Reign of George II. (Concluded) page 8
When the king arrived, he was immediately informed of this state of affairs. After awhile, he determined to send for the young prince to his closet - not to propose the marriage to him, but to judge for himself how far he was imbued by the maxims of the princess-dowager's party. He had soon reason to augur that the stripling would prove stubbornly adhesive to the inculcations of that clique. The young man listened to his grandfather's observations, but with evident distrust, and bowed, and bowed, but made no reply. Lord Waldegrave says the king's experiment was a grand mistake. It could serve no purpose to talk to the prince; he should have sent for his mother, and have told her firmly that he would hold her responsible for the manner and the spirit in which she educated her son, and that, had she proved obstinate, he might have whispered a word in her ear, that would have made her tremble, "spite of Tier spotless innocence." That word was Bute - the intimate footing of that nobleman with the princess being the theme of universal scandal. Even those who gave no credit to these rumours greatly disapproved of the prince, a mere boy of seventeen, being brought up in direct hostility to his grandfather.
Whilst things were in this position, parliament met on the 13th of November. The great question on which the fate of the ministry depended was that of the subsidies to Hesse and Russia. It was something new to see not merely an ordinary opposition, but the chancellor of the exchequer and the paymaster of the forces - Legge and Pitt - ranging themselves against the king and their colleagues on this question. In the house of lords, the address in reply to the royal speech, which implied approbation of these subsidies, was supported by Newcastle, Hardwicke, and the duke of Bedford, who hitherto, since quitting office, had opposed everything, and was opposed by lords Temple and Halifax. But the great struggle was in the commons. The debate commenced at two in the afternoon and continued till five the next morning - the longest on record, except the one on the Westminster election in 1741. On this occasion William Gerard Hamilton made his first and almost last speech, which acquired him promotion in the government of Ireland, and the cognomen of "Single-Speech Hamilton." Murray spoke splendidly in defence of the subsidies; but Pitt, rising at one o'clock in the morning, after sitting eleven hours in that heated atmosphere, burst out upon the whole system of German subsidies with a tempest of eloquence which held the house in astonished awe. He denounced the whole practice of feeing the little German potentates as monstrous, useless, absurd, and desperate; an eternal drain on England for no single atom of benefit. He compared the union of Newcastle and Fox to the union of the Rhone and Saone - a boisterous and impetuous torrent with a shallow, languid, and muddy stream. But though Pitt's eloquence dismayed and confounded ministers, it could not prevent their majority. The address was carried by three hundred and eleven votes against one hundred and 'five; and it was now clear that Pitt must quit the cabinet. In fact, in a very few days, not only he, but Legge and George Grenville, were summarily dismissed, and James Grenville, the other brother, resigned his seat at the board of trade. Bubb Dodington, who had long been hankering after office, was drawn from the Leicester House clique by receiving George Grenville's post of treasurer of the navy; Pitt's paymastership of the forces was divided betwixt the earl of Darlington and lord Duplin; Soame Jenyns obtained James Grenville's seat at the board of trade, and Sir George Lyttleton succeeded Legge as chancellor of the exchequer; lord Barrington became secretary-at-war by Fox's advancement to the post of secretary of state. The duke of Leeds, the duke of Marlborough, and lord Go wer, all received some advance of appointment; but it was clear to everybody that the elements of the new cabinet were such as could never long co-operate. Walpole said sarcastically that it was a political necessity, for Newcastle had turned out and in every man in England, and must have some of the same dupes over again. Parliament closed the year 1755 worthily, by voting one hundred thousand pounds for the sufferers by the destruction of Lisbon by a terrific earthquake, which overwhelmed the city, levelling every church with the ground, and killing thirty thousand people.
