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The historian, John Richard Green, in his discussion on the The Seven Years War, wrote, "No war has had greater results on the history of the world or brought greater triumphs to England; but few had more disastrous beginnings."1 One of the opening events, to which Green referred, was the loss to England of Minorca. Though the conclusion to be reached, on a reading of the history of this event, likely would be different today, England, at the time, laid the blame for the loss on the English admiral who was suppose to have been its rescuer.

Admiral John Byng (1704-57) was the son of a English admiral, George Byng (1663-1733). George Byng was a gallant officer, who, among his many accomplishments had captured Gibraltar for England in 1704. His son, John, it should come as no surprise, at the tender age of fourteen years, was placed in the navy's care. John progressed in the British Royal navy to the point where, as a rear-admiral, in 1745, he was in charge of the Mediterranean fleet.2

As for Minorca: it is one of the Mediterranean islands off the eastern coast of Spain (Islas Baleares). Minorca was taken3 by the English during The War of the Spanish Succession (1702-13), the same war that saw George Byng capture Gibraltar in 1704. It was necessary, if England was to have influence in that great and ancient trading pond, that she should have her own naval bases strategically located in the Mediterranean: these were to be Gibraltar and Minorca. With the outbreak of the Seven Year's War (1756-1763) the English became immediately concerned that it should strengthen its Mediterranean bases. John Byng was raised to a full admiral and dispatched to the Mediterranean to bolster Minorca. Minorca, however, was surrounded by a French naval fleet under Galissonniere. The job, well understood by Byng, was to cut through the French naval line and to get into Port Mahon, and thus to be in a safe position to put the supplies and troops ashore.

Chambers Biographical Dictionary sets forth a concise statement as to what happened:

"... [Byng] gave the signal to engage the enemy's fleet. The van under Rear-admiral West at once attacked, but the rear, under Byng, got into some disorder and hardly came within gunshot. The van suffered great loss, and Byng sailed away to Gibraltar and left Minorca to its fate. In England the public was furious, and Byng was brought home under arrest. Acquitted of cowardice or disaffection, he was found guilty of neglect of duty ..."4
Minorca's fate, was, that it was to be captured by the French in June of 1756. As for Byng: though mercy had been recommended, the authorities felt they had to account somehow for the loss of their valuable naval base in the Mediterranean, so, -- Admiral Byng was brought down to Portsmouth; and, on March 14th, 1757, he was ceremoniously shot dead on the quarter deck of His Majesty's Ship, the 74 gun ship Monarch, as she lay riding at her anchor in Portsmouth Harbour.5


[1] See Green's work, History of the English People, vol. ix, p. 224.

[2] See Chambers Biographical Dictionary.

[3] Port Mahon in the Island of Minorca was taken by the British in September of 1708. (Trevelyan's England Under Queen Anne, vol. 2, p. 374.)

[4] The proper conclusion is that Byng was sent with "a poorly equipped squadron."

[5] Additional reading on this sad event in history is to be had in von Ruville's biography on Pitt (London: Heinemann, 1907) vol. 2, pp. 28-33, pp. 97-106, pp. 114-5 & p. 149.


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Peter Landry
2012 (2020)