Sir Thomas Picton

Suzanne Sheppard

A campaign in the United Kingdom for the removal of all memorials to Sir Thomas Picton, a former British governor of Trinidad, is beginning to gain traction locally with calls for the renaming of Picton Street in Port-of-Spain.

Picton became known as the “Tyrant of Trinidad” because of his cruelty and iron-fisted rule over this country. During his five-year authoritarian regime, he oversaw the brutal execution and torture of several African slaves.

In recent days, in response to the Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests, a petition calling for the removal of a 25-metre high obelisk erected in Picton’s honour in Carmarthen, a town in Wales, has gained more than 1,000 signatures.

Picton, a Napoleonic-era soldier, was a controversial figure who acquired much of his wealth from dealing in slaves. He came to this country as part of Sir Ralph Abercromby’s expedition which took Trinidad from Spain in February 1797 and was left here by Abercromby as governor.

He used strong-handed methods against anyone he suspected of trying to undermine his government and even erected gallows on the premises of Government House. He also built he built Fort Picton on the Laventille Hills but it was later nicknamed Picton’s Folly because he never had to use it.

Picton’s brutal tenure as governor was defined by his philosophy of “let them hate so long as they fear.”

The incident that led to his removal as governor was the use of torture to extract a confession of theft from a free mixed-race girl, 14-year-old Luisa Calderón

Picton granted permission to the investigating magistrate to obtain a confession through the use of picketing, a practice widely used as a punishment in the British army. It involved the victim being suspended off the ground by the wrist, with their only means of supporting their weight being to stand on an upturned peg. The peg was not sharp enough to break the skin and inflict permanent injury but caused the victim excruciating pain.

The incident was investigated by a commission headed by William Fullarton and in 1803 Picton was ordered home to stand trial in London for excessive cruelty, executions without due process, and for torturing Calderón. Torture was contrary to British law, and Picton was court-martialed but he was treated with some leniency by the British court and his conviction was later overturned.

He was killed at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815.

In recent days, some of the focus of the Black Lives Movement protests has shifted to some historical figures linked to the slave trade. On Sunday, in Bristol, England, protesters pulled down the statue of Edward Colston, a prominent 17th-century slave trader and dumped it in the harbour.

The online petition for the removal of Picton’s statue states that “it is unthinkably inappropriate, ignorant and structurally racist to be honouring the achievements of an inexplicably evil individual, and implies that the Welsh state does not care enough about the importance of remembering the struggles of colonial subjects, but also black lives in general” and calls for “an end to such repugnant celebrations of a racist murderer.”

Mayor of Cardiff Dan De’ath has called for the removal of Picton from a Heroes of Wales collection in Cardiff City Hall.