The year 1756 opened with menaces to England of the most serious nature. The imbecility of the ministry was beginning to tell in the neglect of its colonies and its defences, and in paying for the security of Hanover instead of that of England. France threatened to invade us, and a navy of fifty thousand men was suddenly voted, and an army of thirty-four thousand two hundred and sixty-three of native troops; but, as these were not ready, it was agreed to bring over eight thousand Hessians and Hanoverians. To pay for all this, it was necessary to grant excessive supplies, and lay on new duties and taxes. In presenting the money bills in the month of May, Speaker Onslow could not avoid remarking that there were two circumstances which tended to create alarm - foreign subsidies and foreign troops introduced, and nothing but their confidence in his majesty could allay their fears, or give them confidence that their burdens would be soon reduced. There was, in fact, no chance for any such reduction, for wars, troubles, and disgraces were gathering around from various quarters. The first reverse came from the Mediterranean.
The French had always beheld with jealousy our possession of the island of Minorca, which had been won by general Stanhope in 1708, and secured to us by the peace of Utrecht. That England should possess the finest port in ihe Mediterranean, and that so near their own shores, was a subject of unceasing chagrin. The miserable administration of British affairs, the constant attention to the interests of Hanover instead of our own, now inspired France with the resolve to snatch the prize from us. Great preparations were made for this object, and the report of these as duly conveyed to the English ministers by the consuls in both Spain and Italy, but in vain. Newcastle was apprised that a fleet of fourteen sail of the line was ready at Toulon, troops were congregating in that quarter, and the provisions were in such quantities only as indicated that the object of attack was by no means remote. These warnings were lost on the supine British cabinet. Horace Walpole expresses his wonder that Fox did not show more alertness, and declares that this was the year of the worst administration that England had ever seen, for now Newcastle's incapacity was left to its full play. At length the certainty that the French were about to sail for Minorca burst on the miserable ministers, but it was too late, they had nothing in readiness. The port of Mahon was almost destitute of a garrison; the governor, lord Tyrawley, was in England, and the deputy- governor, general Blakeney, though brave, as he had shown himself at the siege of Stirling, was old, nearly disabled by his infirmities, and deficient in troops. What was still worse, all the colonels of the regiments there were absent, and officers, altogether thirty-five!
The alarmed ministers now mustered what ships they could, and dispatched admiral Byng with them from Spit- head on the 7th of April. The whole of these ships amounted only to ten, in a half rotten condition, and badly manned; and they commenced their voyage only three days before the French armament issued from Toulon, the English having to cross the Bay of Biscay, and traverse two hundred leagues of the Mediterranean, whilst the French had only seventy leagues to sail altogether. It would have been well had this been the worst; but Byng was not the same Byng who had so admirably conducted himself on the coast of Sicily against the Spaniards, but a son of his, who had alienated his men by his haughtiness and severity; and, as he proved himself, was just as incompetent as his father had been able.
The French armament consisted of twelve ships of the line, and numerous transports, under admiral La Galissoniere, consisting of sixteen thousand men, under the command of the duke de Richelieu. General Blakeney received news of the approach of this fleet by means of a fast-sailing sloop, and began in all activity to prepare for his defence. He collected his forces into the castle of St. Philip, commanding the town and harbour of Mahon, calling in five companies from Ciudadella. All his troops, however, amounted only to two thousand eight hundred. He had large quantities of cattle driven into the fort, flour and bakers got in, blocked up the ports, and sunk a sloop in the channel to obstruct the entrance to the harbour. The French fleet appeared in sight off the port Ciudadella on the 18th of April, but Byng did not come in sight till the 19th of May - a month after - and then he came disappointed and dispirited. At Gibraltar he learned from commodore Edgecumbe, who had sailed to meet him, that the French were already at Minorca. He produced an order from lord Barrington, the secretary-at- war, to take on board a battalion of troops; but general Fowke, the governor of Gibraltar, after calling a council of war, refused it. Byng, greatly disconcerted, sailed forward, accompanied by the two ships of commodore Edgecumbe.
