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What to do about Thomas Picton?

SSAP Youth Leadership Network, 23 June 2020

It’s a pleasure to be able to share our thoughts as a Youth Leadership Network on Amgueddfa Cymru's platform. The SSAP Youth Leadership Network is the youth arm of the Sub-Sahara Advisory Panel. It constitutes a group of highly driven and critical young leaders from diverse backgrounds.

In our last meeting, we hosted a discussion on the topical issue of statues and paintings that relate to British colonial history, particularly those of Thomas Picton here in Wales. The session was chaired by Dr. Sarah Younan from National Museum Cardiff. We were joined by the highly esteemed comparative sociologist educator Abu Bakr Madden Al Shabazz, Dr. Douglas Jones from the National Library of Wales and the Director General of Amgueddfa Cymru, David Anderson. A noteworthy and recommended resource used here is James Epstein's “Politics of Colonial Sensation: The Trial of Thomas Picton and the Cause of Louisa Calderon” in the American Historical Review.

The following are excerpts from the discussion including key events in the history of Picton: the slavocracy he was responsible for as governor of Trinidad, his well-known trial for accusations of misconduct abroad (involving the torture of Louisa Calderon) and thereafter, his deployment to Spain, death at Waterloo and posthumous honorary tributes in the form of statues, paintings, and some literary works.

Who was Thomas Picton?

Picton was commissioned in 1771, and was, according to the description on his portrait by Sir Martin Archer in the National Museum Wales collections, "a controversial governor of Trinidad in 1797-1803". The details of the said controversy are well illustrated in his trial for inflicting torture on Louisa Calderon (The Trial of Governor T. Picton for Inflicting the Torture on Louisa Calderon a Free Mulatto and one of His Britannic Majesty’s Subjects in the Island of Trinidad, (London, 1806)).

The trial of Picton

To sum up the details of the trial, a cause célèbre at the time, we turned to the blog by Dr. Jones for the National Library of Wales. In 1806, Picton was called to a trial at the King's Bench following his authoritarian and brutal rule in Trinidad. The accusation leveled against him was signing off an order for torture at the request of a highly influential planter, Begorrat, a planter also responsible for the execution of a dozen slaves at the time of the torture in question. Several things made this torture notable, not least amongst which are the following facts. It was the torture of a 14-year-old freed girl. It was the first trial for misconduct of an official in the execution duties while in service abroad. And, as Willian Garrow, the lead prosecutor, noted at the trial, it was the first time torture had been used officially in Trinidad.

While the details of the case are unique, its nature is ubiquitous, the misconduct of a high official under the influence of highly influential personnel, devoid of moral courage, and hidden away using technical legalities. This is how Picton was found guilty at the initial trial, but would 2 years later find himself never to be sentenced. In fact, he would go on to serve the British empire in Spain and would end up as the highest-ranking official to die at Waterloo, eventually being buried in St Paul's Cathedral a national hero. His public exoneration was about as swift and inexplicable as this outlined turnaround of events. 

Depicting Picton Today

Today, he has a statue honouring his memory in Cardiff City Hall among the heroes of Wales, a portrait in National Museum Cardiff, and an obelisk in Carmarthen.

Perhaps the most unfortunate thing in all this is how the majority of us have become complicit in the obliteration of the history and memory of that free Mulata girl, Louisa Calderon. Instead, we have willingly or unwillingly contributed to the ever-growing memory of Sir Thomas Picton, as polarising as it has always been.  By obliterating the memory of Louisa Calderon, we have severely distorted our collective view of the big man. And readily, we have reduced Louisa to a single case, a stain in both the history of Picton, and British colonial history, a stain which regrettably many have washed away in a falsified sense of pride in the man.

If we attempt to reconfigure this distorted view of Picton to what we know was the more complete form of the man, many will be offended. They have every right to be, because many of them were lied to. They were never afforded the chance to make their own true and more complete judgement of the man. But they must take this offense, the rage at the sense of betrayal, and rightly turn it to the overdue redress. And now is the opportune time to do that.

The leadership panel suggests a number of ways in which this is possible

Suggestions for moving forward

The first and unquestioned is the removal and resituating of the current statues and paintings. The purpose of this is not to remove figures like him from history, but rather to put them in a contextualized environment, where their complete history can be more truthfully and completely told. This will allow our present-day collective memory of such figures to be rid of the bias that's been wrought by failure to tell their histories in the proper colonial context and in environments that allow all members of the public to digest this history.

Secondly, and an extension to the first recommendation, is multi-level education across different institutions responsible for public and private education. Notably, the attempts to re-educate the public should not place sole importance on the humanities but must make an honest attempt to diversify the contents of curricular in subjects such as the sciences.

