Malinche was no traitor! Moctezuma was a cynic! The Spanish couldn’t have won alone! These are just three of the storylines that you’ll encounter in the epic graphic novel, Aztec Empire.
Historyland fired off seven questions to one of the creative team, Paul Guinan, and this is what they fired back. Highlighting some of the process that goes into visual storytelling and the key elements of this larger than life adventure.
Q1: Out of such a huge story that is mostly written down, what goes into choosing the best most narratively communicable scenes, the scenes that transform words into pictures?
Many of the cues are provided by dramatic moments that were recorded as history by both sides—those are obviously key scenes. For some other scenes that aren’t as well documented, I have to extrapolate more, based on researching each culture and consulting multiple sources. I also look for ways to show scenes and historical facts from a different perspective than other visual narratives have done. For example, our story opens in Tenochtitlan with the Aztec military leaders, which is a visually splendid scene, instead of starting with the Spanish perspective.
On a more humanistic level, even though the Mesoamerican and Spanish cultures are so different, the people we’re depicting share some aspects of a universal human experience. There are emotional dynamics that we can still relate to 500 years later. Those can be key character moments that help bring the story alive.
Q2: Currently you have 5 episodes on the website, what do you think the end extent of the series will be?
It is planned as a 50-episode story, each episode being 10 pages—so around 500 pages, plus endnotes. It’s an epic story! We’re posting it free online to get the story out there and build an audience. Eventually it’ll be published in print. And there will absolutely be a Spanish edition!
Q3: In terms of scholarship the story can be interpreted in a few ways, obviously you are going with an relatively original and up to date interpretation to tell the story. Can you give us an example of how your interpretation will differ from one of the better known parts of the story?
Recent research and scholarship has changed our whole understanding of this story. As just a few examples: In our series, Moctezuma does not think Cortes is a prophesized return of the divine Quetzalcoatl, and the Aztecs don’t think the Spaniards are gods. Malinche (aka Marina), who was Cortes’ main translator, does not “betray her people.” The Spanish didn’t win out because of superior technology, but because of local alliances. There’s a lot of mythology to be deconstructed.
Q4: In researching these characters, was there anything about them that surprised you or that you realised you had taken for granted?
Yes, I found characters who have been completely ignored by history. Hugh Thomas wrote the “gold standard” book on this historical event in the 1990s, Conquest, and yet he doesn’t mention Moctezuma’s Council of Four. One of the Council was married to Moctezuma’s daughter! Thomas’ tome is extensive and authoritative, but it still took the prevailing Spanish-centric perspective. He gives detailed information about Cortes’ captains, but nothing about Moctezuma’s closest advisory group. In Aztec Empire, by contrast, we meet them in the very first scene.
Q5: Have you encountered any negativity so far resulting from long held stereotypes of ‘Noble Savages’ and ‘Black Legends?’
As you might expect, there have been a couple of hot takes about this series on social media, from people who didn’t understand the level of research that’s going into this project. Negativity has been blessedly rare, though. Anyone who takes a close look at the work, including my bibliography and extensive illustrated endnotes, will see I’m trying to be as fair-minded and inclusive as possible.
Q6: Is this novel being illustrated digitally or traditionally? And how did you decide which medium to use.
I draw tiny “thumbnail” sketches of each page to structure the plot, done with a good old-fashioned #2 pencil on plain paper. I then do layouts, also in pencil, which I turn over to my co-artist David Hahn. He does most of his penciling traditionally, but does some of the architectural drawing using digital tools. He inks most of the pages physically or “on the boards.” After that, art corrections, lettering, and coloring are done digitally. We enjoy old-school techniques, but we use digital tools for expediency.
Q7: If you could choose a moment of your novel to see in the flesh which would it be. Actually, I’ll be kind and ask for your top three moments to see in the flesh and we’ll wrap up the questioning.
