the king and begin to build workshops and factories on the frontier to compete with those of England. But while the official doctrine reserved the interior for the tribes, others took a different view, lobbying hard for expansion in the wilderness as a way to make money for the king or for themselves. Adrift between competing opinions, the British preferred to do nothing about the region, as though somehow or other the problems it posed would resolve themselves.
And then at last, in the autumn of 1771, a moment came when a decision about the Illinois country could no longer be postponed. Sent out by General Gage, an officer of engineers arrived at Fort Charters, surveyed the post, and then under cover of night slipped out by canoe to avoid an Indian ambush. After many detours he made his way back to New York with the damning evidence that Gage required. By now, only a few yards of solid ground remained between the river and the walls. Another spring flood would cause the fort to collapse.
Keen to concentrate his army on the eastern seaboard to deter the colonists from disobedience to the Crown, Gage relayed the report to London, where, in November, it reached Lord Hillsborough, who immediately took it to the cabinet and the king. Reluctantly, they gave the order to evacuate. The following spring, as the walls of Fort Charters began to slide into the Mississippi, the redcoats left the post for good. On the rim of the empire the army gave up one fort after another, but the orderly withdrawal that General Gage intended soon became a rout, as even bases that he meant to keep fell apart for lack of money to maintain them.
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