Voltaire's satrical novella, Candide (1759) contains an episode in which the hero, Candide, arrives in Portsmouth, England on a Dutch ship. As they enter the harbor, he witnesses a naval officer being executed by firing squad on board a nearby ship.
Candide asks others present what the officer had done to deserve such a fate. They tell him that he is an admiral, and is being killed for not killing enough of the enemy. He had given battle to a French admiral, but had not come close enough to his enemy to engage him properly.
Candide points out that the same was true of the French admiral. The others agree but declare that "in this country it is found good, from time to time, to shoot an admiral now and then to encourage the others." Candide tells the Dutch captain to take him away from such a horrible country.
The episode, like many in Candide, is based on a real event. It took place in 1757. Britain was at war with France, the Seven Years' War. The admiral was John Byng.
In 1756, the Admiralty had sent Byng with a fleet to the Balearic island of Minorca, then under British control. His task was to relieve the British garrison on the island, which was under threat from a French attack.
After fighting an inconclusive engagement with a French fleet near the island, he decided to return to Gibraltar to repair his ships, some of which were in poor condition. The French captured Minorca. The public was outraged.
Byng was recalled to Britain, where he was court-martialled for failing to do "his utmost" to prevent the loss of the island. The court found him guilty. Under the Articles of War, the conviction carried an automatic sentence of death.
Public opinion shifted after the verdict. People in and out of government and the Navy who had previously demanded his punishment now campaigned to get his sentence commuted on the grounds that it was unduly harsh. Some suspected that the Admiralty had used Byng as a scapegoat for its own failures to maintain the Navy's ships and crews properly in recent years.
But under existing law only King George II could pardon Byng. George refused, even when urged to do so by Prime Minister William Pitt the Elder. It didn't help Byng that the King intensely disliked Pitt, who had been highly critical of George and his ministers.
On 14 March, 1757 the sentence of death by firing squad was carried out on board HMS Monarque in Portsmouth harbor. A contemporary print portrayed the event.
Byng was the last British admiral to be punished by execution. In 1779 the Articles of War were revised to allow lesser punishments for failures like Byng's.
In 2007 Byng's family petitioned for a pardon for their ancestor. The Ministry of Defence refused. The family and a group in his home village of Southill, Bedfordshire continue to seek a pardon.
Did Byng's execution "encourage the others" to do "their utmost" to engage the enemy? The British Navy performed at a much higher level in the later stages of the Seven Years War, but that may have been due as much to improvements in the design and maintaining of ships and in training crews as to fear of being "Bynged."