The three most significant events in this story have an epic tableau involving thousands of people, any of which I’d pay to see in person:
1- The first meeting of Moctezuma and Cortés in the kaleidoscopic city of Tenochtitlan. A massive procession on each side, all resplendent in their finest outfits. Tens of thousands of spectators surrounded the spectacle, most in decorative boats, since the Aztec capital was an island city.
2- The Spaniards’ frantic escape from Tenochtitlan, known by the Spanish as the “Sad Night” and by the locals as the “Night of Victory.” When the Aztecs finally rose up against the invaders, Cortés and his men tried to flee with as much gold as they could carry. Around a thousand Spaniards fought their way out of the city in the rainy night, under constant attack. Many of them were killed, and nearly all the gold was lost.
3- The Battle of Otumba: The final chance for the Aztecs to defeat the Spaniards. Tens of thousands participated in this battle, which turned the tide for the Spaniards. After this success, they were free to lay siege to the Aztec capital. The end had begun.
History and illustration go hand in hand, they are indispensable to each other. Among the ancient kingdoms of Central America, the tradition of visual storytelling was strong. The murals and carvings, annotated by speech markings and writing, form some of the most important aspects of Mesoamerican archeology and muralist art is central to Mexican culture to this day. This offers a pleasingly symbiotic dynamic to the decision to tell this epic Mexican saga in a graphic way.
Aztec Empire is a graphic novel of grand proportions. Unlike other treatments of the Conquest of Mexico it does not create a fictitious character. Instead the creators have chosen the difficult task of popularising the actual story.
Actually, Mayan, ‘Incan’ and ‘Aztec’ subject’s have always been popular amongst cartoonists due to the beguiling blend of real and lost history, allowing artists and storytellers to create worlds and cultures and that few people have imagined but also draw on historical and archaeological evidence. None however have told the story like Aztec Empire.
In itself the Conquest of Mexico serves as a perfect vehicle for storytelling. Especially since it has been refined and simplified down to a well oiled narrative package, full of drama, romance and legend over the last 500 years.
Apart from following the fortunes of a wide cast of characters, whose lives are to be found in records rather than the imagination; (spread over three years of some of the most important complicated political and military events in the 16th century,) a clear, exciting & nuanced story has to be delivered.
The difficultly lies in the attachment people have to the accepted story, (those legends I mentioned earlier,) and the empty spaces, and unexplained events that are to be found in the records that even rigorous scholarship fails to agree on.
The popular conception of the Conquest of Mexico is one of greedy and bloodthirsty Spaniards emerging from the murk of the old world, bursting onto the glittering wonders of the new world to conquer the tragic but ‘barbaric’ Aztecs who thought they were gods, until their civilisation was destroyed and Spanish rule established.
Aztec Empire attempts to tell the story that has been extracted from these levels of myth, propaganda, hearsay and folklore over the last hundred years. Utilising a commendable level of scholarly discipline, the creators are ever eager to tell the tale of their journey and share sources. This version challenges long held beliefs and prejudices. In so doing the creators are bringing a new face to this epic tale that has not been popularly seen before.
Episode one moves quickly in order to get the reader into the story. As such a great deal of cultural ‘backstory’ is referenced and it has the feel of a prologue. Indeed I get the sense that this term might be used for the bulk of the episodes now available.
Though some might be disspointed that interesting characters like the Spanish castaways and their lives amidst the Mayan people of the Yucatan had to be quickly summed up, we must recall what this story is actually about. In that sense the buildup handles the speed well, and the scenes have been equally well chosen, delivering texture, easily believable history, and good exciting atmosphere.
Nothing enthrals like a battle, and the early fight against the Mayans of Tabasco in episodes 2 and 3 offers the creators an excellent opportunity to flex their storytelling muscles. The action is handled well, the images and text communicate easily to the imagination. This is helped by the impressive detail the team has gone to, in selecting heroic, absurd, significant and brutal scenes to portray, drawing the reader in and demonstrating that when the series locks a specific episode to a central theme it delivers.
