Britain's Black Debt: Reparations for Caribbean Slavery and Native Genocide


Career in the New World

Under Sir Ralph Abercromby, who succeeded Vaughan in 1795, he was present at the capture of St Lucia (after which he was promoted to lieutenant colonel of the 56th Foot) and then that of St Vincent.

After the reduction of Trinidad in 1797, Abercromby made Picton governor of the island. For the next 5 years he held the island with a garrison he considered inadequate against the threats of internal unrest and of reconquest by the Spanish. He ensured order by vigorous action, viewed variously as rough-and-ready justice or as arbitrary brutality. In October 1801 he was gazetted brigadier-general. During the negotiations leading to the Peace of Amiens of 1802, many of the British inhabitants petitioned against the return of the island to Spain; this together with Picton's and Abercromby's representations, ensured the retention of Trinidad as a British possession.

By then, reports of arbitrariness and brutality associated with his governorship had led to a demand at home for his removal. (Picton was also making money from speculation in land and slaves and his mulatto mistress was believed to be corruptly influencing his decisions.) Furthermore, Trinidad no longer faced any external threat, the Pitt ministry had fallen and the new Addington administration did not want Trinidad to develop the plantation economy Picton favoured. In 1802, William Fullarton (1754–1808) was appointed as the Senior Member of a commission to govern the island, Samuel Hood became the second member, and Picton himself the junior.

Fullarton had a very different background from Picton. He came from a wealthy and long-established Scots land-owning family and was a Whig MP, a Fellow of the Royal Society, an improving landlord, and a patron of Robert Burns. He had been a junior diplomat, before in the course of the American War of Independence raising a regiment of which he naturally became the Colonel. He ended that war in India commanding an army of 14,000 men in operations against Tippu Sultan.[4] following which he had written an influential pamphlet arguing that the East India Company had brought trouble on itself by its unprincipled treatment of native princes and native subjects and that a more humane policy than "let them hate so long as they fear" would be more effective in securing its position. The new Secretary of State for the Colonies (Lord Hobart) had served as Governor of Madras soon after the pamphlet came out, knew Fullarton, and had been influenced by his views.

Picton's policy with respect to various sections of the island population had effectively been "let them hate so long as they fear" and he and Fullarton rapidly fell out. (This, of itself, further worsened the rift: Fullarton's Indian pamphlet had also reported adversely on conflicts of interest and dissension between the English having weakened their ability to govern well, to negotiate effectively, and to effectively defend their possessions.) Fullarton commenced a series of open enquiries on allegations against Picton and reported his unfavourable views on Picton's past actions at length to meetings of the commission. Picton thereupon tendered his resignation and was soon followed by Hood (1803).

Picton joined Hood in military operations in St Lucia and Tobago, before returning to Britain to face charges brought by Fullarton. In December 1803 he was arrested by order of the Privy Council and promptly released on bail set at £40,000 (Picton was able to give surety for half of this; two West Indies plantation-owners covered the remainder).

The Privy Council dealt with the majority of the charges against Picton. Those charges related principally to excessive cruelty in the detection and punishment of practitioners of obeah, severity to slaves, and of execution of suspects out of hand without due process. Only the latter class of charge seems to have seriously worried the Privy Council, and here Picton's argument that either the laws of Trinidad (then still the laws of the former Spanish colonial power) or "the state of the garrison" justified the immediate execution in the cases specified eventually carried the day.[5]

Luisa Calderón being tortured, as illustrated in one of the many prints at the time

Picton was, however, tried in the court of King's Bench before Lord Ellenborough in 1806 on a single charge; the misdemeanor of having in 1801 caused torture to be unlawfully inflicted to extract a confession from Luisa Calderon, a young free mulatto girl suspected of assisting one of her lovers to burgle the house of the man with whom she was living, making off with about £500. Torture (but not the specific form) had been requested in writing by a local magistrate and approved in writing by Picton. The torture applied ("picketing") was a version of a British military punishment and consisted in principle of compelling the trussed up suspect to stand on one toe on a flat-headed peg for one hour on many occasions within a span of a few days. In fact Calderon was subjected to one session of 55 minutes, and a second of 25 minutes the following day.[6]

The period between Picton's return and the trial had seen a pamphlet war between the rival camps, and the widespread sale of engravings showing a curious British public what a personable 14-year-old mulatto girl being trussed up and tortured in a state of semi-undress might look like. The legal arguments, however, revolved on whether Spanish law permitted torture of suspects: on the evidence given,[7] the jury decided that it did not and found Picton guilty.

Picton promptly sought a retrial, which he got in 1808. At this, Picton's supporters brought forward other credible witnesses to testify to the (Spanish) legality of torture, its application in the recent past, and that Calderon had been old enough to be legally tortured. The jury reversed the verdict of the earlier trial but asked for the full court to consider the further argument of the prosecution that torture of a free person was so repugnant to the laws of England that Picton must have known he could not permit it,[8] whatever Spanish law authorised. (The full court never reached a decision on this; there were legal precedents to this general effect from the British occupation ofMinorca — and a practical precedent from the British seizure of the Cape of Good Hope from the Dutch, but it remained to demonstrate that Picton should have known this, and by now Fullarton was dead and Picton a war hero.)

Friends of Picton in the military and among slave owners subscribed towards his legal expenses. Picton contributed the same sum to a relief fund after a widespread fire in Port of Spain. He had meanwhile been promotedmajor-general, and in 1809 he had been governor of Flushing in the Netherlands during the Walcheren expedition.


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Salt : Earl Lovelace

Hailed as "amazingly vivid and joyous" by The Times of London, Earl Lovelace's fifth novelSalt, an intriguing blend of contemporary and historical events in Trinidad, begins with a mythical story reminiscent of the well-known folktale "All God's Chillen Had Wings." It tells of Guinea John, who escapes slavery by flying back to Africa without revealing "the mysteries of levitation and flight" to his descendants who "had eaten salt and made themselves too heavy to fly." Even without this gift of flight, Bango, the modern-day descendant who recounts this fable, is remarkable. Handsome, athletic, captain of both the steel band and the cricket team, he is a natural-born leader with deep symbiotic ties to his community. "[T]he weakness of others demanded from him greater strength. The extravagance of others required from him greater sacrifice." He bears no small resemblance to Bolo, the stickfighting warrior in Lovelace's The Wine of Astonishment(1982), another graceful athlete who has deep ties with his African-based culture and is genuinely altruistic and empathetic. Bango's scheme to get a parcel of land in reparation for the suffering of his ancestors brings him in contact with Alford George, a leader cut from a very different cloth.