LONDON (Reuters) - The descendants of an 18th century British Admiral shot by firing squad after his failure to “do his utmost” to defeat the French are pressing the government to grant him a posthumous pardon.
On the 250th anniversary of Admiral John Byng’s execution in 1757, family head Lord Torrington has written to Defense Secretary Des Browne asking for a pardon.
“I have asked the Defense Secretary to consider the matter because Admiral Byng has been judged not guilty by the fullness of time,” he told the Daily Telegraph newspaper this week.
“At the most, he made an error of judgment, but he was in no way a coward.”
The family hopes their ancestor’s name will be cleared in the same way 306 executed World War One soldiers were pardoned last year.
Great War soldiers who were shot for cowardice or desertion were posthumously pardoned after the Defense Ministry decided last August to end the “stigma” overshadowing the living relatives of the executed men.
But an MoD spokeswoman said Byng’s case was different from those of the soldiers, where direct relatives were still alive.
“We have now received the letter so we can look at it,” she said.
“But I suspect that it’s not going to be sensible or in general practical to review decisions that are really widely accepted as being part of history now.”
Early in the Seven Years’ War between 1756 and 1763, Byng was called on to relieve a British fort on the Mediterranean island of Minorca which was being attacked by French forces.
He was sent with a small, undermanned fleet. Several ship were badly damaged in subsequent skirmishes with the French, prompting Byng to turn back to Gibraltar. The fort was eventually forced to capitulate.
He was brought home, court-martialled and executed for breach of Articles of War.
Many people believed at the time that Byng was made a scapegoat to conceal government mismanagement of the navy and that his execution was a travesty of justice.
But the National Maritime Museum’s general editor, Pieter Van Der Merwe, believes that historical events cannot be judged from the perspective of the present.
“In the terms of the middle of the 18th century, justice was done,” he told Reuters.
“There is no point in historians today saying it was wrong or right. That’s judging 250 or 300 years after the fact.”
Byng’s death inspired Voltaire’s epigram in his novel Candide “in this country, it is wise to kill an admiral from time to time to encourage the others.”
Byng is buried in the family vault in Bedfordshire, eastern England. His epitaph says:
“To the perpetual disgrace of public justice, the honorable John Byng, admiral of the blue, fell a martyr to political persecution on 14th March in the year 1757, when bravery and loyalty were insufficient securities for the life and honor of a naval officer.”
Byng supporters gathered at his grave on Wednesday to commemorate him, with attendees including Royal Naval representatives and various Naval historical societies.