History of Trinidad and Tobago

From Academic Kids

Human settlement in Trinidad dates back at least 7000 years. The earliest settlers, termed Archaic or Ortoiroid, are believed to have settled Trinidad from northeastern South America around 5000 BC. Twenty-nine Archaic sites have been identified, mostly in south Trinidad; this includes the 7000-year-old Banwari Trace site which is the oldest human settlement in the eastern Caribbean. Archaic populations were pre-ceramic, and dominated the area until about 200 BC.

Around 250 BC the first ceramic-using people in the Caribbean, the Saladoid people, entered Trinidad. Earliest evidence of these people come from around 2100 BC along the banks of the Orinoco River in Venezuela. From Trinidad they are believed to have moved north into the remaining islands of the Caribbean. Thirty-seven Saladoid sites have been identified in Trinidad, and are located all over the island.

After 250 AD a third group, called the Barrancoid people settled in southern Trinidad after migrating up the Orinoco River toward the sea. The oldest Barrancoid settlement appears to have been at Erin, on the south coast.

Following the collapse of Barrancoid communities along the Orinoco around 650 AD, a new group, called the Arauquinoid expanded up the river to the coast. The cultural artifacts of this group were only partly adopted in Trinidad and adjacent areas of northeast Venezuela, and as a result this culture is called Guayabitoid in these areas.

Around 1300 AD a new group appears to have settled in Trinidad and introduced new cultural attributes which largely replaced the Guayabitoid culture. Termed the Mayoid cultural tradition, this represents the native tribes which were present in Trinidad at the time of European arrival. Their distinct pottery and artifacts survive until 1800, but after this time they were largely assimilated into mainstream Trinidad society. They have generally been called Arawaks and Caribs, though many modern scholars take issue with these designations. These were largely wiped out by the Spanish colonizers. The survivors were first organised into Missions by Capuchin monks, and then gradually assimilated. The oldest organised indigenous group in Trinidad is the Santa Rosa Carib Community centred in the town of Arima, although several new groups have developed in recent years.

See also: Spanish Missions in Trinidad


Colonial Period

Christopher Columbus landed in Trinidad in 1498, and the island was settled by the Spanish a century later. Columbus is reported to have promised to name the next land he discovered for the Holy Trinity, and considered it a miracle when the first land he sighted was the three peaks of the Trinity Hills. However, it is unlikely that he saw the Trinity Hills, since their position on the south coast of Trinidad makes it difficult for them to be the first land spotted by a sea-traveller.

Trinidad is reported to have been densely populated at the beginning of the colonial period. As a consequence of this (and of it being declared a "Carib" island) Trinidad became the focus of Spanish slaving raids, especially to supply the pearl fisheries in nearby Margarita. Although in 1510 Trinidad was said to have the only "peaceful Indians" along the whole South American coast, in 1511 they were declared "Caribs" (cannibals), allowing them to be legally enslaved.

In 1530 Antonio Sedeño was granted a contract to settle Trinidad, with an eye toward discovering El Dorado and controlling the trade in slaves. In 1532 he attempted to settle, but was driven off following the Battle of Cumucurapo (= The Place of the Silk Cotton Tree). He withdrew to Margarita and returned the following year and built a settlement at Cumucurapo (modern Mucurapo in Port-of-Spain). After failing to attract more settlers to Trinidad, Sedeño was forced to withdraw in 1534.

In 1553 Juan Sedano was authorised to settle Trinidad, but the contract was never fulfilled. In 1569 Juan Troche Ponce de León built the "town of the Circumcision", probably around modern Laventille. In 1570 this settlement was abandoned. In 1592 Antonio de Berrio established the first lasting settlement, the town of San José de Oruña (the modern St. Joseph).

Although Spanish settlement began in the sixteenth century, the population in 1783 was only 2700, the majority being Amerindians. In 1783, the proclamation of a Cedula of Population by the Spanish Crown granted 32 acres (129,000 m²) of land to each Catholic who settled in Trinidad and half as much for each slave that they brought. Uniquely, 16 acres (65,000 m²) was offered to each Free Coloured or Free Person of Colour (gens de color libre, as they were later known), and half as much for each slave they brought. In the tumult of the Haitian and French Revolutions, many people migrated from the French islands to Trinidad. This resulted in Trinidad having the unique feature of a large Free Coloured slave-owning class.

