Robert Boyd (1805 - 1831):
Robert Boyd was a British soldier from Londonderry who was attracted to revolutionary causes, first in Greece, then in Spain, where he was captured and executed during a military operation against the government of King Ferdinand VII. He then had the rather morbid honour of being the first person to be buried in the first Protestant cemetery in Spain.
Boyd was born at Templemore, County Londonderry, into a prosperous family in Derry and served as a lieutenant in the East India Company’s Army of the Bengal Presidency. He later was active in the Greek War of Independence (from Turkey) of 1821-32; another British combatant in that war was the romantic poet Lord Byron who was killed in 1824. In London, Boyd came into contact with the Spanish General José María de Torrijos y Uriajo, a political liberal and therefore opponent of the then reigning King Ferdinand. This contact was made through a group of liberal-intellectual figures, known as the “Cambridge Apostles” as they had all studied at that University. The group centred around the poet John Sterling, and had created a student debating society characterised politically by fierce international liberalism. Amongst others in the group, including Sterling, were Alfred Tennyson, Arthur Hallam, John Kemble and Richard C Trench. Torrijos, an extremely cultivated man, well educated, multilingual, and politically determinedly Liberal, was warmly welcomed by them. Boyd had a very similar outlook and warmed to Torrijos.
The King was then enjoying his second reign, though while in earlier years he was known, at least to his supporters, as “Ferdinando Deseado” or “Wished-for Ferdinand”, he had become “Fernando el Felón”, corrupt, cruelly vindictive, arch-conservative, despotic. Ferdinand had in fact been restored to the throne by the British in 1814 under a liberal Constitution, to replace Napoléon Bonaparte’s brother Joseph, but Ferdinand wasted little time re-establishing the status quo ante and by 1820 he was ousted in a revolt. He was restored again in 1823 but soon showed he had not changed his despotic ways; Boyd took a keen interest in Torrijos and his cause, and decided to support him, including providing generous financial backing. They assembled a body of 53 men, acquired a ship and sailed to Gibraltar in November 1831, from where they planned to land in Spain itself at Málaga, about 60 miles away. Torrijos was planning to rely on local support on landing, not least from the Governor of Málaga, General Vicente Gonzalez Moreno. Torrijos had received a letter from him in which (so he averred) the Governor assured him that he was on Torrijos’ side, allegedly burning to join “the glorious constitutional cause”. He was though anything but this, and Torrijos, Boyd and their small force found themselves greeted by a hostile, and as Torrijos and Boyd saw it, rudely treacherous Moreno and a force of several hundred. Torrijos is said to have questioned Moreno’s honour, receiving the riposte that he, Moreno, was indeed honourable as was demonstrated by his seizing enemies of the King.
The Torrijos-Boyd revolutionaries (except a number killed in the actual engagement) were incarcerated in Málaga where the British consul, William Mark, took an interest in them when he heard that one of them was a British subject. He attempted to intervene to have Boyd released, but Moreno denied all knowledge of the foreign prisoner. Local historian Jesús Castro continues the story:
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.
The prisoners were taken to the beach of San Andrés and shot by firing squad on 11 December. Boyd and Torrijos were among the first victims. Consul William Mark’s son was present and covered Boyd’s body with a British flag to deter any potential looter or other despoiler.
At that time in the area, there were no non-Catholic cemeteries; those from outside that religion were instead buried upright on the beach. This often meant that the remains were at the mercy of scavenging animals, quite apart from the health aspects of shallowly-buried bodies; Consul Mark found this practice grossly offensive and had for five years been pestering the city authorities to permit a non-Catholic (or specifically Protestant) cemetery (there were other reasons, among them a sizable British business community). Finally permission was granted by Royal Decree of King Ferdinand and some land acquired to the east of the city; the “Cementerio Protestante de Málaga” or “Cementerio Inglés de Málaga” was opened in December 1831. Robert Boyd’s remains were the first to be interred there. His gravestone is marked by an obelisk. (some decades later, the celebrated Danish writer, Hans Christian Andersen, visited Málaga, and was very positively impressed, not least by the “English cemetery” and even expressed a wish to be interred there himself.). The cemetery, containing over 1,000 plots, is no longer used for burials but is open to the public as is the neighbouring Anglican church.
Boyd’s memory in Spain is generally well preserved; with only a few gaps. The English writer Richard Ford (1796–1858), author of a best-selling travel book about Spain, and a man of distinctly conservative political views published a pamphlet entitled Los españoles y la guerra (“The Spanish People and the War”). He had been travelling in Spain at the time of the Torrijos-Boyd action; he wrote that while the event caused a stir for three or four days, after that time it was hardly mentioned; only the circumstantial fact that one of those shot was British, the proximity of Gibraltar, and articles in the London Press brought the incident to any substantial attention.
Boyd’s execution was raised in Parliament during a visit to London by General Moreno but there was no sympathetic response from the government of the day. The foreign secretary, Lord Palmerston, said Boyd’s execution was in accordance with the Laws of Spain. “Mr Boyd,” he said, “was found in arms acting against Spain, acting against its authorities, in union with persons who were considered traitors to its government.” In Spain itself Torrijos and his comrades were rehabilitated a few years after their deaths. Today in Málaga there is a street named in honour of General Torrijos as well as one in honour of Boyd.
