December 1801: On the floor of a garret in the prison on the island of Trinidad, 14-year-old Louisa Calderón lay tethered in irons. She was in agony and drifting in and out of a fitful sleep. Earlier that day she had been tortured on the orders of Thomas Picton, the Governor of the island. For 55 minutes she had been suspended by the hand on a pulley attached to the ceiling, while her opposite big toe was placed on a sharp wooden spike. The other wrist and foot were bound together behind her. She knew tomorrow would bring more of the same treatment.
Her torturers were determined to make her confess to conspiring with Carlos Gonzalez to steal 500 pounds from Pedro Ruiz, her master. So far, she had defied them.
What had brought her to such a dire situation? Louisa Calderón was born into poverty, a so-called “free mulatto” [mixed race] – but there was not much freedom in her life. At the age of 11 she was handed over to Ruiz, a merchant in Port of Spain, as his live-in prostitute. Three years later, he accused his friend Gonzalez of stealing the money and had him arrested. Louisa’s arrest followed soon after. They both faced a capital charge but she strenuously denied involvement.
Louisa was brought before Picton, a man of fearsome military reputation whose policy of inflicting brutal punishments had spread terror across Trinidad. He justified it as the only way to impose his authority on the island, which only four years previously had been a Spanish possession.
The first thing Picton said to Louisa was:
If you do not confess, the hangman will put his hand on you.
He ordered her to be taken to the garret and to witness the picqueting 1 of two black women accused of witchcraft. This particular form of torture was designed by the Spanish for use on soldiers: the victim’s foot was placed on a flat wooden peg while the opposite hand was strung up, and the other arm had some support on a ledge. Governor Picton, however, had refined the arrangement, and preferred a spike for the foot and to bind the hand and foot behind the victim. Her toe took her own full weight on the spike.
Even so, the sight of the suffering of the two women did not persuade Louisa to confess and her exasperated jailer sent a message to Picton to ask what he should do next. He replied:
Apliquese la question a Louisa Calderón.
[Inflict the torture upon Louisa Calderón]
In the garret, the next morning, as expected, the torturers reassembled and Louisa’s ordeal resumed. This time, the session was shorter – only 22 minutes – because she fainted, possibly twice, and they revived her with vinegar. After that the torturers gave up, perhaps fearing that further sessions would kill her.
They incarcerated her for eight months, during which her family were not allowed to see her, only to deliver food to the prison. She had no legal representation and she was not brought to trial. In the end, the charge against her was dropped. Gonzalez was ordered to repay the missing money and to leave Trinidad. There were rumours that the crime had been invented by Ruiz out of jealousy.
In London, reports of Picton’s cruelty and financial corruption were causing consternation. The administration sent William Fullarton to relieve Picton of power and take charge of the island. There was no love lost between these two men, especially after Fullarton started to investigate specific allegations against the Governor. Eventually Picton resigned and in December 1803 he was arrested on the orders of the Privy Council.
The charge concerning Louisa was one amongst many, including 29 counts of death “unlawfully inflicted.” Picton was accused of having “burned alive, decapitated, and brutally executed slaves suspected of practising the black arts, necromancy, and casting spells” but the most serious allegation was that he hanged, without court-martial, a young soldier who was been accused of raping and robbing a free woman of colour. If Picton were found guilty, it is possible he would have been executed. There was a recent precedent: in 1802 Joseph Wall, the former governor of Goree, a slave-trading station in West Africa, who was convicted of flogging a soldier to death without court-martial, was hanged at Newgate in front of 60,000 spectators.2
In England, in anticipation of the trial, drawings of Louisa undergoing torture were widely circulated and excited genuine sympathy, but also, in some quarters, a rather more prurient interest.
Fullarton accompanied Louisa on her journey from the West Indies to London, and in England she was cared for by his wife in preparation for her appearance in 1806 as the star witness in the Court of King’s Bench. The charge against Picton – having caused torture to be unlawfully inflicted to extract a confession – was a mere misdemeanour. William Garrow conducted the prosecution in front of Lord Chief Justice Ellenborough.
Spanish and Creole interpreters were brought in for Louisa and for other witnesses, the gaoler, magistrate and police officers, who had crossed the Atlantic. Through them, Louisa answered the questions calmly and clearly. Garrow asked her to re-enact the torture and to display her scarred wrists to the court and when he showed her a drawing of the torture, her reaction sealed it. He made much of the similarity of the words “picquet” and “Picton”.
The defence argued that torture was part of the existing law of the island at the time but the jury, seemingly not impressed, decided that it wasn’t and found Picton guilty.3
His lawyer immediately applied for a retrial.
Meanwhile, Picton’s supporters tried to attack Fullarton by spreading rumours that he had made Louisa pregnant. He sued for libel but died while the case was in progress.
In 1807, the capital charges against Picton were dropped. He had friends in high places. In 1808 the case involving Louisa returned to court. The verdict was reversed.
Louisa probably returned to Trinidad and thereafter disappeared from public view and from the records. No so, Picton, who remained in the public eye. His military career was minimally affected by his legal battles and he went on to achieve great fame for his exploits in the Peninsular War. Wellington admired but disliked him.
At the Battle of Waterloo, on 16 June, Picton, wearing civilian clothes and a top hat (his luggage had failed to arrive), was mortally wounded and died two days later. He was the most senior casualty of the battle. Parliament ordered a public monument was erected to his memory in St Paul’s Cathedral. A subscription was raised in Carmarthen to erect another. The king contributed a hundred guineas.
- Also sometimes spelled picketing.
- 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 (Jun., 2007), pp. 712-741. Oxford University Press http://www.jstor.org/stable/40006668.
- The trial of Governor T. Picton: for inflicting the torture on Louisa Calderon, a free mulatto, and one of His Britannic Majesty’s subjects, in the Island of Trinidad, tried before Lord Chief Justice Ellenborough and a special jury, and found guilty. 1806 B. Crosby and Co.