Monument to 'war hero' linked to slave trade to stay put in Carmarthen after public vote

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A controversial monument in Carmarthen erected in honour of a British officer killed at the battle of Waterloo with links to the slave trade will not be removed or renamed, it has been decided.

Picton Monument has stood in Picton Terrace in Carmarthen since 1888.

However, a campaign was launched earlier this year to have the monument removed less than a day after a statue of slave trader Edward Colston was pulled down and thrown into the harbour by protesters in Bristol.

This was part of a backlash which was triggered by the murder of George Floyd in the US state of Minnesota on May 25 and the Black Lives Matter protests that it inspired.

In response to these events, Carmarthenshire Council set up a Task and Finish Group to review matters relating to racial inequality, including the “interpretation and history of Sir Thomas Picton and the monument in Carmarthen”.

© Matthew Horwood The obelisk has stood for more than 130 years

The Task and Finish Group undertook a public consultation in order to gain an understanding of the views and comments of the people, while also consulting with Race Council Cymru and the Llanelli Multicultural Network, and reviewing information gathered from the Carmarthen Civic Society and local councillors.

As part of an online survey, which was also available in paper form and was open between August 19 and September 30, 2,470 responses were received.

The survey asked: Do you think Carmarthenshire Council (and key partners) need to take any steps in response to the recent public discussion about the Sir Thomas Picton monument?

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744 people stated ‘Yes’, that steps needed to be taken, and 1,613 people stated ‘No’, that no steps needed to be taken.

113 people chose not to answer the question but gave feedback through the free text option.

For those who wanted steps to be taken, suggestions included removing the monument and placing it at another location, such as Carmarthen Museum, demolishing the monument, renaming or rededicating it, or erecting an information board.

Reasons given by those who said that no action should be taken included that it was a “military recognition”, the fact that “you cannot change or erase history”, and that the monument is “integral to Carmarthen”.

Thomas Picton himself has been celebrated in Carmarthen for generations. A previous monument was created 60 years before the current one, recognising and honouring the highest-ranking British officer killed at Waterloo in 1815, and still the only Welshman to be buried at St Paul’s Cathedral.

During his lifetime, he became notorious during a trial at which he was accused and initially found guilty of authorising the torture of a 14-year-old girl accused of stealing – torture which included being suspended by one arm on a pulley rope set in the ceiling and lowered onto a spike in the floor, bare foot first.

He also had close links to the slave trade, and was accused of ordering the execution of a dozen slaves during his reign as Governor of Trinidad.

The current monument, which stands at more than 24 metres tall, has been Grade II listed since the early 1980s, and it will now remain in its place after the results of the public consultation were published by Carmarthenshire Council.

In conclusion, they decided that the monument would remain as it is – an approach that will also be taken in relation to place names referring to Sir Thomas Picton.

“Having considered all of the evidence relating to the consultation process, the Task and Finish Group were in agreement that the monument should remain, and should not be repurposed, renamed or altered. It was also agreed that the same approach should be taken with regards to place names,” a council report said.

“Given that there are several street names and references to Sir Thomas Picton across Carmarthen, the group recognised that there is little historical information on display to inform the public and agreed that this ought to be addressed.

“The group also acknowledged the conclusive result of the consultation and agreed that steps needed to be taken as a matter of priority to reflect recent global events and reconsideration in view of the history of Sir Thomas Picton.

“When interpreting the history of Sir Thomas Picton the group emphatically agreed that consideration should be give to his tenure as the Governor of Trinidad, his links with slavery, as well as his military career.

“In the light of the need to educate and inform in a more comprehensive way, it was decided that information boards should be put in place. The information boards or display should seek to educate and inform the public on local history alongside that of Sir Thomas Picton.”

It was recommended that information boards should be placed near Picton Monument, and on a prominent site with the grounds of the monument.

It was also recommended that a further board be placed in the vicinity of the former Crown Court in the Guidlhall in the centre of Carmarthen, which is home to a portrait of Sir Thomas Picton, and that all boards should “reference the local history of the area and also the history of Sir Thomas Picton, encompassing his military career as well as his known links with slavery”.

If the recommendation to place the aforementioned information boards is ratified by the executive board at Carmarthenshire Council, it is expected that they would be erected within 12 months of that decision.

Reacting to the council’s decision, an organisation which promotes equality and diversity has welcomed the fact that, moving forward, people will be educated and therefore have a greater understanding of a “controversial and complex man”.