The poet José Ignacio Javier Oriol Encarnación de Espronceda y Delgado, who was also an active opponent of Ferdinand for which he was imprisoned and exiled, produced a poem, A La Muerte De Torrijos Y Sus Compañeros (“On the death of Torrijos and his companions”), praising the valour of the expeditionaries, though not mentioning Boyd by name. However, the well-known painting depicting the shootings, El fusilamiento de Torrijos (“The Shooting of Torrijos”) by Antonio Gisbert Pérez (oil on linen, 1888), hangs in the Museo del Prado, Madrid. In this work, the principal figure is Torrijos but Boyd is clearly depicted, tall, somewhat sandy haired, dressed in smart civilian clothes (brown suit with tails and yellow waistcoat), manacled and looking at the ground in front of his feet - or perhaps at the bodies of some who have just been shot. In one commentary on this picture he is described as an “oficial inglés”. (This painting can be seen in extract, featuring Boyd, at the Torrijos Association website at torrijos1831.es.)
At the base of the obelisk memorial is a larger tablet dedicated by the same Associación Histórico-CulturalTorrijos 1831 on the bicentenary of Boyd’s birth. It reads:
A LA MEMORIA DE MR ROBERT BOYD ESQ. NATURAL DE LONDONDERRY, FUSILADO JUNTO A GRAL. TORRIJOS Y 47 COMPAÑEROS EN LAS PLAYAS MALAGUEÑAS DE SAN ANDRES, EL DIA 11 DE DICIEMBRE DE 1831 POR DEFENDER LA CONSTITUCION Y LA LIBERTAD DEL PUEBLO ESPAÑOL
LA ASSOCIACION H.C. TORRIJOS POR LA LIBERDAD LE RINDE HOMINAJE EN EL BICENTENARIO DE SU NACIMIENTO
(To the memory of Mr Robert Boyd Esquire, native of Londonderry, shot together with General Torrijos and 47 comrades on the Málaga beaches of San Andrés, on 11 December 1831 for defending the constitution and liberty of the Spanish people
The Torrijos Historico-Cultural Association for Liberty pays homage to him on the bicentenary of his birth
He is also featured on a monument in Málaga’s central Plaza de la Merced, a neo-classical obelisk which commemorates him among the “49 victims, who for their love of patriotic liberty, were sacrificed in this city”.
Robert Boyd also features in a novel. In 2012 the Hispanist writer Ian Gibson, who was a Lecturer in Spanish at Queen’s University, Belfast early in his career, published La Berlina de Prim ("Prim’s Sedan"), an historical novel (in Spanish). It is based on a real historical event, the assassination of the President of the Spanish Council of Ministers in 1870. The crime is investigated by a fictional character, Patrick Boyd, whom Gibson creates as the illegitimate son of Robert Boyd. In a talk he delivered at Boyd’s grave in the Cementario Inglés, he described how Boyd, who gave up his life and his money for Spanish freedom; felt to him like a friend. Gibson was awarded the 2012 Premio de Novela Fernando Lara (Fernando Lara Novel Prize) for this work.
Boyd is not mentioned by name in Amberto Gil Novales’ Diccionario biográfico de España 1808-1833 though the Gisbert Pérez painting including Boyd appears on the cover of Volume 3, which contains the entry on Torrijos.
Other memorials to Boyd can be found nearer home. There is a prominent such in the porch of St Augustine’s Church, Derry (known locally as “The Wee Church on the Walls”). It reads:
Sacred To The Memory Of Robert Boyd Of This City Esquire And Sometime Lieutenant Of The Bengal Army Who With 53 Brave And Devoted Companions Fell At Málaga On The 11th December 1831in A Bold But Successless Attempt To Overthrow Despotism In Spain And To Advance The Sacred Cause Of Religion And Liberty In That Degraded Country Aged 26
In his last remaining hours Boyd wrote his final letter to his brother, William, as he sat “chained among my fellow sufferers”. The letter was found among the papers of one of Boyd’s nephews, William Boyd-Carpenter, who was the Bishop of Ripon from 1884 to 1911.
The expedition of 1831 subsequently turned into a cause célèbre. In the years that followed, monuments were erected, and streets named after, Torrijos. Indeed, there is now an Asociación Histórico-Cultural 1831. Regarding Boyd himself, a street was named to commemorate Robert Boyd’s participation in the affair, Calle Robert Boyd, 29002, Málaga).
Boyd had a sister, Elizabeth Hester, who married Thomas Frederick Colby, one of the pioneers of the Irish Ordnance Survey.
|Born:||7 December 1805|
|Died:||11 December 1831|
www.diariosur.es/20121120/local/Málaga/cementerio-ingls-declarado-monumento-201211201438.html; Miguel Artola: La España de Fernando VII (Madrid, 2008, p 731ff); http://teodororeding.es/2010/05/13/visita-al-museo-del-prado; “An Irishman’s Diary”, Irish Times 10 12 2014 (Wesley Boyd, a relative) http://elpais.com/diario/2000/08/01/andalucia/; www.torrijos1831.es; “Ian Gibson, Premio Lara de Novela” (ccaa.elpais.com/ccaa/2012/05/11/andalucia/1336766044_729128); Jesús Castro: “Robert Boyd – the passionate conspirator”, www eyeonspain.com, 7 April 2010 (translated by Rachael Harrison); “A la muerte de Torrijos y sus compañeros - Poemas de José de Espronceda”, (www.poemas-del-alma.com); Alberto Gil Novales: Diccionario biográfico de España 1808-1833 (Madrid, Fundación MAFRE, 2010, p 3021); www.diariosur.es/20121120/local/Málaga/cementerio-ingls-declarado-monumento-201211201438; News Letter, 6.5.2016; www.military-history.org/articles/your-military-history-the-martyr-of-Málaga; Dictionary of Irish Biography
Note: except where otherwise stated, all Spanish-language sources were translated by the Editor, NDUB
© 2023 Ulster History Circle