March 1988 | Volume 39, Issue 2
On their weathered stone battlements can
be read the whole history of the three-century
struggle for supremacy in the New World
On the northwest shoulder of South America, looking out over the blue waters of the Caribbean, an ancient citadel stands guard above a Spanish city. Three thousand miles to the north, where the Gulf of St. Lawrence meets the gray rollers of the North Atlantic, the guns of another once-menacing fortress stare sullenly across a bleak, empty sea. The tropical city is Cartagena, Colombia. The northern bastion is Louisbourg on Cape Breton Island, once called the “Gibraltar of the West.”
The story of Cartagena, Louisbourg, and a handful of similar strongholds is the story of the European conquest of America. Built far apart in time and distance, every one of them embodies the same reasoning: the attempts to preserve a colonial empire by hiding behind stone walls.
The discovery by Christopher Columbus and those who followed him at the dawn of the sixteenth century to a hitherto unknown land mass far to the west touched off a scramble among European states to carve out possessions in this New World. As the riches of the Western Hemisphere revealed them- selves, the competition became hotter. A century and a half of warfare determined the winners.
Spain got there first. Within fifty years of Columbus’s landfall Spanish arms had explored and conquered Mexico, the Greater Antilles, the north coast of South America, Central America, Peru, and Chile. The Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico became a Spanish lake that outsiders entered at their peril. From settlements in Venezuela, Colombia, Panama, Cuba, Mexico, Jamaica, Hispaniola, and Puerto Rico poured an increasing flow of treasure into the coffers of the Spanish crown and aristocracy.
Not all the treasure got there. As early as 1522 French privateers intercepted two caravels carrying Hernando Cortez’s first shipment of Aztec loot from Mexico, most of which wound up in the hands of Francis I.
That capture occurred near the Azores, but the freebooters, often with the under-the-table con- nivance of the governments, were soon hunting in the Caribbean. Corsairs—the Spanish called them pirates—even amused themselves by capturing and sacking inadequately defended Spanish settlements. Before long English ships had joined in, and Francis Drake, Henry Morgan, and Edward “Blackbeard” Teach were inscribing their names in the lurid saga of the Spanish Main.
They lacked the staying power to shake Spain’s grip on the Caribbean, but their depredations demanded countermeasures. Gradually Spanish shippers and ship captains worked out a system of convoys for mutual protection.
It was only partially successful, however, until the crown turned the problem over to Pedro Menéndez de Avilés in 1565. A brilliant planner and cold-blooded character who could order and calmly watch the slaughter of between two hundred and three hundred helpless French prisoners on a Florida beach, Menéndez consolidated convoys into two annual fleets, one bound for Veracruz, Mexico, the other for Portobelo in Panama. After taking on the year’s accumulation of treasure from Mexico, Pe- ru, Chile, Colombia, and Venezuela, the fleets wintered in Havana and Cartagena before combining at Havana for the voyage home under strong naval escort.
Menéndez further designated several settlements, among them Havana and Cartagena, as treasure depositories, safe ports of call, trading centers, and naval bases. These were to be heavily fortified.
Drawing plans and giving orders were one thing; getting them obeyed was another. Madrid could issue all the decrees it pleased, but Madrid was far away and the colonists were expert foot draggers. The projected fortifications took generations to complete.
The principal stumbling block was money. Although millions in treasure were extracted from Latin America annually, the Spanish government wasn’t inclined to disgorge any for protection, and the colonies were just as reluctant to pay the bill.
The settlements weren’t particularly cooperative among themselves either. In one crisis Cartagena hijacked a shipment of gunpowder needed desperately in Havana. Havana retaliated by seizing a cargo of fuses and a lot of shells it didn’t need just to keep them from Cartagena. Nevertheless, after 250 years, the principal colonial cities of the Caribbean had become formidable fortresses.
By the early 1600s both France and England had succeeded in planting their flags permanently in the New World, England at Jamestown in 1607 and France at Quebec in 1608. A century and a quarter later a block of thirteen English settlements stretched from New England to Georgia, where the founding of Savannah in 1733 put England on a collision course with Spain in Florida. Meanwhile, the French followed the St. Lawrence River into the Great Lakes and down the Mississippi. They established Mobile, Alabama, in 1711 and New Orleans seven years later.
If Spain measured the worth of its new empire in gold, silver, and precious stones, the French and English thought in terms of furs. By the seventeenth century the demand for furs in Europe had outstripped the sup- ply. Then the shell of North America was cracked, and the continent was found to be the greatest source of fine furs the world had known.
Canada, particularly, teemed with the wild animals whose pelts were most prized—and Canada” belonged to France. King Louis XIV and his successors fought four wars with England between 1689 and 1763, with North America a major prize.
Thinly stretched along a three-thousand-mile arc| from the Gulf of St. Lawrence to New Orleans, the! French had to fight defensively in the New World. Although they were greatly outnumbered, their position was stronger than it appears today to have been. The Canadians were better wilderness fighters and better led than the peaceful English set- tiers. Furthermore, from 1665 on, France kept regular troops in Canada, whereas the English didn’t send any until 1755.
Since the English weren’t ready to breach the Appalachian rampart, the French hold on the Mississippi Valley was safe. In any event the strategic heart of New France was Quebec, and the St. Lawrence River was its artery. Consequently the serious fighting occurred in the north, where the French launched periodic raids to keep the English off balance and the English tried to cut the St. Lawrence lifeline. There were two practical invasion routes. The first was directly up the river to take Quebec headon. The second went almost due north up the Hudson, through Lakes George and Champlain, then along the Richelieu River to the St. Lawrence between Montreal and Quebec. (“Gentleman Johnny” Burgoyne followed this route south to disaster at Saratoga during the Revolution.)
Strong French positions guarded both approaches. The fortress of Louisbourg on Cape Breton Island flanked the entrance to the Gulf of St. Lawrence, while Quebec itself was probably the strongest natural fastness in North America. To block the Hudson-Lake Champlain route, Fort Ticonderoga straddled the narrow connection between Lakes George and Champlain.
A third important point was Niagara on the bluff overlooking the entrance of the Niagara River into Lake Ontario, about fourteen miles below the mighty cataract. As long as Niagara, Ticonderoga, and Louisbourg remained in French hands, New France was unassailable.
In the end, the French forts failed to bulwark their builder’s position in the New World just as the Spanish forts had failed. France is gone and Spain is gone, but the forts remain to tell the story of their passing.