Who Was Robert Boyd?

6 April 2023

Who Was Robert Boyd?

A footnote on the right side of history.

By Neil Tidmarsh

Sometimes a single passing reference can grab your attention and refuse to let go.  Like this one:

“Liberals, meanwhile, tried to encourage their own popular rebellions, with several attempts in 1831 alone.  One of these saw a plotter called José María Torrijos, his British co-conspirator Robert Boyd and forty-six others shot on the beach at Málaga after being caught in a clandestine landing there, having set out from Gibraltar to start an uprising.”

That was in Giles Tremlett’s España (a brief history of Spain), a book I was reading last month while on holiday – in Málaga, as it happens.

There was no other mention of Robert Boyd in the book (hardly surprising as Mr Tremlett deftly covers more than three thousand years of history in just under three hundred pages), which made that one reference all the more intriguing and fascinating.  Robert Boyd?  Who was Robert Boyd?  How on earth did a Briton get caught up in an attempted revolution in Spain?  Why did the uprising fail?  How did a Briton end up in front of a firing squad exactly where thousands of holidaying Brits lie around sunning themselves and drinking beer every summer almost two centuries later?

I was still thinking about those questions the next day when I found myself in the Plaza de la Merced, a big square on the edge of Málaga’s old town, on my way to the Casa Natal de Picasso museum in the house in the square’s north-west corner where Málaga’s most famous son Pablo was born in 1881.  A busy road runs along the southern side of the square but the sunny northern side is lined with bars and cafes and restaurants, with tables and chairs and parasols set out under the clear blue sky.

And slap-bang in the middle of the square is a huge obelisk.  I glanced at it in passing – and found that it commemorated that 1831 uprising and its forty-nine fallen heroes.  A rough translation of the inscription would read “To the 49 victims, who for their patriotic love of freedom were sacrificed in this city on 11th December 1831”.  Their names are recorded around the four sides of the monument: D (Don) José María Torrijos, D Juan Lopez Pinto, D M Florez Calderon… And yes, there it was, sixth on the list – M (Mr) Robert Boyd.  A single British name, strangely, mysteriously, intriguingly incongruous on that  Spanish monument.

Those questions now had a grip on me as unrelenting as a pack of pit-bull terriers so I had no choice but to spend much of the rest of the week trying to find the answers.  After a few false starts (a Lieutenant-General Sir Robert Boyd was the Governor of Gibraltar three times in the late 18th century and was buried there in 1794 – could he be the grandfather of our Robert Boyd? – no, apparently no relation, just a weird coincidence), a clearer picture began to emerge.

The background was simple enough.  Spain’s King Ferdinand VII, who reigned from 1813 to 1833, was a tyrant – reactionary, authoritarian and brutal.  Giles Tremlett describes him as “bloated, balding and gout-ridden – one of the worst monarchs in Spanish history”.  Spain’s best-selling author Arturo Pérez-Reverte, in his entertaining Una Historia de España, calls him a complete bastard and worse (“un absoluto hijo de puta con ático, piscina y garage”), a villain so thoroughly and perfectly evil that you’d think he’d been made in a laboratory.

Coming to the throne when Napoleon’s occupying French army had been driven out of Spain (and Napoleon’s brother Joseph Bonaparte had been kicked off the throne), Ferdinand VII started as he meant to go on – by abolishing the liberal constitution which the Spanish parliament had drawn up in Cádiz a year earlier.  This Cádiz Constitution – finalised on 19 March 1812 in the last city to hold out against the French – was and is a remarkable document.  It proposed the complete modern package of parliamentary democracy and constitutional monarchy (and, incidentally, gave us the word “Liberal” as a modern political label).  In Spain it holds the same sacred status as the Magna Carta holds in England and the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution hold the USA.

Ferdinand’s scrapping of it was a shock to all those who had offered him the throne on condition that he honoured the Constitution.  But worse was to follow.  He ruthlessly persecuted anyone who objected to his reactionary absolutism.  Liberals (and anyone suspected of being a liberal) were arrested, imprisoned and executed, or fled into exile abroad.  Many of them found a refuge in Britain.  A brief respite came in 1820 when the under-strength Spanish army refused to go to America to confront the massive revolutions which were burning through Spain’s empire; the mutiny gave the king such a scare that he swiftly backtracked to save his position, accepting the Constitution at last and giving way to a representative government, media freedom and progressive social reform.  Three years later, however, he bludgeoned his way back to absolute power with the help of the reactionary French king Louis XVIII and yet another invasion by a French army.  The repression and persecution returned with a vengeance.  Once again, those liberals who managed to escape his violent retribution fled to Britain.