In the census of 1777 there were only 2,763 people recorded as living on the island including some 2,000 Arawaks. By the time the island was surrendered to the British in 1797 the population had increased to 17,643: 2,086 whites, 1,082 free people of colour, 1,082 Amerindians, and 10,009 African slaves. By 1960 the population was 827,957 and included none of the original inhabitants.

Spanish rule over the island, which nominally began in 1498, ended when the final Spanish Governor, Don José Maria Chacón surrendered the island to a British fleet of 18 warships under the command of Sir Ralph Abercromby on February 18, 1797.

With the abolition of the Slave trade in 1807, the new British colony of Trinidad was left with a severe shortage of labour. This was exacerbated by the abolition of slavery in 1833. To deal with this problem Trinidad imported indentured servants from the 1830s until 1917. Initially Chinese, free West Africans, and Portuguese from the island of Madeira were imported, but they were soon supplanted by Indians. In addition, large numbers of ex-slaves migrated from the Lesser Antilles to Trinidad.

The first announcement from Whitehall in England that slaves would be totally freed by 1840 was made in 1833. In the meantime slaves on plantations were expected to remain were they were and work as "apprentices" for the next six years.

Trinidad was to demonstrate the successful use of non-violent protest and passive resistance almost a hundred years before Mahatma Gandhi's campaign in India. On 1st of August 1834, a unarmed group of mainly elderly negroes being addressed by the Governor at Government House about the new laws, began chanting: "Pas de six ans. Point de six ans" ("Not six years. No six years"), drowning out the voice of the Governor. Peaceful protests continued until a resolution to abolish apprentiship was passed and de facto freedom was achieved. Full emancipation for all was finally legally granted ahead of schedule on 1st August, 1838.

Missing image
Port of Spain Harbour, 1890s

The sugar plantations which dominated the economy of Trinidad in the nineteenth century gradually gave ground to the cultivation of cacao. Trinidadian chocolate became a high-priced, much sought-after commodity. The Colonial government opened land to settlers interested in establishing cacao estates. French Creoles (local white elites descendant from the original French settlers) were being marginalised economically by large English business concerns who were buying up sugar plantations, and this gave them a fresh avenue of economic development.

Venezuelan farmers with experience in Cacao cultivation were also encouraged to settle in Trinidad, where they provided much of the early labour in these estates. Many of the former cocoa-producing areas of Trinidad retain a distinctly Spanish flavour and many of the descendants of the Cocoa Panyols (from 'espagnol') remain in these areas including Trinidad's most famous cricketer, Brian Lara.

After the slaves were freed, the plantation owners were desperate for new sources of labour. In 1839 the British government began a program of recruiting Indian labourers (or coolies) in Calcutta to be sent to Trinidad and Guyana (previously known as British Guiana or Demerara). They bound themselves to work as indentured labourers for a set number of years on the plantations.

The mostly Hindu and Muslim labourers were compelled to work 7 and a half hours a day, six days a week for 3 years, receiving about 13 cents a day for their work. At first, half of the recruits were women but, in 1840, the proportion was reduced to a third of the number of men. In 1844, the period of indenture was extended to five years with a guarantee that, if they wished, they would get a free passage home at the end of their service. In 1853 the law was again amended to allow the indentured labourers to reindenture themsleves for a second 5 year term or, if they wished, to commute any portion of their contract by repayment of a propotionate part of their indenture fee.
Missing image
Newly arrived indentured Indians in Trinidad

Many Indian immigrants who had completed their indentureship also established cocoa estates, most notable of them being Haji Gokool Meah, a Kashmiri-born immigrant who went on the become one of the wealthiest men in Trinidad. The Indian community has steadily prospered and grown until now it makes up just over half the population of the nation.

The arrival of witches' broom and black pod diseases in the 1930s, coupled with the Great Depression destroyed the Cacao industry in Trinidad. Although prices for Trinidad cocoa beans remains high on the world markets, cocoa is no more than a marginal crop. The remaining plantations on Tobago were almost wholly destroyed by Hurricane Flora 1963.

Tobago's development was similar to other plantation islands in the Lesser Antilles and quite different from Trinidad's. During the colonial period, French, Dutch, British and Courlanders (Latvians) fought over possession of Tobago, and the island changed hands 22 times - more often than any other West Indian island. Tobago was finally ceded to Britain in 1814. The two islands were incorporated into the single crown colony in 1888 with Tobago reduced to the status of a Ward of Trinidad.

