Discover Trinidad


Trinidad's recorded history begins with the island's discovery by Christopher Columbus on July 31, 1498; however, its unwritten history goes back much further- as far back as 5,000 years or more BC, judging from archaeological artifacts.

The inhabitants of the island in pre-Columbian times were Amerindian tribes from the South American mainland. The main group, the Arawaks (or Aruacas) was a peaceful tribe from the upper regions of the Orinoco, in Guyana. These had settled mostly in the south of the island, where they employed themselves hunting, fishing and growing a few crops such as cassava, maize and sweet potato. They wove cotton to make hammocks, used tobacco for religious rituals, and expressed their artistic urges through woodcarvings and pottery.

The northern part of the island - which the Amerindians called "Iere", or "Land of the Humming Bird" - was inhabited by a fiercer tribe called the Caribs. A warlike people, the Caribs had come originally from the Amazon region, settling the islands of Tobago, St. Vincent, Dominica, Martinique and Guadeloupe. Reputed to be cannibals, the Caribs fought fiercely against the European attempts to colonize the island; but it was, ultimately, a losing battle.

War, enslavement and diseases brought to the island by the outsiders took their toll, eventually wiping out the Amerindian population almost completely. Estimated to have been about 35,000 when Columbus discovered the island, the indigenous population now numbered about 300, concentrated mainly in east Trinidad, near the town of Arima. It was on his third voyage, after a demoralizing week becalmed in the doldrums, that Columbus discovered the island which he named La Trinidad, in honour of the Blessed Trinity. He claimed the island for Spain; but it was at least 30 years before Spain showed any official interest in her new possession. In 1530, the Spanish king appointed the conquistador Antonio Sedeno to be Captain-General of Trinidad for life, with a mandate to subdue the unruly natives. Sedeno struggled gamely to accomplish his mission, but the circumstances were against him; four years later, he returned to Spain, and Trinidad was once again left to her own devices.

Several other sporadic attempts were made to settle the island over the next hundred years or so, none of them particularly successful. Apart from the Spanish, small groups of Dutch and British established small colonies; but these were short-lived. Thinking that religious conversion might be a way to increase their control over the Amerindians - many of whom were already falling prey to that fatal European import, smallpox - the Spanish established missions manned by the Capuchin Fathers. Indians who rejected Christianity were severely punished - thus straining even further an already strained relationship. These tensions led to the famous Arena Massacre of 1699, wherein the Amerindians, pushed beyond their limits, rose up and murdered the priests, the Spanish governor and all but one of his men - an action for which they later paid dearly.

True colonization of Trinidad did not begin until the end of the 18th century, when the Spanish King, acting on the advice of a French planter named Roume de St. Laurent, issued the historic Cedula of Population, designed to attract immigrants to the island. The terms of the Cedula, proclaimed in 1783, offered free grants of land to citizens of any land friendly to Spain, provided that they were Roman Catholic. This meant most of the new settlers were French, since England, Spain's other ally at the time, was mostly Protestant.

Almost overnight, Trinidad was transformed into a colonized island, with French planters and free persons of colour flocking from the neighboring islands. The population leapt from 2,700 inhabitants in 1783, to 17,700 in 1789 - 10,000 of whom were African slaves, imported in large numbers because the Cedula allowed extra grants of land for each slave owned. French, or a French-based patois that exists to this day, soon became the main language spoken.

The Spanish governor who made the most significant impression on Trinidad was Don Jos6 Marla Chacon, after whom the island's national flower, the Chaconia, has been named. Arriving in 1784, Chacon was an astute administrator who settled many land disputes, declared Port of Spain the new capital (depriving San Jose de Oruna, now St. Joseph, of that titular honour), and initiated development in the more remote parts of the island. His regulations concerning the treatment of the slaves were enlightened (for his time); the colony prospered under his governorship.

Chacon's days as governor, however, were numbered. In 1797, the British - no longer allies - attacked Trinidad and the Spanish, greatly outnumbered, offered little resistance. Trinidad became a British colony, and remained one until its independence in 1962.

The first priority of the British in the years immediately following their victory was to secure the island against enemy attack. Fort Picton (named after the governor who built it) and Fort George (named after the King of England) were erected on high hilltops overlooking the Gulf of Paria; neither, ironically, saw any military action.

The 19th century did not start auspiciously for the new British colony: Port of Spain was burnt to the ground overnight in the Great Fire of 1808. However, this proved to be a blessing in disguise, since it allowed the incoming governor, Sir Ralph Woodford, a free hand in planning the re-built capital. Woodford also continued Chacon's good work in opening up the interior of the island to development.

The 1830s represented a major water shed in Trinidad's history. The British Parliament passed an Act abolishing slavery, effective August 1, 1834 - much to the dismay of the planters, whose vast sugar and cocoa estates depended on copious cheap labour. To lessen the shock, Britain decreed that after this date, the ex-slaves would still be obliged to serve a period of "apprenticeship" under their former owners: four years for domestic slaves and six years for field labourers. The slaves were less than ecstatic at this false freedom; and Emancipation Day brought mass protests and demonstrations - to no avail, however. Finally, on August 1, 1838, having bowed under pressure to free all classes of slaves at the same time, the Governor of the island proclaimed a general emancipation.