There is no doubt that the series begins on a fairly tough note. A battle followed by the repercussions for the women of the defeated side. Because despite the winning artistic style this is essentially a pretty grim story.
From what has been hitherto released you have a grand chunk given over to a gritty battle and another episode which at its end involves a HBO style exploitation scene.
Then there is a smooth transitional episode which eases you into the patreon pay wall. The free portion ends on 21 June 1519 with Cortez sailing up to the island of San Juan de Ulua and Mexica emissaries preparing to investigate the appearance of the foreigners. More than enough of a buildup to wet the appetite for the rest of the story.
Unquestionably Aztec Empire is a rigorously researched project, undertaken by talented artists and writers, who care deeply about the subject. It has a strong and compelling sense of story, time, and character. Much more than that cannot be said at this stage, the work is ongoing and the progress can be followed on the website. What is obvious from the episodes that have so far been posted is that this graphic novel is packed with promise. If it continues at this level, Aztec Empire is sure to become a classic.
One of the best rooms in the British Museum, London, is what I like to call the Room of Turquoise and Stone. A capsule of pre-Columbian Mexican History. Here are some of it’s highlights.
Guardians of the East Stairs.
One of the many mid century fusions of diplomat, explorer and writer was a man by the name of John Lloyd Stephens was among the first to write detailed English descriptions of the Mayan sites during the 1840’s and his companion in adventure, a British artist and architect named Frederick Catherwood was the first to visually record them on paper:
‘It is thirteen feet in height, four feet in front, and three deep, sculpted on all four of its sides from the base to the top, and oe of the richest and most elaborate specimens in the whole extent of the ruins. Originally it was painted, the marks of red colour being still distinctly visible.’
John Lloyd Stephens. Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatan. v I.. 1841.
Despite his detailed descriptions, which inspired later explorations of the sites, Stephens admitted that it was annoyingly difficult to find out any verifiable history regarding them.
The question, who built them?, never by any accident crossed their minds. The great name of Montezuma, which had gone beyond them to the Indians of Honduras, had never reached their ears, and to all our questions we received the same dull answer which first met us at Copan, “Que sabe?”‘
John Lloyd Stephens. Incidents of Travel in Yucatan. v I. 1843.
Que Sabe would remain the question until modern scholars cracked the Mayan writing system but the lure of ‘lost’ cities proved irresistible and in the decades that followed.
Years later the explorer, and archaeological pioneer, Alfred Maudesley became known in the scientific world because of a five volume treatise called Biologia Cantrali-Americana. Published in 1902 it described many of the most important Mayan ruins, such as Chichen Itza and represents the fruit of his life’s work.
When Stephens and Catherwood made their explorations they relied on detailed drawings and written descriptions but, Maudesley could rely on the use of camera technology to document his findings.
He also made detailed casts of the extraordinary sculptures he surveyed, made by expert plaster modeler, Lorenzo Giuntini. These were carefully packed and crated to be shipped off to museums in Europe and North America.
Two of Giuntini’s grey plaster Stelae from Copan confront you at the foot of the British Museum’s East Stairs. Their labyrinthine intricacy is offset by the simple intensity of the noble faces of the rulers, staring down at visitors with solemn imperturbability from either side of a wide doorway, barred to all except staff.
Room 27: The Mayans.
As far as the galleries of the British Museum go, room 27, housing the Mexican exhibits and accessed by a right turn at the bottom of the stairs, (they themselves being decorated with Mayan stelae) is an intimate space.
It’s dark, illuminated by the spotlights that reveal the objects on display. The selection showcases the sophistication of the early civilisations of Mexico, ending with fabulous mosaic items from the Mexica empire.
But first we return to the Maya. The writings of the Mayan civilisation have taken 150 years to read. It is only recently that scholars have been able to decipher the tantalisingly neat pictograms blocked into plaques and wall paintings.
A great aid scholars used in breaking the Maya code was the painfully rare codex’s, a tracing of the ‘Dresden codex’ which document’s the remarkable astronomical sophistication of this civilization.