See also Courland colonization of the Americas

Political development in 20th century

Trinidad was ruled as a crown colony with no elected representation until 1925. Although Tobago had an elected Assembly, this was dissolved prior to the union of the two islands. In 1925 the first elections to the Legislative Council were held. Seven of the thirteen members were elected, the others were nominated by the Governor. The franchise was determined by income, property and residence qualifications, and was limited to men over the age of 21 and women over the age of 30. The 1946 elections were the first with universal adult sufferage.

Labour riots in 1937 led by T.U.B. Butler shook the country and led to the formation of the modern Trade Union movement. Butler was jailed from 1937 to 1939, but was re-arrested in when Britain entered World War II and jailed for the duration of the war. After his release in 1945 Butler reorganised his political party, the British Empire Citizens' and Workers' Home Rule Party. This party won a plurality in the 1950 General Elections, the establishment feared Butler as a radical and instead Albert Gomes became the first Chief Minister of Trinidad and Tobago.

The 1956 General Elections saw the emergence of the People's National Movement under the leadership of Eric Williams. The PNM continued to dominate politics in Trinidad and Tobago until 1986. The party won every General Election between 1956 and 1981. Williams became Prime Minister at independence, and remained in that position until his death in 1981.

In 1958, the United Kingdom tried to establish an independent West Indies Federation comprising most of the former British West Indies. However, disagreement over the structure of the federation led to Jamaica's withdrawal. Eric Williams responded to this with his now famous calculation "One from ten leaves nought" (some assert that mathematical education in Trinidad and Tobago has never recovered from this blow). Trinidad and Tobago chose not bear the financial burden without Jamaica's assistance, and the Federation collapsed. Trinidad and Tobago achieved full independence in August 1962 within the Commonwealth with Queen Elizabeth II as its titular head of state. In August 1 1976, the country became a republic, and the last Governor-General, Sir Ellis Clarke, became the first President.

In 1968 the National Joint Action Committee was formed by members of the Guild of Undergraduates at the St. Augustine campus of the University of the West Indies, under the leadership of Geddes Grainger. In 1969 it was formally launched to protest the arrest of West Indian students at Sir George Williams University in Montreal. Together with Trade Unions and other groups, this led to the birth of the Black Power movement. In 1970 a series of marches and strikes led to the declaration of a State of Emergency and the arrest of 15 Black Power leaders. In sympathy with the arrested leaders, a portion of the Trinidad and Tobago Regiment, led by Raffique Shah and Rex Lasalle mutinied and took hostages at the Teteron Barracks (located on the Chaguaramas Peninsula). However, the Coast Guard remained loyal and was able to isolate the mutineers at Teteron (as the only way out was along a narrow coastal road). After 5 days the mutineers surrendered.

Politcal difficulties in the post-Black Power era culminated in the "No Vote" campaign of 1971 (which resulted in the PNM winning all the seats in Parliament). In 1973, in the face of a collapsing economy Eric Williams was prepared to resign as Prime Minister. However, the outbreak of the 1973 Arab-Israeli War led to the recovery of oil prices and Williams remained in office. The high oil prices of the 1970s and early 1980s led to an oil boom which resulted in a large increase in salaries, standards of living, and corruption.

In 1979, construction on the Eric Williams Plaza began. It would eventually finish in 1986. It remained the tallest building in Trinidad and Tobago until the construction of the Nicholas Tower in 2003.

Williams died in office in 1981. The PNM remained in power following the death of Dr. Williams, but its 30 year rule ended in 1986 when the National Alliance for Reconstruction (NAR), a multi-ethnic coalition aimed at uniting Trinidadians of Afro-Trinidadian and Indo-Trinidadian descent, won a landslide victory by capturing 33 of 36 seats. Tobago's A.N.R. Robinson, the political leader of the NAR, was named Prime Minister. The NAR also won 11 of the 12 seats in the Tobago House of Assembly. The NAR began to break down when the Indian component withdrew in 1988. Basdeo Panday, leader of the old United Labour Front (ULF), formed the new opposition with the United National Congress (UNC). The NAR's margin was immediately reduced to 27 seats, with six for the UNC and three for the PNM.

