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CRFP: T&T’s battle against gender-based violence should recognise its colonial roots

“[…] Luisa Calderon and Thisbe […] lived through the foundational violence of colonialism which shaped not only the vulnerabilities that they had to negotiate in their time but those that women must still navigate today. And both women experienced terror at the hands of the same celebrated colonial icons: Governor Thomas Picton and his close ally St Hilaire De Begorrat.

“Their stories illuminate aspects of our past which have endured into our present but which we tend to ignore when formulating policy, leading to an over-reliance on traditional anti-violence frameworks…”

The following guest column on gender-based violence was submitted to Wired868 by Shabaka Kambon, the founder/director of Cross Rhodes Freedom Project (CRFP):

Photo: Broomhilda (portrayed by actress Kerry Washington) is prepared for a whipping in the movie Django Unchained.
The movie is meant to imitate life in the mid-19th century.

In recognition of the local struggle led by women to tackle gender-based violence (GbV) in Trinidad and Tobago, the Cross Rhodes Freedom Project (CRFP) has chosen to trace the lines back to two local historical figures: Luisa Calderon and Thisbe. 

Their stories illuminate aspects of our past which have endured into our present but which we tend to ignore when formulating policy, leading to an over-reliance on traditional anti-violence frameworks. 

Both women lived through the foundational violence of colonialism which shaped not only the vulnerabilities that they had to negotiate in their time but those that women must still navigate today. And both women experienced terror at the hands of the same celebrated colonial icons: Governor Thomas Picton and his close ally, St Hilaire De Begorrat. 

Thisbe was an enslaved person whose appearance does not feature in the historical record. Luisa, on the other hand, was a ‘free coloured’ or mixed-race person of Venezuelan origin and African-European descent—described in contemporary newspapers as slender, graceful and extremely prepossessing.

Each one would have been well acquainted with racist colonial violence by the time they entered the historical record in 1801. Thisbe, age unknown on account of her status as chattel, and Luisa, 14 years old, because she was a woman of colour without means in a society constructed within the ethical limitations of white supremacy.

Image: Lieutenant-General Sir Thomas Picton was convicted in England for the illegal torture of a 14-year-old girl, Luisa Calderón.
The conviction was eventually overturned as Picton argued that Trinidad was subject to Spanish law, which permitted the use of torture at the time.

We cannot say if Thisbe was raped but sexual violence was endemic in the institution of slavery where women did not have any control over their own bodies. We know, however, that Luisa was continuously violated for at least four years by Port-of-Spain merchant and paedophile Pedro Ruiz, who had brought her into his home at the tender age of 10 and then accused her of stealing money in collusion with her friend Carlos Gonzalez. 

Before we go any further, it is important to note that history has absolved Luisa of any wrongdoing. In the words of Professor Bridget Brereton, ‘It seems clear enough that there was no robbery, that Luisa and Gonzalez had been framed by a jealous Ruiz.’ 

Nevertheless, Luisa found herself in the clutches of the ‘Tyrant of Trinidad’. 

Thomas Picton, described by one of his contemporaries as ‘a despot unbound by the rule of law or common humanity’, was the first British Governor of Trinidad (1797–1803), and he interrogated Luisa himself before handing her over to Begorrat. 

After failing to extract a confession with threats of hanging, his cohort recommended torture and he authorised it. The mode deemed appropriate for the child was a British military punishment called ‘picqueting’, referred to as ‘pictoning’ because of the frequency of its deployment under the British Governor. 

Image: A recreation of Sir Thomas Picton’s horrific torture of 14-year-old Luisa Calderon in Trinidad.

Luisa was first made to watch this cruelty inflicted on three enslaved women before it was her turn. She was hung by one wrist from a scaffold, while the other wrist was tied to the ankle of her opposite leg. She was then lowered by means of a pulley and rope onto a wooden spike, with the full weight of her body resting on the naked foot of the extended leg. 

This punishment was administered twice in one day for about 53 or 54 minutes as timed by Begorrat. On each occasion, suffering excruciating pain with her skewered foot badly swollen, Luisa fainted, only to be revived by a dash of vinegar in her nostrils and placed in irons in a crouched position. 

Under this adversity, she proffered a ‘confession’ which was deemed unsatisfactory by Begorrat as she could not say where the money was hidden. The torture was repeated the following day, whereafter she was again incarcerated for a total period of eight months, leaving her wrists, like her psyche, scarred for life. 

It is possible that, while incarcerated, Luisa saw or even heard Thisbe’s cries as they were both wardens of the monstrously cruel colonial state in the latter part of 1801. It is important to note here that Thisbe did not have access to even the meagre protections accorded Luisa, who was defined legally as a British subject. 

Photo: A depiction of slaves serving their masters in Trinidad.
(Courtesy Netssa.com)

Summoned before Begorrat among a group of enslaved people accused of having supernatural connections with the deaths of their fellowmen on Coblentz Estate in Cascade and Begorrat’s own Reunion Estate in Diego Martin, she would come to know all too well what Harriet Tubman meant when she described slavery as ‘the closest thing to hell’. 

In his book, A History of Diego Martin, Begorrat’s self-described great-great-great-great-grandson Anthony De Verteuil recalls what happened next but not before perversely proclaiming that his forebear was ‘more skilled in the management of negroes than anyone else in the island’ and that, ‘he showed his skill now’. (pg 51). 

To root out the ‘perpetrators’, Begorrat devised a macabre spectacle. Having gathered all suspects together ‘he proceeded, with great solemnity’ to cut open the bodies of those who had died, spilling their entrails onto the floor.

