Britain wins Canada in naval battle

In the Battle of Quiberon Bay, November 20, 1759—“the Trafalgar of the Seven Years War”— the British annihilated the French navy, effectively winning Canada for Britain, two months after James Wolfe won the Battle of the Plains of Abraham but failed to conquer New France. Painting by Richard Paton, Wikimedia Commons.


Adapted from my book, About Canada, Toronto, Civil Sector Press, 2012.

It was not at the Plains of Abraham, in either the first or second battles in 1759 and 1760, that the destiny of the continent was determined. It was determined two months after Wolfe’s forces won the first battle and more than five months before Vaudreuil and Lévis won the second battle at the gates of Quebec. It was determined by a pair of naval battles on the far side of the Atlantic. The ships that arrived in May to lift the siege of Quebec could not possibly have been French, because the French navy had been demolished.

While Wolfe was trying to figure out how to capture Quebec, in Europe the French were planning to invade Britain. A dozen battleships of the French Mediterranean fleet were to join 21 of the Atlantic fleet, stationed at Brest, on the western tip of France and the edge of the English Channel, the staging area for the invasion. The task of Britain’s Mediterranean fleet was to keep the French ships blockaded at their Toulon base.

In August, the British Mediterranean fleet returned to Gibraltar for repairs and provisions. The French set sail for Brest. It took 12 days to reach the straits of Gibraltar, which they slipped past into the Atlantic under cover of night, but not undetected. The repaired and almost provisioned British fleet, 14 ships under the command of Vice-Admiral Edward Bowscawen, gave chase, overtaking seven of the French ships off the coast of Portugal. In the ensuing Battle of Lagos, the British destroyed two of the French ships and captured three others.

The French navy suffered a major blow at Lagos, but not a knockout. An invasion was still planned. The knockout punch came three months later, at the Battle of Quiberon Bay, acclaimed as “One of the most brilliant pages in naval history,” by U.S. Navy Captain Alfred Thayer Mahon in his seminal book, The Influence of Sea Power Upon History.

Britain’s Atlantic fleet, under the command of Admiral Edward Hawke, joined by Bowscawen’s Mediterranean fleet, attacked the French off the Bay of Quiberon in a raging gale. The British sank six French ships, captured a seventh, and inflicted a devastating loss of 2,500 sailors, killed or drowned. Nearly all of what was left of the French navy was kept out of action for the rest of the Seven Years War by a tight British blockade. The British lost two ships and 400 sailors at Quiberon.

“The French fleet was annihilated,” Mahon wrote in his gripping account of the battle. “All possibility of an invasion of England passed away with the destruction of the Brest fleet. The battle of November 20, 1759, was the Trafalgar of this war…the English fleets were now free to act against the colonies of France, and later Spain.”

If there was such a thing as an English hero in the Conquest of Canada, it was Edward Hawke.

Had the French won the battles of Lagos and Quiberon Bay, annihilated the British navy, and been able to send the 10,000 requested soldiers, provisions and guns, the history of the world would have turned out quite differently.

The Seven Years’ War (it was actually fought for nine years) officially came to a close on February 10, 1763, with the signing of the Treaty of Paris. “No one triumphed,” historian William H. Fowler wrote. “Almost nothing changed.” Except in North America, where the French lost almost half a continent, the destiny of Canada was determined, the door was opened for the American Revolution, and English was entrenched as the language for most of the continent.

Unfamiliar Canadian History Stories 003

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Fowler, William H. Empires at War: The Seven Years’ War and the Struggle for North America. Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre, 2005.

MacLeod, D. Peter. Northern Armageddon: The battle of the Plains of Abraham. Eight Minutes of Gunfire that Shaped a Continent. Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre, 2008.

Mahon, A.T. The Influence of Sea Power Upon History: 1660-1783. Boston: Little, Brown, 1890. Text accessed July 21, 2012 at Project Gutenberg ebook:

National Battlefields Commission. Battles of 1759 and 1760. The Siege of Quebec: An Episode of the Seven Years’ War.

Parkman, Francis. Montcalm and Wolfe. Markham, Ontario: Penguin Books of Canada, 1984. First published in two volumes in Boston, by Little. Brown, 1884.

Wikepedia. Battle of the Plains of Abraham. Accessed July 27, 2012.

William Wood. The Plains of Abraham—September 13, 1759. The Winning of Canada. A Chronicle of Wolfe. Toronto, 1915, Chapter VI, pp.99-139. 


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