ON June 19, 1815, the day after his costly but decisive victory over Napoleon Bonaparte at the Battle of Waterloo, the Duke of Wellington wrote his dispatch to Earl Bathurst, Britain’s Secretary of State for War. Part of it read …
‘Your lordship will observe that such a desperate action could not be fought, and such advantages could not be gained, without great loss; and I am sorry to add that ours has been immense. In Lieutenant-General Sir Thomas Picton, His Majesty has sustained the loss of an officer who has frequently distinguished himself in his service, and he fell gloriously leading his division to a charge with bayonets, by which one of the most serious attacks made by the enemy on our position was repulsed.’
Picton, commanding the 5th Infantry Division, died at the height of the battle, when the French launched an assault aimed at breaking the Anglo-Allied centre near the fortified farm of La Haye Sainte.
The 56-year-old Welsh-born general was ordered by Wellington to counter-attack and led a bayonet charge, urging his men onwards with the cry: ‘Charge! Charge! Hurrah! Hurrah!’
He cut an unmistakable figure amid the uniformed combatants, because he was wearing civilian clothes – including a frock coat and a black top hat. This was his usual battlefield attire, which is said to have irritated the fastidious Wellington.
As the assault went in, Picton was shot in the head by a musket ball and died instantly, but the French forces were eventually repulsed.
When his body was recovered, it was found that he had been badly wounded in the hip by a musket ball two days earlier. Determined to remain at his post, he had told no one but his servant – and had bandaged the wound himself.
His was a true warrior’s death, literally the last hurrah of a soldier of immense courage and fortitude. Throughout the Peninsular War from 1810 to 1814, when Wellington systematically harried Napoleon’s forces out of Portugal and Spain, Picton had been one of the great duke’s ablest divisional generals, always leading his troops from the front – most notably at the battles of Bussaco, Fuentes de Onoro, Cuidad Rodrigo, Badajoz and Vitoria.
He was the highest-ranking officer to die at Waterloo, and in the wake of that epoch-making victory, his reputation as a hero was unbounded. Monuments and statues were raised to him, while streets, schools and even towns across the British Empire were named in his honour. Picton was eventually entombed in the crypt of St Paul’s Cathedral, where Wellington also lay.
By any standard, Picton’s was a remarkable military career. Yet nowadays, as Alexander Adams excoriatingly related in TCW , his memory is mocked and shamed in his native Wales at the behest of the ‘Taffia’ – the Mafia-like group of Welsh-speaking elitists who dominate local government, charity and the civil service, infused with a sense of entitlement and superiority.
At the National Museum of Wales in Cardiff, Picton’s portrait by Sir Martin Archer Shee has been deliberately enclosed by a wooden packing case and partly obscured. It is surrounded by descriptions of punishments in colonial Trinidad, where Picton was governor from 1797 to 1803 – his record there is now being used by the Taffia to denigrate him.
Britain seized the Caribbean island in February 1797 after its Spanish rulers became allies of France during the French Revolutionary Wars. Picton’s overlordship is said to have been tyrannical, characterised by flogging, branding, torture and summary execution of slaves, free citizens and even troops under his command.
Picton accumulated a fortune in Trinidad after investing in land and slaves and took a mixed-race mistress, with whom he had four children. But in 1803, he resigned after refusing to share power and returned to London. There, he was arrested by order of the Privy Council and accused of having illegally authorised the torture in 1801 of a mixed-race girl aged about 14.
Luisa Calderon, a freed slave, had been charged with stealing 2,000 dollars from a cattle dealer who kept her as his mistress in Port of Spain. As governor, Picton had given the local magistrate permission to use torture on her to try to extract a confession, which was permissible under Spanish law.
Calderon, who was brought to London for Picton’s trial, told how she endured an agonising ordeal called ‘picketing’. Tied by one arm to a pulley on the ceiling of a jail, she was lowered by rope until one of her bare toes rested on a wooden peg set in the ground. For 22 minutes her whole weight was borne on the toe, but she did not confess. She was finally freed from custody after eight months.
Picton was found guilty by the Court of King’s Bench, but no punishment was specified. He sought a retrial and in June 1808 the verdict was reversed. One of the points made in his defence was that on taking over Trinidad, he had been told to maintain the existing Spanish law.
His behaviour was technically legal, though deplorable, and his reputation suffered accordingly. However, his renown as a soldier remained intact and in 1810, Wellington specifically asked for him to take high command in the Iberian Peninsula campaign.
The French capitulated in March 1814 and Picton returned to Britain that summer. But when Napoleon escaped from exile on Elba in February 1815 and marched on Paris, the general was recalled by Wellington to take part in the campaign that ended at Waterloo.
By all accounts, Picton was an unsavoury individual – there is no point trying to pretend otherwise. Tall and burly, he was variously described as uncouth, coarse and brutish, with a reputation for cursing, womanising and duelling.
Even Wellington said of him: ‘I found him a rough, foul-mouthed devil as ever lived.’ And yet he entrusted Picton with pivotal roles in his campaigns, knowing his military virtues outweighed the darker side of his nature.
So does Picton deserve the treatment currently being meted out to his memory? In his TCW article, Alexander Adams described the enclosing of the general’s portrait as ‘an act of ritual humiliation, as primitive and crude as you will ever have seen in a museum’. Anyone with a sense of proportion would agree.
Picton is included in the pantheon of our national heroes because of his military exploits, which surely stand on their own merit, regardless of his other less praiseworthy activities. He was rightly seen alongside Wellington and others as helping save Europe from the scourge of Napoleon.
By all means we should point out the misdemeanours of such men. It would make no sense historically to try to cover them up. But surely it must be done in a sensible, measured way, not overlain with the sort of spite and rancour on display in the Cardiff museum.
The dissection of Picton’s reputation by the Taffia is, of course, of a piece with the wave of insanity and vandalism that followed the toppling of the Edward Colston statue by a Black Lives Matter mob in Bristol in June 2020.
That frenzy was incisively analysed by historian David Starkey, who identified it as a form of perverted Puritanism whose aim is to ‘delegitimate the whole of British history,’ with racism as its original sin.
He wrote that that once someone is tagged with racism – even titans of history such as Churchill, Drake, Nelson, Peel, Gladstone, or Grey – all their other achievements, however great, are rendered worthless. ‘Their monuments must be defaced or torn down and their reputation trashed in a modern version of the Roman damnatio memoriae.’
That is what is happening with Thomas Picton at the National Museum of Wales. His military exploits, for which he was rightly honoured, now count for nothing in the face of what he did in Trinidad. He is forever damned by the perverted Puritans of the Taffia.
Just as an afterthought, I wonder what those woke warriors would have done had they been faced, as Picton was, with a phalanx of French soldiers on the field of Waterloo intent on slaughtering them? We can only imagine.
However, we do know what the profane, irascible old soldier did in that situation – he shouted ‘hurrah!’ and led a bayonet charge into the heart of the enemy. Sir Thomas Picton may have been no angel – but, unlike his modern detractors, he was no coward.