Shot to death on board the Monarque, at Spithead, for Misbehaviour before the French Fleet in the Mediterranean
THIS unfortunate victim to popular clamour, and political intrigue, was the second son of George Byng, a distinguished naval commander, in the reign of George the second, who, in reward for his brilliant services, was elevated to the peerage in 1721, by the titles of Baron Byng, and Viscount Torrington. John Byng, the subject of this memoir, was brought up to his father's profession from his earliest youth, and up to the time of his embarking in the expedition to Minorca, which covered his character with disgrace, and consigned him to an ignominious death, was generally esteemed as one of the best officers in the navy.
During the latter years of George the Second's reign, England was involved in a war with France, and the weak and impotent administration who then directed the royal councils, evinced their utter incapacity for the important duties which devolved upon them, by their inability to check the alarming encroachments of the French. In addition to great losses and disasters inflicted upon our American colonies, the enemy had made great havock upon our commerce in the Mediterranean and other parts. The city of London presented a petition and remonstrance to the king, in which the ministry was very roughly handled, and the example of the metropolis was extensively followed by many other portions of the empire, but the ministers still remained in office.
In this agitated state of affairs, Admiral Byng was appointed to the command of a fleet consisting of ten ships, with which force he was to sail immediately to Gibraltar, where he was to land a reinforcement for the garrison, and then to pursue the French fleet, which it was supposed had been destined for North America. At Gibraltar the Admiral learnt that the French fleet, consisting of thirteen ships of the line, and a great number of transports, with 15,000 troops on board, had sailed from Toulon, and made a descent on Minorca, and were in possession of the whole of the island, except the fortress and castle of St. Philip, into which the commandant, General Blakeney, had retired with a very small force, and remained closely besieged by the French troops under the command of the Duke de Richelieu.
In communicating to the Lords of the Admiralty this intelligence, Admiral Byng took occasion to make some very severe remarks, not only on the wretched condition of the ships under his command, but also on the neglected state of the magazines and store-houses at Gibraltar, and the utter want of wharfs and docks in which he might repair and refit the fleet. To this he added, that the engineers and artillery men, then in Gibraltar, who had been at Minorca, were decidedly of opinion that no effectual assistance could be rendered to the British forces then defending the fortress of St. Philip, and in this opinion he expressed his concurrence.
This impolitic and ill-timed communication, no doubt had considerable influence on the spirit in which the transactions, wherein his fate was subsequently involved, were conducted. The first part of his letter was a palpable impeachment of the ministry, under whose orders he was acting; and the second seemed framed for the sole purpose of preparing them for the disasters which so quickly followed.
Having refitted, and taken on board a reinforcement from the garrison, he sailed from Gibraltar, on the 8th of May, 1756, and was joined off Minorca by the Phcenix. On approaching land, the British flag was seen still flying on the castle of St. Philip, on which, however, a tremendous bombardment was kept up from several batteries over which the French flag waved. Admiral Byng attempted to open a communication with the shore, but before this could be effected, the French fleet, consisting of thirteen large ships of war and four small vessels, appeared in sight, it being then about six o'clock in the evening. During the night the fleets separated, but about two the next day, they again came into contact, and the line of battle was formed on both sides. Rear- Admiral West attacked the enemy with great courage and impetuosity, broke through their line, and disabled the ships opposed to him. Admiral Byng, however, who had confused the rear-admiral by contradictory orders, most cautiously kept out of the engagement, and when urged by his captain to bear down upon the enemy and carry on the engagement, very coolly declined doing so, except with the whole line of ships. The French admiral, though possessed of greater force, but already somewhat worsted, seemed equally disinclined to carry on the battle, took advantage of Admiral Byng's indecision, and edged off. The English gave chase, but were outsailed by the French, and on the following morning the enemy's fleet was quite out of sight.
After this unsatisfactory engagement, which had commenced with such advantages on our part, the admiral called a council of war, in which it was agreed to abandon Minorca to its fate, and to return with the fleet to Gibraltar. The French redoubled their exertions against the fortress of St. Philip, and after several unsuccessful attempts, in which they were repulsed with great loss, by the brave but scanty troops under the command of General Blakeney, ultimately succeeded in carrying the outworks by storm. The general finding himself cut off from all hope of relief from the fleet, the fortress surrounded by batteries of the most destructive power, and the whole island in the undisputed possession of the enemy, was at length compelled to surrender, and the Duke de Richelieu, in consideration of the bravery of the defence, concluded an honourable capitulalion, in which it was agreed that the garrison should march out with the honours of war, and be conveyed to Gibraltar in French vessels.
Admiral Byng's letter announcing the engagement and its issue, excited the strongest possible disappointment and indignation. It was not made public till some days after its arrival; but when published, every expression tending in any way to cast blame on the ministers was carefully expunged. Their object was accomplished to the full; the public mind took fire, and the rage and clamour against the admiral was unbounded. This feeling was artfully fomented by hired emissaries, who were sent into all classes of society and places of amusement to denounce the offender, and mobs were actually hired to hang and burn him in effigy.
