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Sir Thomas Picton and the New Zealand town that bears his name (Image: Tina Tiller)
Sir Thomas Picton and the New Zealand town that bears his name (Image: Tina Tiller)

OPINIONSocietyOctober 18, 2022

Is it time for Picton to have the conversation about changing its name?

Sir Thomas Picton and the New Zealand town that bears his name (Image: Tina Tiller)
Sir Thomas Picton and the New Zealand town that bears his name (Image: Tina Tiller)

The gateway to the South Island is named after a notorious slave trader who tortured a 13-year-old girl, writes Stephen Day.

I grew up in a household steeped deeply in the nation-building myth that NZ soldiers were slaughtered during two world wars because of incompetent British generals. That and a childhood love of Blackadder mean I have a more than healthy scepticism of British war heroes. And in particular, I never understood our colonial predilection for naming new Pākehā settlements after Waterloo warriors. But I imagined those British generals as affable, moustachioed, upper-class twits. If that is who the settlers of Wellington and Nelson wanted to emulate – well, it seemed harmless enough fun.

That was, until the recent school holidays when I visited Picton. Beautiful place, with fantastic trail runs each morning, mountain bike rides and an ice cream parlour in the afternoon, and cafes and bars in the evening. We saw seals, dolphins and many, many seagulls.

And that made me want to know everything there is to know about Picton. So, I googled. That’s when I learnt of its dark past. Picton is named after a slave trader convicted of torturing a 13-year-old girl.

Sir William Beechey: Lieutenant-General Sir Thomas Picton, 1815/1817. Collection of the National Gallery of Art, Washington DC. (Public Domain)

Sir Thomas Picton is better known to many of us as a hero of the Napoleonic Wars, and specifically the battle of Waterloo. But before that, he was famous, or infamous, in Georgian-era Britain as a brutal ruler of Trinidad involved in a sensational public trial.

A warning: this next bit is hard to read.

While Governor of Trinidad, Picton suspended a girl, Louisa Calderon, by one arm, tied by a restraint that ran through a pulley connected to the ceiling. Her other arm was tied tightly to one of her feet so that her leg bent upward at the knee. Her remaining foot was positioned so that Louisa’s toe rested on a spiked piece of wood with her body’s weight lowered on that one toe. She hung like that for a day. Governor Picton suspected her of assisting in a burglary. He was found guilty of torture, but in a retrial, the Privy Council overturned the charges against him and postponed a decision on his actions. His appeal was based not on a denial of torture but on an argument that torture was still legal in Trinidad. No final judgment was ever delivered.

Sir Thomas never came to our Picton, nor had any links with it. I assume he did not consider it a good colony for growing sugar cane and trading slaves.

The New Zealand Company named the town after Picton. It did not name the township in a void. Before the New Zealand Company bestowed it with Sir Thomas’s moniker, Te Ati Awa knew the area as Waitohi. While people can feel uneasy about modern attempts to rewrite history, restoring Picton to its earlier name Waitohi is not such an attempt. If anything, the opposite would be happening. Waitohi had a name which all the local people knew and used. Then the New Zealand Company came along, with relatively few connections to the area, and attempted to rewrite its history by renaming it after someone with no connections at all to the area. Reinstating the earlier name is not so much rewriting history as restoring a history that was thoughtlessly erased. Or at least, I hope that bestowing the name Picton was thoughtless, because if it was a considered decision it reflects even more poorly on the people who made it.

A statue of enslaver and Waterloo war hero Sir Thomas Picton is boxed up in preparation for its removal from Cardiff City Hall on July 24, 2020. (Photo: Polly Thomas/Getty Images)

Interestingly, two years ago, at the height of the Black Lives Matter movement, the city of Cardiff, Wales, voted to remove a statue of Sir Thomas. In its statement, it announced that:

“The behaviour of Picton as Governor of Trinidad was abhorrent, even in his own era, and not deserving of a place in the Heroes of Wales collection… at a democratic decision, by the representatives of the people of Cardiff, to remove the statue will send a message to Black people in Cardiff and across the world that the city recognises the role people like Picton played in slavery, and that we must seek to address the systemic racism that still exists due to slavery and Empire.”

A giant painting of Lt Gen Picton was also removed from Cardiff’s National Museum. The painting returned to public display in August. This time, rather than portraying him as a Welsh hero, the exhibit is showcasing his cruel treatment of black people.

And in Trinidad, where the torture took place, the same debate is occurring. There, journalists, academics and a cabinet committee are calling for Picton’s name to be expunged from streets and other public places.

Tellingly, people in Trinidad referred to and still refer to Governor Picton by the sobriquet “the Tyrant of Trinidad”. At the very time that he was trading, torturing or hanging slaves, Britain was in the throes of a public debate that would soon outlaw slavery. He would have been utterly aware of society’s moral and humanitarian concerns. He was not a man of his time, and he is not a man of our time either.

I’ve now learned that the residents of Picton have started, tentatively, to debate this issue. It is an uneasy feeling to learn that the place that you know as your home, or a history that defines you, is a source of pain and anger for other people. Luckily for them, they have other names that also tell their history and connect them to their place.

I’m not a local of Picton, so I know that it is not my place to tell the residents what they should call their town. But I would like to ask them how they feel about being put in the position of unintentionally sanctifying a man with such a challenging past.

Keep going!