At the battle of Minorca (1756), the British Admiral John Byng’s excessive caution led to the loss of the island to the French. But his subsequent court-martial and execution – as Voltaire put it, ironically, ‘pour encourager les autres’ – was draconian. Duly encouraged, the surviving British admirals reeled off a succession of victories, culminating in the classic victory at Quiberon Bay (1759). The treatment of Byng underlined the importance vested in sea-power in the first global war between global colonialists. In peacetime these powers competed for dominance in the Atlantic Triangular trade. European manufactures were transported to West Africa, where each power had outposts, there to be exchanged for slaves for export to Americas, bringing back rum, tobacco and sugar from the New World plantations. Pitched battles (Plassey, Buxar) in India helped cement British dominance; after the French expulsion this granted control, with the Dutch, of the lucrative oriental trade in spices, silk, tea and porcelain.
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