‘Pour encourager les autres’: Admiral Byng, Voltaire, and the 1756 battle of Minorca

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

duc de Richelieu

Portrait présumé du duc de Richelieu, by Louis Toqué (c. 1753). (Musée des Beaux-Arts, Tours)

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.

Prise de Port-Mahon sur l'île de Minorque, le 29 juin 1756

Prise de Port-Mahon sur l’île de Minorque, le 29 juin 1756, by Jean-Baptiste Martin le jeune.

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

The shooting of Admiral Byng on board the Monarque

The shooting of Admiral Byng on board the Monarque, 1757. (National Portrait Gallery, London)

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.

Admiral Byng

Admiral Byng, 1757. (National Portrait Gallery, London)

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.

Divided loyalties

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

French-bashing, French style

In a much-discussed article published last year in Le Monde (13 December 2013), French historian Mona Ozouf argued in favour of honouring the memory of three figures of the French resistance movement by transferring their remains to the Paris Panthéon, explaining that the story of ‘the resistants’ fight against the Nazi occupier is the last great tale of heroism in French history capable of uniting […], in a feeling of shared national pride, all the French people, who are usually so prone to belittling their own country’ (my emphasis).

Statue of Voltaire at the Panthéon (by Jean-Antoine Houdon, 1781)

Statue of Voltaire at the Panthéon (by Jean-Antoine Houdon, 1781)

Indeed, observers of contemporary France will not have failed to notice that, far from being the preserve of the Anglo-Saxon media, French-bashing is also very commonly self-inflicted. Indeed, it is so widespread that the word has now entered the French lexicon alongside ‘le jogging’ and ‘le camping’.

For some, it has become a full-time occupation: France’s alleged decadence has become the bread and butter of many ‘déclinistes’, those journalists and economists who have carved careers out of preaching doom and gloom for their own country, while others never miss an opportunity to remind their fellow citizens of their country’s unfinest hours, most notably its colonial past and its collaborationist government during the Vichy years. However, it is worth noting that this type of national self-flagellation is not a recent phenomenon: ironically, one of its most eloquent erstwhile practitioners also happens to be one of the most famous and revered of all the residents of Le Panthéon, Voltaire himself.

One would be hard-pressed to find a more scathing piece of French-bashing than Le Discours aux Welches, a text first published in 1764 in a best-selling collection entitled Contes de Guillaume Vadé (which, in addition to the largely uncontroversial ‘contes’ themselves, also contained a number of polemical texts). The Discours is a systematic demolition of any claim to ‘grandeur’ that the French people – ‘les Welches’ – may have entertained throughout their history: the French, Voltaire informs his readers, are a mongrel nation, the product of multiple invasions never successfully repelled, their language is barbaric, vulgar and inadequate, they are arrogant, frivolous and backwards, they lack entrepreneurial spirit and they fear change, progress and innovation.

Most of the basic ingredients of modern French-bashing can be found in this piece, which, unsurprisingly, was not very favourably received in France. So much so that Voltaire felt compelled rapidly to append a Supplément to his Discours aux Welches, where, in an attempt to tone things down and avoid alienating his friends and allies, he offered, by way of conclusion, a broad taxonomy of the French nation as follows: ‘on [doit] donner le nom de Francs aux pillards, le nom de Welches aux pillés et aux sots, et celui de Français à tous les gens aimables’ [1].

Voltaire’s rage against France was fuelled partly by a feeling of frustrated patriotism [2] (in the Discours he mentions the recent loss of French trading posts in India to the English [3] – which dealt a blow to his investments in the Compagnie des Indes) and also by his homesickness for Paris, where he was persona non grata due to the antipathy of Louis XV. It would be grossly unfair and simplistic to portray him as an out-and-out Francophobe [4], but his tortured ambivalence towards France at the time is strangely reminiscent of the kind of conflicted relationship that so many of his fellow countrymen appear to have with their homeland today, as observed by professor Mona Ozouf.

– Georges Pilard

[1] ‘We must call the pillagers by the name of Franks, the pillaged and the foolish by the name of Welches, and all worthy people by the name of French.’

[2] ‘His favourite theme in all humours was “Je ne suis pas français”, except when his vanity prompted him to read us the accounts which he regularly received of real or imaginary victories gained by his countrymen’, recounts Richard Phelps, who had visited Voltaire in Ferney in 1757 (see Memoirs and correspondence of George, Lord Lyttelton, 2 vol., London, 1845, vol.2, p.560). See also Haydn T. Mason, ‘Voltaire, la guerre et le patriotisme’, in L’Armée au XVIIIe siècle (1715-1789) (Aix-en-Provence, 1999).

[3] Interestingly, Britain’s overwhelming success in the Seven years war was ascribed primarily to the country’s very keen sense of patriotism by the French commentariat of the time (see Edmond Dziembowski, Un Nouveau Patriotisme français, 1750-1770, Oxford, 1998).

[4] He offers a spirited defence of French theatre against English competition in Du théâtre anglais, also in the Contes de Guillaume Vadé, previously published in 1761 under the title Appel à toutes les nations de l’Europe (see blog post of 20 September 2013, The world’s a revolving stage).