Deadlines for scholarship applications draw quite near. Below is what I sent off to the University of Bristol in hopes of accruing some of those funds.

There is no doubt that the execution of Admiral John Byng created a massive, empire-wide splash in terms of print matter and political debates (perhaps even an international impact, see Voltaire’s Candide). The study of John Byng’s demise, however, has largely been relegated to political or military histories. There has not been a more sincere hermeneutical approach to illuminate the culture that offered up one of its elites in terms of national sacrifice. This dissertation attempts to understand the operative forces surrounding Byng’s execution by focusing on the cultural dynamics of Britain from the early- to mid-eighteenth century. Additionally, by taking a microhistorical approach, two contemporary historical issues will be resolved: unifying the various threads of cultural histories that do exist (i.e., print culture, culture of consumption, etc) into a more coherent whole, and retrieving the elusive voices of Britain’s lower ranks which played a significant role in the anti-Byng demonstrations.

Much of the scholarship surrounding the Byng Affair can be lumped into political or military histories. Thomas Mortimer’s 1766 publication, A New History of England, placed the center of Byng’s demise in the political realm, that the ministry made certain that “no method had been left untried to inflame the nation to a degree of frenzy against him [Byng],” and that Byng’s adversaries “had got the populace on their side…”[1] John Charnock’s Biographia Navalis (1796) proclaimed much the same, that Byng was “cruelly sacrificed to the safety or popularity of men who had no just claim to either.”[2] Robert Beatson in 1804 stated that the ministry’s reaction to the loss of Minorca was “to throw off the blame from themselves, to fix it solely on the unfortunate Admiral…”[3] Julian Corbett and Philip Guedalla explored the battle of Minorca adding to the political discourse a military explanation of John Byng’s actions. Brian Tunstall (1928), Dudley Pope (1962), and Chris Ware (2009) return to politics, blending some military aspects of the Byng Affair in their depictions of this event. The Byng event has received some cultural attention from various historians of late. For example, both Nicholas Rogers and Kathleen Wilson have written about the affair but only in the context of wider concerns toward their publications, thus Byng was relegated within a chapter here, a paragraph there, or a sentence, perhaps, a footnote.[4]

"Byng's Turn to Ride" - Part of a deck of playing cards printed in 1756 to attack the ministry (from the British Museum)

The Byng saga, however, raises a whole host of complex and interwoven issues heretofore severely under investigated. The culture of Empire and the consumptive practices unto which the Empire made possible (for example; surrounding the Byng Affair is the very real capitalistic approach that money could be made through the sale of anti-ministerial and anti-Byng pamphlets, broadsides, coins, playing cards, glassware, and other trinkets), class hierarchies and perceptions (dress, for example played a significant role – Byng’s foppish style did him no favors), intense bouts of national identity (which is what my master’s thesis addressed),[5] a more literate, engaged, and influential populace (see coffee houses, balladeering, etc.), organized versus spontaneous protests (anti-Byng demonstrations took place in Boston. How much of this was spontaneous, how much of the Empire-wide anti-Byng protests were funded?), the rise of Enlightened values coinciding with ardent anti-French expressions (a charge some elites took great pains to avoid – but not Byng), all of these cultural issues (as well as others) need more fleshing out before we can begin to think about how to close the historical chapter on this incident.

Richard D. Brown recently opined that the glory of microhistory “lie in its power to recover and reconstruct past events by exploring and connecting a wide range of data sources so as to produce a contextual, three-dimensional, analytic narrative in which actual people as well as abstract forces shaped events.”[6] Taking Brown’s statement further, what the Byng story begs for is something Joyce Appleby and Lynn Hunt wrote in The Truth About History – “well-documented and coherently argued  interpretations that link internally generated meanings to external behavior.”[7] What I am seeking to do is not only connect the domestic to the international, but the internal cultural and inward motivations of actual historical players and connect it to the external and outward actions thereof. [8]

