This seemingly unrecorded broadside features the text of a lengthy letter written by Colonel William Fullarton, a prominent liberal statesman, addressed to the Duke of York, the Commander-in-Chief of the British Army, being part of the former’s high profile legal and propaganda war against General Thomas Picton, who during a celebrity trial the year previous had been convicted of ordering the torture of Luisa Calderón, a young mulatto woman, while he was governor of Trinidad, and was suspected of much worse, of being responsible for multiple counts of judicial murder in order the ‘suppress sorcery’ on the island. Picton was a highly controversial figure, a hero to many, for being one of Britain’s most skilled field commanders, but a villain to others for his gratuitous recourse to violence in Trinidad. His actions sharply divided public opinion across the empire, bringing to the fore important questions about the rule of law in colonies and the status of British subjects of colour in the generation leading up the abolition of slavery. Picton’s trial was one of the British Empire’s great media spectacles of the era, sparking a fierce propaganda war that produced numerous pamphlets and broadsides, although very few of these ephemeral works survive. The present work is remarkable in that it was personally written by one of the story’s protagonists; is remarkably content rich; was published in Ayr, Scotland by local printer; and is seemingly the only known example.
Thomas Picton: The Torturer of Trinidad
On February 24, 1806, Brigadier-General Thomas Picton, the former Governor of Trinidad, was placed on trial for ordering the torture of Luisa Calderón, a free mulatto woman (Picton is today perhaps most famous for having been the Duke of Wellington’s ‘righthand man’, killed in action at the Battle of Waterloo). Tried before Lord Chief Justice Ellenborough, after a single day of arguments and only five minutes of jury deliberations, Picton was found guilty!
The trial and related developments riveted audiences across the globe, conveyed by a press that was already ramped up into high gear by the Napoleonic Wars. It shocked everyone and sharply divided public opinion, raising critical questions about the application of law in British-ruled territories, as well as, more sensationally, exposing uncomfortable truths about the empire’s role with respect to national security, race, sexuality and violence during a time of revolution and war. The present work is the most accurate and complete transcript of the Picton Trial, based on notes taken in shorthand during the proceedings. It was considered in its time be the authoritative first-hand account of the trial, a distinction which is supported by historians to the present day.
In 1797, amidst the French Revolutionary Wars (1792 – 1802), during which Britain and France were engaged in an epic global war, a British expeditionary force seized the island of Trinidad, which had hitherto been a province of Spanish Venezuela (Spain was then allied to France). As the island had not yet been formally ceded to Britain, a provisional administration was established, whereby the island would continue be ruled under the existing Spanish legal system. Colonel Thomas Picton was appointed to be the island’s governor, leading a civil service consisting mostly of remaining Spanish officials.
The British takeover of Trinidad occurred during a period of global turmoil and internal debate on the nature of governance and race relations within the British Empire. The inhumanity of the immensely lucrative sugar economy of Britain’s existing West India colonies (Jamaica, Barbados, etc.) was facing increasingly strong opposition from Enlightenment-liberal elements in Metropolitan Britain. While abolishing slavery was still a long way off, calls to improve the treatment of enslaved people, while abolishing the global slave trade, were gaining traction in both the law courts and Parliament. These liberal forces were resolutely opposed by the well-funded plantation lobby.
While the overall direction of travel favoured the liberal side, the events of the 1790s emboldened conservative-pro-slavery forces. The ongoing Haitian Revolution (1791 – 1804), the West Indies’ first successful slave uprising, exposed the colony’s French plantocracy to shocking violence and ruined what was the region’s most valuable economy. Also, during the Second Maroon War of 1795-6, the British subdued a rebellious free black community Western Jamaica, but only at great difficulty and cost. These events led many Britons to question the wisdom liberalizing laws towards not only slaves, but also free blacks.
Adding to the tension, Trinidad, and all the other British-held West Indian islands, were on a constant war footing, prepared to face French attack at any time. A fear, nearing paranoia, developed amongst some British officials that the ‘rebellious impulses’ of both slaves and free people of colour posed a potentially mortal danger to the empire’s ability to defend these islands.
