1779: ENGLAND INVADED
A reader of modern history, at least as it has been written in the English language, finds France the perennial runner-up to Britain in the contest for global supremacy. This was especially the case in the competition for colonies. Especially after the Seven Years' War (1756-1763), and the loss of its territories in Canada and India, France never quite recovered.
To many historians this seems inevitable. Unlike maritime-oriented Britain, France was forever divided between its ambitions to be a land power and a sea power (which, more than Britain, also happened to be divided between the Atlantic and Mediterranean, with British-held Gibraltar in between the two). It could be one or the other, but did not have the preponderance of power that would permit it to be both.
However, that view should be refined. As France demonstrated, it was capable of being both a preponderant land power, and a major naval power, second only to Britain. What it could not do was be a land power able to dominate the continent, and a naval power able to defeat Britain, at the same time. France's most successful naval-colonial challenge to Britain in the history of their competition, which came during the American Revolutionary War, demonstrates the point; historians commonly attribute French success on this point to France's rare opportunity, undistracted by a land war on the continent, to concentrate on its navy.
Of course, France's gambit was not decisive. Britain recovered from the loss of its colonies on the eastern seaboard of North America, and went on to be the greatest power in the world during the nineteenth century. Nonetheless, there was a moment during the Revolutionary War when a fundamental alteration to the terms of the Franco-British conflict would have been plausible, generally overlooked in the focus on events in eastern North America--specifically, the armada of 1779, the Franco-Spanish attempt to invade England that year.
Their effort, in retrospect, looks like an exercise in Clausewitzian friction, undermined not only by continually changing objectives, but breakdowns in communication, a smallpox outbreak and even ill winds that delayed an undermanned and underprovisioned operation until it was finally forced to retreat. However, with the British navy in comparative disarray, and concentrated far from home in American and West Indian waters, Britain was truly vulnerable at the time, and though the French command failed to recognize this, the invasion force could actually have crossed the Channel unopposed that summer. It would have been enough to land the invasion force, against which Britain was ill-equipped to defend itself, and that the French might have pulled it off with a little luck is rather easier to picture than the much-talked about idea of a haphazard Nazi invasion of Britain in 1940.
It seems almost certain that Britain would not simply have become a province of France. The United Kingdom was too large, too populous, and with too strong a sense of its own identity to be effectively submerged within a Greater France, an event even less plausible than its becoming part of the Dutch Empire after the invasion of the country by William III in 1688.
Nonetheless, a protracted French occupation of British territory is conceivable, as are crushing peace terms. First and foremost, the American Revolutionaries would not have been content to trade British dominion for French rule, and it is likely they would have received their independence in this timeline, as they did in our own. Nonetheless, it is plausible that France might have recovered Quebec, and perhaps even extended its earlier position in Canada.
It is also conceivable that the French would have sought to strip Britain of other colonial possessions--its valuable West Indies territories, like Jamaica and the Antilles, for instance; as well as its position in the Indian subcontinent, which was the foundation for what would later become the British Raj. France could have gone even further, insisting on Britain's letting go Ireland, and even if the Jacobite cause had been dead for over a generation, Scotland as well.
Equally conceivable is the exaction of a large indemnity from Britain (which was already in a financially precarious position, due to the massive public debt it had already amassed, often estimated to be more than twice the country's Gross Domestic Product), aimed at keeping Britain down as well as refilling the French treasury. Added to these might have been formal restrictions on Britain's development of its naval might, such as a limit to the size of the Royal Navy, further enforced by a confiscation of British vessels, and perhaps a dismantling (or cession) of some of its shipbuilding and port facilities.
With Britain stripped of crucial colonies, and burdened by these exactions and restrictions, it is plausible that the country would have been greatly weakened in the long term. The deprivation of the United Kingdom of Scotland and Ireland would only have added to this, especially if an independent Scotland resurrected the "Old Alliance" with France (forcing England to look to defending itself by land as well as sea), and Ireland became a French or Spanish satellite, and base for potential operations against England from the west.
Admittedly the European balance of power may have been an obstacle here, but it is open to question just how far land-oriented Prussia, Austria and Russia would have gone to limit France's gains--especially with Spain on France's side, claiming its own share of the spoils, which might have included Gibraltar, and some of Britain's Caribbean possessions.
Britain's loss could have been France's gain. Not only would France have now ruled over many British territories, with all the economic benefits they offered, and cleared the way to the acquisition of more, but France would no longer have had to contend with a key opponent to its continental expansion as well. France's old pattern of aggrandizement in the Low Countries, the Rhineland, and northern Italy may well have been strengthened, broadening the country's economic, demographic, resource and territorial base in this way as well, and reinforcing its new strategic position.
This immediately raises a number of compelling questions. With a vast new colonial empire generating additional profits, and British money flowing into the French treasury, might the French government have avoided the financial crisis of the late 1780s? What would a crippled Britain and a stronger France have meant if the Revolution--and the rise of Napoleon--happened as they did anyway?
The second-order questions become only more staggering. What, for instance, would this changed situation have meant for the British-based Industrial Revolution, and more broadly, the collapse of the Old Regime across Europe? What would it have meant for the unification of Germany, and the development of the United States, in the way of the westward expansion of which its Louisiana colony would have stood? For the history of Latin America, where the weakening of Spanish control during the Napoleonic Wars (and the Royal Navy's control over the Atlantic) helped pave the way for successful rebellions in Spain's New World colonies?
Perhaps imperial overstretch would have set in early, such an agenda being overambitious, the counter-pressure against French ambitions immense, even without a British recovery. This would have made France's dominion brief, but the nineteenth century might also have ended up a French century, running along a sufficiently different course as to render our own timeline scarcely recognizable.