Thomas Picton


When Sir Ralph Abercromby left Trinidad he appointed Picton commandant and military governor, with instructions to administer Spanish law as well as he could and to do justice according to his conscience.

Picton applied himself to remedy the civil disorder that prevailed on an island renowned as a haven for runaway slaves and deserting soldiers. Hampered by the smallness of his force of only 520 fit men, he made an early example of mutineers and established a system of police over the whole island by improving the road communications. There were thirty-five executions during Picton's governorship, the majority in his first year. The gallows were conspicuous on Port of Spain's busy waterfront and the governor was often there to inform new arrivals of his penal system. He was equally severe with the slaves, who amounted to 10,000 of the island's total population of nearly 18,000. Port of Spain's steamy gaol had long served as a correction centre that administered flogging, branding, ear-clipping, and the staking out of reprobates in the infamous cachots brulants. It was now full to overflowing as Picton, who published his own slave code, sought to make slave discipline the backbone of his new order. In April 1797 he reported that perfect tranquillity prevailed throughout the colony. Some time later he took a mistress to live with him at Government House on the strand of Port of Spain: Rosetta Smith was a vivacious, Spanish-speaking woman of mixed race, half his own age, with whom he would have four children in five years.

With the island peaceful, Picton wrote to London extolling Trinidad as the perfect centre for trade with the South American continent. Aware of the discontent of americanos with the dead hand of Spanish mercantile protectionism, he suggested that a small invasion would be sufficient to mobilize an insurrection that would spread throughout the continent. He entertained americanos at Government House and sent small raids across the gulf. The governors of Caracas and British Guiana put $20,000 on his head, which prompted an ironic reply from the now confident Picton. London raised his annual salary to 1200 pounds, though his actual income from investments in the island was doubtless several times that figure. His deeper plans came to nought, however, since London was more concerned about Britain's ability to resist invasion by Napoleon than about launching one of its own. None the less, his dispatches on the subject probably helped Trinidad remain a British possession in the peace of 1801, and he was promoted brigadier-general on 22 October 1801.

The vigour of Picton's rule had made him enemies, however, especially among the new British immigrants. A liberal wind was blowing and concessions had to be made to the constitutionalists. Picton was informed that the island would henceforth be under the control of three commissioners, with Colonel William Fullarton and Commodore Samuel Hood above him. He felt 'degraded in the eyes of the world'. Fullarton, a well-connected Scot, arrived on 4 January 1803 and within weeks visited the gaol, which he found so wretched that he urged the building of a new one. He moved in council for certified statements of all the criminal proceedings that had taken place since the island became British territory. On 18 February, the sixth anniversary of the conquest, Picton tendered his resignation, remaining in post only until London notified its acceptance. Four days later Samuel Hood arrived, but within a short time he too had resigned in sympathy with Picton. The Spanish and French planters, who had never known such stability on the island, petitioned the king to reject Picton's resignation. On 14 June Brigadier-General Frederick Maitland arrived with the news that he was to supersede Picton as military commander. That same evening Picton said farewell to Rosetta and his children and sailed from Port of Spain, never to return.

After serving briefly under Lieutenant-General Grinfield in the recapture of St Lucia and then Tobago from the French, Picton pressed on to London, where he learned that Fullarton had left Trinidad and had preferred criminal charges against him. In December 1803 he was arrested by order of the privy council and bailed by his uncle William for 40,000 pounds, an enormous sum that virtually presumed his guilt. The main indictment charged him with the unlawful application of torture to extort confession from one Luisa Calderon respecting a robbery in Port of Spain, the woman being thirteen years old, it was alleged, at the time of her imprisonment in December 1801. Luisa Calderon in fact had cohabited with a trader, Pedro Ruiz, and she had conspired with her paramour, Carlos Gonzalez, to rob Ruiz. There was little doubt of their guilt, but the woman had refused to give evidence. In accordance with Spanish law the alcalde, Monsieur Begorrat, requested recourse to the 'picket' in order to 'apply the question', to which the governor acceded as a matter of routine. The picket consisted in hoisting the prisoner on a pulley in such a way that the big toe of one foot stood on a sharp-pointed picket. In this position Luisa Calderon soon confessed. Gonzalez was convicted and punished by banishment, while Luisa was released in consideration of the imprisonment that she had already undergone.

Picton's trial came up before Lord Ellenborough in the court of king's bench on 24 February 1806, the two intervening years having seen an exchange of pamphlets on the part of Fullarton, Picton, and their respective supporters. The prosecutor, William Garrow, was renowned for his bruising style of cross-examination. During the trial he displayed a lurid illustration of the picket both to the jury and Luisa Calderon, whom he asked to demonstrate the torture, adding that it should henceforth be known as 'Pictoning' rather than 'picketing'. As a final ploy he produced a copy of the Recopilacion de las leyes, an ancient schedule of Spanish law as it applied in the colonies. He summoned a lawyer, Pedro Vargas, who, like Luisa, had been brought over by Fullarton especially for the trial, and had him confirm that the Recopilacion made no mention of the picket. Picton's defence lawyer, Robert Dallas, was outmanoeuvred, especially as he was denied access to the Recopilacion. A technical verdict of guilty was returned and a new trial moved for.

Before the second trial on 11 June 1808 matters changed in Picton's favour. He gained from the support of Hood, now a national hero after his daring exploits against the French off Rochefort, where he lost an arm. Hood was the popular choice when he stood at the hustings for the Westminster by-election. His opponents retaliated with a poem published anonymously, 'The Picton Veil, or, The Hood of Westminster'; but when Fullarton interceded at the hustings in an attempt to associate Hood with misdeeds in Trinidad, he was shouted down by the mob. Fullarton died an unhappy man in February 1808, leaving his wife the forlorn hope of repairing his reputation. In the second trial Dallas was sufficiently well versed in the Recopilacion to discredit Vargas's evidence. A special verdict was returned:

That by the law of Spain torture existed in the island of Trinidad at the time of the cession to Great Britain, and that no malice existed in the mind of the defendant against Luisa Calderon independent of the illegality of the act.

This partly exonerated Picton, though it still found him guilty of an illegal act. Effectively it said that he had the right to sanction torture under Spanish law, but not as the island's British governor. When the people of Trinidad subscribed 4000 pounds towards Picton's legal expenses, he returned the money to relieve those who had recently suffered in the disastrous fire in Port of Spain. The old duke of Queensberry offered to assist Picton in his legal expenses with a sum of 10,000 pounds, but Picton again graciously declined, as his uncle had supplied him with the necessary funds.

Image courtesy of National Museum Wales


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