Trinidad was still an underdeveloped island, yet one which had undergone rapid demographic and economic change in the period immediately before the British takeover. In 1777, Trinidad was a remote Venezuelan province that had a population of only 1,400. Beginning in 1783, to spur development, the Spanish government invited French planters and merchants to move to Trinidad, along with their slaves, which soon formed an embryonic sugar economy. Notably, an unusually large number of Trinidad’s new arrivals were free blacks, who in addition to the economic opportunities of a growing frontier economy, were drawn to Trinidad by the liberal social policies of the island’s last Spanish governor, José María Chacón (in office 1784-97). Chacón had a relatively benevolent attitude towards free blacks, mulattos and Amerindians, granting them many of the same rights as enjoyed by the common white residents.
In 1797, Trinidad had a population of 17,718, of which 2,151 were Europeans; 4,476 were “free blacks and people, of colour”; 10,009 were slaves and 1,082 were Amerindians. While this figure represented dramatic growth from twenty years previous, the island was still undeveloped. For comparison, Jamaica which had twice the land area of Trinidad, had a population of almost 300,000, of which 90% were slaves.
Trinidad was seen as test case for Britain’s overall attitude towards slavery and the treatment of free people of colour: If Trinidad was allowed the develop into a mass sugar-slave state like Jamaica, than slavery would be given a new lease on life; but if Trinidad was saved from coming completely under the spell the ignoble institution, then there would be hope that slavery could be abolished across the empire.
It was in this context that Thomas Picton (1758 – 1815) came to govern Trinidad. Picton was a controversial Welsh military man, who was “respected for his courage and feared for his irascible temperament”, while the Duke of Wellington described him as stellar soldier, but “a rough foul-mouthed devil as ever lived”. Picton was an arch-conservative and authoritarian by nature; he had little natural sympathy for the plight of slaves or free people of colour, and he wished to make Trinidad into a brutal slave-sugar society like Jamaica. He aimed to reverse the liberalizing trends of the former Chacón regime and believed that the wartime environment justified his imposition of something akin to martial law.
Picton believed that his small army garrison was totally inadequate to defend Trinidad from foreign invasion, as well as ensuring the security of a White community that made up only 8% of the island’s population. He instituted a severe and reactionary regime, whereby slaves and free persons of colour were subjected to exceptionally harsh and arbitrary justice. There were countless instances of Picton authorizing indefinite arrests, torture and even executions of people without trials or evidence. Notably, he had an obsession for punishing people who practiced obeah, certain syncretic spiritual practices. He was also openly corrupt, using his office to engage in land speculation and slave trading. While some plantation owners and military types adored Picton, most of the island’s grandees found him to be unnecessarily cruel and greedy.
In a decision that was to later haunt him, in December 1801, Picton authorized his police to torture Luisa Calderón, a 14-yerd old free mulatto woman, for the alleged crime of assisting a man, Carlos González, to steal £500 from her criollo lover Pedro Ruíz (with whom Calderón was living). Ruíz had reported the theft to a sympathetic Picton, who promised him that if Calderón “did not confess who had taken the money, he would order the hangman to put his hand on her”. There was no evidence whatsoever that Calderón was involved in the crime, nor did she confess or show any signs of guilt. On December 22, one of Picton’s officials, frustrated by the lack of progress in his investigation, requested the governor’s permission to torture Calderón to gain a confession; authorization that was duly granted.
On December 23, Picton’s officials performed the torture of ‘picketing’ on Calderón, a painful military punishment, that called for trussing her up by one wrist from the ceiling while she had to stand with one leg on a flat-topped peg. The first session lasted for 55 minutes, while the second session, lasting 25 minutes, occurred the following day. Throughout the entire ordeal, Calderón maintained amazing composure and no usable confession was forthcoming. She was held in prison for another eight months, before being released, as no evidence or confession ever materialized.
Innumerable reports of Picton’s bad governance reached London. The new Addington administration, which had assumed office in March 1801, did not favour Picton and had reservations about the island turning into a traditional plantation economy.
