Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Byron, John (1723-1786)
BYRON, JOHN (1723–1786), vice-admiral, second son of William, fourth lord Byron, was born on 8 Nov. 1723. The date of his entry into the navy has not been traced. In 1740 he was appointed as a midshipman to the Wager storeship, one of the squadron under Commodore Anson, and sailed from England in her. After rounding Cape Horn the Wager was lost, 14 May 1741, on the southern coast of Chili, a desolate and inclement country. The survivors from the wreck separated, Byron and some few others remaining with the captain. After undergoing the most dreadful hardships, they succeeded in reaching Valparaiso, whence, in December 1744, they were permitted to return to Europe by a French ship, which carried them to Brest. They arrived in England in February 1745–6. Many years after, in 1768, Byron published a ‘Narrative, containing an account of the great distresses suffered by himself and his companions on the coast of Patagonia.’ It has often been republished, and supplied some hints for the shipwreck scene in ‘Don Juan,’ whose author compares the sufferings of his hero ‘to those related in my grand-dad's “Narrative,”’ though, indeed, the fictitious sufferings of Juan were trifling in comparison with those actually recorded by John Byron.
During his absence he had been promoted to be lieutenant; immediately on his arrival he was made commander, and on 30 Dec. of the same year was made captain and appointed to the Syren frigate. After the peace he commanded the St. Albans, one of the squadron on the coast of Guinea; in 1753 he commanded the Augusta, guardship at Plymouth; and in 1755 the Vanguard. In 1757 he commanded the America of 60 guns in the futile expedition against Rochefort; he afterwards cruised with some success on the coast of France, and in the following year, still in the America, served in the fleet off Brest under Anson. In 1760 he was sent in command of the Fame and a small squadron to superintend the demolition of the fortifications of Louisbourg, and while the work was in progress had the opportunity of destroying a quantity of French shipping and stores in the bay of Chaleur, including three small men-of-war. He returned to England in November, but continued in command of the Fame until the peace, being for the most part attached to the squadron before Brest.
Early in 1764 he was appointed to the Dolphin, a small frigate which, with the Tamar, was ordered to be fitted for a voyage to the East Indies. The Dolphin was sheathed with copper, and her rudder had copper braces and pintles; she was the first vessel in the English navy so fitted. Byron did not go on board her till 17 June. The Dolphin, with the Tamar in company, sailed from Plymouth on 2 July, when Byron hoisted a broad pennant, being appointed commander-in-chief of all his majesty's ships in the East Indies. At Rio they met Lord Clive, on his way out in the Kent, East Indiaman. Clive was anxious to take a passage in the Dolphin, as likely to get to India long before the Indiaman, but Byron managed to refuse him, possibly by secretly telling him the true state of the case; for in fact his commission for the East Indies and the orders which had been publicly sent were all a blind, and the real destination of the two ships was for a voyage of discovery in the South seas. The jealousy of the Spaniards seemed to render this elaborate secrecy a necessary condition of success. No one on board the ships had a suspicion of what was before them till after they had stood much further to the south than a passage to the Cape seemed to require. The true object of the voyage was then divulged; it was at the same time announced that the men were to have double pay, with such good effect that when shortly afterwards an opportunity occurred by a returning storeship, only one man accepted the commodore's permission for any one that liked to go home. In passing through the Straits of Magellan they had frequent intercourse with the natives of Patagonia, and they have recorded, as simple matter of fact, that these people were of very remarkable size and stature. Modern travellers, having been unable to find these giants, have assumed that the former accounts were false, either by intention or by misconception, and have spoken, on the one hand, of Munchausen-like stories, and, on the other, of the deceptive appearance of long robes and of the mistakes that may arise from seeing men at a distance on horseback. In the case of the officers of the Dolphin—with which alone we are now concerned—this last explanation is impossible; the statements are so explicit that they must be either true or wilfully false. The commodore, himself six feet high, either stood alongside of men who towered so far above him that he judged they could not be much less than seven feet, or he deliberately wrote a falsehood in his official journal, and his officers with one consent lied to the same effect (Byron's ‘Journal’ in Hawkesworth's Voyages, i. 28; A Voyage round the World in His Majesty's Ship the Dolphin … by an Officer on board the said ship, pp. 45, 51 n).
From the Straits of Magellan the Dolphin and Tamar proceeded westward across the Pacific, skirting the northern side of the Low Archipelago and discovering some few of the northernmost islands. It now seems almost wonderful how these ships could have sailed through this part of the ocean without making grander discoveries; but they appear to have held a straight course westward, intent only on getting the voyage over. Not only the Low Archipelago but the Society Islands must have been discovered had the ships, on making the Islands of Disappointment, zigzagged, or quartered over the ground, as exploring ships ought to have done. And the necessary inference is that Byron was wanting in the instinct and the hound-like perseverance which go to make up the great discoverer. Having passed these islands, the ships fell in with nothing new; they seem indeed to have gone out of the way to avoid the possibility of doing so, and to have crossed the line solely to get into the track which Anson had described. Many of the seamen were down with scurvy, and Byron knew that the Centurion's men had found refreshment at Tinian; so to Tinian he went, and, after staying there for a couple of months, pursued his way to Batavia, the Cape of Good Hope, and so home. The Tamar was sent to Antigua, her rudder having given way; but the Dolphin arrived in the Downs on 9 May 1766, after a voyage of little more than twenty-two months. ‘No navigator ever before encompassed the world in so short a time,’ is Beatson's questionable commendation of what was primarily meant as a voyage of exploration (Nav. and Mil. Mem. vi. 458).
