Express Editorial : Daily

The recent removal of a portrait of Welshman Thomas Picton, the first British Governor of Trinidad, by the National Museum Wales should be a source of deep embarrassment to this country.

T&T’s blasé attitude to its retention of symbols honouring a man who governed this country with unbridled ruthlessness and made his wealth from the slave trade when even his own country is recoiling from its glorification of him is just bizarre.

While Wales is coming to terms with the cruel truths about its military hero, here in Trinidad where Picton reigned brutally for six years, there is little appetite for historical reckoning, redress and reparation. Perhaps our history is still too explosive and the hurts still too raw to engage historical injustice without triggering new anger and fractures. However, fear of provoking the Jack Spaniard nest of the past should not be allowed to control our present and future.

Thomas Picton should be a clear-cut case for us. For those who still do not know or wish to acknowledge it, Picton’s administration of this island between 1797 and 1803 was marked by such arbitrary brutality that “delinquents who were sent for immediate execution might consider themselves lucky; others had to endure mutilation and torture”, according to Chris Evans, historian of Atlantic slavery from the University of South Wales.

In a sensational development following his resignation as Governor of Trinidad in 1803, Picton was arrested by order of the Privy Council on charges of 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. However, he was tried only on the charge of torturing a 14-year-old girl, Luisa Calderon, in Port of Spain. His conviction was eventually overturned on the grounds that his actions were sanctioned by Spanish laws then in force in Trinidad.

Last year, as the Black Lives Movement gained momentum, Cardiff voted to remove Picton’s statue from the “Heroes of Wales” gallery in its City Hall. Last week, National Museum Wales (NMW) announced that it would not only remove its portrait of him that had been on display for over 100 years but that it had commissioned two artists of Trinidadian heritage now living in Wales to “reframe” the legacy to give more context to Picton’s life.

It was an act of reparation with powerful symbolism.

NMW director of collections, Kath Davies, disclosed that the artists’ work would go on display in August next year to coincide with T&T’s Independence Day.

The Trinidad-born artists involved are Gesiye Souza-Okpofabri and Adeola Dewis, co-director of Laku Neg, a collective of artists.

Hopefully, this exhibition will find its way to Trinidad and succeed in stirring discussion about Picton in the very country where he had wielded absolute power with devastating impact.

It is the highest of ironies that Trinidad, of all places, should be so silent on Picton. However, the nervousness with which the authorities and sections of the national community approach contentious issues of history reveals just how far we still have to go in finding the courage to confront our tortured past.

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