The Black Lives Matter protests of the past week have stimulated a much needed and overdue debate in Wales.
It’s no secret that Wales played a significant part in the British Empire. You only need to look at place names in countries that were once ‘possessions’ of Britain – Llandilo, Llandovery, and Llandewey can all be found in Jamaica, Western Cwm in Nepal, Llandudno in South Africa.
Yet the majority of Welsh people remain woefully ignorant of the bloody part played by our ancestors, too quick to let England take the responsibility (which they don’t, but that’s another discussion).
This chequered past of ours is relevant to the discussion today because it’s the precursor to a society that remains unequal.
Much of the discussion over Wales’ colonial past over the last few days has focused on one individual whose name is on monuments, statues and streets around Wales – Thomas Picton. So who was he?
‘Sir’ Thomas Picton was born in Haverfordwest, Pembrokeshire, in 1758. After joining the British armed forces and serving in the ‘12th Regiment of Foot’ in Gibraltar, he retired to his father’s estate, where he lived the next 16 years of his life in relatively uncontroversial fashion.
It was when he was tempted out of retirement to the West Indies, as part of John Vaughan’s 17th Foot, that he first began to gain a reputation for being “vigorous, rough-and-ready, and arbitrarily cruel”.
After the capture of the islands of St. Lucia and St. Vincent, he was rewarded with the governorship of Trinidad, where he ruled with an iron-fist, as Dr. Leighton James of Swansea University explained to the BBC in 2015: “He maintained control through brutality, adopting the philosophy of ‘let them hate so long as they fear’.”
Known as ‘The Tyrant of Trinidad’, the cruelty of Picton’s regime came to a head when he authorised the torture of 14-year-old girl Luisa Calderon. Accused of theft, the investigating magistrate sought, and was granted permission from Picton, to gain a confession through the use of picketing.
This was a punishment widely used in the British Army, and involved suspending someone from one wrist, with their only means of supporting themselves being to stand on an upturned peg, not sharp enough to break the skin but enough to cause excruciating pain.
This was a step too far in the eyes of the British establishment, who called him back to London and put him on trial. He was found guilty, yet he managed to get his sentence overturned later, arguing that Trinidad was by then under Spanish rule which allowed torture.
On top of this, he was also believed to have amassed his fortune from the trading of slaves, executing several during his governorship.
Following his time in the Caribbean, he went on to serve as a commander in the Peninsular Wars against Napoleon’s France. His last was the Battle of Waterloo, where he died a glorious death defending the British Army’s right flank, which led to the erection of memorials to him in Carmarthen, St Paul’s Cathedral, and later a marble statue among a pantheon of Wales’ heroes at Cardiff’s City Hall.
The argument is being made, not just regarding Picton’s statue but Edward Colston’s (that was unceremoniously dragged from its plinth in Bristol and thrown into the harbour) and Winston Churchill’s, that to simply remove any monuments to our past would be to rewrite our history. It would be to pretend nothing had happened, and they must remain standing to serve as a reminder of our bloody imperial past.
If that was ever their purpose, they have failed. As mentioned in the opening paragraphs, despite these memorials and names being all around us, the people of Wales remain largely in the dark about the role their own ancestors played in the conquest and brutal treatment of others. The same could be said of the majority of UK citizens. Ironically, if the statues had actualy done the job of reminding people about Wales’ colonial past, I don’t think they would still be standing today.
I’ll admit that until the last week or so, I had no idea about the life of Thomas Picton. I was born and raised in Pembrokeshire, and so visited and played sport against Sir Thomas Picton School in Haverfordwest many times; I also must’ve walked past his memorial in Carmarthen many more times. Not once did it cross my mind to question what kind of man he was. Maybe that’s a reflection of my own ignorance, but I doubt I’m unique in my experience.
Memorials glorify, they don’t educate. They immortalise, they don’t stimulate debate. However, should I have visited a museum featuring his statue, alongside a detailed history of his past, I could’ve made my own mind up about what kind of person he was.
As Gwen Marni, who has recently started a petition to have Picton’s Monument in Carmarthen removed, put it:
“A 25m high obelisk to Sir Thomas Picton, a Napoleonic war ‘hero’, blemishes the skyline of Carmarthen, serving as a landmark to distant viewers of the town. However, given the current global focus on the Black Lives Matter movement, this memorial exists as a painful reminder of Welsh ignorance to our colonial past.”
I couldn’t have put it better myself.
Another argument made is that it’s unfair to judge figures of our past through the lens of the expectation of today’s society, and to do so will leave us with no statues or monuments to our history at all. Now, even by the standards of the day, Thomas Picton was not a good man, as I’m sure you can judge for yourself by his aforementioned track record and the reaction of his contemporaries.
At the time of the torture of Luisa Calderon, the British Empire was at its peak, with the court more than likely rife with the colonial attitudes of the time. For them to find his actions so abhorrent as to find him guilty says a lot about how his actions were seen at the time.
Some are perhaps understandably defensive about any suggestion that Welsh men and women played such an active part in the British empire. Very often we define ourself at Welsh in opposition to what we believe Britain to represent.
But it’s not whether Wales was part of the British Empire that defines what Wales is today but how we react to that history. Pretending there was nothing wrong with the Empire is clearly wrong, but washing our hands of the matter and pretending we weren’t involved is little better.
What will define what kind of nation Wales is today is whether we can assess our own past in a rational and honest way. This starts with educating ourselves at a national level with a basic education of black history, including our country’s past transgressions in this area. We need to look at monuments to slave traders and tyrants and rationally assess whether we want them to be part of the structural fabric of our society.
We then need to decide whether it’s really much of a surprise that systemic racism still exists in Wales and the UK – to the people where people feel strongly enough about it to protest during a pandemic – when we have never collectively stopped to consider our own past, warts and all.