Mark you that I die like a gentleman and a soldier – I am to be shot with sixty others in about an hour. So ends Robert Boyd’s heart-rending letter, dated 10 December 1831, to his brother William. Michael MacCallan discovers the truth behind the death of his great-grandfather’s uncle Robert during a failed attempt to overthrow the Spanish king Ferdinand VII.
Boyd, aged 26, participated in General Torrijos’ ill-fated expedition to overthrow King Ferdinand VII ofSpainin 1831. Through betrayal by a presumed ally, General Moreno, the expedition failed and the participants were captured. After a period of incarceration in Malaga, they were, without any semblance of justice, taken out and executed by firing squad.
I should highlight that this is, in part, a ‘family affair’. Robert Boyd (1805-1831) was the uncle to my great-grandfather William Boyd-Carpenter (1841-1918). William Boyd-Carpenter, who was also Bishop of Ripon (1884-1911), was a gifted orator and prolific author. It is thanks to his documents that I have been able to gather information on this tragic affair, including a copy of Boyd’s final, hand-written letter.
In 1831,Spain wrestled with political unrest. Ferdinand VII had been restored to the throne by the British in 1814, on condition that he ruled under the more liberal Constitution of 1812. Unfortunately, Ferdinand reneged on this, preferring an autocratic approach to sovereignty.
In 1820, Ferdinand’s misrule provoked a revolt in favour of the 1812 Constitution. Ferdinand was captured but then made promises for reform. However, after his release in 1823, he again reneged on these undertakings and avenged himself against his ‘liberal’ opponents with great ferocity. This repression of those considered to be holding ‘liberal views’ drove many into exile; amongst these was Jose Maria de Torrijos and Uriarte (General Torrijos).
Torrijos sought refuge inEnglandduring the 1820s. During his time inEngland, he attracted a following of like-minded people seeking to defend the cause of liberty and fight against the absolutist and repressive regime of Ferdinand VII. Amongst those followers was Boyd, then a lieutenant in the East India Company’s army.
The 1831 expedition to Spain
Torrijos had been led to believe that, on his arrival inSpain, local support would be forthcoming for his uprising. In particular, he trusted the messages from General Vicente Gonalez Moreno, the Governor of Malaga, who was urging him to come toMalaga. Indeed, in one letter, Morenois said to have stated that ‘we burn to join your glorious constitutional cause’.
In late 1831, Torrijos and his band of followers (approximately 60, including Boyd) left England for Gibraltar. Shortly after their arrival, Torrijos received a letter from Moreno advising that he and his troops were ready to join Torrijos, as soon as Torrijos landed on Spanish soil.
This letter seemed to confirm earlier reports that matters were in an unsettled state and that troops were on the move. Evidently, the public authorities were nervous, for a proclamation had been made in Malaga forbidding the people to speak of politics ‘under pain of death’. So, when the letter from Moreno arrived, pledging armed support, all seemed to indicate that the hour was ripe for action, particularly as Morenoassured Torrijos that ‘the district of Malaga was ready to rise with them’.
With this encouragement, Torrijos seized the moment and set sail from Gibraltar. Half way between Gibraltar and Malaga, they were challenged by Spanish vessels, forced ashore at a coastal village near Fuengirola, and, being attacked, sought refuge in a farmhouse. A few hours later, they were faced by some 300 troops, commanded by none other than Moreno, and were forced to surrender.
It was then that Torrijos discovered that Moreno had betrayed him. Moreno had lured him with promises of support and by invoking his ‘honour’. When Torrijos confronted him, Moreno replied: ‘I use the word honour to entrap the enemies of the King’. In hindsight, Torrijos should have been more circumspect in his dealings with Moreno, whose past history included active involvement in massacres in Valencia and Cadiz.
Incarceration in Malaga
After their capture, the prisoners were incarcerated in Malaga. Learning that there was a British prisoner (Boyd) among them, William Mark (British Consul, Malaga) requested the right to visit his countryman. Moreno denied any knowledge of a British captive. This denial is suspect, as the official list of prisoners in Moreno’s possession named the third man on the list as Ingles, Don Roberto Boyd.
Undeterred, Mark urgently appealed to Madrid, whilst asking Moreno to take no final action against Boyd before a response had been received. An ambitious man, Moreno wanted to prove his zeal to the throne, and, seemingly without waiting for a reply from Madrid, ordered the prisoners be transferred to the Convento del Carmen, then to be executed by firing squad.
Robert Boyd’s final letter
In the meantime and, unaware of Moreno’s further treachery, Mark managed, through an Irish friar, to inform Boyd of some of the steps being taken for his protection. Unfortunately, all these efforts were in vain.
It was in these last excruciating hours that Boyd wrote his final letter to his brother, William, as he sat ‘chained among my fellow sufferers’.
We can hardly imagine what must have been going through the mind of this young man. However, he writes that he is ‘calm and perfectly resigned’ to his fate, and that ‘for him there is no longer any future’. One can only be in awe of such strength of character, in such a dark and fearful hour; he was, as he himself puts it, prepared to ‘fall in defence of what I hold dear’.