Enter Colonel William Fullarton
In 1802, Addington removed Governor Picton’s executive authority, and arranged for Trinidad to be ruled by a triumvirate of commissioners, including Picton, Admiral Samuel Hood (a close friend of Picton), and Colonel William Fullarton. Fullarton was one of the Empire’s leading liberal statesman, a revered war hero with many powerful friends throughout the British establishment. Born in 1754 to an old noble family, the Fullartons of Ayr, he attended the University of Edinburgh, before going on the Grand Tour. He subsequently served as the secretary at the British Embassy in Paris, before being elected to Parliament in 1779. In 1780, as he intended to lead a privateering expedition to the West Indies, his was redirected to India where he became attained great fame for capturing Coimbatore during the Second Anglo-Mysore War (1780-4). Upon returning to Britain, Fullarton retuned to Parliament and established himself as one of the leading political voices of the Scottish Enlightenment, speaking against the Empire’s excesses, particularly its treatment of indigenous peoples and people of colour in its overseas domains. His work A View of English Interests in India in 1787 was one of the most effective liberal critiques of the East India Company. His tremendous intellect and prestige as a war hero ensured that he was always taken seriously, even by those who were not naturally inclined to accord within his views. Fullarton was likewise a fine scholar and his writings in agronomy were of profound academic and practical value.
Almost as soon as he arrived in Trinidad, Fullarton found himself shocked and horrified by Picton’s abuses of the legal system and his sadistic mistreatment of many of Trinidad’s people, a regime that he described as “let them hate so long as they fear”. Fullerton made it his personal mission to bring Picton to justice and was given vast latitude to do so by Lord Hobart, the Colonial Secretary, who was a close friend from his time in India. Fullarton interviewed dozens of witnesses and collected voluminous written evidence.
In 1803, both Picton and Fullerton left Trinidad. Picton joined Admiral Hood in military operations in Tobago and St. Lucia, while Fullerton returned to London to make his case against the former governor. Fullerton used his stellar political connections to ensure the Privy Council carefully reviewed his dossiers of accusations that included the punishment of those engaged in obeah; cruelty to slaves; and the imprisonment and execution of suspects without due process.
In November 1803, Picton was arrested on the orders of the Privy Council on charges that included 29 counts of being responsible for the “unlawful deaths” of slaves, free coloured people and even some of his own soldiers. This included giving orders for people to be decapitated and burned alive. Additionally, he was charged with numerous counts of torture and illegal detention, as well as acts of corruption.
For reasons that are not entirely clear, the Privy Council elected to deal with almost all the charges, including the most serious ones, in a ‘quiet’ manner, behind closed doors. They referred only the charge of Picton ordering the illegal torture of Luisa Calderón to the crown prosecutor to be tried at the Court of the King’s Bench (the British supreme court).
News of the case against Picton viz. the torture of Luisa Calderón caused a media storm across the British Empire. Fullerton orchestrated a massive propaganda campaign against the former governor, who became the ‘poster boy’ for what liberals saw as a the outgoing, discredited cruel empire of exploitation and slavery. Calderón’s ordeal, which could be dramatically illustrated and easily understood by all, compelled average Britons to directly confront the horrors that were regularly committed abroad in the name of their country. This exposé was countered by a PR-effort orchestrated by conservative-military types and plantation owners who felt that Picton was being unfairly martyred for doing this duty, making tough decisions necessary to defend the empire in a time of war and political instability.
The Trial of Thomas Picton
After a series of procedural delays, Picton finally went to trial at the Court of the King’s Bench, convened at fabulously impressive Westminster Hall, on February 24, 1806. The trial was of the upmost importance and was presided over by Chief Justice Ellenborough. The crown pulled out all the stops, appointing as the prosecutor William Garrow, Britain’s most famous barrister and a charismatic showman who was one of the world’s first trial lawyers in the modern sense. The defence was led by Robert Dallas (later a respected judge) while both sides went to tremendous expense to bring witnesses from Trinidad to testify in their favour. Most importantly, Fullerton arranged for Luisa Calderón to testify in person at the trial.
