Sunday, March 4, 2012

Voltaire, The Gloomy English and Portsmouth

Admiral John Byng

What exactly did Voltaire make of the English?

He thought their form of government (Constitutional Monarchy) preferable to the Absolute monarchy of his native France.   He wrote in his letters, "How I love the English boldness!  How I love people who say what they think!  People who only half think are only half alive."  He clearly appreciated the desirability of freedom of speech that Englishmen hold dear.

According to Candide, the English are "disposed to be very gloomy."

Candide arrives in Portsmouth...

Pour Encourager les autres!
"They docked at Portsmouth; a multitude of people covered the shore, all gazing intently at a rather corpulent man who was on his knees, his eyes blindfolded, on the quarter-deck of one of the ships of the fleet; four soldiers were posted directly in front of him, each of whom now fired three bullets into his skull, as calmly as you like; after which the crowd dispersed looking extremely satisfied.  'What is all this?' said Candide, 'and what devil is at work in the world?'  He asked who was the fat man, who had just been so ceremoniously despatched.  'He was an admiral,' came the reply.  'And why kill this admiral?'  'Because,' came the reply, 'he did not get enough people killed when he had the chance: he gave battle to a French admiral, and was said not to have engaged closely enough with the enemy.'  'In which case,' said Candide, 'surly the French admiral was just as far from the English admiral as the English admiral was from the French admiral?'  'Unquestionably so,' came the reply, 'but in this country it is considered useful now and again to shoot an admiral, to encourage the others.'" http:/

Here Voltaire is telling us about the true and "gloomy" story of Admiral John Byng who was in command of British naval forces when they were defeated by the French off the coast of Minorca in 1756.  He was courtmartialed for insufficiently engaging with the enemy and was executed by firing squad on March 14, 1757 on his own quarter deck in Portsmouth harbour.

I wrote earlier (Horatio Nelson -- Champion of Liberty, January 15th, 2012) that the Royal Navy got its incentives right.  All ranks of naval personnel from powder boy to admiral were, if their ship captured an enemy ship in battle, eligible to win prize money.  The other side of the coin is illustrated by the unfortunate case of admiral Byng.  Even an admiral in the Royal navy could expect no mercy if he was found to have shirked his duty.

HMS Victory Portsmouth (Photo: Jeff Dody)
Commander Kelly suggests that the best place to contemplate the sad fate of admiral Byng is in Portsmouth itself.  If you have read and enjoyed the C.S. Forrester's Hornblower novels or the Aubrey/Maturin series of Patrick O'Brian you must make the trip (about 1 1/2 hour by train from Waterloo station) to Portsmouth Harbor.  There you will find the HMS Victory, the only remaining ship from the battle of Trafalgar in 1805.  She still remains an active duty vessel in the Royal navy to this day.  Stroll aboard her deck and see the spot where Lord Nelson was shot and the orlop deck where he died.

Here is the link for the HMS Victory in Portsmouth...

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