Byng, John

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Byng, John (1704–57). Byng's naval career got off to a flying start. He was a younger son of Viscount Torrington ( George Byng), the hero of the naval victory over the Spaniards at Cape Passaro and 1st lord of the Admiralty 1727–33. He entered the navy at 14, was present at Cape Passaro, and reached rear admiral in 1745. Six years later he was brought into Parliament as a government supporter for Rochester. On the outbreak of war in 1756 he was dispatched to the Mediterranean with a squadron to protect Minorca, under threat from the French. He found an enemy force landed on the island and a French fleet cruising outside. Byng's ships engaged the enemy but came off worse and Byng retired to Gibraltar, leaving Minorca to its fate. When it surrendered, the outcry was thunderous. Byng was recalled at once, court-martialled, and sentenced to death for not doing his utmost to engage, though with a recommendation to mercy. The recommendation was ignored and he was shot on the quarter-deck of the Monarque in Portsmouth harbour. Byng died with courage and composure and the memorial at Southill insisted that he had been the victim of political persecution. Voltaire's Candide, published in 1759, contained the famous observation that the English liked to shoot an admiral from time to time, pour encourager les autres.

J. A. Cannon

Byng, John

views updated May 18 2018

Byng, John

BYNG, JOHN. (1704–1757). British admiral. The son of Viscount Torrington, a distinguished admiral and first lord of the admiralty, Byng went to sea in 1718 and took part in the battle of Cape Passaro. For almost forty years thereafter, despite war service from 1739 to 1748, he saw no serious action. Personally brave and a good seaman, but lacking battle experience, strategically timid, and prone to shift responsibility, Byng was undoubtedly the wrong man to be sent to relieve the Mediterranean island of Minorca in the spring of 1756. He was also unfortunate. The Admiralty sent him too late and with too few ships, and the governor of Gibraltar deliberately misled him. Although an indecisive battle on 20 May left Byng free to reach Fort St. Phillip, he induced a council of war to advise retreat to Gibraltar. Minorca fell soon after, and Byng was court-martialled. Acquitted of cowardice, he was convicted of negligence and shot on 14 March 1757. Contemporaries thought the verdict justified but the sentence excessive and probably politically motivated. The shadow of Byng therefore hung over the decisions of British admirals for some time.

                          revised by John Oliphant

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John Byng

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