Works of art as well as vital historical documents, the linguistic legacy of the Mayan civilization stands as one of it’s greatest achievements and is as equally inspiring and complex as the most graceful European calligraphy or Egyptian equivalents.
Not even the Mexica (anachronistically known as the Aztec) people, who came to rule central Mexico, knew who the builders of Teotihuacan were. The name means simply, ‘place of the gods.’
Sitting in the company of multiple ceramics and precious objects this fragment of a Nebaj style jade plaque must have been made for a very important individual. It draws the eye at once, as if the speech sign emanating from the Lord’s mouth was calling to you directly.
Along the far wall, under the geometric ceiling, which gives the impression of a portico, late Classic Mayan door lintels from a royal structure in Yaxichilan, Chiapas, hang for visitors to observe.
Rated without exaggeration as amongst the finest works of high Mayan art, it is hard not to be moved by the power exuding from the succeeding cut stone images. Among the most understandable is Bird Jaguar IV dominating a prisoner, holding him in thrall as much by his ferocious stare as his spear.
In another lintel (not pictured) Shield Jaguar the Great looks on as his wife, Lady K’ab’al Xook, threads a thorned rope through the tip of her tongue in a bloodletting ceremony. Try thinking about doing that without flinching.
Although it must be admitted that the British Museum’s Mexican Collection is tiny beside that of Egypt and accumulated by private means and by early archeologists rather than soldiers and tourists, the methods by which some of the items were gathered leaves something to be desired.
Addressing the Royal Geographic Society in 1883, Maudesley displayed one of the lintels now hanging in room 27 and described how he came by it:
’The other difference [to Tikal] is an important one, namely the employment of stone instead of wood for lintels. Many of the these lintels are carved on under the surface and I have succeeded in bringing to England one of the best preserved of these carved stones. I took it from a half-ruined house, where it had fallen from its place, but was luckily resting with the carved side against the wall, and had thus been protected from the weather. The stone, when I first saw it, weighed about half a ton, but by keeping the men constantly at work on it with the point of a pickaxe and some chisels which I had luckily brought with me, at the end of the week we had chipped it down to half it’s original thickness and cut off the two ends. Afterwards … we cut it down to it’s present size with hand-saws.’
Explorations in Guatemala, and Examination of the Newly-Discovered Indian Ruins of Quiriguá, Tikal, and the Usumacinta A. P. Maudslay. Proceedings of the Royal Geographical Society and Monthly Record of Geography Vol. 5, No. 4 (Apr., 1883), pp. 185-204 (26 pages) JSTOR.
Though all of the cities that formed the classic Mayan civilisation ceased to be a meaningful political entities by the time of the 15th century, a great Nahuatl speaking power grew in their stead in the valley of Mexico.
Room 27: The Mexica.
The heart of the British Museum’s Mexica Collection are the Turquoise Mosaics. A selection of nine intriguing and sometimes disturbing works of religious, royal and historical significance, there being only 25 Mexican mosaics in Europe.
Famously the Mexica placed great importance on ceremonial masks. This one, with its studded turquoise face, and frozen grimace stares out from a darkened glass case.
It depicts the ancient fire god Xiuhtecuhtli, and probably something out of your more vivid nightmares. This particular mask might even have played a part in some of the great moments of Mexica history as high quality masks like this would most certainly have been worn by the Tlatoani on the occasion of his investiture.
Safely locked behind glass under watery lights that play softly on their subjects, the turquoise fractals gleam with otherworldly beauty, and in some cases, quiet menace.
Not far away, the tarnished design on a shield-like object, never meant for war but for ceremony, suggests the four quadrants of the Mexica world in almost unimaginable detail.
Beside the disc is a finely made atlatl, or spear thrower, a small device a hunter or warrior could use to project his weapon great distances towards his target. Such weapons were commonly included in religious and royal iconography and this one appears to be uncommonly well made.
