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The Nine Years’ War in Canada- 1688: Setting
The Political Stage
Back in 1688, the political landscape of Western Europe looked nothing like it does today. France was the world’s leading superpower, led by the powerful Catholic monarch Louis XIV. Although King Louis was on friendly terms with King James II of Great Britain, a fellow Catholic ruler, he was feared and mistrusted by much of the rest of Europe; many suspected that Louis harboured designs to one day rule all of Christendom, and dreaded the balance of power tipping in Louis’ favour.
To the east of France lay the Holy Roman Empire, a loose agglomeration of German states of both Catholic and Protestant persuasion, nominally led by Emperor Leopold I, another Catholic and a member of the House of Habsburg- one of Europe’s most powerful noble families. At that time, the Holy Roman Empire was at war with Turkey’s Ottoman Empire, and King Louis had done nothing to help his fellow Catholic ruler repel the Islamic incursion. His inaction fostered resentment not only in the Emperor, but also in the sickly King Charles II of Spain, another member of the Habsburg family who was plagued by congenital illnesses resultant of the Habsburgs’ practice of multigenerational intermarriage.
Last but not least of the major political players in Western Europe at that time was the fledgling Dutch Republic, which had, several decades earlier, emerged victorious from an eighty-year fight for independence from Habsburg Spain. The Dutch Republic was ruled in part by its stadtholder, the devoutly Protestant Prince William III of Orange, who considered King Louis XIV his archenemy. Sixteen years earlier, while Holland was busy fighting a naval war with England, King Louis had taken advantage of the distraction and marched his army right into the heart of the Dutch Republic, an incident which so enraged the Dutch people that they killed and ate their own Prime Minister (seriously). It had taken the Dutch six years to push back the Gallic invaders, and Prince William was determined to never allow the French King to get the better of him again.
At that time, the English Parliament- Protestant to a man- was none too pleased with the Catholicism of Britain’s King James II. Four decades prior, zealous English Parliamentarians had beheaded James’ father, King Charles I, in part because of his pro-Catholic leanings. Rather than repeat the mistake of their predecessors, which led to the bloody English Civil War and the disastrous Commonwealth of England that followed it, the Parliamentarians secretly plotted with William III, Prince of Orange, urging the Dutch stadtholder to seize the
British crown in a bloodless coup d’état. William acquiesced; in the winter of 1688, he and 40,000 mercenaries sailed through the Strait of Dover and across the English Channel, disembarked at Torbay, marched on London, and assumed the British throne in what the Parliamentarians dubbed the ‘Glorious Revolution’. While the Dutch prince was crowned King William III of Great Britain, the deposed King James II fled to France, where he and his descendants became known as the Jacobite pretenders.
While William III had been organizing his invasion of Great Britain, Louis XIV had invaded the western frontier of the Holy Roman Empire, hoping to acquire territory on which he could build defensive fortresses for the purpose of securing the French border. Alarmed by France’s military might and Louis XIV’s apparent expansionism, William III decided to join forces with his people’s old enemies, the Habsburgs, who were now fighting the French on their own doorstep. In 1689, Dutch Republic, Great Britain, Spain, and the Holy Roman Empire allied to form the League of Augsburg, more commonly known as the ‘Grand Alliance’, and promptly declared war on France. Thus the Nine Years’ War- sometimes referred to as King William’s War in Canada and the United States- commenced.
The North American Stage
When war broke out on the borders of France, England had France had a number of long-established colonies in North America.
New France, as French possessions in North America were collectively called, consisted of four colonies. The most significant of these was ‘Canada’, a territory along the St. Lawrence River, which included the cities of Quebec, Montreal, and Trois-Rivieres. Canada was the oldest European colony in North America, having been established by Breton explorer Jacques Cartier back in 1541 and reinforced by French explorers Pierre Dugua and Samuel de Champlain in the early 1600s. Despite Quebec’s having been captured by a band of English adventurers six decades earlier (and returned to France in 1632), Canada remained the stalwart seat of French power in North America.
East of Canada was Acadia– a territory consisting of what are now Canada’s Maritime Provinces and much of the state of Maine. This old French colony had fallen into British hands several times in the past, serving as a Scottish colony from 1629-1632 and an English territory from 1654-1670. In 1688, however, Acadia was firmly under French rule.
North of Acadia was Placentia, a French colony which comprised the Avalon Peninsula in southeastern Newfoundland. In 1688, France had two forts on Placentian soil, including Fort Plaisance, situated on the bay which separates Avalon from the rest of Newfoundland, and Fort Royal, built the previous year not far from Fort Plaisance.
West of Canada, from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico, stretched a sprawling, wild territory called Louisiana, officially established just six years prior by French explorer Rene-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle. Remote as it was, this newest territory of New France would not escape the destruction and carnage of the Nine Years’ War.
Neighbouring in uncomfortable proximity to the territories of New France were the colonial holdings of England. The most significant of these were the Thirteen Colonies. The northernmost of the Thirteen Colonies- namely Connecticut, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and New Hampshire- were collectively referred to as New England, and were the only colonies to play an important role in the Nine Years’ War in Canada. South of New England were the Middle Colonies- namely New York, New Jersey, Delaware, and Pennsylvania. South of the Middle Colonies were the Southern Colonies- namely Virginia, Carolina, Maryland, and Georgia.
Although the former King James II had amalgamated the New English colonies into the unified Dominion of England back in 1686, the Glorious Revolution prompted the old colonial governors to reassert their former authority over their respective provinces, thus dissolving the short-lived Dominion. By the time the Nine Years’ War began, each New English colony operated under its own jurisdiction, preventing a united English campaign against the centrally-governed yet numerically inferior colonies of New France.
North of New England and Acadia beyond, the British shared the Island of Newfoundland with the French. Just north of the French colony of Placentia, the English had their own Newfoundland Colony, which had survived for nearly ninety years.
England’s third and final colony in North America was situated far to the northwest, on the southwestern shores of Hudson Bay. This newest of English colonies was not truly owned by the British Crown, but rather by the Hudson’s Bay Company- a recently-established fur trading enterprise. At the start of the Nine Years’ War, the land surrounding Hudson Bay was disputed territory, as a band of French soldiers had captured a number of the Company’s forts a few years prior.
Forward to 1689: The Acadian Theatre.
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