History has a horrible problem. As Joyce Appleby put it, “there ARE the records of the past and there IS the interpretation of those records. The gap between them is the source of concern.”[1] First of all there are the records themselves. If you’re a historian then you are always aware that there are never enough of them. Records, quite frankly, exists only to survive. Most die the moment they’re created, some will succumb in a week or so, less and less make it past their one year anniversary and then beyond.

There’s also an unstated ranking system concerning these records. I’m always quite a bit surprised at the number of historians who pay so little heed to this fact. Quite often, the only reason one record survived over another is that the surviving record was deemed more important.

But by whom?

Moreover, most reasonable people would admit that the further one goes back into the past, the availability of records decreases due to the ravages of time (war, fire, floods, etc.). Thus the further back a historian goes to search for the past, the fewer surviving documents that historian will encounter. The result is a record whose very survivability carries its own added weight of importance (perhaps even exponentially). In other words, the surviving record’s historical importance becomes much elevated – often times made significantly more important than it would have been at the moment the said document was first created.

Second, there is the interpretation. Making sense of what records contain is one aspect of what a historian does, but then there is also the telling. Let’s face it, the records are scraps and the space between them gaps. Historians interpret not only the scraps but also fill in the gaps. Historians are said then to strive for the truth about the past, usually accomplished through the “democratic practice of truth-seeking,”[2] otherwise known as peer review. But again, the further back one goes in history, the less likely one historian’s work was ever reviewed by any peer prior to publication.

Which raises the third and most significant problem of all: what if that historian of centuries ago was wrong? What happens when that historian’s work survives the ravages of time (war, fire, floods, etc.)? How does such a history appear to us today when, after decade upon decade, that repeated error is retransmitted? Does it transition into repeated truth?

In the case of the Byng affair (1756-1757), some of the first generation, living memory history – or, some of that biased and incorrect history (which began in 1758) – has survived the ravages of time. Byng, as one modern newspaper put it, is still “a byword for cowardice,”[3] despite the overwhelming evidence against this. Using evidence to disprove Byng’s cowardice is relatively easy, it’s available, it can even be Googled; yet, Byng remains a coward because that oft repeated rumor of the first generation of chroniclers shifted into something ingrained, some sort of cultural truth. Further, the tenacity of this errant “truth” yields little, even to the daylight of the most obvious piece of evidence: Byng’s trial where the charge of cowardice was quickly tossed out.[4]

Writing history about Byng in the twenty-first-century requires patience: one, for the want of more records and; two, for sifting and then dodging the untruths of historical interpretations that have somehow morphed into cultural acceptance. With Byng, one takes on an altered reality as these historical untruths remain quite extent.

This plaque was part of a timeline of maritime history at the visitor center near Greenwich Village, London. (May, 2013)

This plaque was part of a timeline of maritime history at the visitor center near Greenwich, London. (May, 2013)

Take for example the following photograph of a plaque as it sat on an historical timeline at the visitor center of Greenwich in London.[5] There are but four sentences comprised of a mere sixty-six words. Every sentence repeats the “cultural truths” yet remains as far from evidentiary reality as any public display of Byng maritime history I had yet encountered. The fact that thousands of visitors per day charted a course past this timeline and thus become exposed to the “cultural truths” of Byng, but not its reality, largely contributes to the continued myth-making of Byng’s mal-legacy.[6]

The plaque claims Byng was charged with “treason.” Admiral Byng was officially charged with cowardice, disaffection, and not doing one’s utmost to defeat the enemy. Though there was initial talk of housing Admiral Byng at London’s famed towers, cooler heads prevailed pointing that it would take a charge of treason to put him there.[7] The irony is rich: because Byng was not charged with treason, a rationale surfaced for housing Byng at the navy hospital at Queen Anne’s court – which the plaque was attempting to lay claim to.

The second sentence claimed that the admiral refused to fight. Astounding since a battle of over four hours took place in which 42 British sailors died and 38 French counterparts did also. Nearly every newspaper in London and throughout the empire reprinted the 26th of June, 1756 edition of the London Gazette which tabulated the number of killed and wounded from each ship. That Byng ordered the engagement was not in question; it was the manner in which the admiral proceeded during and after the battle that was.

The third sentence does hold a kernel of truth, the admiral thought “his forces were not strong enough” to find success against the enemy: however, Admiral Byng was not the only one of this opinion, and any cursory glance at war documents, newspapers, and pamphlets will quickly demonstrate that there were many who chastised the ministry for sending so few ships and in such a retched condition.

More painful is the plaque’s assertion that Byng withdrew from the battle which carries the not so subtle insinuation of cowardice. Any study of the Battle of Minorca will readily reveal that Admiral Galissonière ordered his fleet to pull full sail and withdraw from the engagement once Admiral Byng was able to reform the line (the line broke when the Intrepid lost its main mast). It was the French who withdrew from the fight, not the British. Further, Admiral Byng ordered his squadron to make immediate (though temporary) repairs, converted a frigate into a hospital ship, and remained on station for more than four days thinking the French would return.

