Mar 1, 2022

The Execution of Admiral John Byng As a Microhistory of Eighteenth-Century Britain

Routledge 2021

Admiral John Byng’s execution for failing to “do his utmost” to relieve the British garrison on Minorca in 1756 is remembered today mainly for Voltaire’s quip about the Royal Navy’s use of Byng’s death “to encourage the others.” In The Execution of Admiral John Byng as a Microhistory of Eighteenth-Century Britain (Routledge, 2021), Joseph J. Krulder uses the event as a window into the era. As Krulder shows, Byng’s failure was the consequence of a number of decisions that reflected the priorities of Britain’s military and political leadership, as well as the disruptions caused by the rapid onset of the war with France. These factors combined to send Byng to relieve an isolated and poorly-led Army garrison with an undermanned fleet facing heavy odds. News of the battle and Byng’s subsequent court-martial prompted a popular reaction that was reflected in numerous ballads, pamphlets, and the new medium of newspapers, as well as in riots and other demonstrations. Much of this was subsequently obscured by the overwhelmingly macrohistorical focus on the event, one which overlooks many of the small details that Krulder shows are vital to understanding the dynamics of the affair.

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