Picton no ‘Welsh Great’

Reply written by Tim on behalf of Swansea Stand Up to Racism in response to a piece in the South Wales Evening Post which attempted to argue that local slave trader Thomas Picton should be rehabilitated.

The members of Swansea Stand Up To Racism wish to complain in the strongest possible terms about the space your publication has given to David Mathias’ appalling article “History Shows Picton was a ‘Welsh great.’” In this biased and factually misleading piece, Mr Mathias eagerly embraces his role as apologist not only for the cruelty and barbarity of Thomas Picton, but for the whole bloodstained colonial project. Let’s “look at the full and truthful facts”, he says. Excellent. Let’s do just that.

Thomas Picton

Firstly, he implies we are mistaken to believe that Picton had anything to do with the slave trade. “There is a belief in certain quarters that Sir Thomas was involved in the slave trade and or (sic) the mistreatment of slaves, and misleading accusations of cruelty…have been made.” The fact is that simply by virtue of his role as governor of Trinidad, Picton was involved in the slave trade. Trinidad was a slave island. In 1797 it had a population of 17,643 souls, of whom 10,009 were African slaves. There were scores of sugar, coffee, cotton and cocoa plantations, all worked by slaves. And, as Mr Mathias himself goes on to add, “in the custom of the period, (Picton) invested in plantations”. It is a matter of public record that the slave trade lay behind his considerable fortune. And yet we are invited to believe that somehow, he was not involved in slavery. Pull the other one, Mr Mathias.

Black Lives Matter Protestors in Cardiff

We are also expected to believe that in Trinidad at this time ”there is no record whatsoever of the systematic mistreatment of slaves”. Really? The facts are that complaints about Picton’s extreme brutality had grown so numerous that by 1803 he was arrested and recalled to Britain to face charges, including for the summary execution of slaves without due process, and furthermore for excessive cruelty towards slaves and other people of colour. As historian Chris Evans comments: “Delinquents who were sent for immediate execution might consider themselves lucky; others had to endure mutilation and torture.”

And then there is the thorny question of the torture of a child, the details of which Mr Mathias skates over rather quickly. Luisa Calderon (whose first name Mr Mathias appears to have misspelt) was accused of theft. She was a mixed-race child of 14, or possibly even younger. She was arrested and clapped in irons for eight months, during which time Picton ordered her to be tortured, using a method known as ‘picketing’ (during Picton’s trial the prosecutor dubbed this ‘Pictoning’). This involved the victim being tightly bound, suspended by one free arm from a pulley, then lowered so that she had to stand on one toe on a small wooden peg. She was left hanging in mid-air for an hour, and the next day was subjected to another session lasting half an hour. Despite the excruciating pain she did not confess to the theft, quite probably because she was innocent of the charge. She was held in captivity for several more months after this.

Thomas Picton, the hanging of Luisa Calderon and a monument to Picton in Carmarthen

In a classic example of dehumanisation of such ‘lesser breeds’, and in apparent contradiction of his insistence that slaves in Trinidad were not mistreated, Mr Mathias blithely remarks that since ‘picketing’ and flogging were routinely practised by the British military they “would not have raised an eyebrow in Trinidad at the time”. They may not have among the military elite to which both Picton and Mr Mathias belong, but this attempt to justify what even Picton’s contemporaries regarded as physical abuse of a helpless child is nothing short of disgusting.

Black Lives Matter Protestors in Carmarthen

In the present, at a time when racism against minority ethnic groups, and the deaths of innocent black people at the hands of the police are on the rise, utterances like Mr Mathias’s give the green light to those who would attempt to further divide our communities. Swansea Stand Up To Racism are disappointed that the South Wales Evening Post should give space to such an Anglocentric, one-sided view of history. We demand the right of reply, in the shape of an article of the same size, as there is much, much more that we wish to take issue with in this disgraceful piece. The media should be attempting to heal the wounds left on our communities by racism, slavery and colonialism, not further stoking the politics of hate and bigotry.

National Stand Up to Racism website here