Monday 28 November 2011

Brutish and Uncompromising

A relaxing weekend catching up with the world beyond Hafal. I have previously commented on the phenomenon of people objecting to the celebration of historical characters because they are found to be wanting by modern standards (see here). The latest manifestation of this is a campaign to remove a portrait of Waterloo hero Sir Thomas Picton from the courtroom in Carmarthen on the grounds that he was prosecuted for torture when he was governor of Trinidad.

Actually he was found not guilty (so you'd think that the lawyers objecting to the picture might respect that verdict?) but in truth attempting to defend Picton on any test of modern moral scruples is a completely hopeless proposition. He was a brutish and uncompromising soldier who would have snorted with derision at this spat.

But the most interesting thing about the Picton trial was that it took place at all. Contrary to many modern assumptions the rule of law did matter then (1808) and it could be used to protect the most humble people from oppression by the most powerful. In this case Picton was prosecuted for allowing the torture of a young mulatto girl suspected of theft who was made to stand on one toe for up to an hour on two occasions - certainly a nasty experience but small potatoes compared with practices found to have been used in our name in recent conflicts. He only got off on appeal because he persuaded the court that Spanish law (which permitted all kinds of excesses) applied on the island as British law hadn't yet been formally adopted - a neat lawyerly defence.

It is commonplace to sneer at our predecessors for barbarism and injustice but can you imagine today's senior British military commanders being seriously held to account for mistreatment of suspects abroad which falls short of death or even injury? In fact little has been done about much worse behaviour, a measure of our moral degradation and disrespect for people of other cultures.