Thomas Picton - Welsh Hero or Monster
Updated: Nov 6, 2021
Thomas Picton was born in Pembrokshire in 1758 and began a military career in 1771 as an ensign serving in the 12th Regiment of Foot. During a posting to Gibraltar he gained promotion to the rank of Captain. The regiment returned to Britain and, in 1783, its disbandment was announced. Hearing the news, the men mutinied. Picton intervened and as a result of his immediate, forceful action the mutiny was squashed. Now jobless, he spent the next twelve years living as a retired officer on his father’s estate until he was offered a post in the West Indies. Captain Picton became aide-de-camp to Sir John Vaughn, the Garrison Commander. Arriving in the Caribbean, Picton quickly proved his leadership ability and steady promotion followed.
In February 1797 a British squadron seized Trinidad from the Spanish and Picton, by now a lieutenant colonel, was appointed governor of the Island, a post he held for the next five years. His garrison was undermanned and there was a constant threat of rebellion by slaves or disgruntled Spaniards still living on the island. Picton’s response was brutal. Picton ordered the use of torture and suspects were summarily executed. The policy the governor used to control the islands population was succinctly described by William Fullarton, a commissioner on the island, “Let them hate so long as they fear.” Fullarton would later be instrumental in having Picton prosecuted as a result of his harsh treatment.
Not all of the governor’s actions were designed to maintain control of the island. Picton had taken a mulatto mistress who is said to have used her position of influence to settle old scores. As well as terrorising the islanders, Picton used his position to profit from the sale of land and slaves. Eventually word of his despotism reached the UK and in 1803 Picton returned to face arrest for charges levelled against him by Fullarton. Picton was released with bail set at £40,000. During his trial before the Privy Council Picton argued that the island of Trinidad was still technically being governed according to Spanish law and according to that law he was well within his rights to use torture and summary execution. It was a dubious argument but when he added that the state of unrest on the island and its garrison’s weakness made such action necessary, the charges were dropped.
That, however, was not the end of the matter. A lower court took up the case of Luisa, a free 14 year old servant girl Picton who ordered to be tortured. The girl was accused of helping in the burglary of her employer’s house. The torture involved being partially stripped, suspended by her thumbs and made to stand on her toes on the flat end of a peg driven into the ground. The turture lasted for one hour at a time. During it the girl had the stark choice of taking her weight on her thumbs and dislocating them or putting her weight on her toes. Similar military punishments, known as ‘piqueting’, were used in medieval times. Salacious engravings of the torture, referred to as ‘Pictoning’ and published in the press, excited public interest and the case became a cause célèbre. Once again, Picton used the defence that Spanish law permits the torture of suspects. Picton was found guilty and demanded a retrial.
Military friends and wealthy plantation owners provided funds to fight the case and, although the jury’s verdict was overruled, no final decision was made regarding the legality of Spanish law as a defence in such cases. It made no difference. Picton was presented at the trial as a hero defending British interests. His popularity soared and he was promoted to the rank of Major General.
In 1810 Picton joined Wellington’s army as a divisional commander and remained one of Wellington’s senior officers throughout the Peninsular War. By now, Picton had developed a reputation as a competent but ruthless soldier. The historian Allesandro Barbero described Picton as, “Respected for his courage and feared for his irascible temperament.” Picton was frequently in the thick of the action and led from the front. During the Battle of Badajoz, Picton led his men, known as the ‘Fighting 3rd Division,’ in an attack and captured an enemy fortress. As he scaled the walls, the general was wounded. Despite his wounds the general remained in charge of the situation and held the fort when the enemy tried to retake it. Returning home to recuperate, the Prince Regent invested Picton as a Knight of the Order of the Bath. At the Battle of Vitoria, Picton led his division and captured an important bridge. Despite a ferocious enemy counter attack and withering cannon fire, Picton held the bridge. Doing so cost the lives of 1800 of his men. The ‘Fighting 3rd Division’ had many admirers and Picton received the thanks of Parliament on seven different occasions. He had grown to be a revered and celebrated figure in the army. Not everyone was so appreciative; Picton’s men resented him because of his willingness to sacrifice soldiers’ lives. Picton was wounded again at Quatre Bras. The damage to his hip made him walk with a peculiar gait. Fearing that he would be retired and sent home, the general concealed the injury to everyone except his valet.
On the 18th June 1815 Wellington’s allied army engaged the French army commanded by Napoleon Bonaparte near a small village in Belgium. The Battle of Waterloo was, according to the Wellington’s own account, “The nearest run thing you ever saw in your life.” The battle which lasted all day started with 136,000 men in the field.
During the morning an artillery officer named Mercer was bringing his cannon into action when he was engaged in conversation by a shabby looking man dressed in civilian clothes and wearing a rather odd looking hat. The man who walked with a limp enquired how the day was going and, assuming him to be a sightseer, - there were uninvited spectators on the battlefield, - Mercer was curt in his replies. The man Mercer was abrupt with was General Picton. The general had just arrived from England and, having lost his baggage, had no uniform to wear. Receiving short shift from the artillery officer, Picton wandered off to look for his division.
Later in the morning, Picton assumed his command, still dressed in civilian clothes and led a bayonet charge, halting a French attack. Picton’s hat was shot off by a cannon ball but the hatless general did not pause and urged his men to press home their assault. As he encouraged his men forward, a musket ball passed through his temple and killed him. It is unclear who killed Picton and it has been suggested by some commentators that he was shot from behind by one of his own men. There is no historical evidence to support the assertion but it is not unknown for old scores to be settled in the chaos of battle. Lieutenant General Sir Thomas Picton KCB was the most senior British officer to die at Waterloo. He was 56 years old.
Fierce fighting continued between the evenly matched armies until the evening when the morale of the French suddenly collapsed and they quickly turned into a rabble. What remained of the French army fled leaving a battlefield strewn with 47,000 corpses.
Picton’s death at Waterloo made him an international hero. Towns were named after him in New Zealand, Canada and Australia. Roads were named after the fallen hero. The navy commissioned HMS Sir Thomas Picton in his honour and the army named a barracks after the dead general. Parliament ordered that a monument be erected in St. Paul’s Cathedral. In Wales schools, taverns and coaching inns and were renamed and in Carmarthen a fund was launched to build a monument to remember the famous Welshman. The king contributed 100 guineas to the fund and a large obelisk was errected at the western end of the town. The 75ft tall monument, modelled on Trajan’s column in Rome, was finished in 1828. Reliefs depicting Picton’s military actions were carved around the plinth. The top of the square tower supported a platform with cannons at each corner and a statue of the general.
Within a few years the obelisk was in a dilapidated state. Inclement weather had badly damaged the base reliefs. The original stonemason, Edward Hodges Baily, was commissioned to carve replacements but before they could be fitted the monument was declared unsafe and, in 1846, was dismantled. New heavier foundations were laid and the obelisk was re-erected the following year without the replacement sculptures. Baily’s new carvings were abandoned in a Johnstown yard until they were rediscovered in the 1970s and moved to the museum in Carmarthen. In 1984, concerns were again raised about the monument’s safety, resulting in it being taken down yet again and rebuilt stone by stone.
Today the Carmarthen monument commemorating Picton is a plain obelisk. The statue of Lieutenant General Sir Thomas Picton and the four cannons have gone. Even without these adornments the obelisk remains an imposing memorial to a ruthless hero, capable of being both brave and cruel.