During the years of the apprenticeship period, realizing that some replacement would have to be found for the soon-to-be-defunct system of slave labour, the island's Council of Government, which was made up largely of planters, appointed an Agent for Immigration - someone responsible for identifying alternative sources of field labour. Various ethnic groups were tried: Portuguese, free Africans from Africa and America, Madeirans - with scant success.

Finally, the planters turned to Asia. The first batch of indentured labourers from India arrived aboard the Fatel Rozack on May 30, 1845; they numbered a mere 213. By 1848, their numbers had swelled to more than 5,000. These workers proved satisfactory; and by the time the Indian government finally banned emigration to Trinidad in 1917, the number of indentured workers had risen to more than 145,000. Today, East Indians constitute about 45 per cent of the total population, almost exactly the same as Africans.

Another group that found their way to Trinidad during these years was the Chinese, who were brought in between 1848 and 1852, when there was a temporary halt in Indian immigration. The Chinese were not a great success in the cane fields; the plantation owners found them rebellious and troublesome. They soon moved away from the plantations to open small businesses of their own, forming a close-knit little community of sharp-witted entrepreneurs. Chinese immigration ended in 1866, by which time Indian immigration had resumed in full force.

The middle of the 19th century saw the gradual awakening of a certain social consciousness. The non-white population was becoming increasingly aware of its own powerlessness under a colonial system, which did not give Trinidad the right to a locally elected House of Assembly. Calls for reform began to be heard. The Colonial Office in London appointed a Commission to investigate the issue in 1888; however, it was not until 1925 that the first, extremely restricted, election was held.

Much, however, was to happen before this event. In 1889, Trinidad unexpectedly found itself saddled with a dependent, when the Colonial Office decided that Tobago (whose sugar-based economy had collapsed in 1884) could no longer stand on its own, and decided to annex the impecunious little island to its larger neighbour. This was the beginning of the unitary state of Trinidad and Tobago: a relationship whose problems have not yet been completely resolved.

The 20th century began in turmoil. The Water Riots of 1903, caused by the government's attempts to impose new taxes on water, ended with the burning to the ground of the Red House, seat of government.

Meanwhile, a discovery had been made which was to change the course of Trinidad's history almost as much as Columbus' discovery of the island had done. Oil was unearthed in south Trinidad. The first oilwell (which was also the first in the world) was drilled in 1857, but the industry did not really get off the ground until 1910, when Trinidad exported its first batch - 125,000 barrels- of crude oil. In 1923/24, oil exports for the first time exceeded those of sugar and cocoa combined; by 1936, Trinidad was the leading oil producer in the British Empire.

The country's subsequent love affair with its Black Gold led to a neglect of other sectors of the economy: agriculture and manufacturing suffered a sharp decline. The emphasis on oil also meant the creation of a new class of industrial worker - one that would, eventually, form the backbone of the powerful trade union movement. The oilfield riots of 1937, together with the militant nationalism, which followed, finally succeeded in persuading the British government that the island should be allowed elected representation.

The onset of the Second World War meant a postponement of any action along these lines; but the post-war Labour government in Britain was sympathetic to the cause, and in 1946, the first universal adult suffrage election was held in Trinidad and Tobago. It was still a very limited form of democracy, in as much as only half of the seats were put up for election, the other half being nominated by the governor or reserved for senior civil servants. Nevertheless, it was the first step along the road to the country's independence.

In 1956 a new, extremely nationalistic political party was formed. It called itself the People's National Movement (PNM) and was headed by a young historian named Dr. Eric Williams. The PNM won 13 of 24 seats in the 1956 elections, becoming the first Party government in Trinidad and Tobago. The PNM was in the forefront of efforts to establish a West Indian Federation in the latter years of the 1950s; Trinidad was the designated Federal Capital until the Federation fell apart in May, 1961. In the national elections of 1961, the PNM won 20 of 30 seats, and moved full steam ahead to achieve the country's independence from Britain. On August 31, 1962, Trinidad and Tobago became an independent nation.

The PNM remained in power for 30 years, cutting the nation's last ties with the British Crown on August 1, 1976, when Trinidad and Tobago was declared a Republic. No longer is the Queen the titular Head of State, with the Governor General as her representative. The nation now has a President, as well as a Constitution which includes a comprehensive set of human rights and freedoms and which is the supreme arbiter of all laws. The structure of the government, however, is still based on the Westminster model, with a bicameral Parliament composed of a Senate (nominated) and a House of Representatives (elected); and the country remains a member of the Commonwealth.

Since its independence, the nation has faced two major threats to its political stability. The first came in 1970, when the Black Power movement and the labour unions clamoured for social change, while simultaneously, a segment of the army attempted a military coup. Dr. Williams, who imposed a state of emergency until calm was restored, swiftly suppressed the disturbances.

The second crisis occurred on July 27, 1990, when a group of gunmen, members of the Jamaat al Muslimeen black Muslim community, stormed Parliament and held hostage the Prime Minister, his government, and members of the Opposition. (By this time, the PNM was no longer in power; a new political coalition, the National Alliance for Reconstruction (NAR), had swept away the Old Guard in a landslide victory three and a half years earlier). The Muslimeen drama lasted five days, at the end of which a general amnesty was negotiated and the hostages released.


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