The trial room was packed with reporters from every imaginable newspaper, as well as many prominent citizens, both for and against Picton. Calderón’s presence created quite a stir, as she came across as beautiful and dignified, with a strong, credible bearing. As a reporter from the Sun newspaper opined “Her appearance was extremely interesting, and her countenance, which was that of a Mulatto, extremely pre-possessing and agreeable”.
Garrow painted Picton as a rogue governor who disgraced both his office and the empire though his flagrant disregard of the standards of conduct, not to mention the rule of law, that should have been the cornerstone of his mandate. Dallas countered that the West Indies was a dangerous place where Metropolitan British conventions do not, and should not, prevail and that Picton did his duty in maintaining order on Trinidad against outrageous odds. Dredging up old prejudices concerning the links between race and sexuality, Dallas cast aspersions on Calderón’s character, as she was a mulatto teenager living in sin with an older white man.
The apex of the trial was Garrow’s examination of Calderón, who gave a composed, yet moving, account of her ordeal at the hands of Picton’s men. Dramatically, she showed the court the scars from her torture, appearing as “a seam or callus formed on both wrists.”. To graphically dramatize the testimony, Garrow showed the court “a drawing in water colours” representing in striking manner her situation with the executioner and his attendants during the application of the torture”.
It eventually became clear that the outcome of the trial hinged on whether Picton broke Spanish law, the code the governor was to follow when administering the island. Dallas argued that judicial torture was a common and accepted legal practice in the Spanish West Indies.
Picton’s case fell apart when Garrow grilled Archibald Gloster, the former Attorney General of Trinidad, who was the prosecution’s star witness. After maintaining that Picton’s employment of torture was legal according to the Spanish legal codes, under spirited questioning, he admitted that not only could not cite a single instance of torture being mentioned in Spanish legal text, he could he even read a word of Spanish! It was soon established that while torture might have been practiced in Spanish Trinidad, it was not sanctioned by any laws.
At 7 PM, after almost eight hours of testimony, Ellenborough tasked the jury with deliberating. They returned after only five minutes to pronounce Picton guilty!
The verdict caused a sensation across the empire, sharply dividing public opinion. It was been a major victory for the liberal-anti-slavery lobby, which succeeded in having the empire ban the global slave trade the following year. It proved that, at least temporarily, justice could be served for coloured subjects of the British Empire, even against the forces of powerful elite-conservative interests.
Dallas immediately appealed the verdict, and arranged for Picton to remain free on bail, although he had to post a bond of £40,000 – an astounding sum at the time!
In a move that Fullarton and others found scandalous, in January 1807, the Privy Council, which had been considering Picton’s other crimes, notable the 29 charges of judicial murder levelled against him, had decided to close their investigation, effectively letting Picton off the hook (although his conviction for torturing Luisa Calderón still stood, pending retrial). Changes in the complexion of the administration, plus the advent of the Napoleonic Wars ensured that Picton, despite his liabilities, was seen a net benefit to the empire, as his undeniable skills as battle commander were needed on the field (no less at the request of the Duke of Wellington!). A convicted torturer and alleged mass murderer, who was free on £40,000 bail, would now be a general leading a division into battle!
Far from being discouraged, in the face of these outrages, Fullarton continued his legal and propaganda campaign against Picton.
On March 25, 1807, Robert Stewart, Viscount Castlereagh (1769 – 1822), became Colonial & War Secretary; he greatly favoured Picton. A couple months later, he did much to rehabilitate the former Trinidad governor, re-affirming his army commission and arranging for him to have an audience King George III. He presumably did this with the express consent of the addressee of the present letter, the Field Marshal Prince Frederick, Duke of York and Albany (1763 – 1827), the Commander-in-Chief of the British Army, perhaps most famous today for being the subject of the mocking rhyme ‘The Grand Old Duke of York.’ News of this naturally enraged Fullarton, and it was at this juncture that he created the present broadside.
