29th October 1704. To Encourage the Others.
Admiral John Byng was the son of George Byng, Viscount Torrington, his promotion, he was a captain at 23, being due to his father’s influence also an admiral. Baptised Today in 1704, 53 years later in March 1757, John was shot on the quarter-deck of his flag ship, HMS Monarch for failing to do his duty.(1)
Minorca’s deep-water port of Mahon was a strategic Mediterranean haven in the 18th century, and Byng had been sent in April to relieve the garrison at Fort St Michael then besieged by the French.(2)
To this end he was to carry 700 troops from Gibraltar to Port Mahon, but in the meantime the French had landed a force and were besieging the Fort. A subsequent Council of War convened by Byng decided against committing more troops and dispatched a letter home to this effect.
So having arrived at the island on May 9th 1756, he left the region without landing reinforcements and without blockading the French line between Toulon and Minorca.
King George II was not best pleased: ‘this man will not fight’ and after in June Minorca had surrendered, Byng was summoned home and arrested destined to be the scapegoat.
Mobs went round shouting, ‘swing, swing, Admiral Byng’, who was charged with ‘failing to do his utmost’.
Captain Augustus Hervey described the sad state of Byng’s squadron, the senseless orders to relieve Fort St Philip, patrol the high seas and protect Gibraltar-all at the same time.(3)
In the British Fleet there was a sense of injustice and Hervey supported Byng throughout his trial, believing more famous men were protecting themselves.
Voltaire later in his satirical novel Candide viewed the shooting of Byng as serving as a warning to his colleagues (pour encourager les autres).
The execution of the Admiral might be construed as too severe a reading of the 1749 amended Articles of War, after our defeat at the Battle of Toulon which were aimed to ensure officers couldn’t evade responsibility for their actions, certainly by pulling strings.
However after this inglorious start to The Seven Years’ War (1756-63) in the conflict between Britain and France for overseas supremacy we did under Wolfe and Clive destroy French influence in America and India.
Britain also won Martinique, St Lucia, St, Vincent, Grenada, Tobago, Havana, Manila, some of which was later returned to the French and Spanish.
Recent petitions, by relatives, for a pardon for Byng have fallen on deaf ears.
(1) It was traditional to quote baptismal date as opposed to birth date. He was shot on 14th March.
(2) Or Menorca.
(3) Hervey was later Earl of Bristol.
telegraph.co.uk/Family Hope for Pardon. Jasper Copping.23.6.2013/Pic.
theguardian.com.Bates and Norton-Taylor. 15.3.2007.
historytoday.V 57 Iss 3. 3.3.2007. Richard Cavendish.