tempus fugit

By ceridwen

Picton's spike

Long story about a bad man.

On the western edge of the county town of Carmarthen stands this vast monument to the memory of Sir Thomas Picton (1758 -1815), local boy and national hero,  the highest ranking officer to die in the battle of Waterloo. A hero with a murky past if there ever was one.
The son of  Pembrokeshire Anglo-Welsh gentry, he joined the army at 13 and rose rapidly in the ranks. He re-located to the West Indies in 1794 and was appointed governor of Trinidad, a  colony whose slave-worked sugar plantations that brought vast wealth to their owners. Picton's brutality in keeping control and putting down insurrection was considered excessive even for the times. He meted out arbitrary punishments (including execution) without due process of the law, citing the policy of  'Let them hate so long as they fear'. He was also speculating in land and slaves.
Picton’s regime came to an end when he was called back to London charged with excessive cruelty and 30 counts of death “unlawfully inflicted”. The single specimen offence for which he was tried in the Court of the King's Bench in 1806 concerned a 14 year old 'mulatto' [mixed race] girl, Luisa Calderon,  who had been accused of helping to burgle the house of a Spanish businessman [to whom she¬† had been sold by her mother at the age of 11.] When the girl refused to confess Picton had agreed to the use of a form of torture known as piqueting. The suspect, suspended from above, was required to stand with one toe on a peg (a spike hammered into the ground) for as long as it took to extract a confession. Luisa was subjected to this agonizing process twice (for 55 and 25 minutes on subsequent days) and although she fainted from the pain she did not admit guilt. 

  When brought to England to give evidence at Picton's trial Luisa attracted considerable public interest: 'extremely prepossessing and agreeable' , along with prurient images in the press.  Picton dismissed her as 'a common Mulatto prostitute of the vilest class and the most corrupt morals' (notwithstanding that in Trinidad he himself had had a mixed-race mistress who had borne him four children). 
Picton’s trial revolved not around the cruelty of piqueting (which the chief prosecutor dubbed Pictoning) but whether such torture was permissible or not under the Spanish legal system still in operation on the island. Picton was initially found guilty but demanded a retrial and was eventually given the benefit of the doubt. He lost no time in resuming his military career, covering himself in such glory in the Peninsular Wars that, after being cut down on the field of battle at Waterloo he was accorded burial in St Paul's Cathedral. He lies beside his commander-in-chief the Duke of Wellington (whose own verdict on Picton was "a rough foul-mouthed devil as ever lived".) 
Picton’s name has spread far and wide: two towns (in Canada and New Zealand) are called after him, streets, pubs and a local secondary school (recently renamed). His statue is one of 12 Welsh heroes on display in Cardiff City Hall and his picture is in the National Portrait Gallery.
In 2011 a solicitor, Kate Williams, objected to a painting of Picton hanging behind the judge’s chair in Carmarthen crown court. She said "After hearing that he was alleged to have tortured a slave girl I felt that it was inappropriate to have his picture in a modern court of law where we are supposed to represent the principles of equality and justice for all.”
As a result Thomas Picton’s career did at least resurface for media discussion but in the end the portrait was left in situ.


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