No figure from history has left a more substantial mark on Carmarthen than Thomas Picton. The approach from the west, the direction from his native Pembrokeshire, on the old road is dominated by the monument raised in his honour. The side panels record in carved stone the names of the battles in which he fought: Busaco, Badajos, Vittoria, Orthes, Toulouse, Waterloo. There is an irony of disjunction between the monumental honour accorded to his public service and the uneasy place he now holds in the national memory. Picton was the subject of a fulsome documentary from S4C broadcast 17th September.
The location filming took presenter Dylan Iorwerth in the footsteps of Picton from the Carmarthen monument to Gibraltar and Trinidad. In the Caribbean Picton was active in the western theatre of the wars with revolutionary France. Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the largest of all, Trinidad, were all late additions to the possessions of Britain. Under Spanish dominion Trinidad had been a place of cultivation of cocoa, coffee and cotton. Picton saw in it the potential for the prize crop, sugar, which required a surge in the slave trade. The lush colours and the views of Trinidad in the film make a hideous contrast to the images of the slave era. Iorwerth stands by a prison cell where the temperature never dropped below one hundred Fahrenheit.
Picton was appointed governor of the island at the age of thirty-nine. Iorwerth’s interviewees are historians in Port-of-Spain. Picton’s rule dispensed with all traditions of British law. He part-leant on the remnants of the laws of Spain but the essence of his rule was personal dictatorship. The threat of reconquest by Spain was constant but his arbitrary justice comprised much brutality. In particular Spanish law sanctioned torture and mutilation where that of Britain did not. Penalties were extreme, even against slaves who had attempted suicide. The eating of soil, a method for inducing illness, was punishable. “The name Picton is associated with terror in Trinidad, associated with tyranny, with one of the most bloody periods of British rule,” says local historian Claudius Fergus.
The status of Trinidad featured in the negotiations that preceded the Peace of Amiens of 1802. Petitioning by British inhabitants along with representations from Picton and his superiors kept it as a British possession. But the nature of Picton’s regime had become known back home. As well as holding the governorship Picton had profited from commercial activity in land and slavery. “He didn’t take bribes but he made a living from the society in which he functioned and worked,” is how Iorwerth’s interviewee phrases it.
Back in Britain the government had fallen, Pitt replaced by Addington. The new government did not favour the policy of Trinidad being converted to a full-scale plantation economy. A new commission to govern the island displaced Picton from his pole position. The new regime with experience of government in India took a different line on the treatment of colonial subjects. The documentary moves to the case of Luisa Calderon with a hideous contemporary illustration. The case features as a central part of V S Naipaul’s The Loss of Eldorado of 1970. In December 1803, Picton was arrested on orders of the Privy Council with bail set at a staggering £40,000. Picton provided half, two plantation-owners the remainder. Picton’s argument was that he had been specifically instructed to abide by the laws of Trinidad which were still those of the former Spanish colonial power. The first jury found him guilty but a retrial in 1808 reversed the verdict.
But the case was, in historian Claudius Fergus’ view, crucial to the abolitionist victory in 1807. “Trinidad became pivotal to the abolitionist movement,” he says. Dylan Iorwerth ends this excellent documentary in Carmarthenshire, first in front of the ruins of Iscoed, the estate that Picton bought in 1812. In the Carmarthen courthouse he sees the portrait of Picton in full military regalia. Wellington had no doubts about his senior officer, the highest-ranking casualty at Waterloo. “I found him a rough foul-mouthed devil as ever lived.” When so much of history of empire is unidimensional Trinidadian historian Claudius Fergus is inclined against a view via the lens of 2017. “He needs to be seen in a historical perspective. The position in which he was placed was fragile.” In short he was what he was. In Fergus’ words “he was a hard man, he was a tough nut, he was a military man”.
Dylan ar Daith: O Benfro I Trinidad is available to watch on the S4C player.