We encourage members of the public to take an active role in engaging in the public discourse on the future of such statues, monuments, and memorabilia. These should not reflect the views of the elite few, but the public.

Our work with young people at Amgueddfa Cymru is part of the Hands on Heritage initiative kindly supported by the National Heritage Lottery’s Kick the Dust fund  - changing perspectives on heritage with the help of young people.

Comments (20)

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16 December 2021, 11:42
Picton a slaver and murderer should not be glorified. His statue should be removed and put in Madam Tausaud's Chamber of Horrors or similar place telling his true history not one side of it. .
clive williams
31 October 2021, 14:18
I believe the 'tear down statues' movement, along with 'Black Lives Matter' is achieving the direct opposite result to what I assume they wish to achieve. Or maybe I am being naive- perhaps what they really want to achieve is revolution. But they are certainly infuriating the silent majority. I am researching the missionary, Allen Gardiner, who was born in my Parish in Berkshire and met his end by starvation in Tierra del Fuego, in 1851. His last permanent camp was on Picton Island, named after General Picton by Captain Fitzroy. Do we now ask Chile to change the name of Picton island? Gardiner was involved in the foundation of Durban in Natal and Ushaia in Argentina. His picture is to be seen all over South Africa and in Ushaia. But his father had plantations in the West Indies and owned slaves. Do we erase the son's name from history? Some obviously think that all empires were inherently evil. I don't think that to be the case - the British Empire grew more by chance than intent and in my view was more been beneficial than oppressive. But it was far from perfect and that goes for those who helped run it and fight for it. But that is what teaching history is about - trying to achieve rational discussion. Tearing down statues puts us on par with the Taliban and Isis.
Geoffrey Harris
8 October 2021, 09:02

I agree with Clare, and question why was he included in the first place, it would be interesting to find out who the others were on the short list before Picton was selected. In the meantime I have a suggestion as to what we could consider as a suitable replacement, namely Gwenllian ferch Gruffydd. A woman and mother who led an an army against the invaders and died on the battlefield along with her son's. Can you think of anyone more deserving than her of a monument to her bravery, and yet there is nothing to celebrate this ttue hero of the Welsh people.

John Lillbourne
8 March 2021, 16:25
With tha advance of real historica information, now available in detail to the non elite masses of the world.We see in the call to remove statues of obnoxious , and evil people based on our own historic moral, perceptions, of the current elites elevation of these creatures in the towns and cities of the now defunct , history of the British empire to date.
To put things into real perspective, if it was not for the ability of the non elite masses , to access advanced education potential of the current internet. We would not be seeing any serious challenges to the lhistoric glorification of British Empires evil elite personalitise, in their statues and white washed histories to date.
The removal of statues by people who have no love or respect for the staues of elites British Empire, began well before the recent attacks upon these sites. For example in the successful Irish rebellion, the Statue of Wellington was blown off it's high pedastal in Dublin.
The historic struggle to-day goes beyond just the so called cancel culture that wants to remove , these unwarranted glorification of people who served the so called British Empire that caused a lot of suffering, and slavery , and even abuses of it's own working , in maintaining its its Butchers flag , as the Irish people called it.
As a now post industrial age , ex millennial worker. I know many of my comrades in the British working class hated the same elite staues , targeted by BLM and other left wing groups,to date for active, or verbal condemnation of their history etc.
The real issue is who will finally win the narrative, in the future generations. As far as millions of people who think like me, with no political power to seriously challenge our current elites and their promotion of obnoxious servants of their past Empire.f
Others see it , as a much needed statement, as we saw in the destruction of Wellingtons column after the Irish rebellion.
Despite what the BBC tells us what is left of the British post industrial age working class , particularly in its youth. These are non elite masses who have a contempt and justifiable hatred , of Britains past and present elite personalities. Like Thatcher and Churchill who use British soldiers to attack British miners strikes etc.
This is more than just about cancel culture , it is a ongoing political and social struggle to decide who will eventualy be the real political masters of Britain.
Even when the last of these British Empire icons fall. The only one left standing may be Cromwells, as a modern real Englisn revolution defeats Parliament and a Republican Socialist economic party , takes its place following China into a real prosperous and advanced society.
I which only this new historic narrative , will replace this current one,
The battles one the statues , is part of a much large historic battlefield, in these dialectics of social and political histories to date.
Amgueddfa Cymru – Museum Wales Staff
28 January 2021, 17:08

We are currently working with community partners to commission a new work of art in response to contemporary debates surrounding Thomas Picton and his legacy. The commission aims to change the narrative around Picton, drawing attention to voices that have to date been marginalised from Amgueddfa Cymru’s interpretation of Martin Archer Shee’s portrait.