Highly significant but at the same time quite reluctant to offer any definitive clue as to it’s significance, the painstakingly inlaid double headed serpent represents the pride of the nine Mexica Mosaics in the British Museum.
The skill and craftsmanship involved in making and detailing this object is breathtaking to think about and due to it’s uniqueness it might be considered one of the most important pieces in the museum’s entire collection.
See you again for another Adventure in Historyland. Josh.
Gabriele Esposito takes a brief look into the armies of the Boshin War and Satsuma Rebellion in Osprey’s latest Men-at-Arms title.
The author is nothing if not flexible in his subjects, Esposito has covered topics as varied as roman legions, South American proto-Armies and now he has moved to japan.
The necessary overview of the years following the Perry expedition is fairly by the numbers and too simplistic regarding a massively complicated political situation to be terribly diverting.
That being said, except for making the faux pas of acknowledging bushido on a number of occasions as the ancient martial code of Japan before Inazo Nitobe invented the concept, he is only guilty only of being a tad derivative.
Nevertheless we must remember that the book is small and strictly military and the subject is ten times more vast, especially to an author who is inexperienced in the field of late Edo period Japanese history.
That is probably the main letdown of this book; it tries to cover the armies of two wars. This is often possible with MaA titles but with this one it’s difficult.
For instance, it is quite possible to do a small Osprey book about the Boer Wars (as has been done) because by and large it’s easy to keep track of the basic organisation and look of the armies.
But the Boshin war alone you are dealing with at least five main military groups (not counting the armies of lesser domains and ronin groups) with attendant ‘regular/disciplined corps,’ old fashioned feudal militias, rebels, and police units, artillery, some cavalry and naval forces.
All of whom differed from the other in some way or another in size, organisation, equipment and uniform, if they wore one. By the time of the Satsuma Rebellion, a measure of simplification had entered the picture, but not enough to simplify the matter.
As a result this title probably should have been made into two titles, Japanese Armies of the 19th century (1) The Boshin War, etc.
The sections dealing with the armies are interesting for the brief but often useful surveys of various armies, as all MaA’s are, while at the same time being slightly irritating because of the necessary brevity.
Usually one would go to the bibliography to see if these gaps could be filled in yourself. Here we can see that the author has offered a ‘select’ list.
The list, select as it is, can be observed as numbering quite enough material to write this entire book from, and speaking from experience I must cautiously ponder if the author has suggested all the pertinent and necessary books one needs to understand the socio-political-military events at hand.
It does nevertheless include a handful of works that are necessary to study early modern Japanese armies, and which due to their scarcity command crippling prices for hobbyists and non-scholarly writers is another attraction of this book, being an affordable reference to people looking for a window into the military side of these wars.
Men-at-Arms titles have traditionally been focused on brief surveys of the conflicts at hand, followed by hefty plate commentary. In the early days half of the book could be taken up by the description of the artwork. Today about 4 pages at the end comprise this element.
This book tries to balance two fairly broad and lengthier sections of background history and then further tries to summarise the organisation of some of the main factions. In former times larger books, from the Warrior and Elite series’ would be the ones that focused on organisation, leaving Men-at-Arms to focus on uniforms and weapons of a specific war.
In terms of the plates there is little to be complained about, Giuseppe Rava has painted some highly skilful pictures, filled with his usual eye for moment, atmosphere and action, with a good splash of his trademark weapon towards the viewer dynamism.
Interestingly at least 90% of the images reproduced here come from ‘public domain/Wikipedia.’ These easily viewable pictures are of course fascinating, but they are equally intriguing because I wasn’t aware that publishers like Osprey encouraged authors to utilise Wikipedia as an image source.
The commentary fills in a few of the gaps left in the main text, but I don’t doubt that many will raise eyebrows at the picture of a Rebel Satsuma samurai in full armour when despite some paintings at the time, armour had more or less become uncommon on the battlefield.