The Present Broadside in Focus
The present broadside comes in the form of a lengthy, well composed letter from Colonel Fullarton to the Duke of York. While the Duke had lately supported Picton’s cause, he was also favourably acquainted with Fullarton, who was not only a war hero form his days in India but as an MP had been indispensable in supporting Britain’s more recent military endeavours. The letter not only features Fullarton’s own rhetorical efforts but also quotes supporting evidence from official notices and high-level correspondence, all in order to convince the Duke that Colonel Picton, despite his martial skills and the advocacy of his many supporters, was morally unfit to hold military command due to his past actions in Trinidad which were both illegal and outside of the accepted norms of governance in British overseas possessions.
Fullarton commences by outlining the current stay of play. He remarks upon how Picton had recently been given the command of the 56th Regiment. He notes that the Times has reported that on May 29 last Picton was presented at Court by Lord Castlereagh, on “His Honourable Acquittal by the Privy Council of the charges preferred against him by Colonel Fullarton”, being the 29 charges of murder and torture emanating from his tenure as the Governor of Trinidad. This follows the Privy Council’s January 10, 1807 announcement that “We understand that the Privy Council have finally pronounced upon the charges lately preferred against General Picton by Colonel Fullarton and decided that there is no real grounds or the accusations this preferred”. This decision was further conveyed in letter written by William Augustus Fawkener (c. 1750 – 1811), a senior -civil servant and Privy Councillor.
Fullarton notes that he is not surprised that Lord Castlereagh so favoured Picton. However, Fullarton opines that Picton’s was not an honourable acquittal, but rather a political decision to sweep the matter under the rug, after that body had convened sixty judicial meetings on the matter between from 1803 and 1807. A footnote recalls that of the charges that were unceremoniously quashed: “Seven of the Twenty-nine Persons charged as unlawfully executed by order of Governor Picton, suffered under suspicion of Sorcery, and of Poisoning by means of Charms. One of them was burned alive!” Despite the Privy Council’s actions, Picton was still a convicted torturer out on £40,000 bail, pending appeal!
Sharpening his rhetoric, Fullarton wryly asserts that it would have been hypocritical for Castlereagh to criticize Picton, as the former authorized judicial murder and torture while he served as Irish Secretary during the in the immediate aftermath of the Irish Rebellion of 1798.
Fullarton then goes on to ask: “What modes and measures of severity those who govern in the King’s name, may inflict upon his Majesty’s subjects in the distant possessions of the Crown?”
In light of the question Picton “seems to be labouring the establish that Military Commandants and Governors abroad are to be exempted from Obedience to the principles of British justice, to the Laws of the Realms, of the Municipal Institutes of any Civilized Society – In other words, that our Colonial Rulers are henceforth to be at liberty to commit individuals to Prison without specifying any offense – to confiscate the Property and Banish them, without assigning any reason – to inflict Torture, Mutilations and Death, the most summary and cruel forms, and without trial or any means of defence.”
In this vein, Picton seeks to justify the torture of Luisa Calderón, a “Helpless Girl under Age”
Fullarton then endeavours to answer his own question, seeking to prove that any regime that commits judicial murder and torture is not acting commensurate with the law, nor contemporary conventions of governance in overseas British possessions. He points out that British colonial regimes in a variety places have specifically banned torture and arbitrary justice, singling out the administrations in India, the Leeward Islands and the Cape of Good Hope.
In July 1798, in the wake of the Irish Rebellion, Lord Cornwallis, the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, rescinded Lord Castlereagh’s former modes of governance that had authorized judicial murder and torture, by banning all Corporal Punishment, even as Castlereagh remained in office as Chief Secretary for Ireland.
Fullarton opines that Castlereagh must “now be called to publicly justify” his decision to rehabilitate Picton, a man who was convicted of authorizing torture, free on £40,000 bail!
Fullarton notes that he has “no acquaintance of Lord Castlereagh of a personal nature”, and for that reason his Lordship “probably may mistake my Character and modes of acting”
He mentions that on the other hand the Duke of York is someone “to whom I have been known for many years”. He hopes that the Duke will consider his arguments with an open mind and will not take issue with “me for holding up as objects of public reprobation” Picton and his associates.