The sights and smells must have overwhelmed Thisbe along with Begorrat’s reputation for cruelty immortalised in the early calypso: ‘Begorrat et Diabl’la, c’est un’ (Begorrat and the Devil are one). She fled the scene, pleading with anyone she could find to save her from her ‘devilish master’. 

This act of desperation sealed her fate and that of her husband, Felix, as Begorrat took it as confirmation of guilt. He wrote: ‘In order to profit from her first moment of anxiety, I ordered her to be suspended by her hands… about five or six inches from the ground.’

Photo: Frenchman St Hilaire Begorrat was a brutal slave master petitioned an allotment of 358 acres of land for himself and his family in Diego Martin via the Cedula of Population.

Strung up from the ceiling surrounded by a batch of bloodthirsty human flesh-mongers Thisbe, like Luisa before her, preferred a ‘confession’. In order to pursue the matter further, Begorrat again called on Picton, who set up an ad hoc tribunal of seven French enslavers to assist with his diabolical aims. 

These men met regularly at the jail to torture their African captives, whose living conditions were described by eyewitness Pierre Mc Callum thus:

‘In some adjacent cells were lodged about thirty or more poor Africans of all ages, accused of witchcraft, necromancy, etc. All these unfortunate creatures were shackled riveted to the ground, much exhausted with a long tedious confinement, and extreme heat in a dirty hole; it is remarkable they sustain existence, upon the simple diet of impure water and plantains.’ (A History of Diego Martin, pg 52) 

After five months of torture, 20 African men and women were ‘convicted’. Five, including Thisbe, were condemned to death and the rest to extremely severe corporal punishment.

Thisbe was accused, among other things, of sorcery, divination, knowledge of the black arts, holding frequent converse with the devil and poisoning by means of charms, all of which only served to remove the responsibility for deaths on a ‘plantation’ from gross overwork, malnutrition, primitive conditions, disease, physical and mental torture and the absence of any form of medical care—or, to put it another way, routine colonial violence.

Photo: Fictional slave owner Calvin Candie (right) threatens to bash in Broomhilda’s head with a hammer in the movie, Django Unchained.

In accordance with her sentence, Thisbe was, in February 1802, conducted to the Chapel in irons (the first Anglican Church on the corner of Prince and Frederick Streets), to hear prayers before being conducted by a party of soldiers to the place of execution  where she was to be hanged, then decapitated and then burnt at the stake. 

Her head, the only thing left, was to be taken to Diego Martin and stuck on a pole. In keeping with colonialism’s orientation to dehumanise its victims, Governor Picton ordered that Thisbe’s husband, Felix, assist in her execution, that his ears be cut off and that he also be banished from the colony.

On her way to execution, Thisbe described the impending orgy of white supremacist violence as ‘but a drink of water to what I have already suffered’! 

Immediately before being hanged, she pleaded her husband’s innocence, which she had maintained even under agony of the most excruciating torture saying: “I hope nothing will be done to my husband Felix because he is innocent and I am going to God.”

In the years immediately following Thisbe’s barbarous execution, Luisa’s travails continued. In 1806, she was required to travel to England to testify in Picton’s trial at King’s Bench, as her case was featured in the charges brought against him regarding his brutal, authoritarian rule in Trinidad. 

Photo: Former Trinidad governor, Thomas Picton.

Sixteen years old then, she was disparaged by Picton at the trial as a ‘common mulatto prostitute of the vilest class and most corrupt morals’. Picton and his allies also spread rumours that she had conceived a child for the married man in whose home she stayed while there, prompting him to sue for damages—a legal option not available to Luisa.

Despite being found guilty, Picton is not remembered for his despotism or for his slaving but instead, as the highest-ranking officer killed at the battle of Waterloo, a hero.

Likewise, Begorrat is not remembered as an itinerant torturer or sadistic slaver, perhaps the vilest in the history of Trinidad, but instead, as local French creole chroniclers such as Gerard Besson and Begorrat’s own descendant Anthony De Verteuil would like us to see him, as a kind of mythical colour-blind colonial public servant who sacrificed his personal interests to the welfare of the island and who was the founding father of Diego Martin and even Calypso. 

The violence of these ‘great men’ has been completely obscured in the fraudulent light of their hero worship, such that the historical facts of their lives were not able to intrude upon either their own legacies or that of the power structure that they so ably served, until today. 

On 23 July 2020, the BBC reported: “A statue of a ‘brutal’ slave owner [Thomas Picton] – convicted over the torture of a girl [Luisa Calderon] – is to be removed from a ‘Welsh heroes’ gallery in Cardiff’s City Hall.” 

Image: A memorial to Thomas Picton, who was shot dead in the Battle of Waterloo in 1815.
(Copyright Hulton Archive)

In November 2021, the museum of Wales announced that it was removing Picton’s portrait from a room for Welsh icons and that it had commissioned young female Trinidadian artists to reinterpret it. 

Though long overdue, this recognition of colonial violence and its victims is excellent. 

Unfortunately, it does not yet extend to Trinidad and Tobago where Picton and Begorrat committed their atrocities, where race, class and gender still intersect within the parameters they helped to establish in their time, to order a schedule of status that determines the degree of violence that one can expect to experience in the society from the home to the school, to the workplace and from the state.

Our inability to meaningfully confront the past and to deconstruct the complex relationships between the past and the present militates against the development of sustainable solutions to the problem of GBV and all other forms of violence.

As strange as it may seem, any hope of a better future is entirely contingent on us arriving at a place where women like Luisa and Thisbe matter.

Editor’s Note: Luisa Calderon’s name is recorded in some historical texts as ‘Louisa Calderon’.

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