By using the Byng Affair as a springboard investigating Britain’s developing culture traits during the reign of the first two Georges, I believe that Byng will be found a cultural casualty. Certainly, the rhetoric surrounding the protests against Byng (and the ministers) in 1756-57 will carry near the same message, tenor, and tone later used by American colonialists in the lead up to the Revolutionary War – reinforcing something J. G. A. Pockock once offered, that rebelling American colonialists were fighting more for English liberties than the British themselves.[9] An explanation of this may be found in elite culture. Perhaps cultural blinders prevented Britain’s nobility from understanding both the nature of the spontaneous protest against Byng as well as the aggravated tone emanating from the American colonies only a few years later.

Arguably, the historical political synthesis covering Hanoverian Britain is exhaustive. Cultural investigations, however, are only beginning to emerge. This dissertation seeks to add to this new discourse. The use of Byng as a historically “deviant case”[10] sharpens the focus toward the motives and behaviors of all historical players then present. The outcome then is a more empathetic view of those historical players, seeing the world as they saw it, as they navigated the broader contours of the social and cultural landscapes of their times. By connecting Byng’s micro story to the larger sweeps of macro history, what’s gained is not just a testing of long standing generalizations but newer meanings and complexities of what it meant to be British at the dawning of the Seven Years’ War.


[1] Thomas Mortimer, A New History of England from the Earliest Accounts of Britain, to the Ratification of the Peace of Versailles, 1763, vol. III, (London: 1766), 532.

[2] John Charnock, Biographia Navalis; or Impartial Memoirs of the Lives and Characters of Officers of the Navy of Great Britain, from the Year 1660 to the Present Time; Drawn from the Most Authentic Sources and Disposed in a Chronological Arrangement vol 4 (London: 1794), 176.

[3] Robert Beatson, Naval and Military Memoirs of Great Britain from 1727 to 1783 vol. 1 (London: 1804), 483.

[4] Byng appeared in Rogers’ book exploring crowds and culture, whereas Wilson’s explorations on print culture highlighted Byng. In both books, then, Byng is a means by which to explore more focused ends – not an end of itself. Nicholas Rogers, Crowds, Culture, and Politics in Georgian Britain (New York, London: Oxford University Press, 1998); and Kathleen Wilson, The Sense of the People: Politics, Culture and Imperialism in England, 1715-1785, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995).

[5] Joseph J. Krulder, ‘“More Dangerous Enemies”: The Role of Nationalism in the Execution of Admiral John Byng, 1756-1757,’ (master’s thesis, California State University Chico, 2010. In Chico Digital Repository, http://hdl.handle.net/10211.4/203).

[6] Richard D. Brown, “Microhistory and the Post-Modern Challenge,” Journal of the Early Republic, vol. 23, no. 1 (Spring 2003), 18.

[7] Joyce Appleby, Lynn Hunt, and Margaret Jacob, The Truth About History (New York: W. W. Norton, 1994),  259.

[8] The Byng story begs for the connection between abstract forces and real people. As Peter Burke pointed out in his book What is Cultural History? the great problem to overcome “is [to] analyze the relation between the community and the whole world outside it.” The Byng Affair is not meant to be partitioned as a ‘London-only’ event. This research will undoubtedly reveal that Byng suffered in part because of the state’s inability to keep up with the growth of the Empire and all that this entailed. Peter Burke, What is Culural History? (Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2004), 46.

[9] J. G. A. Pocock, “1776: The Revolution against Parliament,” as found in Three British Revolutions: 1641, 1688, 1776, J. G. A. Pocock, ed., (Princton University Press: 1980), 271-276.

[10] Past microhistorical works based on “deviant cases” are Gene Brucker, Giovanni and Lusanna: Love and Marriage in Renaissance Florence, (University of California Press Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1980); and Carlo Ginzburg, The Cheese and the Worms: The Cosmos of a Sixteenth-Century Miller (1976, English translation, 1980).

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