The last sentence on the plaque asserts guilt by treason. Byng’s execution was remarkable for the fact that the one charge that stuck was simply not doing one’s utmost: execution for treason is understandable, death by firing squad over something subjective and immeasurable as doing one’s best seemed preposterous then, as it does now.[8]

To the credit of those that oversee such historical representations at the visitor center, changes were eventually made to the plaque at the bequest of the Admiral Byng Committee. The plaque now reads:

Admiral John Byng was held for four months in the Queen Anne Court before his trial for failing to prevent the French capture of Minorca (an important British base) in 1756. Byng tried, but had been given an inadequate squadron for the task and, crucially to his own fate, did not persist. For this he was found guilty of ‘not doing his utmost’ and executed at Portsmouth in 1757.

Though a much better rendition, two errors yet remain: First, 15,000 French troops had landed on Minorca on 17 April 1756 – Byng’s fleet does not enter the Mediterranean until 2nd of May (and does not drop anchor in Gibraltar until the 4th of May). He could not have possibly prevented the capture of Minorca as it was already taken. What Byng failed to do was to land a regiment of either marines (which were refused to him by the commander at Gibraltar) or fuziliers (Lord Bertie’s regiment that were forced upon Byng to make up for the shortage of over 700 sailors when departing Portsmouth in early April. Landing the fuziliers would have rendered Byng’s ability to fight a reappearing French fleet impossible) in support of the British garrison holed up at the castle of Fort St, Philip overlooking Port Mahon. Second, Byng did “persist.” Again, it was Byng’s counterpart, Galissonière, who quit the battle. Byng’s dispatch claimed that some of his squadron gave chase but could not keep pace. The French squadron was a new one, their design was sleeker, and their hulls unencumbered by barnacles or other sea floss. Byng’s fleet, on the other hand, was nowhere nears new (Byng’s flagship, the Ramillies had its keel laid during the reign of Charles II) and had been engaged in maritime exercises the summer and fall of 1755, and thus in a state of semi-disrepair. The battle ended on the 20th of May because the French left. Byng sailed for Gibraltar on the 25th of May because the French did not return to fight anew.[9]

Perhaps the cultural truths made over the course of centuries render it difficult for the Old Royal Navy College to alter the plaque in full. Culture is powerful. There exists an unwanted axiom that historians at times must deal with, that history – or in this case, “truth” – belongs to the winners. Certainly, John Byng did not win the Battle of Minorca, but he did not lose it either.

I am thus forced to ask why this recalcitrance, why the cultural pigeon-holing of Byng as traitor and coward? Perhaps the answer is found in debates over nationalism. Returning to Appleby, nations “use history to build a sense of national identity…”[10]  That Admiral John Byng has remained so long an emblem of cowardice and treason despite the ample evidence that says otherwise, says more about Britain than it does the admiral.


[1] The emphasis is mine. See: Joyce Appleby, Lynn Hunt, and Margaret Jacob, Telling the Truth About History (New York: W. W. Norton, 1994), 248. [2] Appleby, Telling the Truth About History, 285. [3] Jasper Copping, “Executed Byng’s family say he was no coward,” The Sunday Telegraph (June 23, 2013), 16. [4] In fact, nearly all of Byng’s peers who sat in judgment at his court martial balked at the sentence of death. From the Admiralty Board, Admiral John Forbes refused to sign the execution warrant claiming “having acquitted him of Cowardice & disaffection… it must be acknowledg’d that the negligence imployed cannot be Wilfull…  for Wilful negligence in Adm. Byng’s Situation must proceed from either Cowardice or disaffection, & he is Escpressly [sic] acquitted of both those Crimes…” See Caird Library, RUSI/NM/91/C. [5] I took the photo in early May of 2013. [6] The agency responsible for the history displays at the center belongs to the Greenwich Foundation for the Old Royal Navy College. [7] In fact, the Lord of the Admiralty, George Anson, pushed for Byng to be held at the tower during the course of Byng’s awaited trial. Henry Fox argued for an alternative location.  See ADD MS 15995, ff. 13-14. [8] Of course, this death sentence upon Admiral John Byng is immortalized in Voltaire’s Candide where the French philosopher explained that in England “il est bon de tuer de temps en temps un amiral pour encourager les autres.” [9] The best surviving renditions of the battle, including diagrams exist in two places. See, Augustus Hervey’s Journal: The Adventures Afloat and Ashore of a Naval Casanova, editor David Erskine, paperback edition (London: Chatham Publishing, 2002), 203-218. See also, The Trial of the Honourable Admiral John Byng, at a Court Martial, as taken by Mr. Charles Fearne, Judge-Advocate of his Majesty’s Fleet (London: 1757). [10] Appleby, Telling the Truth About History, 289.

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