As a public museum we are committed to ensuring that any facts we present are historically accurate and representative. However, like many other cultural organisations in Wales, we recognise that we have not presented a balanced perspective on some important aspects of the past. In particular, we have not adequately represented the contributions and perspectives of black and racialised historians and communities.

In doing so, we have perpetuated historical injustices and continued to inflict further harm on these communities, up to the present day. We now have an urgent responsibility to address this and are seriously committed to doing so. There can, of course, never be a complete and final judgement of history; if there were, then there would be no further need for historians.

Dennis Franklin
14 December 2020, 15:01
There is a Picton Road in Ramsgate, Kent, could this be the same Picton? Its located in an old part of Ramsgate, and the properties probably date to around the 1870's.
I fully agree with changing the names of roads named after former slavers, or racists, and statues/pictures of them, should be taken down and put in a warehouse open for the public to view, if they want to! The local council are taking a pro-active role against racism, so should I ask them to change Picton Road, to Calderon Road?
30 November 2020, 13:22
The following seems to be omitted from "academia". He had four children with Trinidad-born Rosetta Smith of French and African extraction, all born in Trinidad. He was not already married. While she may have initially been his mistress, as sadly was commonplace across the world then, she adopted the surname Picton and their children had the surname Picton. They may have married. We'll never know. Perhaps they wanted to marry and no-one would marry them. We'll never know.

There are no signs that he neglected these children, one of whom, it seems, trained as a doctor in London (Thomas Picton jr). Surely a quarter (?) African doctor/trainee doctor in London in those days (the son would have been in London c1820) was progressive. And there is no evidence that Sir Thomas Picton was a slave dealer/owner. I'd like to discover more about his son, though this may be impossible.
Jacqueline Byrne
29 October 2020, 18:54
General Picton died for his country at Waterloo., just as the men of WW1 &11. I am proud of him the same as I am proud of my great uncles who died for this country too.

As other commentators have said, look to Arab and other countries who still keep slaves, child slave labour. Everyone who buys cheap clothes, who makes them? cheap to you, what wages are being paid to the makers?

Have some people have got nothing better to do than pick on something that happened 200 years ago. If you would like somewhere to put the portrait of the General I will gladly take him off your hands and put him on my wall pride of place.
Bob Hinton MA
13 September 2020, 14:59
Of course, General Picton must be honoured. He was handed a poison chalice in the Governorship of Trinidad a place where the Spanish had dumped all the very worst of their colonies, keeping all their rotten eggs in one basket. He was given the task of keeping order without being given the necessary amount of troops to carry out that task. Obviously the task required a tough stance and an unwillingness to bend. As for the trial for the torture of Luisa Calderon it was a nonsense. The pictures of the 'torture' being wildly inaccurate. The interrogation method used was a military punishment. If she had been tried under British Law she would have been hanged. Three of the finest legal minds were present at his trial and they couldn't agree which law was to be used - how on earth did they expect a layman like General Picton to know? He did the best that he could and the proof of the pudding is this. Trinidad did not suffer any slave revolts or attack from outside, and today it is a wonderful independent country with a thriving economy and valuable tourist industry. In Trinidad, there are streets named after Picton and even a school, hardly the acts of a population who detested him. Two hundred miles North is the country of Haiti, lacking a sufficiently firm hand on the tiller they did have a slave revolt and by the time it was over more then 200,000 people were dead, men , women and children. Today it is a hell hole of a country besmirched with crime, greed and corruption. For Miss Griffiths to describe his death as bizarre, yes it was, it was bizarre for an elderly man who had suffered horrific injuries at Quatre Bras only two days earlier to disregard the agony he must have been in to mount his horse and lead his men in one final charge to save the day.
25 July 2020, 01:09
Speaking as someone born in the West Indies, lived in West Africa and Wales I am not sure why the Welsh are being asked to examine themselves more than anyone else. The Ghana Monuments Board is essentially a string of forts built along the coast of Ghana by various European trading nations. The 'cancel' culture means they should be closing down or demolishing these world heritage sites due to the number of people trafficked through them in the Maritime trade. Essentially the forts are kept so that wealthy African Americans can contextualise their ancestry by making pilgrimage there- they are still of commercial value somehow. The recent removal of Colston from Bristol harbour and the replacement with a Black Power salute seems part of a re commercialising strategy - it was reported that the temporary Black female statue was put on the market by the London artist. Its a strange world where very many items in modern life are made by wage slaves and domestic slavery is a global problem- its doubtful that the removal of the Picton Statue is part of a strategy to tackle modern slavery.