Historic hero executed by firing squad on a sun-drenched beach

The countrywide exodus to local beaches during the current heatwave generates thoughts of seaside holidays here in days of yore.

Friday, 23rd July 2021, 6:00 am
Robert Boyd
Robert Boyd

Some of our most cherished childhood memories are of long, carefree days splashing in the waves, building sandcastles, chasing through sandhills and munching sandwiches gritty with sand!

But beaches can have much less joyous associations - for WWII veterans of Dunkirk or Normandy, for asylum-seekers, for distant coastlines ravaged by tsunamis, for ships in storms and all too often, for unwary swimmers.

A Spanish beach has particularly tragic links with a young man from Londonderry who is commemorated by historians, monuments and memorials, and whose last resting place was greatly loved by an iconic children’s author.

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1888 painting of execution by firing squad. Robert Boyd (centre) hands roped, black neck tie, long coat

“It was summer. The wheat fields were golden, the oats were green and deep lakes lay hidden. A duck sat on her nest hatching her ducklings but one enormous egg took much longer than the rest. At last it cracked open. ‘Peep peep!’ squeaked the duckling as out it tumbled. But it was so big and ugly!”

Many of us remember the children’s story, and Danny Kaye’s 1950s song, about the Ugly Duckling.

Curiously, the narrative has similarities with lines written in 1862 about a Málaga cemetery in southern Spain - “a little paradise, flowers sufficient for a thousand bridal wreaths, high geranium bushes growing around the tombstones...”

The Ugly Duckling, and the description of the Spanish graveyard, were penned by Danish writer Hans Christian Andersen. The Málaga cemetery was Spain’s first Protestant burial ground - the Cementerio Inglés de Málaga - opened in December 1831.

Cenotaph bearing Robert Boyd’s name in Plaza de la Merced

Andersen adored the historic sea-port and regarded its English cemetery as one of his favourite places in his widely-travelled world.

He even expressed a desire to be buried there.

Located on La Avenida de Príes, it was for Protestants, built after persistent campaigning by British Consul William Mark.

Previously, only Roman Catholics could be buried in consecrated ground in Spain.

In Málaga the non-Catholic dead were treated as heretics and buried upright in the sandy seashore at night.

One of the most famous graves in Cementerio Inglés is probably its first, for one of Málaga’s most historic figures, 26-year-old Robert Boyd from Londonderry.

Executed in 1831 for his role in a failed uprising against King Ferdinand VII, Boyd is known as the Martyr of Málaga.

There are prominent memorials to him in the city and one in the porch of Londonderry’s St Augustine’s Church.

How did the son of a wealthy Derry family, who’d served as an army Lieutenant in Bengal, come to be executed by a firing squad on a sun-drenched Mediterranean beach in 1831?

The intriguing story starts in 1808 when Napoleon’s forces invaded Spain and the Duke of Wellington, aided by Spanish guerrillas, ousted the French in the Battle of Salamanca in 1812.

King Ferdinand VII was restored to the Spanish throne by the British in 1814, on condition that he ruled under the more liberal Constitution of Cadiz, drawn up in 1812.

Ferdinand reneged, his autocratic regime provoked a revolt in 1820, he was imprisoned and promised again to reform.

After his release in 1823 he yet again broke his promise and ferociously avenged his opponents.

Many were driven into exile, including General José María Torrijos, who went to England and attempted to raise money and troops for a rebellion against Ferdinand.

Lieutenant Robert Boyd, introduced to General Torrijos in London, pledged loyalty and funding.

In 1831 Boyd purchased a ship and set sail for Málaga with Torrijos and some 60 followers.

They were forced ashore by Spanish ships near Málaga and hid in hills but were soon rounded up by Spanish troops.

Most were incarcerated in Málaga’s Convento del Carmen, under orders to be executed.

British Consul William Mark, aided by an Irish friar, contacted the Derry-man, but couldn’t secure his release.

Bound with chains, Boyd wrote a letter to his brother William, conveying love to his mother and family.

His words were heart-breaking.

“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. Violent have been the attacks they have made upon me to make me recant. Dark will be the deed that will be done… I die like a gentleman and a soldier. I am to be shot in about an hour. At this moment I think only of the affliction that this news will bring upon my dear, very dear, brothers and sisters.”

The young Derry-man’s letter ended - “Last, best of love to my mother. Adieu. Yours till the last, affectionately, Robert Boyd.”

He was marched to the beach with 48 of his fellow-prisoners on 11 December 1831 and executed by a firing squad.

Boyd was one of the first to fall.

His grave in the English Cemetery is marked by a gothic obelisk, inscribed: “To the memory of Robert Boyd, Esq, of Londonderry, Ireland.

“The friend and fellow-martyr of Torrijos…who fell at Málaga, in the sacred cause of liberty.”

A more recent plaque commemorates “Robert Boyd, héroe romántico”.

In Málaga’s central Plaza de la Merced, a tall, neo-classical obelisk commemorates him among the “49 victims, who for their love of patriotic liberty, were sacrificed in this city” and a Málaga street (a ‘calle’) is named Calle Robert Boyd.

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