Amgueddfa Blog

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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.

sylw(13)

Bob Hinton MA
13 Medi 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.
Semia
3 Medi 2020, 15:28
There was a time when lots of things were 'normal' including slavery, abuse of women, child labour. Hell, at one point fascism was considered ok... As we progress in our humanity we HAVE to reassess these issues. History and heritage is an evolving field of knowledge, not set in stone. Picton can be a 'military hero' AND an abuser and torturer. We've only spoken about the heroic side for years, so now is the time to speak about his wrongdoings.
It's an important skill to live with the awareness that our national history and heroes are not squeaky clean. To anyone talking of cancel culture and erasure I would say: Stop erasing the difficult sides of your history. Stop whitewashing heritage. Stop clutching your pearls. A reframing of Picton and his legacy was long overdue, bravo to SSAP Youth and the museum
Janet
25 Gorffennaf 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.
Nicola Bassett
16 Gorffennaf 2020, 00:03
Sadly slavery still exists in our world. It is hidden from public view in most instances. However in other cases it is right under our very noses; nail bars, car washes, cheap imported clothes, sex workers etc.

Currently child soldiers are being used in many brutal conflicts yet no one seems to protest on their behalf.

Let us examine our own conscience first.
Clare
11 Gorffennaf 2020, 15:48
As I understand it Picton's statue was erected as a result of a Wales wide competition to select Welsh people worthy of having a statue raised to them in the City Hall.
Picton was not chosen by the people of Wales, but by the selecting committee who overode suggested more popular individuals.
Take the statue down. It shouldn't have been there in the first place.
Timothy
10 Gorffennaf 2020, 16:33
I also believe that General Picton's honours should be left intact, including that he be referred to not as Picton but by his correct title of General reflecting the fact that he is being rightly honoured for his considerable military service to his country in war time-service that ended with his death in action.
There is also a need for more honest appreciation of issues than are presented in the blog. In particular there are a lot of one sided leading comments in the blog such as his 'public exoneration' being 'inexplicable'-despite explaining his record of service. These need to be addressed so that those opposed to removal of statues are not being denigrated as complicit and worse/
Linked to this is the need to understand that the non elites have a broad range of views. There are many of us who served in the armed forces and at least some of us see General Picton's memorials as war memorials. They are after all to a soldier killed on active service, a soldier who by contemporary accounts took a heroic part in the proceedings at Waterloo who had been severely enough wounded at Quatre Bras to have earnt the right to stay out of further action, indeed his Quatre Bras injuries may have caused his death without further injury at Waterloo. Despite this he again lead his men in defence of his country.
Such a man is rightly entitled to his monuments and his reputation and both should be left in place. If we are writing a work on his life then yes include the Calderon incident and by all means do not gloss over his brutality in a work on the governance of the Caribbean, but when dealing with General Picton, to whom the monuments are erected, they have no place whether as plaques added to his statue or in footnotes when he is mentioned in military histories
John
7 Gorffennaf 2020, 14:41
I have to agree with Steve above. Leave Picton's statue and portraits where they are. We need to end cancel culture. Picton was a war hero. He died for his country at Waterloo leading a suicidal bayonet charge. We would probably be having the conversation about his removal in French if he hadn’t done so. There’s also the small matters that Luisa Calderón did not die from her torture, that Picton’s summary conviction was overturned on appeal and that he didn’t actually string her up himself. He just authorised the town’s Official Torturer to do so. It would have been all in a day's work for him.
Charlotte
3 Gorffennaf 2020, 13:31
Keep it all. It's all history. We can't rewrite history because some people are offended. None of us are responsible for any sins but our own.

As other commenters mentioned there's slavery and racism today. Racism is rampant in every nation in the world. Some countries have laws which are actually racist. E.g. South Africa's BBBEE or how in China no foreigner can become Chinese. Our nation has no racist laws.

People complaining about this kind of thing are likely doing it wearing slave-made clothes, using slave-made phones and computers.

No one is looking at these historic figures as examples to live their life by. The only thing we can be sure paintings and statues represent, is the likeness of a person. You can learn what the person who did x, y or z looked like. If you want to add deeper meaning to it it's your own problem.
Gethin
1 Gorffennaf 2020, 17:38
I don’t think we have “become complicit with” anything. Frankly I am more concerned about enforced child labour, slavery and military abuses and widespread torture in the current modern Sub Saharan African states such as Mali, DRC or Northern Nigeria than I am about something nasty that happened two centuries ago. Perhaps we should note that Picton was tried which is more than can be said for the corrupt thieves and politicians who oppress modern day living Africans across the continent.
peter tripp
1 Gorffennaf 2020, 17:00
i knew little of Pictons earlier life until this subject was raised. however, i i am well acquanted with his military service and believed that is why their is a statue to him. i believe that at the time slavery in some form or other was a normal occurrence involving blacks, indians and asians and to break it down to individuals is wrong. were the welsh not slaves to the Romans for several hundred years and would it be fair for them to go to present day Italy to seek retribution.

Gadael sylw