The content of this, very moving, letter is given below.
Convento del Carmen
10 December, 1831
My dearest William,
The dismal news that this letter conveys, you I trust will break to my beloved & revered mother in the easiest and gentlest manner. Ere this letter reaches you I will be mouldering in my grave in a foreign land. The preparations for death are going on rapidly around me & as I sit chained among my fellow-sufferers in the refectory where I write from, the harbingers of death robed in the livery of the grave are flitting around me agonising as the Spaniards have it, the poor wretches at their confession. Violent have been the attacks they have made upon me to make me recant, and, if any such story should go abroad you will know what credit to attach to it.
I am thank God calm & perfectly resigned & at some future day I feel a presentiment that my spirit will claim retribution for my wrongs – Dark will be the deed that will be done this night in the Convento of the Carmelites – Accusation is conviction.
Think of me at times as I at this moment think only of the affliction that this news will bring upon my dear very dear brothers and sisters. Let them take my last my dying love & if the events of my life should pass before them, let them forget the follies of earlier times in the reflection that I fall in defence of what I hold dear and that there is not one dishonouring spot on the exit of your brother. He is the more fortunate. Yea he hath finished. For him there is no longer any future. His life was pure, bright; without spot it was & cannot cease to be. No ominous hour knocks at his door with tidings of mishap. Far off is he, above desire or fear. No more submitted to the chance or change of the unsteady planets. Oh! It is well with him.
Last best of love to my mother – Adieu.
Yours till the last affectionately,
Mark you that I die like a gentleman & a soldier – I am to be shot with sixty others in about an hour.
Execution at Convento Del Carmen
At mid-morning on the following day, Sunday 11 December 1831, the first group of prisoners, including both Torrijos and Boyd, were led out and marched to their execution. Robert Boyd was shot.
After his execution, Boyd’s body was rescued before it could be plundered by the watching crowd. The son of the British Consul arrived just in time and, flinging the British colours over Boyd’s body, claimed it in the name of his country. Boyd’s body was taken to the Consul’s house, where it lay in state until the following day, after which it was taken for burial to the English Cemetery.
Given the despicable treatment of a British subject, the affair was well debated in Parliament and the press, both at the time and shortly thereafter, when, in 1834, Moreno stayed in London.
My great-grandfather’s view was that ‘my uncle took his risk when he joined the expedition’.
Viscount Palmerston, Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, took a legalistic position. He was reported in Hansard as saying, ‘A claim was made on the part of the British authorities in behalf of Mr Boyd, as a British subject (but) … to no avail. The execution took place and … as far as the Spaniards were concerned, it was quite in accordance with the laws of Spain. As to Mr Boyd, he was afraid, however they might lament his fate, that his death was justifiable according to the laws of nations. Mr Boyd was found in arms acting against Spain, acting against its authorities, in union with persons who were considered traitors to its government.’
To balance these views, it should be noted that the British Consul, in his despatch of 12 December 1831, wrote: ‘Mr Boyd committed no act of hostility whatever. He was entrapped. … and Torrijos himself, and all the principal personages … declared to the last moment, when they were about to pay the forfeit of their lives … that Mr Boyd’s life ought to be spared, as he was merely cajoled into the voyage of which he had no previous knowledge.
When Moreno visited England during 1834, indignation raged with the British public. Questions were raised in Parliament as to whether ‘the murderer of Mr Boyd was not amenable to the laws of this country?’ Palmerston replied that legal opinion was that ‘General Moreno was not amenable to any tribunal in this country’.
Given these injustices, The Times reflected general indignation when it wrote ‘although international law is unable to reach the person of Moreno, the force of public opinion … may yet drive him from this free country’. Moreno was later assassinated by Carlist soldiers at Urdax in Spain in 1839.
Three years after the tragedy, however, a solemn anniversary service was held in the chapel of the convent to commemorate those whom Moreno had betrayed and sent to their deaths. The service was attended by the Governor and officials of Malagaas well as the British Consul in full uniform. A sermon was preached in which Torrijos and his followers were extolled as patriots, falling in defence of liberty. In 1836, one of the principal streets in Madrid was officially given the name of Calle Torrijos.
In the cemetery at Malaga, a monument was erected to Boyd, bearing the following inscription:
To the memory of Robert Boyd, Esq, of Londonderry, Ireland. The friend and fellow-martyr of Torrijos, Calderon etc who fell at Malaga, in the sacred cause of liberty, on the 11 December 1831, aged twenty-six years.
The expedition of 1831 has subsequently turned into a cause celebre. In the years that followed, monuments were erected, and streets named after, Torrijos. Indeed, there is now an Asociacion Historico-Cultural Torrijos 1831 (www.torrijos1831.es).
Of more direct relevance, however, is that a street was named to commemorate Robert Boyd’s participation in the affair (Calle Robert Boyd, 29002, Malaga). This is, indeed, a fitting tribute to someone who was prepared to ‘fall in defence of what I hold dear’.