Fullarton goes on to note that he has been subject to a fierce character assassination campaign on the part of the other side, referring to the “insinuations circulated by Colonel Picton’s emissaries”. He assumes that the Duke will never lend credence to these notions, reminding him that he speaks with great credibility as “I have raised Three Regiments of the Line, at great expense, and Commanded a large and successful Army during three Campaigns”. He ends by imploring the Duke to reconsider his favour of Picton and to exclude him from the Army, relegating him to face the justice he so richly deserves.
That the present broadside was published in Ayr, by Wilsons Printers, a small local shop, is not surprising. Fullarton’s family hailed from Ayr, and he served as the constituency’s MP from 1796 to 1803. He frequently resided in the area, and seemingly wrote this letter to the Duke of York while there, and chose to rush it out to print locally, as opposed to waiting to have it published in London (as would have been more common).
Despite the present letter and Fullarton’s other efforts, Picton’s military commission stood. Simply put, during the imperial crisis that was the Napoleonic Wars, Picton’s unquestioned abilities as a field commander trumped any desire to seek justice for his alleged misdeeds in a faraway island several years ago. Fullarton’s untimely death, on February 13, 1808, effectively ended the campaign to bring Picton to account.
Picton was given a re-trial later in 1808, resulting in a bizarre “special verdict” that, without any evidence, found that judicial torture was indeed a legally sanctioned practiced in Spanish Trinidad, thus pronouncing Picton not guilty. Moreover, the massive dossier of the other (more serious) charges that were supposedly being investigated by the Privy Council were quietly dismissed. It did not help that by this time Fullerton had died, and there was nobody to lead a public campaign against the former governor.
The truth was that Whitehall considered Picton to be a top-notch battle commander and his talents were far more important in the struggle to defeat Napoleon, than was the desire to correct the wrongs he seemed to have committed in a faraway colony years earlier.
In 1810, the Duke of Wellington selected Picton, by then a major-general, to be one of this division commanders during the Peninsular War. There he distinguished himself as a brave and clever tactician, playing a pivotal role in many battles.
Picton died leading his men at the Battle of Waterloo (June 18, 1815), making him the most senior officer killed in that decisive showdown which ended the Napoleonic Wars. For this, he was lionized as a martyr for the empire, overshadowing his ghastly conduct in Trinidad.
Yet, the Picton Trial had an enduring legacy, in that it helped to expose to the public of Metropolitan Britain to the extreme violence that was being meted out to people of colour in the colonies. It made many realize that Luisa Calderón, a young mulatto woman, was a dignified human being, worthy of the full protection of British common law; as were hundreds of thousands other British subjects just like her. The Picton Trial was instrumental in ensuring that a sugar economy in Trinidad based upon the mass exploitation of slavery did not develop (slavery was applied in Trinidad but was relatively limited). It also played a role in turning public opinion against slavery throughout the empire, which was abolished in stages between 1834 and 1840.
References: N / A – Broadside Seemingly Unrecorded. Cf. [On Background:] Selwyn Reginald CUDJOE, Beyond Boundaries: The Intellectual Tradition of Trinidad and Tobago in the Nineteenth Century (Wellesley, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 2003), ‘Chapter 1: The Menace of Colour’, pp. 7-21; James EPSTEIN, ‘Politics of Colonial Sensation: The Trial of Thomas Picton and the Cause of Louisa Calderon’, The American Historical Review, vol. 112, no. 3 (2007), pp. 712-41; James EPSTEIN, ‘“The Shrug of Horror”: Creole Performance at King’s Bench’, in V. Agnew and J. Lamb (eds.), Settler and Creole Reenactment (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), pp. 94-106; Jak PEAKE, Between the Bocas: A Literary Geography of Western Trinidad (Oxford, 2017), esp. pp. 52-56; ‘Proceedings before the King’s Bench, in the Case of Thomas Picton, Esq….1804-1812’, in William Cobbett and T.B. Howell, eds., A Complete Collection of State Trials, vol. 30 (London, 1822), pp. 226-960.