Wales

Battle of Waterloo: Thomas Picton, the hero and villain

Sir Thomas Picton Image copyright Hulton Archive
Image caption Picton shot in battle on 18 June 1815 - there are memorials at St Paul's and in Carmarthen

The name of Haverfordwest's Sir Thomas Picton is celebrated in schools, pubs, on the streets and even in towns around the world, but does it deserve to be?

Born on 24 August 1758, as Lieutenant General he was the highest ranking British officer to fall at the Battle of Waterloo in Belgium, exactly 200 years ago.

Described by the Duke of Wellington as "a rough foul-mouthed devil, but very capable", he died defending the British left flank in a typically courageous bayonet charge.

Yet at the time, and for two centuries afterwards, his reputation has been tarnished by his authorisation of torture during his spell as Governor of Trinidad in the late 1790s and early 1800s.

Swansea University expert Dr Leighton James explains: "Trinidad had recently been seized from the Spanish, and Picton felt vulnerable, both from the threat of re-conquest and the fact that the number of slaves there greatly outnumbered his small force.

"He maintained control through brutality, adopting the philosophy of 'let them hate so long as they fear'.

"But when he authorised the use of torture to extract a confession of theft from a free 'mulatto' girl, it provoked outrage, even in those much more brutal times."

Image copyright Hulton Archive
Image caption Picton was already carrying a serious injury when he was shot
Image caption Sir Thomas Picton's reputation for brutality came from the Caribbean

In 1801, 14-year-old Luisa Calderon stood accused of being involved in the theft of around £500.

The investigating magistrate sought, and was granted, permission from Picton to obtain a confession through the use of picketing.

Widely used as a punishment in the British army, picketing 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.

Already unpopular for his ruthless treatment, the incident was investigated by a commission headed by William Fullarton, and, in 1803, Picton was ordered home to stand trial in London.

Dr James says that in the two years the case took to come to court, interest in it had mushroomed, helped in part by the fact that the prosecution was led by notable reforming lawyer William Garrow.

"Pamphlets and newspapers were doing the rounds, there were even etchings for sale, depicting what this girl had had to undergo on Picton's orders," he said.

"Garrow's involvement, combined with the fact that this exotic-appearing girl, Luisa Calderon, was brought over to give evidence in person meant that the trial attracted unprecedented interest.

"At the heart of it were a clash of different times and values. Britain was becoming more enlightened and liberal, while the reality of life in the colonies remained dangerous and violent."

Although convicted, Picton later had the verdict overturned, arguing that Trinidad had still been subject to Spanish law, which permitted the use of torture.

In the meantime, he had risen to prominence as a commander in Wellington's army fighting the Peninsular Wars against Napoleon's France.

On 16 June 1815, Picton was badly injured at The Battle of Quatre Bras - but hid his wounds from his men.

Two days later - at the Battle of Waterloo - he was shot through the temple by a musket ball, repulsing a French advance which had threatened to break the British line.

After his death a public memorial to Picton was erected at St Paul's Cathedral.

A second - funded by public subscription - was built in Carmarthen, with George IV himself contributing a hundred guineas.

Controversy over these has existed ever since, though Dr James believes that - deserved or not - they do serve a purpose.

"There's a tendency in popular memory for us to pigeonhole people as having been either heroes or villains; in Picton's case there's plenty of evidence for both cases.

"I'm not sure it helps to talk in terms of whether Picton should be celebrated in place names etc, but I do think they act as a talking point.

"When you sit down for a pint in a pub called the Thomas Picton, you ask 'why' is it named after him, and as a consequence you learn about Luisa Calderon, and the events behind the name.

"If you forget the names, you forget history, and I think that would be a terrible shame."

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