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New Acquisition: The Trial of Governor Picton, A Case of Torture in Trinidad

The following is a guest post by Louis Myers, the current Librarian-in-Residence at the Law Library of Congress. Louis has recently authored blog posts for In Custodia Legis, including Research Guides in Focus – Municipal Codes: A Beginner’s Guide and Research Guides in Focus – Neighbor Law: A Beginner’s Guide. This post contains research contributed by Jennifer Davis.

In this post, I would like to present a recent acquisition for the Law Library’s rare book collection: the written proceedings of the Trial of Governor T. Picton (1758-1806), for Inflicting the Torture on Louisa Calderón, which was printed in 1806 in London. Governor Thomas Picton was a British military officer and the governor of Trinidad, which was at that time a colony of the United Kingdom. Picton was tried in London before the Court of King’s Bench on February 24, 1806. At the heart of the trial was Louisa Calderón (1787-1825), a 13 year old girl of mixed racial ancestry who was subjected in 1801 to a kind of torture known as “picketing” now colloquially called “Picton-ing.” This trial, and the act of torture it highlighted, led to a public sensation throughout the whole of the British Empire, becoming one of the major instances of reform on the use of torture against those living in British colonies.

Title page of the Trial of Governor T. Picton. Photo by Ellie Korres.

“Picton-ing” is a form of torture in which the victim has one arm tied by a restraint that runs through a pulley connected to the ceiling, while the other arm is tied tightly to one of the feet so that the leg is forcibly bent upward at the knee. The remaining foot is then positioned so that a toe rests on a spiked piece of wood as the weight of the whole body is lowered onto it (p. 16). Used frequently by the British Army, “Picton-ing” was not designed to permanently injure or maim, and the wooden spike was not sharp enough to break the skin. However, suspending a person’s entire bodyweight on such a small surface caused the victim severe pain and discomfort. Testimony in the trial suggests that Calderón was subjected to this torture for approximately 22 minutes (p. 19).

Engraved frontispiece depicting the torture of Louisa Calderon. Photo by Ellie Korres.

Governor Picton was already under investigation by British authorities (specifically, the Privy Council) for other actions taken while he was in power in Trinidad, involving the deaths of enslaved persons, free people, and soldiers. Despite the controversy surrounding Picton’s actions in Trinidad, he eventually became a member of the British parliament. He later fought in the Napoleonic Wars and was killed at the Battle of Waterloo.

The trial is an early example of a case in which the defendant was acting under the color of law with respect to the laws of one jurisdiction, but was tried in a different jurisdiction where authorities then attempted to interpret and apply the law of the jurisdiction where the act happened rather than their own. In the case of Governor T. Picton, the charges involved conduct immediately subject to Spanish law, however he was tried by British authorities in London. The trial hinged on whether or not torture was a common and accepted practice in Spanish territories. The defense, however, neither presented any precedent supporting torture as a judicial solution at the trial, nor did it point to explicit laws authorizing the use of torture. Instead it presented throughout the trial in-depth explanations of the legal principle that suggested Picton could act under Spanish law (emphasizing that the appointment of Picton made it explicit that he was to govern under the Spanish system of law in place).

The Law Library’s copy of the Trial of Governor Picton is bound with “Evidence taken at the Port of Spain, Island of Trinidad.” Photo by Ellie Korres.

Within the written proceedings in our collection, researchers will find the testimony of the victim, Louisa Calderón, where she graphically described the torture she was subjected to under the direction of Governor Picton. Also introduced at trial was the signed order by Governor Picton authorizing the torture of Calderón, simply stating “Apply the torture to Louisa Calderón” (p. 30). There is also a robust presentation of evidence involving the existence of torture in Trinidad before and during the tenure of Governor Picton. The account ends with a description by the judge, Lord Ellenborough (Edward Law, the Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales), reiterating the various legal arguments and applicable standards, and the jury finding the governor guilty after five minutes of deliberation (pp. 120-126).

While Picton was convicted, and suffered damage to his reputation – for instance he was denied an expected elevation to the peerage – the Privy Council decided in January of 1807 that there were no grounds to the charges against him (Epstein, p. 739). The press had cast him variously as the “blood-stained governor” on the one hand, and as a victim of a smear campaign on the other, in which Calderón was made out to be a co-conspirator in his slandering. The city council of Cardiff, Wales, voted in July 2020 to remove a statute of Picton. In its statement, it announced that:

“This Council believes: The behaviour of Picton as Governor of Trinidad was abhorrent, even in his own era, and not deserving of a place in the Heroes of Wales collection. That heightened awareness about the history of slavery must include a reassessment of the regard in which we hold Picton, and many others who were actors and beneficiaries of slavery. That in hindsight it was an error to have included Picton as an option in the 1916 public vote, and an error that he had not been removed sooner. That a democratic decision, by the representatives of the people of Cardiff, to remove the statue will send a message to Black people in Cardiff and across the world that the city recognises the role people like Picton played in slavery, and that we must seek to address the systemic racism that still exists due to slavery and Empire.”

As for Louisa Calderón, very little is known for certain about her destiny after the trial. She left no written narrative of her life. A woman by the same name applied for a passport to return to Trinidad in 1810. The historian of Trinidad, E. L. Joseph, wrote in 1838 that Louisa Calderón died in poverty on June 25, 1825 (Epstein, 740-741). More information about Louisa Calderón’s life can be found in chapter 6 of a 2012 book on Caribbean history.

Sources:

Epstein, James. “Politics of Colonial Sensation: The Trial of Thomas Picton and the Cause of Louisa Calderon.” The American Historical Review, Vol. 112, No. 3 (June 2007), pp. 712-741.

Neil Prior, “Battle of Waterloo: Thomas Picton, the hero and villain,” BBC, June 8, 2015.

 

One Comment

  1. Nicola Phillips
    March 11, 2021 at 3:57 pm

    The Prosecutor in the Picton case was the famous English defence barrister William Garrow, credited with introducing the principle of innocent until proven guilty. However, his opening speech in the Picton case is praised as one of his best, and his arguments helped convict Picton in his first trial. Garrow was also strongly opposed to slavery and reputedly refused to accept payments from Sugar Planters to defend them.

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