In July 1990, the Jamaat al Muslimeen, an extremist Black Muslim group with an unresolved grievance against the government over land claims, tried to overthrow the NAR government. The group held the prime minister and members of parliament hostage for 5 days while rioting shook Port of Spain. After a long standoff with the police and military, the Jamaat al Muslimeen leader, Yasin Abu Bakr, and his followers surrendered to Trinidadian authorities. In July 1992, the Court of Appeal upheld the validity of a government amnesty given to the Jamaat members during the hostage crisis. Abu Bakr and 113 other Jamaat members were jailed for two years while other courts debated the amnesty's validity. All 114 members were eventually released despite the fact that a ruling by the U.K. Privy Council deemed the amnesty invalid.

See also: Jamaat al Muslimeen coup attempt

In December 1991, the NAR captured only the two districts in Tobago. The PNM, led by Patrick Manning, carried a majority of 21 seats, and the UNC came in second. Manning became the new Prime Minister and Basdeo Panday continued to lead the opposition. In November 1995, Manning called early elections, in which the PNM and UNC both won 17 seats and the NAR won two seats. The UNC allied with the NAR and formed the new government, with Panday becoming prime minister - the first prime minister of Indo-Trinidadian descent.

Elections held in December 2000 returned the UNC to power when they won 19 seats, while the opposition PNM won 16, and the NAR 1. The UNC government fell in October 2001 with the defection of three of its parliamentarians, and the December 2001 elections resulted in an even 18 to 18 split between the UNC and the PNM. Taking a page from the United States Supreme Court, President Robinson appointed Patrick Manning Prime Minister despite the fact that the UNC won the popular vote and that Panday was the sitting Prime Minister. Despite the fact that Manning was unable to attract a majority (and Parliament was thus unable to sit), he delayed calling elections until October of 2002. The PNM formed the next government after winning 20 seats, while the UNC won 16. Both parties are committed to free market economic policies and increased foreign investment. Trinidad and Tobago has remained cooperative with the United States in the regional fight against narcotics trafficking and on other issues.

In inability or unwillingness of the current PNM government to deal with crime has led to a severe deterioration in security conditions in the country. In addition, a resurgent Jamaat al Muslimeen continues to be a threat to stability. The FBI recently opened an office in Trinidad in connection with its hunt for Adnan el-Shukrijumah.


  • Carmichael, Gertrude. 1961. The History of the West Indian Islands of Trinidad and Tobago 1498-1900. Alvin Redman, London.
  • de Verteuil, Anthony. 1989. Eight East Indian Immigrants: Gokool, Soodeen, Sookoo, Capildeo, Beccani, Ruknaddeen, Valiama, Bunsee ISBN 9768054255
  • de Verteuil, Anthony. 1996. The Holy Ghost Fathers of Trinidad. The Litho Press, Port-of-Spain. ISBN 976-8136-87-1.
  • Dryden, John. 1992 "Pas de Six Ans!" In: Seven Slaves & Slavery: Trinidad 1777 - 1838, by Anthony de Verteuil, Port-of-Spain pp. 371-379.
  • Hill, Jonathan D. and Fernando Santos-Granero (eds.). 2002. Comparative Arawakan Histories.
  • Meighoo, Kirk. 2003. Politics in a Half Made Society: Trinidad and Tobago, 1925-2002 ISBN 1558763066
  • Newson, Linda A. 1976. Aboriginal and Spanish Colonial Trinidad.
  • Reid, Basil A. 2003. Developing GIS-based weights of evidence predictive models of pre-Columbian sites in Trinidad. Ph.D. dissertation, University of Florida, Gainesville
  • Sawh, Gobin, Ed. 1992. The Canadian Caribbean Connection: Bridging North and South: History, Influences, Lifestyles. Carindo Cultural Assoc., Halifax.
  • Stark, James H. 1897. Stark's Guide-Book and History of Trinidad including Tobago, Granada, and St. Vincent; also a trip up the Orinoco and a description of the great Venezuelan Pitch Lake. Boston, James H. Stark, publisher; London, Sampson Low, Marston & Company.
  • Williams, Eric. 1964. History of the People of Trinidad and Tobago, Andre Deutsch, London.
  • Williams, Eric. 1964. British Historians and the West Indies, Port-of-Spain.

External links

See also : Trinidad and Tobago

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