One of them was General José María Torrijos.  Born in 1791, the son of royal functionaries, he’d joined the army at the age of 13 and become a military engineer; he’d fought against Napoleon’s occupying French army in the war of 1808-1814 “in the name of the liberal principles of freedom and independence”, ending the war as a brigadier-general and military governor of south east Spain at the age of 23; he’d been imprisoned in 1817 for taking part in a conspiracy to replace Ferdinand VII’s absolutist power with the Constitution; he’d been released after the mutiny of 1820 and appointed field-marshal and Minister of War by the short-lived representative government; he’d fought yet again “in the name of freedom and independence” against invading French soldiers when King Louis XVIII of France sent that army into Spain to restore the powers of his fellow absolutist monarch Ferdinand VII in 1823; and when Louis’s and Ferdinand’s forces of political reaction triumphed later that year, he’d managed to escape the country, going first to France (where he stayed for only five months because the regime was hostile to liberals) and then to England.

He settled in London and began to conspire with fellow Spanish exiles against Ferdinand and to plot for the restoration of the Constitution.  He also gained the sympathy of many like-minded British people who opposed repression and supported the cause of liberty.  Enthusiastic and idealistic young liberals like Tennyson (who would of course become the great poet of the Victorian age), Thomas Carlisle (who would become the great historian and philosopher of the Victorian age) and John Stirling (a writer whose father was the editor of The Times) were particularly supportive.  Radical student debating societies like the Cambridge Apostles (Stirling was its founder and Tennyson was a member) gave him a warm welcome and embraced his cause.  The Scottish student John Stirling had an Anglo-Irish cousin – an even more enthusiastic and idealistic champion of liberty – who he introduced to Torrijos.  That cousin was Robert Boyd.

Robert Boyd was no student but a man of action.  Born in Londonderry on 7 December 1805, he became a lieutenant in the East India Company’s 65th Regiment of Bengal Native Infantry as a teenager.  He resigned his commission, however, when the Greek War of Independence broke out, and went to Greece as a volunteer in the fight to free that country from the Ottoman empire.  That fateful introduction to Torrijos in London must have occurred when Boyd returned from Greece in 1829 following the defeat of the Ottoman forces and the end of the war.

The two military men – the 24 year old Boyd and the 38 year old Torrijos – clearly had much in common.  They became firm friends and Boyd soon threw in his lot with the Spanish conspirators.  When an inheritance of £5000 came his way, he didn’t hesitate to donate this considerable sum to the Spanish liberals’ war-chest.  It funded valuable logistical support, even enabling them to buy a ship – which was unfortunately seized by the British authorities on the request of Ferdinand VII’s envoy in London.  Nevertheless they pressed on with their plans to promote a liberal uprising against the Spanish king in the name of the Constitution.

In 1830 Boyd went to Gibraltar to establish a headquarters for their operations and to organise the appropriate infrastructure.  Torrijos and his body of dedicated exiles followed, and they were soon sending probing expeditions into the Spanish mainland.  By late 1831 they were ready to launch the main campaign.  On November 30 they set sail from Gibraltar in two ships, planning to raise their standard in Málaga where they’d been assured that the soldiers of the garrison were ready to go over to their side.  It seems, however, that they had fallen victim to misinformation channelled to them by the Governor of Málaga, Gonzalez Moreno, via forged letters, agents provocateurs and mysterious aliases.

Official Spanish vessels were waiting to intercept them off Málaga.  The conspirators’ ships were driven aground, but Torrijos, Boyd and the other 47 men made it to shore.  Somehow they managed to avoid the troops waiting there to seize them and headed inland for the safety of the hills.  After almost a week hiding out in a remote farmhouse, however, they were discovered and surrounded, and on December 5 they were captured and taken to Málaga where they were imprisoned.

