George Byng was one of the few commanders in naval and military history never to fail in any task he was charged with or undertook. Charnock's eulogy quotes George I as saying that he needed no instructions on important missions, for "he knew how to act without any." This and linked pages will examine those actions of his which Monamy was commissioned to represent.
There are careful and copious descriptive notes accompanying the paintings, compiled in about 1968. No name is given, but I believe they must be by Brian Tunstall, editor of The Byng Papers, 1930-32, as some passages recur almost verbatim. Other information comes from Charnock, Biographia Navalis, and Pattee Byng's Journal 1718-1720, edited by J.L.Cranmer-Byng.
The English Fleet at Naples, by Kaspar Botler, reproduced in Pattee Byng's Journal 1718-1720
The Battle of Cape Passaro took the form of a pursuit of the Spanish fleet by Byng, starting from Naples and passing through the straits of Messina, down the East coast of Sicily. The Spanish contingent consisted of twenty-six men-of-war, two fireships, four bomb vessels, seven galleys and several other ships with stores and provisions. Before reaching the Cape, the Spanish force divided in two, one section making for the coast, and the other engaging with the foremost English pursuers. Byng had sent the fastest sailers, the Kent, Superbe, Grafton, and Orford, ahead of the main fleet, which soon caught up. This part of the battle is featured in the painting. The coastal encounter, which was even more devastating for the Spaniards, is relegated to the far distance, at the top right of the painting. As war had not been declared between Spain and England at this time, a special point is made in Byng's account of the battle that the Spanish ships had fired first, justifying English retaliation. The main section of the painting is shown below.
Spanish ships are here ringed in black: Byng's flagship, the Barfleur, ringed in red. There are eighteen Spanish ships, and eighteen of the Red, White and Blue. English ships ringed below.
The coloured rings indicate that there are ten of the Red Squadron, four each of the White and the Blue. The red ensigns tend to look white in the black and white photograph. The ships have been ringed according to the notes, but there seems to be some confusion about the colour of the isolated ship, ringed in red, flying a Vice-Admiral's flag at the extreme right of the painting. This is said to be the Shrewsbury, Vice-Admiral Cornwall, and looks as if it ought to be a ship of the White. The colours, if nothing else, are slightly more discernible in the fuzzy photo below.
The eight individual ship engagements are necessarily depicted taking place simultaneously here, although the battle actually lasted from daybreak to nightfall. The situation shown in box 1, involving Byng, is enlarged at the top of this page; and see also here. In Byng's despatches, sent home by his son Pattee Byng, the Barfleur is said to have been within shot of the Spanish Admiral, Don Anthonio de Castaneta, in the Real San Felipe, in box 2, when one of their Rear-Admirals, (Rear-Admiral Guevara, apparently in the San Luis) and another 60 gun ship (apparently the San Fernando) "bore down and gave her their broadsides, and then clap'd upon a wind, standing in for land. The Admiral, in the Barfleur, stood after them till it was almost night. But, it being little wind, and they galing from her out of reach, he left pursuing them, and stood away to the fleet again; which he joined two hours after night."
Not all the ships are identified in the accompanying notes. Box 2 represents the Real San Felipe being pursued by the Kent, with one of the other two ships said to be the Superbe. Box 7 is the Principe de Asturias sandwiched between the Breda and the Captain; and box 6 is the Volante similarly sandwiched between the Montagu and the Rupert. These, and boxes 3, 4, 5, and 8 are tackled on the next pages, where an attempt is made to identify the other encounters with the marginal help of a pen and wash sketch by Monamy, probably preparatory to the oil painting.
The sketch gives greater prominence to the engagement on the coast, conducted by George Walton in the Canterbury, with the Argyle and six other ships: a bare smudge in the painting.
The string of sails seen here passing the tip of the Cape, but not visible in the reproduction at the top of this page, represents seven Spanish galleys under Admiral Don F. de Grimao.