Not only that but I suspect that the subject is wearing a form of 12th century Ō-yoroi harness, common during the Gempei War, at a time when the armour of the Sengoko Jidai (the last period in which battle armour was widely worn for combat) would have been considered heirlooms.
Another thought that crossed my mind was that although the commentary tells us a little information about the forces of Aidzu, there is no representation of them, nor of Tosa. It also could have been a missed opportunity to depict officers of Tosa and Chōsū wearing the distinctive Shaguma headdress rather than giving it to a member of the Shinsengumi only.
This period was a formative time for the Japanese army. It was indeed it’s birth, a look at the roster of general officers from the Boshin War to the First World War will reveal a great number of them with connections to the southern clans who’s modernised armies formed the bedrock of the imperial faction.
As a reference book, this will be a handy and engaging one to have, but with the knowledge that it is necessarily limited in it’s level of detail and may not have a great deal to offer for a reader that is already well versed in the early military history of Japan.
Ian Castle sets out to show how the Fennimore Cooper version of the siege of Fort William Henry strayed from the truth and has altered how we perceive the siege today.
He is much more prone to examining excesses of wilderness warfare as massacres, and is more anglocentric, unlike Chartrande who tries to find a balance and is much more cautious about what the Anglo American’s called a massacre.
At the end of 1755 Fort Beauséjour, in the east, had fallen to Moncton, but Braddock was dead on the Monongahela and the acting British commander in chief had stalled at Oswego.
Johnson had held on at Lake George, building Fort William Henry as a bulwark. Castle describes this often overlooked campaign well and presents the French commander, Dieskau, as unlucky rather than inept.
As usual the European dependence on their native allies becomes very obvious, and certainly the French felt they could not fight without them. Once more the French brought a massive array of tribes with them, some quite unknown to the British, so well respected were the French at this point of the war.
British by comparison had no true tribal support after Lake George when even the Mohawks, who took heavy casualties there, shied away from support and Rangers had to be resorted to for scouting and raiding.
With both sides eyeing up the vital Lake George corridor as a means to strike into each other’s territory, the French landed the first blow, destroying Oswego and placing the British squarely on the defensive.
The resultant descent by the Marquis de Montcalm on Fort William Henry became the most celebrated and infamous event in the French and Indian War.
A six day siege ended with the surrender of the fort and the negligent abandonment of the British prisoners to the anger of Montcalm’s irritated warriors.
In this most controversial moment of the campaign, the author shows us that this was hardly the massacre of lore, even though for a brief period on the last day a sudden explosion of violence broke out and could not be immediately stopped resulting in the murder of many helpless soldiers and civilians.
Full spread artwork is offered by Graham Turner, who creates three especially good pieces. The French line at Lake George and the image of the massacre are particularly good.
The book is detailed and effectively brings the subject to the reader in an accessible way. Although too focused on explaining the rights, wrongs and massacres of the event and reliant on mostly English sources, the author brings a heartening dose of sober observation to a still fraught subject.
Explaining as he does the operation which brought Montcalm ever higher in the estimation of later historians and once more proved the superiority of the French and Canadian, Allied military synthesis.
The Royal Game of Ur, also known as the Game of 20 Squares has been found in the tombs of Pharaoh’s and Kings. It was scratched into the walls of palaces so guards could pass the time, and you can play it too.
Thanks to the work of Professor Irving Finkel the rules of he game were discovered and translated, making it the oldest game in the world with an accompanying set of rules known to refer to it.
There are lots of versions for sale online, but allot are quite expensive. So I made my own. I visited the British museum, did some research, and then created a portable version of the game that double’s as a useful tote bag.
I hope you enjoy the video, please support the channel if you can. And I’ll see you next time for another Adventure in Historyland.
One of the reasons Historyland has had much less article content and has fallen dramatically back onto book reviews is because I’ve had no time to research or write blog content.
For the last year I’ve been occupied in a the completion of fond and long held dream; writing my own book. Last week I finally revealed the proposed cover art. There is still work to be done to get it ready for you but I’m very pleased with it.