Byng found, on his arrival, the British colours still flying on the fort, and that the French had, in reality, yet made little impression on the place. Now was the time for a sufficient fleet and force, sent out by an able government, to have speedily dispersed the enemy, and rendered abortive the whole design. But the fleet was inferior to that of the French, and the forces vastly inferior in number. Still, there is little doubt but that the old Byng would have managed to establish a communication with Blakeney on shore, and would have rendered a good account of the French squadron. There was a mutual attempt made by the present Byng and by Blakeney to effect such communication, but it does not appear to have been of a determined character, and it failed. La Galissoniere was now bearing down on Byng, and the next day, the 20th of May, the two fleets confronted each other. Byng, about two o'clock, gave the signal to rear-admiral West to engage, which West did with such impetuosity, that he drove several of the French ships out of the line. But Byng himself did not follow the example of West; he hung back, and thereby prevented West from following up his advantage. It was in vain that Byng's own captain urged him to advance; he pretended that it could not be done without throwing his ships out of regular line; and he kept at such a distance that his vessel, a noble ship carrying ninety guns, never was fairly in action at all, and had not a single man killed or wounded. Thus deserted, West was compelled to fall back; and La Galissoniere, who showed no disposition to continue the fight, sailed away.
A brave commander would now have renewed the attempt to support the garrison on shore, but Byng was clearly thoroughly discouraged. He called a council of war, stated that he had forty-two men killed, including captain Andrews, of the "Defiance," and a hundred and sixty-eight wounded; that his ships and guns were inferior to the French; that his vessels were too much damaged to keep the sea; that it was impossible to relieve St. Philip; and that, should Galissoniäre return, he had neither sufficient ships nor guns to cope with him. He proposed, therefore, to return to Gibraltar, which might need protection, and to this the council consented - for a faint-hearted commander can very readily infect those under him. Several officers afterwards, on the court-martial who tried Byng, deposed that they saw no signs of fear in him during the action; but it is but too plain, from the whole of his conduct, that he had none of that quality expressed in the vigorous modern term "pluck," without which a commander is a hopeless automaton.
At the sight of Byng sailing away, the French fired a feu de joie from all their lines, and Blakeney saw that he was left to his fate. He determined still to defend the place, but Richelieu sent in haste to Toulon for fresh reinforcements. The fort was soon surrounded by twenty thousand men, with eighty-five pieces of artillery. In about a week, Richelieu carried one of the breaches by storm, though with great loss, and Blakeney capitulated on condition that the English should march out with all the honours of war, and should be conveyed in the French ships to Gibraltar. Thus was Minorca lost to England through the shameful neglect of a miserably incompetent aristocratic clique called a ministry, and a faint-hearted admiral.
The tidings of this disaster roused the people of England to a pitch of desperation. The ministers were condemned for their gross neglect and imbecile procrastination, and Byng was execrated as a coward and a traitor. Ministers, awaking when it was too late, sent out admirals Hawke and Saunders to take the command in the Mediterranean, and to send home both Byng and West as prisoners. Full justice was done to Blakeney, who, as soon as he landed at Portsmouth with his garrison, was created an Irish baron, Tyrawley, who had himself been absent from his post of governor of Minorca, at this important crisis was sent to supersede Fowke as governor at Gibraltar, and Fowke, too, was sent home for trial. As for Byng, on being arrested, he showed as much insolence and folly towards those on whom his fate depended as he had shown himself incompetent at port Mahon. He wrote a fierce letter, throwing all the blame on ministers. When Byng arrived a prisoner at Portsmouth, throngs pressing down to the quay threatened to tear him to pieces, and it was necessary to protect him by soldiery, and to send a party of sixty dragoons to guard him to London. His younger brother, who came to meet him on his landing, was so affected by the sight of him and by the rage and imprecations of the people, that he died in convulsions the next day. Byng was lodged a close prisoner in Greenwich Hospital, where he persisted in his insolent mood, abusing the admiralty and ministry, and vindicating himself. On the other hand, Newcastle, who was equally or more culpable, instead of endeavouring to appease the popular indignation against the unhappy admiral, most freely encouraged it, because it turned the just censure from himself. To a demand from the city of vengeance on Byng, he replied in haste, "Oh, indeed, he shall be tried and hanged directly!" The whole kingdom was in a frenzy of rage against Byng; his effigy was burnt in all the chief towns, in London the streets and shops were deluged with caricatures of him, and ballads against him. His house and park in Hertfordshire were rescued with difficulty from the mob. West, on the contrary, was at once set at liberty, and praised for his bravery. Lord Anson took him to court, and the king complimented him on the noble discharge of his duty, and wished every one had done like him.
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