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Picking a tonne of trouble

You might look at the typical painting of a Napoleonic battle and come to the conclusion that the armies were full of well turned out gentlemen. There they are in all their finery, with shiny buttons and clean white strapping. Beautiful tidy uniforms, with a stylish chapeau to set it all off. They are trés propre. Except of course, in practice they really weren’t, and in the case of one particular soldier he was widely regarded as one of the unusually dressed men in war. Even attending the battle of Bussaco in a nightcap.

Welsh soldier Thomas Picton, was the son of the very nominatively imaginative Thomas Picton, and received a commission into the 12th Regiment at age just 13. However, he did not join up as an Ensign until he was a much more mature 15, at which point he upped and left sleepy Pembrookshire for Gibraltar. Which must have been something of a shock to the system, going from the rather sodden Cymraeg countryside to the much warmer rocky slopes of almost Spain. By 20 Picton had reached the rank of Captain, and moved to another regiment. Unfortunately for him this promotion to glory was somewhat temporary as the regiment was then disbanded. Evidently army cuts have a long history. In response to the forthcoming job losses the soldiers rebelled and Picton personally quelled much of their mutiny. Given some of his later history you can interpret what quelling takes the form of, yourselves.

After this he took to an early retirement, living on his parent’s estate in Wales, but evidently he wasn’t a man-made for a relaxing countryside dwelling existence, and sought a new commission. In what must be the eighteenth century equivalent of going to find yourself in Goa, the now 32-year-old Picton upped and moved to the West Indies. Luckily his gamble of slightly knowing the boss panned out, and like many a posh boy, he talked himself into the position of aide-de-campe to the Commander. After swiftly jumping through those ranks again Picton found himself as governor of Trinidad. Which is where if not a name, he certainly made a reputation for himself.

There were many fears amongst the British that the Spanish might nab back Trinidad, it was a good location in the Caribbean, had lots of resources, and is a rather jolly place for a holiday. The garrison Picton was given, to control the island with, was regarded as incapable of providing much defence against the Spanish and so Picton ruled with an iron fist. Tales of Picton’s cruelty, dodgy land deals and his influential black ladyfriend had made it back to Britain and Picton was reduced to third in control of the island after Fullarton and Hood.

Where Picton could be regarded as a rather traditional authoritarian ruler, who encouraged obedience through hate and fear, Fullarton was a liberal Whig who sought a more co-operative means of occupation. Fullarton had already challenged the mighty East India Company about their treatment of natives, and he was looking to run Trinidad in a similarly more friendly fashion. Picton and Fullarton soon fell out, and Picton’s resignation soon followed.

The resignation though was not the end of the process. Fullarton had carried out a very complete investigation and the findings of his investigation made back home, where Picton was summoned. For trial. Picton was charged, by the Privy Council, with cruelty against those practising the local folk magic, slave cruelty and execution of suspects without a proper trial. Despite Trinidad being under British rule, and Picton himself being there at the behest of the British government, he argued that the standing law on Trinidad was Spanish and that allowed for such activities. For one charge he faced the court proper, the Privy Council essentially being rather more of an inquiry, and in 1803 went before the bench accused of torturing a free citizen. The 14-year-old girl had apparently assisted her boyfriend in burglary (though not participating herself) and her torture was authorised by Picton. She had been tortured using the apparently non permanent lasting piquet method, in which the tortured is dangled above a pointy stick by their thumb. The 19th century gossip rags felt compelled to explain with pictures exactly what a pubescent girl in hardly any clothes dangling from a tree might look like, and etchings of this were popular. Picton was initially convicted, but after a retrial in which he managed to produce more witnesses, the result was a reversal of the verdict.

Whilst all this was going on Picton was continuing his military career and by 1809 was a Major-General. A year later, thanks to Wellington, he was commanding a division in Spain for the Peninsula War. Though he was never as close to Wellington as some of the other officers Picton remained one of the senior command team until his death. Though he may not have treated his slaves very well he rewarded his soldiers for their performance. After the 1812 battle in Badajoz which resulted in injury to most of the troops, including Picton himself, he rewarded all the surviving members of his troop with a guinea from his recently inherited fortune.

He accompanied Wellington into the 100 days War. At Quatre Bas he was wounded but he kept this hidden as they advanced toward Waterloo. What Picton was wearing at Waterloo is the subject of some debate. Suffering that common holiday maker problem Picton’s luggage had not arrived at the battle field, and he was forced to go to war in top hat and tails. However, stories from his family suggest that having overslept his top hat was the accessory to his nightshirt. Either way he did not make it out of the battle of Waterloo alive. His death is again subject to some debate, he most likely died thanks to a French bullet, but there seems some argument that the disliked Picton may have been killed by his own. However he died, and whatever he was wearing, he was certainly a very significant character in the eighteenth and nineteenth century military.

If you would like your own Picton, dressed in splendid top hat, the Perry Miniatures set of Wellington, Picton and Uxbridge.

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