‘Bullocks, Grain and Good Madeira,’ will be published by Helion and Co during the second half of 2020 , at the moment it is tentatively slated for November.
In the early part of the 19th century British Army’s in India operated on three main resources, Bullocks, Grain and large quantities of alcohol, often Madeira for Staff. The book tells the story of the 2nd Maratha War and the campaign against the Jat kingdom of Bharatpur.
Driven by first hand accounts, the book will present the Maratha army as it was, not a walkover but a formidably organised and equipped foe, equal but no longer as effective to the Native infantry of the East India Company.
A great motive for starting was the common perception that the armies opposing the EIC were poor things in comparison to European armies. In writing the book, I discovered great swathes of information, regarding the war in it’s entirety and it’s aftermath, that have not been made widely available.
A host of personal stories came to light as well, some familiar and others less so, but all offering the opportunity to see this conflict as an example of Indian warfare at it’s toughest.
As it stands of this moment, BGGM (AKA Project Begum as I codename it) will be available by the end of 2020. It will be illustrated by the wonderful brush of Christa Hook, an artist whose work I have loved since I first saw it in the Osprey Campaign book about Corunna.
I hope you like the cover, and I hope you’ll buy the book when it comes out. There will be more on this in the future, plus perhaps some content on how I went about writing it.
See you soon for another Adventure in Historyland, Josh.
British plans to break New France in 1755 by seizing the Ohio, securing Lake George and capturing Cape Breton Island ended unevenly.
The total defeat of General Braddock’s Ohio column was offset by the success of militia forces on the eastern seaboard in Acadia, while a stalemate along the Hudson valley balanced the scale.
To French minds delay meant defeat for the Anglo-Americans and so they could take heart from the start of the war. Their job was now to hang on to Canada until French forces in Europe could defeat the allied coalition.
Believing that attack was the best defence French planners in Canada began preparing strikes against the British frontier.
René Chartrand shines a spotlight on a neglected precourser to Montcalm’s capture of Fort William Henry in 1757, which allowed French forces to shift towards Crown Point and Ticonderoga.
The basis of which, for a moment, seemed to look set to create the platform upon which the French could climb to victory.
The target was Oswego, a strong but isolated British fort on Lake Ontario and a ripe target for the sort of large scale raid the French excelled at, only this time the French field commander, the Marquis de Montcalm, would do it on a much larger scale.
As the war became official an early influx of money and troops had come in from France, enhancing the military capacity of Canada. This allowed the French to bolster their defences and as a result, mount large scale operations into enemy territory.
In 1756 Montcalm took 3,000 men and artillery down the St Lawrence and across Lake Ontario to begin the process of pushing back the British Frontier.
Chartrand uses this campaign as an example of the largest and most dramatic instance of the Franco/Indian/Canadian raiding system.
A synthesis at its most extreme of the wilderness petit guerre mixed with European conventional scientific warfare.
Within the confines of this book, which is a Raid title and so is constrained by space and theme the campaign and the clash of personality between Governor Vaudreuill and the Marquis de Montcalm is explained, as is the situation after the fall of Oswego.
Despite an initially gallant defence by the British, this proved an entirely successful operation and a convincing victory was gained.
This book with typical concise but remarkably detailed analysis widens the appreciation of how French strategy took a sudden and more offensive turn, trying to create a buffer zone within enemy territory that could be defended until victory was gained in Europe and delayed the final British Invasion of Canada by two years.
In terms of subject chronology this Campaign Book, produced by the MilHist fans at Osprey Publishing back in 2004, begins René Chartrand’s examination of wilderness warfare as practiced by the European powers in the French and Indian War.
Chartrand, one of the most scholarly and readable Osprey authors, has written a flock of books on this subject, establishing both a sequential series within a series and his firm belief that the Franco Canadians were the masters of warfare in America as it should be fought, all based on archival sources.
