Joseph J. Krulder, The Execution of Admiral John Byng as a Microhistory of Eighteenth-Century Britain. New York: Routledge, 2021. $160.00 USD, 294 pgs, 7 illustrations, ISBN 9780367767556.
By Evan C. Rothera
It is tempting to quote Voltaire’s famous line from Candide—that Admiral John Byng’s execution after the loss of Minorca went forward to encourage other admirals—and reduce Byng’s life and death to a punchline. However, as Joseph J. Krulder argues, dismissing Byng as the incompetent traitor who lost the island of Minorca is profoundly misguided. Krulder adopts a microhistorical approach and employs Byng’s life to analyze eighteenth-century Britain. He “seeks to add multi-contextual layers” to our understanding of Byng and Britain during the Seven Years’ War and, to do so, reaches “beyond the political and military narrative by engaging in social and cultural accounts” (9).
One of the book’s strengths is how Krulder uses Byng and the loss of Minorca to approach the Seven Years’ War from some oblique angles. For instance, he contends that ballads—“one- or two-sided broadsheets that long gave ‘news in verse’” (11)—played an important role in shaping public opinion. So many ballads appeared about Byng and Minorca that “that there can be little doubt that printed musical notes and lyrics played a significant role in spreading the news that a faraway island in the Mediterranean fell to the Gallic enemy” (15). Newspapers and pamphlets also played a pivotal role because both became weapons. Prime Minister Newcastle’s government leaked an edited version of Byng’s dispatch to the London Gazette, but Byng had his defenders in other newspapers. The Channel Campaign—where Admirals Byng and Hawke seized hundreds of French ships—alienated many involved in the privateering industry because they wanted to seize the vessels themselves rather than see the navy reap the benefits. Reactions of clerics to military missteps also mattered greatly and Krulder discusses fervent fears about the formation of a Catholic League allied against Britain.
Krulder posits the need to “investigate dearth as an underlying cause of the disproportionate response to the loss of Minorca” (89). Two overly wet years led to food shortages and, consequently, “just as Britain plunged into a protracted dearth, news and rumours of the Battle of Minorca drifted through the countryside” (90). Some people associated the lack of food with the lack of military success and “the food riots and the Byng protests became concurrently amplified, perhaps larger and more intense than what would have been produced had any of these crises occurred separately or at very different times” (104). Nevertheless, while food riots and anti-Byng protests often occurred simultaneously, Krulder offers sensible comparative analysis to illustrate profound differently forms of protest. Where food riots tended to be bottom-up episodes, Byng protests were often top-down affairs manufactured by supporters of Newcastle’s government to attack Byng and reinforce the idea that Byng alone had lost Minorca. Today this would be called astroturfing—elites attempting to disguise their actions as the will of the people.
Historians have not paid much attention to the 1755 Channel Campaign, but Krulder makes an effort to show why they should. This campaign was one of the few early successes in the war. Admirals Hawke and Byng captured 300 vessels and sidelined 7,200 French sailors. Krulder laments that it remains under investigated and detached from Minorca because it was an overwhelming success and Byng proved himself a capable commander. Ironically, Byng, the hero of the Channel Campaign, soon became the goat of Minorca. Part of Byng’s defeat was due to the fact that the fleet he took to the Mediterranean was dilapidated and short of men. Thus, Byng faced a very different context at Minorca than he did during the Channel Campaign. Moreover, many missteps led to the loss of the island, but, Krulder asserts, they were largely not those of the admirals. The army basically escaped blame for their role in the disaster where Byng received the full responsibility. Another reason for the result at Minorca was the far-flung nature of the British Empire. Actions at the fringe of the empire, whether North America or India, rippled across the globe. The East India Company diverted attention away from the Mediterranean by drawing the focus of many parliamentarians to India. Finally, in his account of Byng’s trial and sentencing, Krulder finds additional evidence how the government scapegoated Byng. He reveals “strident efforts made by ministers to ensure that Byng’s verdict at court martial returned guilty” (232). In the end, Krulder concludes, British nationalism required blood-letting, hence Byng’s ultimate fate.
The Execution of Admiral John Byng is a well-researched and sensible book that asks readers to set aside some of what they think they know about Great Britain during the Seven Years’ War in order to see British society and the conflict itself though the life and career of Admiral John Byng. This volume will appeal to anyone interested in military and naval history, in the political, social, cultural, and economic history of the eighteenth-century British empire, and in nationalism.
Evan C. Rothera, University of Arkansas – Fort Smith