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The Elusive West and the Contest for Empire, 1713-1763

By Paul W. Mapp

Review By Barry Gough

November 4, 2013

BC Studies no. 174 Summer 2012  | p. 127-8

If I understand the author’s intentions, the aim of this work is to explain how the west – that is, the continental interior of North America south of Hudson Bay, beyond the Great Lakes, and the area east of the Continental Divide north of New Orleans – was a place of contested concern by three rival powers – Great Britain, France and Spain. The end date at issue, 1763, is marked in the author’s estimation by the Treaty of Paris, by which France ceded captured North American territories to victorious Great Britain. By this time both Spain and France were conniving to keep Britain out of Louisiana. This subject had attracted the attention of many historians. In The Elusive West, of particular interest to the author are the plundering expedition of Commodore Anson of the Royal Navy to the Pacific, the energetic and iconoclastic remarks by Arthur Dobbs concerning the plausibility of a navigable passage to the Pacific Ocean from Hudson Bay, and the novel arguments of Henry Ellis, presumably a compatriot of Dobbs, who felt much the same way about a Northwest Passage.

Eschewing most possibilities that native evidence could be of value to European explorers, a view contrary to much current thinking on the subject, we are told that internecine rivalry and warfare damaged geographical intelligence and made it unreliable. We are also told that tribes did not make long journeys, a puzzling observation considering how Chipewyans travelled to Hudson Bay and back. There is a notable absence of concern for economic motives in this work, and hardly a mention of the fur trade, which was powerful in its influence south of the 49th parallel before 1763. Had the author looked at the work of W.J. Eccles in any detail he would have discovered that the link between the St. Lawrence and Louisiana under the French flag was predicated on economic and military matters in conjoint relationship. There seems little concern for military figures here, which is strange, for army officers played important roles in reconnaissance – as well as dreaming about what the west might afford to the nation and empire that could control it. Robert Rogers and Antoine Bougainville are mentioned, but are exceptions to the generality. Canadian connections and influences are sadly missing. An attempt it made to draw on French, Spanish, and British rivalry for the Falkland Islands/Malvinas in the 1760s and here the author’s research stopped short of using my book, The Falkland Islands/Malvinas: the Contest for Empire in the South Atlantic (1992), and instead has relied on the partisan Julius Goebel’s 1927 work. And I would have thought that one work cited, Warren Cook’s Floodtide of Empire, all about Spanish activities in the Pacific Northwest (and worries about foreign encroachments), would have revealed more about Spanish defensive measures than the author reveals. Of primary sources there are many references, but truly sad to say, there is inexcusably (for a scholarly press) no bibliography for this work, which runs at great length to 455 pages.

This work consists of a number of bilateral studies – what France thought about Britain, and vice versa; what France thought about Spain, and vice versa; what Britain thought about Spain, and vice versa. As can be imagined this is a bewildering scenario for any reader to deal with. The flow of narrative is marred by the constant shifts of the endless round of possibilities. Long footnotes provide bibliographical insights punctuated by the author’s preferences. There is an unease in the treatment of sources and in the giving of judgments, which are not of the greatest sobriety. Perhaps because of such a wide cast of characters, the difficulty of giving balance to the three powers leads in the end to no definitive conclusions except to say that the west was elusive, even if the contending powers had their eyes on that west for the future.

The Elusive West and the Contest for Empire, 1713-1763
by Paul W. Mapp
Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press, 2011