When the diplomatic dust had settled following the 1713 signing of the Treaty of Utrecht, officials in Europe’s imperial capitals got back to talking about extending their empires into uncolonized areas of western North America. And they had little idea of what they were talking about.
In fact, Paul Mapp describes the North American imperial efforts of France, Spain and Britain as a geopolitical version of the old game show “Let’s Make a Deal.”
“I don’t know if you ever saw it, but you could take the money or you could take the curtain. And you never know what’s behind the curtain. You could get something really valuable, or you could get a lifetime supply of Eskimo Pies,” he said. “The American West was the curtain.”
That’s the theme of Mapp’s new book The Elusive West and the Contest for Empire, 1713-1763. In August, Mapp, associate professor in William & Mary’s Lyon Gardiner Tyler Department of History, was reading page galleys for The Elusive West, which is being published by the the University of North Carolina Press for the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture. The book itself was out just before Thanksgiving.
“During the first two-thirds of the 18th century, almost the entire western two-thirds of North America were largely unexplored—unknown to Europeans,” Mapp said. The Elusive West documents the geographic ignorance of these Europeans and also gives the 21st century reader plenty of context to grasp the implications—and also to understand how the great powers of the world got it so wrong in the first place.
The Treaty of Utrecht had given the Spanish Empire exclusive access to the Pacific, Mapp said. But both France and Britain knew that Spain was bringing silver out of South America by the galleon-load. Neither wanted to miss out on the various opportunities for advancement in the Pacific, beginning with trading concessions. Mapp noted that French traders had done some under-the-radar business with ports in Peru and Chile early in the 18th century, moderate in scale—but yielding impressive amount of Spanish silver.
“France is intimately aware of the financial payoff of getting into the Pacific,” Mapp said. “The Spanish empire is trying to have a closed market, and the British want into it, too. Legally or illegally, they want in.”
French and British ships had another barrier to the Pacific: the long trip around South America with no friendly ports for refitting and resupply. “The thing about this Cape Horn route, which everyone was using for a while, is that it is extremely difficult and dangerous,” he said. “Ships get lost; it’s a nightmare.”
Discouraged from Pacific adventures by the twin barriers of geography and diplomacy, Spain’s two imperial rivals try a series of end runs. Mapp notes that the French and British attempts to get to the Pacific and make use of it are important drivers of international relations in Europe throughout the period.
One of the problems is that neither the British nor the French knew where the Pacific was—at least in terms of distance overland from their colonies in Virginia and Quebec. The Spanish, Mapp said, really had no better idea.
A larger land mass than everyone thought
“If you look at some of the maps from the period, you will see they often cut North America off a long way short of where we know the Pacific actually is,” Mapp said. Such underestimation of the land mass brought inevitable disappointment to anyone trying to find the Northwest Passage. That Holy Grail of North American exploration—sought by everyone from John Cabot to John Smith—became the subject of renewed interest on the part of all the imperial powers, he said.
He explained that such geographic ignorance had greater implications back home, as ministers formulating foreign policy played Let’s Make a Deal for big stakes. “If you are sitting in Paris or London, and you don’t know whether Hudson’s Bay is connected to the Pacific, how do you assess the value of Hudson’s Bay?,” he asks.
Even more important than the great powers’ geographical ignorance per se were their mutual fuzziness when it came to what the other nations knew about the American West—and what the imperial intentions of their rivals were. Another important aspect was the fact that the rivalry for North American conquest was among three, rather than two, great imperial powers.
“It gives you different possibilities for alliances,” he explained. “For Spain, initially, it is an advantage that both Britain and France are in the New World because you could get them fighting each other and not you. It makes things more complicated.”
The three-way imperial rivalry came to a head in the Seven Years War between 1756 and 1763, which Mapp says was initiated by a “series of events involving the British and various outposts of the French empire.” (Young George Washington, the ink still wet on his surveyor’s license from William & Mary, is prominent in these events: “He goes west to the Appalachians,” Mapp says, “and gets mixed up with various things—surveying, carrying messages, shooting French people.”)
The French push back
Mapp notes that the French devoutly want to avoid a war with Britain. But uncertainty about British intentions—coupled with geographic ignorance—led the French to believe the British had their sights on access to the American West and Pacific, assets held since the Treaty of Utrecht by the comparatively weak Spanish.
“The conclusion of the French was that we need to stop these British guys. We have to push them back, not let this imperial design unfold,” Mapp said. “So, if the British are pushing in the Ohio Valley, the French push back. That mutual pushing led to a lot of people getting shot.”
The Elusive West is an expansion of the subject matter of Mapp’s doctoral dissertation, trying, he said, to answer this question: “How do you compete for North America, when you don’t really know what North America is?” He points out that, in addition to their North American adventures, all the players had other imperial irons in the fire around the world and had to allocate resources based on a kaleidoscopic array of information and misinformation.
“You always hope for a simple answer,” Mapp said, “but you end up with a complicated one.”