THE descendants of an 18th century British Admiral shot by firing squad after his failure to “do his utmost” to defeat the French and keep Minorca are pressing the government to grant him a posthumous pardon.

On the 250th anniversary of Admiral John Byng's execution in 1757, family head Lord Torrington has written to Defence Secretary Des Browne asking for a pardon. “I have asked the Defence Secretary to consider the matter because Admiral Byng has been judged not guilty by the fullness of time,” he told the Daily Telegraph newspaper. “At the most, he made an error of judgment, but he was in no way a coward.” The family hopes their ancestor's name will be cleared in the same way 306 executed World War One soldiers were pardoned last year. Great War soldiers who were shot for cowardice or desertion were posthumously pardoned after the Defence Ministry decided last August to end the “stigma” overshadowing the living relatives of the executed men. But an MoD spokeswoman said Byng's case was different from those of the soldiers, where direct relatives were still alive. “We have now received the letter sent by Byng's descendants so we can look at it,” she said. “But I suspect that it's not going to be sensible or in general practical to review decisions that are really widely accepted as being part of history now.” On May 20, 1756, during the Seven Years' War (1756-1763), Byng was called on to relieve the British Fort St Philip on Minorca which was being attacked by French forces. He was dispatched with a small, undermanned fleet, several ships of which were badly damaged in subsequent skirmishes with the French, prompting Byng to turn back to Gibraltar. His correspondence shows clearly that he left prepared for failure, that he did not believe that the garrison could hold out against the French force, and that he was already resolved to come back from Minorca if he found that the the task presented any great difficulty. The fort was eventually forced to capitulate on June 29 of that same year.

The failure to hold the fort caused a savage outburst of anger in Britain. Byng was brought home, court-martialled and executed for breach of Articles of War. Many believed at the time he was made a scapegoat to conceal government mismanagement of the navy and that his execution was a travesty of justice. But general editor at the National Maritime Museum Pieter Van Der Merwe believes that historical events can not be judged from the perspective of the present. “In the terms of the middle of the 18th century, justice was done,” he told Reuters. “There is no point in historians today saying it was wrong or right. That's judging 250 or 300 years after the fact.” Byng's death inspired Voltaire's epigram in his novel Candide “in this country, it is wise to kill an admiral from time to time to encourage the others.” Admiral Byng is buried in the family's vault at Southill, Bedfordshire. His epitaph says: “To the perpetual disgrace of public justice, the honourable John Byng, admiral of the blue, fell a martyr to political persecution on 14th March in the year 1757, when bravery and loyalty were insufficient securities for the life and honour of a naval officer.” Byng supporters were gathering at his grave yesterday to commemorate him, with attendees including Royal Naval representatives and various Naval historical societies.