Today, Jeffery Amherst is remembered for a deplorable proposal. In an exchange of letters written during Pontiac’s Rebellion in 1763, Amherst suggested that British soldiers use contaminated blankets to pass the deadly smallpox virus to the Delaware and Shawnee Indians surrounding Fort Pitt. (In fact, soldiers at the fort had already taken that action, with uncertain success—an example of the pervasive use of deliberate smallpox contagion as a tactic of war explored by Elizabeth A. Fenn.) Amherst’s embrace of biological warfare has become notorious, prompting movements to rename Amherst College, which took its name from the Massachusetts town named in honor of the general in 1759.
Yet when Reynolds’s portrait was first exhibited in London in 1766, most viewers would have thought differently of the sitter. The British public knew Amherst as a merciful conqueror who had achieved the largely bloodless surrender of New France through a masterfully planned three-pronged invasion and then treated the inhabitants of Montreal with compassion. Francis Hayman’s monumental painting The Charity of General Amherst (1760–61, lost), seen by thousands of visitors to the rotunda saloon at London’s Vauxhall Gardens, presented the war hero distributing bread to the starving women, children, and elderly inhabitants of Montreal.
Reynolds, too, alludes to Amherst’s Canadian triumph, by presenting the general wearing the ribbon and star of the Order of the Bath that he received for the victory, including a map of Montreal annotated with the 1760 maneuvers; and depicting in the background Amherst’s battalion traversing the final, treacherous series of rapids at the Cascades of the Saint Lawrence River in whaleboats—led by Iroquois guides in canoes.