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Tobago – In and Out of Colonial Empires

1844 Lesser Antilles map

Tobago stands out in West Indian history as a territory that European colonizers bandied about among their overseas empires on at least 33 occasions from 1498 to 1814. Spain, the first to take Tobago into its clutches of colonial rule, exerted a tenuous hold on the island from 1498, when Christopher Columbus first sighted it on his third Indies voyage and called it Assumption, to about 1627. Some sixteenth century explorers referred to Tobago by the name Madalena.

In 1596 Juan de Prado on behalf of Don Francisco de Vides, Governor and Captain General of the Province of Cumana, Venezuela, wrote the King of Spain outlining one of the few serious intentions of the Spanish to populate Tobaco, as de Prado called the island. Nothing came of this intention. In 1614 Johannes Roderigo of Spain tried but failed to establish trading relations between the Spanish and the native Kalinago inhabitants of the island.

By 1627 Tobago slipped almost imperceptibly out of the Spanish and into the Dutch overseas empire. The first Dutch attempt to colonize Tobago from 1627 to 1632, nevertheless, was marked by miserable failure. The colonizers clustered in the northwest near Great Courland Bay calling the settlement New Walcheren. Kalinago and Spanish attacks, diseases and starvation harried the site. The second phase of Dutch colonization of Tobago extending from about 1654 to 1678, interrupted by Kalinago, British and French attacks, did bear some fruits. Adriaen and Cornelius Lampsius, wealthy merchants, directed this phase. They concentrated in the south coast of the island in a bay called Roodklyp Bay. The Lampsius’ brothers and the governor, Hugh de Beveron, established in Tobago the seeds of the colonial servile plantation society and economy that became typical in the West Indies. The Dutch experienced a set back by October 1665 when Englishmen from Jamaica and Barbados raided Roodklyp Bay. The Treaty of Breda of 1667, however, confirmed Dutch colonization of Tobago. Pieter Constant, the new Governor, undertook the reconstruction process. In 1670, first the Kalinagos and later the British attacked and destroyed the Dutch settlement in Tobago. The Peace Treaty of Westminster of May 1674, nevertheless, left Tobago firmly within the control of the Dutch. For yet a second time settlers rebuilt from the ruins. Two French battles in Tobago, however, in 1676 and 1678, released Tobago from the grip of the Dutch.

In the period from 1639 to 1650 when the Dutch were inactive in Tobago, the Courlanders (from modern Latvia) jostled for their chance to seize the island, becoming the third European colonizers to do so. They occupied the former Dutch settlement of New Walcheren and christened the bay in the area Jacobus Bay after their Duke. The Courlanders tried in 1639, 1642 and 1650 to populate Tobago. The first two attempts ended in abysmal failure including death of several colonists. By 1650, they raised sugar cane and other tropical produce and under their new leader, Wilhelm Molleyns, they erected on the island Fort Jacobus. By the late 1650s, Tobago’s inclusion in the Courlander’s colonization enterprise petered away into nothingness. In 1658, the Dutch seized from them control over Fort Jacobus and in 1664 they held in their hands a meaningless paper agreement stating that Charles II of England granted Tobago to the Duke of Courland and his heirs. 

Consequent to the military defeat that the French imposed on the Dutch in Tobago, the Treaty of Nymwegen of 1678 shifted the island pawn for the fourth time into yet another imperialistic entity, the French Overseas Empire. Disputed French and British claims over Tobago, however, led the colonizers to concur that from 1678 Tobago would be “neutral” and would remain an unmolested Kalinago habitation. The Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle of 1748 formally sanctioned this arrangement. In 1763 the British broke Tobago’s neutrality and occupied the island. In 1781, however, the French made a successful military bid to recapture the island and endorsed the Treaty of Versailles of 1783 which offered Tobago for the second time to the French. France colonized Tobago for ten years but in 1793 the British launched an offensive and interrupted French administration in Tobago until 1802 when the Treaty of Amiens repositioned the island among French colonial holdings. The 1802 adjustment, nevertheless, failed. In 1803 the French in Tobago capitulated to the military might of the British.

The British were the last colonizers of Tobago. Despite numerous early bids to incorporate the island into their relatively large empire, it was not until the Treaty of Paris, 1763, that the British right to squeeze Tobago into its colonial mould was officially recognized. After 18 years of colonial rule, however, by which time British political and economic models were firmly transplanted in Tobago, as previously mentioned, the French seized the island from the British and held it for about a decade. The British got even in 1803. Finally, by 1814 by another Treaty of Paris after about 300 years of slipping in and out of European colonial empires, Tobago was firmly lodged among Britain’s Caribbean colonies where she remained until independence in 1962, as part of tha twin-island nation of Trinidad and Tobago.

Catégorie : Waves of Colonization

Pour citer l'article : (2013). "Tobago – In and Out of Colonial Empires" in Cruse & Rhiney (Eds.), Caribbean Atlas, http://www.caribbean-atlas.com/en/themes/waves-of-colonization-and-control-in-the-caribbean/waves-of-colonization/tobago-in-and-out-of-colonial-empires.html.


Douglas A. (1987) Tobago Melancholy Isle Vol. One 1498 – 1771. Port-of-Spain, Trinidad: Westindiana, Ltd.

Douglas A. (1995) Tobago Melancholy Isle Vol. Two 1770 – 1814. Port-of-Spain, Trinidad: Westindiana, Ltd.

Laurence K.O. (1995). Tobago in wartime 1793-1815, Kingston, Jamaica, The University of the West Indies Press.

Ramerini M. “Dutch and Courlanders in Tobago A History of the First Settlements, 1628 – 1677 in www.colonialvoyage.com/tobago accessed February 11, 2011.

Williams E. (1962). History of the People of Trinidad and Tobago. London:   André Deutsch.