The book is insightful and at the same time sticks to an established narrative that is easy to follow, the author is the master of giving a relatable account spiced with the right sources at the right time to briefly support his thesis.
Chartrand sets the scene with a sharp eyed appraisal of two European powers that dominated eastern North America, who for the last century and a quarter had been involved in official and unofficial political violence with each other, mostly over the resources of the land in question and often because of political events in Europe.
By 1755 an increasingly large and expanding Anglo American population was pressing across the Allegheny’s in search of new opportunities. The Ohio valley was important to France as the quickest conduit to Louisiana territory. Anglo American interference would threaten communications between north and south and even jeapordise native allies.
Chartrand believes the great strength of French colonial administration was its attitude to indigenous tribes. Although by the time of the ‘seven years war’ their mastery of native diplomacy was being challenged, the French (at higher levels) treated the tribes as allies and went to great pains to maintain friendly relations with them.
The French entertained the greatest network of native alliances and dialogues of any of the European powers. The reason was largely because this allowed their trappers free access to the fur trade which was the life blood of the French overseas empire.
The tribes, save the bulk of the Iroquois who had a long running feud with Onontio (the French Governor General,) for their part preferred the French system because unlike the agrarian minded Anglo American’s the Franco Canadians did not eat up land like a wildfire. They claimed land like all the other foreigners but didn’t occupy it in the same way.
As an extreme example of both this policy and the importance of the Ohio, Chartrand tells of when the Miami village at Pickawillany, feeling growing British influence in the area raised a Union Jack in 1759, and a Franco Canadian raiding party destroyed it that summer to show the allied tribes that they need not fear British expansion.
Few will be surprised to read how events led to conflict in the Ohio during the late 1740’s, as the French made expeditions to claim the area and then placed quickly constructed forts at key river forks and portages. These became the focus of outrage for the larger and more belligerent States along the eastern seaboard.
With New England, New York, Virginia and Pennsylvania all determined to gain traction west of the Allegheny barrier. The rejection of a notice of eviction to the French in the Ohio was enough for Virginia Governor Dinwiddie to attempt to seize the Forks of the Ohio where the French had built Fort Duquesne.
In all his books Chartrand offers a Francophile standpoint without excluding the English sources. This is why this series of books is so valuable in a field so saturated with English viewpoints, the very name of the conflict, ‘the French and indian war’ is very telling if you choose to look into it.
The book separates the campaign into two sections, George Washington’s engagement at Fort Necessity and the action on the banks of the Monongahela. The book demonstrates just how dominant the French/Canadian/Indian mode of warfare was by this stage.
The engagement at Fort Necessity is seen as nothing short of disastrous for Washington. Almost nothing redeemable can be said about it. The French and Indians surrounded the pitiful fort, subdued the garrison with musketry and got the enemy to agree to capitulate, aknowedging French sovereignty over the Ohio and responsibility for Washington’s reprehensible ambush of a French emissary, which started the shooting war.
The main fight on 9 July 1755 was a typical wilderness ambush and battle in all respects, only on a larger scale than usual, it’s start seemed to show a lack of pre-planning but the response to an initial check saved the day, although the French didn’t have the men (many of their allies had gone home) to pursue, the battle cost the British some 800-1,000 men, their guns and allot of equipment.
Accompanied by good maps, interesting photographs and lively colour plates Chartrand illustrates the strengths and weaknesses of the French synthesis of European and Indigenous modes of warfare which allowed them to stave off defeat time and time again. Readers will find it interesting to note just how dependent the French and Canadians (and indeed the British) were on their allies.
Monongahela also introduces a reader to many fascinating figures, both well known and obscure. The commanders in the French Ohio should read as a list of who’s who of frontier officer’s but few are well, if at all, known today. Most interesting is Charles Michel Langlade who Chartrand suggests was a driving force behind the victory. War chiefs like Pontiac might even have been present in the 1755 fight.
This book is a highly interesting and useful survey of early British strategy in the French and Indian War, giving an authentic and sensible appraisal of the forces engaged.