John Byng

(1704—1757) naval officer

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British admiral, the fourth son of George Byng, Viscount Torrington and admiral of the fleet. With his father's influence to help him he quickly reached flag rank though without any real experience of command. At the outbreak of the Seven Years War (1756–63), he was given command of a fleet to support British forces in the island of Minorca, then under siege by the French. He was delayed at Gibraltar by arguments with the governor, and on arrival off Minorca found the island held by the French but with the English garrison holding out in Port Mahon. He fought an indecisive action against the French fleet which was covering the French invasion, but four days later, after a council of war, returned to Gibraltar and left Port Mahon to its fate. He was arrested and brought back to England, where he was court-martialled on a charge of failing to do his utmost to save the island. He was found guilty and sentenced to death. A recommendation for mercy was refused, probably because the government needed a political scapegoat for the defeat. He was shot on the quarterdeck of HMS Monarch on 14 March 1757 and his execution inspired Voltaire's remark in Candide that in England it was sometimes necessary to shoot an admiral ‘pour encourager les autres’.

Subjects: Maritime History — British History.

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