In January 1769 Byron was appointed governor of Newfoundland, an office he held for the next three years. On 31 March 1775 he was advanced to be rear-admiral, and on 29 Jan. 1778 to be vice-admiral. A few months later he was appointed to the command of a squadron fitting out at Plymouth for the North American station, or nominally to intercept the Count d'Estaing, who, with twelve ships of the line, had sailed from Toulon on 13 April. The delays consequent on maladministration prevented Byron sailing till 9 June, and even then his ships were wretchedly equipped and badly manned. The rigging was of second-hand or even twice-laid rope, and the ships' companies were largely made up of draughts from the gaols. Under these circumstances it is not surprising that the first bad weather should have scattered the ships and dismasted several, that gaol fever and scurvy should have raged among the crews, and that the components of the squadron should have singly reached the American coast in such a state that they must have fallen an easy prey to any enterprising enemy. Fortunately D'Estaing retired from before Sandy Hook just in time to leave the passage open to the first of Byron's ships, on 30 July. Others arrived later. Byron himself, in the Princess Royal, made Halifax with difficulty, so did two others; one got to Newfoundland, one was driven back to England, all were more or less shattered, and all more or less disabled by the sickness of their men. It was 26 Sept. before the squadron was collected at Sandy Hook, and it was not till 18 Oct. that it could put to sea to look for the enemy. It was immediately overtaken by a tremendous storm, which reduced the ships to their former condition of helplessness. One was wrecked, one was driven off the coast and had to make for England, the others got to Rhode Island and there refitted; but it was 13 Dec. before they were again ready for sea. The delay had permitted D'Estaing to appear in the West Indies with a strong force, and with the first news of Byron's approach he sheltered himself and his squadron under the guns of Fort Royal of Martinique. For several months the English, being in superior strength, kept the French shut up in Martinique. In June Byron went to St. Christopher's to see the trade safely off for England, and D'Estaing, taking advantage of his absence, and having been reinforced by ten ships of the line, went south, and without difficulty, almost without opposition, made himself master of Grenada brutally handing over the town to be pillaged (Barrow, Life of Lord Macartney, i. 62). Byron had meanwhile returned to St. Lucia, and having learned that D'Estaing had gone to Grenada, at once followed to protect the town, which he had believed able to hold out for some time. He had no intelligence of D'Estaing having received a considerable reinforcement, and took for granted that in point of numbers his fleet was the stronger. At daybreak on 6 July 1779 he was off Grenada with twenty-one sail of the line and a large number of transports carrying the soldiers designed to co-operate with Lord Macartney. As he advanced the French got under way and stood out, and Byron, under the idea that there were not more than sixteen of them, made the signal for a general chase, and to engage as they came up with the enemy; nor did he make any alteration in his orders when the French, having extended in line of battle, could be seen to number twenty-five sail of the line instead of sixteen. The attack was thus made in a scrambling, disorderly manner, in which several of the leading ships, being comparatively unsupported, were very roughly handled. The English afterwards succeeded in forming their line of battle parallel to the French, and for a short time the action became general; but D'Estaing had no wish to fight it out. He had got Grenada, and the result of the first shock of the battle, by disabling several of the English ships, seemed sufficient to prevent any serious attempt at its recapture. So the French wore and stood back into the bay. That they had had the best of the fighting, so far as it went, was certain; but their neglecting to push their advantage and their hasty withdrawal left them with no claim to victory. The solid gain, however, remained with them, for Byron found himself too weak to attempt to regain the island, and with the greater part of his shattered fleet went back to St. Christopher's. He was lying there, in Basseterre Roads, on 22 July, when D'Estaing made his appearance. The French fleet was more numerous by one-fourth than the English; but D'Estaing having stood in within random gunshot, wore, stood out again, and disappeared. After this there seemed no immediate prospect of any further operations, and Byron, being in a weakly state of health, and suffering from ‘a nervous fever,’ availed himself of a provisional permission to return home, turning the command over to Rear-admiral Parker. He arrived in England on 10 Oct. 1779.
Byron was beyond question a brave man, a good seaman, and an esteemed officer; but nature had not given him the qualifications necessary for a great discoverer, and the peculiar service in which so much of his time was passed gave him no experience in the conduct of fleets. It is very doubtful whether he ever saw a fleet extended in line of battle before he saw the French fleet on the morning of 6 July 1779. Any knowledge which he may have had of naval tactics was purely theoretical, and when wanted in practice lost itself, giving place to the untrained combative instinct. That he was not thoroughly beaten at Grenada was due to the incapacity of his antagonist, and not to any skill on his part. It is said that, after the peace, he was offered the command in the Mediterranean, but declined it. He had thus no further employment, and died vice-admiral of the white on 10 April 1786. A fine portrait by Reynolds, painted in 1759, the property of William Byron, was exhibited at the Grosvenor Gallery in the loan collection of Reynolds's works, 1883–4.
He married in August 1748 Sophia, daughter of John Trevannion of Carhays in Cornwall, by whom he had two sons and seven daughters, three of whom died in infancy. Of the sons, the eldest, John, was father of Lord Byron the poet; the second, George Anson, captain in the navy, while in command of the Andromache frigate, had the honour of bringing to Sir George Rodney intelligence of the sailing of the French fleet from Martinique on 8 April 1782, and of thus contributing to the decisive victory off Dominica four days later.[Charnock's Biog. Nav. v. 423; Ralfe's Nav. Biog. i. 60; Beatson's Nav. and Mil. Memoirs; Chevalier's Hist. de la Marine Française pendant la Guerre de l'Indépendance Américaine.]