A spokeswoman for Race Council Cymru said: “We are pleased to see that Carmarthenshire Council has consulted broadly in its consideration of what should be done with the statues, memorials and streets named after public figures associated with slavery or the British Empire.

“We greatly approve of the council’s commitment to engaging with people of minority ethnic backgrounds in its consultation process.

“We support the council’s decision to improve the interpretation of the Picton Monument so that it better reflects the history of this controversial man. The council’s decision to provide fuller and more accurate information will ensure that the people of Carmarthenshire will know a more honest history of this very complex man.

“This new interpretation will be far more relevant to all the people of Britain in their rich diversity.”

© Mike Walters Carmarthen Mayor Gareth John (left) and councillor Alun Lenny think the people, and the council, have come to the correct outcome with regards to the future of Picton Monument

The Mayor of Carmarthen, councillor Gareth John, said that the recommendations which stemmed from the consultation reflected the views of the majority of the town’s residents.

“I welcome the report’s recommendations to the executive board as they reflect the evidence I gave the Task and Finish Group as Mayor, having previously spent significant time seeking the views of as wide a spectrum of the community as possible, ” said Mr John.

“I was particularly keen to learn of experiences from individuals who would be classified as members of the minority BAME community; members of the Picton family to get an insight into the man himself, the views of ex-service personnel, as well as a cross section of the public, especially those I would classify as the silent majority.

“Whilst others focused on the clamour to remove public monuments, Carmarthenshire Council formulated a wide-reaching set of policy actions to address all the issues surrounding discrimination and inequality within our society, which included racism and the appropriateness of monuments and memorials such as General Thomas Picton.

“It really saddened me at the time that the main topic of discussion centred around the future of the Picton monument. Regretfully, this was fuelled by certain individuals who spread the false perception that the council had already decided that the monument should be removed. This of course was not the case, but this falsehood undoubtedly resulted in opinion becoming very polarised extremely quickly, with many becoming totally intolerant of any debate.

“Picton’s appalling role and actions in Trinidad was to establish a model sugar colony based on slavery but whatever weight you give to the historical colonial context two aspects remain indisputable.

“Firstly, the man’s military prowess and his place in history as a war hero. Secondly, and even more importantly in my mind, the original memorial in Carmarthen was built by local public subscription with collections from 1815 onwards. I think that the recommendations most certainly reflect the views of the present residents of our town.”

© Daily Post Wales A portrait of Sir Thomas Picton inside the Guildhall in the centre of Carmarthen

Former Mayor and councillor Alun Lenny, who represents Carmarthen Town South and is a local historian, said: “Removing or demolishing the massive Picton Monument would have been out of the question – not to mention hugely expensive.

“Iconoclasm, being the destruction of monuments for political or religious purposes, is unacceptable. Over 90% of those who responded to the consultation agreed, including most BAME individuals. Renaming or rededicating it so someone else, no matter how worthy, would be disingenuous.

“It was erected by the people of Carmarthen in a past age for a specific purpose. It is a visible historical edifice which speaks eloquently about the values of our ancestors, both good and bad.

“However, since contemporary values and attitudes naturally differ to theirs, we, the people of Carmarthen today, are entitled – indeed obliged – to tell Sir Thomas Picton’s story in the round.

“This can best be done by placing information boards at the monument and near his portrait in the Guildhall – a portrait which is much too large to move to any museum and is part of the CADW Grade I listed former court room’s fixtures and fittings.

“Thomas Picton was a product of the British colonial era, of which conquest, slavery and the looting of other countries were central elements. That dark story, and his part in it, must be told. But Picton was also a brave man, as demonstrated by his heroic conduct during the hour of his death at Waterloo, a battle which changed the course of European history.”

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Meanwhile, UKIP leader and MS for Mid and West Wales, Neil Hamilton, said: “It is no surprise that ordinary people overwhelmingly want to preserve the Picton Monument.

“Picton is a proud part of Welsh history. He heroically sacrificed his life at Waterloo to defeat Napoleon and save Europe from being enslaved by a megalomaniac dictator. Napoleon reintroduced slavery to the West Indies and Picton helped to reverse this.

“Carmarthenshire Council must heed this consultation and stop wasting taxpayers’ money on trashing our history.

“Politicians and cultural vandals should obey ordinary people. The Picton Monument must stand!”