Sir Edward Hawke was sent out to supersede the unfortunate admiral, who was brought home under arrest, and on his arrival committed a close prisoner to an apartment in Greenwich Hospital. On his own part, he was actuated by a consciousness of having done his duty, and anxious for an opportunity of justifying himself before a Court Martial.
On the meeting of Parliament Admiral Boscawen informed the House that the King and the Board of Admiralty being dissatisfied with the conduct of Admiral Byng, in a late action with the French fleet in the Mediterranean, he was in custody in order to take his trial. This communication was deemed to be necessary as a mark of respect to the House of Commons, of which Admiral Byng was a member, and to account for the absence of that officer from his duties in the House.
The 28th December being fixed for the trial, the Court martial assembled on board the St. George, at Portsmouth. admiral Byng was escorted from Greenwich by a strong party of the Horse Guards, and throughout the whole line of the road was violently insulted by the people of every town and village through which the cavalcade passed.
The sitting of the court continued for several days, and after a laborious investigation of the evidence, determined that during the engagement with the French fleet, Admiral Byng did not do his utmost to take, seize, and destroy the ships and vessels of the French king, nor to assist such of His Majesty's as were engaged in so doing; and that he did not exert his utmost power for the relief of the castle of St. Philip. All which being in breach of the 12th article of the Laws for the Government of His Majesty's Navy, and the said laws prescribing death for such dereliction of duty, the court adjudged the said Admiral Byng to be shot to death, at such time, and on board such ship, as the Lords of the Admiralty should direct. But inasmuch as he had shown neither disaffection nor want of personal courage, the court unanimously and earnestly recommended him to mercy.
During the trial he behaved with a cheerful composure, which only resulted from a consciousness of innocence. So strong indeed was his confidence of receiving full and honourable acquittal, that after he had finished his defence be ordered his carriage to be in readiness to convey him to London.
When he became acquainted with the fatal decision of the court, he expressed the strongest feelings of surprise and indignation, but he showed nothing like fear or confusion. Many members of the court overcome by grief and trepidation, actually shed tears; but the victim of their judgment heard his doom without the alteration of a single feature, and making a low obeisance to the court retired.
Strong efforts were used to save the unhappy individual from his impending fate. The Lords of the Admiralty forwarded to the King the recommendation of the Court Martial to mercy, accompanied by one from themselves, in which they urged strong doubts of the legality of the sentence which had been passed. A petition was also presented by Lord Torrington, and other relations and friends of the unhappy convict also used their best exertions in his behalf. So strong and so numerous were the appeals for mercy, that hopes were entertained of its prevailing; but infamous arts were used to whet the savage appetite of the multitude for blood, and the cruel faction ultimately succeeded.
The cry of vengeance was loud throughout the land; sullen clouds of suspicion and malevolence interposing, to obstruct the genial influence of the most enviable prerogative that apper tains to the throne. The Sovereign was given to understand that the execution of Admiral Byng was absolutely necessary to appease the fury of the people. His Majesty, in consequence of the representation made by the Lords of the Admiralty, referred the sentence to the consideration of the Twelve Judges, who returned a unanimous opinion that the sentence was legal. This report being transmitted from the privy-council to the Admiralty, their lordships issued a warrant for executing the sentence of death on the twenty- eighth day of February. Admiral Forbes, one of the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty, how ever, refused to sign the warrant, on account of his conscientious scruples of its illegality.
The unfortunate Admiral being thus abandoned to the stroke of justice, prepared himself for death with resignation and tranquillity. He maintained a surprising cheerfulness to the last; nor did he, from his condemnation to his execution, exhibit the least sign of impatience or apprehension. During that interval he had remained on board the Monarque, under a strong guard. On the day fixed for his execution, the boats belonging to the squadron at Spithead being manned and armed, containing their captains and officers, with a detachment of marines, attended this solemnity in the harbour, which was also crowded with an infinite number of other boats and vessels filled with spectators. About noon, the Admiral having taken leave of a clergyman, and two friends who accompanied him, walked out of the great cabin to the quarter- deck, where two files of marines were ready to execute the sentence. He advanced with a firm deliberate step, a composed and resolute countenance, and resolved to suffer with his face uncovered, until his friends, representing that his looks would possibly intimidate the soldiers, and prevent their taking aim properly, he submitted to their request, threw his hat on the deck, kneeled on a cushion, tied one white handkerchief over his eyes, and dropped the other as a signal for his executioners, who fired a volley so decisive, that five balls passed through his body, and he droppcd down dead in an instant. The time in which this tragedy was acted, from his walking out of the cabin to his being deposited in the coffin, did not exceed three minutes.
Thus fell, to the astonishment of all Europe, Admiral John Byng; who, whatever his errors and indiscretions might have been, was at least rashly condemned, meanly given up, and cruelly sacrificed to vile political intrigues.