When the British consul in Málaga, William Mark, learnt that a Briton was among those arrested, he appealed to King Ferdinand for clemency and asked the British government to lend weight to that appeal.  But Governor Moreno was determined that no clemency would be given.  Urged on by Ferdinand (who sent him a brief and brutal letter reading simply “Execute them all.  I, the king”), Moreno moved quickly before any international diplomatic pressure could be brought to bear.  On December 11, without a trial or any kind of legal process, the 49 champions of the Constitution were herded in front of firing squads on San Andreas beach and shot dead.

Robert Boyd was only just 26 years old.   He had spent his birthday – December 7 – in captivity, two days after his capture and four days before his execution.

The British consul William Mark recovered Boyd’s body and had it buried in Málaga’s English cemetery, which Mark himself had only very recently founded for the burial of Protestants who died in the city.  (Until then, any non-Catholic had to be buried on the beach, standing upright – a fragile grave which surely wouldn’t have survived more than a few high tides.)  A monument to Robert Boyd stands in the middle of the cemetery, an obelisk which carries the inscription in English: “To the memory of Robert Boyd esquire of Londonderry Ireland.  The friend and fellow-martyr of Torrijos, Calderon and company who fell at Málaga in the sacred cause of liberty on 11 December 1831 aged 26 years.”  A plaque on the wall near where he was buried simply reads “Robert Boyd, 7th December 1805, 11 December 1831”.  When I visited the English cemetery to look at his monuments, a wreath had recently been laid beneath the plaque.

The attempted uprising was a total disaster, but surely Boyd, Torrijos and the other 47 Spanish conspirators were on the right side of history.  Today’s liberal Spain is exactly the kind of country they were trying to create – a parliamentary democracy and constitutional monarchy.  It took another one and a half centuries of struggle to get there, but in all that time Boyd, Torrijos and their companions weren’t forgotten.  Far from it, they were remembered and celebrated by liberals as an encouragement, as prophets pointing the way ahead:  that monument in the Plaza de la Merced was erected in 1842; they were commemorated in poems written throughout the century; and in 1888 the artist Antonio Gisbert Pérez painted the fine picture “The execution by firing squad of Torrijos and his colleagues on the beach at Málaga” which has had pride of place in the Prado ever since.

Robert Boyd is still honoured today in Spain.  In 2004, on the 200th anniversary of his birth and under the auspices of Málaga’s historical and cultural association TORRIJOS 1831, a road in the city was named ‘Calle Robert Boyd’ after him, an annual tribute to him was established and Spanish-language inscriptions were added to his memorials in the English cemetery.  The one by the obelisk reads (in a loose translation); “To the memory of Mr Robert Boyd Esq of Londonderry, shot, with General Torrijos and 47 companions, on Málaga’s San Andres beaches on 11 December in 1831 for defending the Constitution and the liberty of the Spanish nation.  The Historical and Cultural Association Torrijos renders homage to you for liberty on the bicentenary of your birth December 2004”.  The one by his plaque simply reads “A Robert Boyd. Héroe Romántico. 6-12-2004”.

Here in Britain today, we’re encouraged to think of our nineteenth century forebears as rapacious colonists, as grasping and exploitative imperialists.  So it’s as well to be reminded, by stories such as Robert Boyd’s, that Britain in that century was a beacon of liberty for many around the world, and that many Britons went abroad to help fight tyranny and repression in other countries simply because they believed that every human being should be able to enjoy the freedoms that they themselves could enjoy at home.  Robert Boyd isn’t an isolated case.  Lord Byron dying for the cause of Greek freedom is the most famous one, of course, but there were many others: hundreds if not thousands of Britons voluntarily followed Garibaldi and Simon Bolivar and other liberators fighting for freedom and independence in Greece, Italy, Spain and South America; and the navy scoured the seven seas in the gruelling fight against slavery and the slave trade in what was more or less a world war against all comers which lasted for most of the century.

Some may call it just another example of British hypocrisy, but that would be unjust.  Men like Robert Boyd didn’t just talk the talk; even though many of those Britons who went abroad to fight for liberal causes have unmarked graves far from home, some of them have carefully-tended graves and streets named after them by grateful nations in cities around the world to prove that they did indeed walk the walk.

Cover page image: a detail from “The execution by firing squad of Torrijos and his colleagues on the beach at Málaga” by Antonio Gisbert Pérez.  Copyright Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid.
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