20 May 2020 marks the 264th anniversary of the naval battle of Minorca in 1756. This battle’s immortalisation by Voltaire has forever fixed the execution of British Admiral John Byng as a symbolic lieu de mémoire in our collective European memorial heritage. The battle’s greatest legacy is arguably Voltaire’s iconic phrase from Candide (1759): ‘pour encourager les autres’.
Events of 20 May 1756: the battle of Minorca
The naval battle of Minorca on 20 May 1756 saw France and Britain clash over possession of the island. This battle took place on the eve of the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763) and is considered its first naval conflict. With a significant garrison stationed at the Fort St Philip fortress in Port-Mahon, Minorca was a strategic base for Britain. While the British navy was distracted by far-flung conflicts in the Atlantic and in North America, France, from the Toulon naval base, prepared a surprise expedition to attack Minorca. Under the duc de Richelieu, 15,000 French troops landed on Minorca on 19 April.
In response, the British dispatched a poorly equipped Admiral Byng to relieve the besieged British garrison. Byng, fearing that he was shorthanded for such an encounter, arrived off Port-Mahon on 19 May with thirteen ships. He faced a French fleet of twelve ships commanded by Marquis de La Galissonière. French naval reports state that Byng’s ships bore down on the French fleet at an angle, so that his six leading ships were exposed to fire from the French, who then slipped away unscathed. Byng subsequently failed both to land the soldiers he had on board, and to renew action against the French. After holding a council of war, he sailed back to Gibraltar, leaving the fort to its fate.
Minorca surrendered in June, thus giving the French significant advantage in the Mediterranean. British Admiral Byng was summoned back to Britain, tried by court-martial, and condemned to death. He was shot on 14 March 1757 at Portsmouth.
Minorca: the scenic backdrop for naval battle
For modern readers, Minorca (Menorca) is an idyllic Spanish island, part of a trio of Balearic islands (with Majorca and Ibiza) in the western Mediterranean sea. Its megalithic stone monuments speak to a very ancient history, while as a biosphere reserve Minorca battles nowadays to protect its environment. The eighteenth century typified the island’s history of serial invasions: Minorca was initially captured by the British in 1708, during the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-1714). A new naval base was established in the deep natural harbour at Port-Mahon (nowadays Mahon, or Mao) and the influence of eighteenth-century Britain is still in evidence today in a wealth of indelible cultural signs.
The Execution of Admiral Byng
In the wake of the battle of Minorca, the execution of the British Admiral Byng proved deeply polemical and politicised. Public opinion was initially furious with Byng’s failure and flurries of pamphlets charged him with cowardice. The extreme severity of the court’s penalty for Byng’s failure to win the battle was primarily due to a recent amendment of the Articles of War which imposed death for the officer of any rank who did not do his utmost against the enemy either in battle or pursuit. Byng was deemed not to have done his utmost, but the court acquitted him of cowardice and in fact recommended mercy. A deeply entrenched antagonism between prime minister William Pitt the Elder and King George II complicated matters: a final pardon was ultimately refused by the king.
Today, Byng’s descendants continue to petition the British government for a posthumous pardon. Ironically, after Byng’s trial, public clamour then rose against the ministry of the marine who had failed to provision Byng’s ships adequately and who were emphatically accused of casting the blame for their own failures onto a scapegoat, Byng.
In historical terms, it is not unusual to find that Irishmen held prominent positions on both sides: the Irish comte de Lally was one of the French king’s chief military advisors, while the defence of the British garrison was led by the Protestant Irish Lieutenant-Governor of Minorca, Lord Blakeney. Voltaire similarly enjoyed close affiliations to both sides: Richelieu was a long-standing personal friend, and he befriended both the young John Byng and his father, First Lord of the Admiralty Viscount Torrington, while in exile in England in 1726-1728. There is an uncanny symmetry in Voltaire’s attempt to save Byng from execution and his later vociferous campaign for Lally’s exoneration and posthumous rehabilitation, following a parallel accusation of treason after Lally’s defeat at Pondicherry, India (Fragments sur l’Inde, OCV, vol.75B). Even though Voltaire made personal profit out of a financial gamble on French success at Minorca, he felt deep sympathy for Byng, and carefully transcribed Richelieu’s own testimony that his enemy was not at fault during the battle and supplied it to England for the admiral’s defence.
Voltaire’s textual re-enactments
While Minorca was the sole naval battle that the French would win during the Seven Years’ War, Voltaire’s historical account in his Précis du siècle de Louis XV (OCV, vol.29B) homes in on the adroit French multi-pronged land attack on the myriad British defences around the Port-Mahon fortress. In an account of the battle in the Précis (vol.29B, p.171-76), it is clear that Voltaire greatly admires the military tactics of his friend Richelieu. Rather impudently, Voltaire had penned a premature ode to Richelieu’s success, ‘Depuis plus de quarante années’, which circulated before the fall of Port-Mahon (OCV, vol.45A, p.383-89).
Voltaire is so deeply implicated in Minorcan events that when the British prime minister’s brother Thomas Pitt visited him, he was keen to intervene directly in the British row by providing a transcription of Richelieu’s bird’s-eye-view version of events. Textually, the historian Voltaire includes a conspicuously self-important metatextual reference to this particular diplomatic intervention: ‘En vain le maréchal de Richelieu, qui du haut d’un terre-plein, avait vu toute la bataille, et qui en pouvait juger, envoya à l’auteur de cette histoire une déclaration qui justifiait l’amiral Bing’ (vol.29B, p.175). The episode also ends with a reference to Byng sending evidential documentation to Voltaire, which makes the history incredibly immediate by again placing the writer front and centre in his own historiographical text: ‘avant d’être frappé, il envoya son mémoire justificatif à l’auteur’ (p.176). Not only does this emphasise authorial involvement and importance, but it attempts once more to underscore Byng’s innocence by citing the Englishman’s enemy, Richelieu. Moreover, the Précis is overtly critical of a king who could have pardoned Byng, but failed to do so. Thus, in life, Voltaire campaigns for exoneration, and though his writings, he campaigns for Byng’s posthumous pardon.
While the historical account in the Précis concludes on an emotive note regretting the execution of Byng, the infamous version in Candide offers a more deeply critical and reductively satirical version. That 1759 conte philosophique stages the moment of execution on Byng’s ship off Portsmouth without naming names. In this way, Voltaire focuses the spotlight on the timeless absurdity of executing an admiral who loses in battle. In an uncharacteristically decisive move, Candide darkly refuses to set foot in Voltaire’s beloved England, as he ponders pseudo-logically: ‘mais, dit Candide, l’amiral français était aussi loin de l’amiral anglais que celui-ci l’était de l’autre’. His interlocutors’ response is less a criticism of the execution itself than a broader indictment of the immense and miserable follies of war and of mankind: ‘il est bon de tuer de temps en temps un amiral pour encourager les autres’.
– Síofra Pierse, Associate Professor, UCD Dublin