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It was 1729 before Britain recognized the need for some type of formal government for Newfoundland. In that year, it appointed the first of a long line of career naval officers, most of whom may have excelled in their careers at sea, but are mainly remembered in Newfoundland through the names of St. John's streets: Pole, Montague, Wallace, Graves, Rodney and Byron. Most of these governors served for only one season, maybe two. They were non-resident administrators, being in Newfoundland waters during the fishing season, and often remaining aboard their naval vessel for the duration of their stay. Rarely was there a man like Sir Hugh Palliser, who had a tremendous impact upon Newfoundland during his five years as governor. One of the least-known of these governors was Admiral John Byng, whose tenure in Newfoundland was quite short. (He does not even have a street named after him!)
John Byng was baptized at Southill, Bedfordshire, England on Oct. 29, 1704. He was one of 11 sons and four daughters born to Margaret Master and her husband, George Byng, 1st Viscount Torrington.
John entered the Royal Navy at 13, and spent the next 20 years assigned to various ships stationed in the Mediterranean. It was a time of relative peace, providing him with little opportunity for experience in a fighting navy.
In 1742, Byng was named governor of Newfoundland, and proved to be an able administrator. He arrived in St. John's on June 19 and immediately set up a system for obtaining information on trade practices.
This brought him the ire of local merchants who refused to allow their employees to complete the forms Byng introduced.
Power of merchants
Byng quickly recognized the power this handful of merchants had over other residents, through their control of trade. He tried, unsuccessfully, to break their monopoly, and in a report he submitted to the British Board of Trade the following year, he urged the board to find some means to bring an end to their price-gouging and other inflationary practices.
In response to complaints from English West Country merchants, that the justices of the peace recently appointed in Newfoundland were detrimental to the fishery, he wrote: "(I) do not find that such Justices of the Peace, do in any Degree, Interfere with anything relating to the Fishery, or that they have been Guilty of any Irregularities to the oppression of any of His Majesties Subjects, and were it not for three or four particular Trading men at St. John's, who have always opposed all acts of Government, there never would be any reason of complaints, and indeed I cannot but say these very Gentlemen have given me great obstructions and very ill Treatment in the Execution of my Duty whilst I was in that Country."
Byng left Newfoundland at the end of the fishing season, never to return. He returned to naval duty, and on Aug. 8, 1745 was promoted to rear-admiral. Two years later, he was raised to vice-admiral and made commander-in-chief of the British fleet in the Mediterranean.
With the outbreak of the Seven Years' War in 1756, Byng was charged with the defense of Minorca, a British-controlled island off the east coast of Spain.
He was still at Gibraltar, on his way to Minorca, when he received news that the French had landed on the island and were attempting to capture the main fort, St. Philip.
When the governor of Gibraltar refused Byng's request for additional fighting men and ships to accompany him to Minorca, he reluctantly proceeded towards that island with what he felt was an insufficient fighting force.
His ships did engage the enemy, but sustained heavy losses from the French fleet. He eventually ordered his ships to withdraw, returning to Gibraltar and leaving Minorca under French control.
Throughout the empire
The reverberations of Byng's actions echoed throughout the empire. The War Office in London ordered his immediate arrest. He was transported to England, where he spent several months under guard at Greenwich Hospital before he was ordered to appear before a court martial at Portsmouth.
There, on Jan. 27, 1757, he was found guilty of negligence in not having done all in his power to relieve the French siege of Fort St. Philip, to defeat the French fleet or to protect the ships under his command.
He was sentenced to death by firing squad, with a recommendation for mercy. He became somewhat of a cause celebre, with his supporters claiming his crime constituted an error in judgment, hardly a capital offence.
The court martial responded that it had no choice, under the law, but to impose the death penalty. Hence, the subsequent plea for mercy.
King George II, however, refused to commute the death sentence. On March 14, 1757, Admiral John Byng was shot by firing squad on the deck of HMS Monarque in Portsmouth harbour. It was reported that he "walked to his death with a calm and noble bearing."
Two years after Byng's death, the French writer Voltaire published his satiric masterpiece, Candide. In it he wrote, "In this country (England) it is good to kill an admiral from time to time, to encourage the others."
Bert Riggs is an archivist with the Centre for Newfoundland Studies at Memorial University. ...
This page transcribed by Barbara McGrath (October 2000)
REVISED:August 2002 (Terry Piercey)
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