Dead Admirals Society on Tour: Sicily

By the time this post goes live, we’ll be sunning ourselves by a poolside in Sicily. It’s complete coincidence, of course, but this ties in very nicely with last week’s guest blog from Gijs Rommelse, about the film Michiel De Ruyter: the great Dutch admiral perished in 1676 in battle off Augusta, on the east coast of the island, when his Dutch fleet was attempting to expel the French from Messina in order to restore the city to the Spanish, the Netherlands’ allies. (As preparation for the holiday, I’ve recently been reading John Julius Norwich‘s new history of Sicily, which says this about this episode: ‘the Sicilians were shocked by the drunkenness and debauchery of the Dutch, while the Dutch were contemptuous of the apparent fecklessness of their hosts’.) Further south on the same coast is Cape Passaro, where in 1718 Admiral George Byng won a stunning victory over the Spanish fleet – a victory that has never quite been accorded the place in the pantheon of British naval triumphs that it undoubtedly deserves, probably because Britain wasn’t actually at war with Spain at the time. Nevertheless, Byng became a national hero and was ennobled as the first Viscount Torrington, retiring to his estate at Southill in Bedfordshire, which is only several stones’ throws from where I’m typing these words. And there, in 1733, he was buried, to be followed into the family vault twenty-four years later by his younger son John, famously – or infamously – the only British admiral ever to be executed; as Voltaire said, pour encourager les autres. Of course, Nelson spent time in Sicily when his affair with Lady Hamilton was arguably at its most embarrassing stage, and was made Duke of Bronte by a grateful King Ferdinand. I doubt if we’ll have time to visit ‘Nelson’s Castle‘, but then, neither did he!

There’ll be no post next week due to the holiday, but on the following Monday I hope to be back with some impressions of Sicily and its history. Having said that, we’re staying quite close to the town of Corleone, which is possibly ominous…so if there’s no post after all, you’ll know that I’m sleeping with the fishes.

In the meantime, then, here’s the tomb of George Byng, the victor of Cape Passaro.


  1. RichardB says:

    The victory of Cape Passaro is an odd one. I recall when studying for my A level in history covering this episode and you are right it is mentioned but as an aside and I have never fully understood why as it was a remarkable victory. I seem to recall the cases belli was a failure on the part of the Spanish admiral to show respect for the union flag. It is typical of the times that Byng was honoured by his victory though I can just imagine the consternation today if a British admiral undertook a similar action on that pretext.


    • Absolutely! As an ex-A-level teacher, too, I’m surprised but impressed to learn that a school was teaching that period for A-level so recently.


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