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Trinidad, 1498-1962

1823 Trinidad map

At the time of European contact, Trinidad had been settled for at least 7000 years through successive waves of colonization by people from the vast area between the Amazon and Orinoco rivers. In 1498, when Columbus arrived during his third voyage, the island was inhabited both by Arawakan-speaking people and by Cariban-speakers (Kalinagos or Island Caribs).

The island became, nominally, a colony of Spain from 1498, but no attempt at settlement was made for nearly a century, though slave raids by the Spanish significantly reduced the numbers of the indigenous population. In 1592 the Spanish formally established a town, San José de Oruna (later St Joseph), and some of the institutions typical of Spanish New World colonization. In the next 200 years, a few people from Spain settled; encomiendas were established; missionaries converted many of the indigenes and gathered them into mission villages. But Trinidad remained an isolated, barely developed outpost of the vast Spanish American empire. The population—consisting of a handful of ‘white’ Spaniards, some mixed-race or mestizo people, a few enslaved Africans and the surviving indigenes—was always sparse, most of the island remained uncultivated, and no flourishing plantation economy developed, though some cocoa was grown and exported. 

This situation changed in the late 1700s. Admitting that it lacked the capacity to develop Trinidad along the lines of the successful plantation colonies of Britain and France, the reforming Bourbon administration invited foreign planters to settle, bringing their enslaved labourers, their capital and their expertise in tropical agriculture. In particular, French planters were encouraged to settle under the decree or Cedula of 1783—they were Roman Catholics, and France and Spain were closely allied at this time. 

The arrival of French settlers, most white but some ‘free coloured’ (free persons of mixed African and European descent), transformed the economy and society of Trinidad in the late 1700s. They brought slaves with them, and more arrived directly from Africa in the 1790s. Plantations were carved out of the bush; cotton, coffee and sugar cultivation began, with sugar clearly dominating by the end of the century; the new capital, Port of Spain, became a busy little port now that the island had goods to export, and residents able and anxious to purchase imports. By 1797 Trinidad had the makings of a sugar and slavery economy and society, with a mainly French elite, and an important free coloured class of landowners. 

In that year, Trinidad became a British colony through military conquest, and Britain’s possession was confirmed by treaty in 1802. The island remained a British colony until 1962. (Tobago was annexed to Trinidad in two stages between 1889 and 1898, so that the new nation is Trinidad and Tobago)

As a British colony, conquered from a foreign power, Trinidad’s constitutional and political history was rather different from the ‘older’ British colonies like Barbados and Jamaica. At first (1802-1831) the governor, representing the British crown, had virtually unlimited powers, with a Council of Advice which lacked law-making powers. From 1832, however, the island was governed under what became known as ‘Crown Colony Government’: a Legislative Council with law-making powers but no elected members, only officials and ‘unofficials’ chosen by the governor. Unlike the older colonies, Trinidad never had an elected Assembly. When Tobago was annexed to Trinidad, she lost her separate legislature and came under the same regime, as part of the new British colony of Trinidad and Tobago. 

The system of governance established in 1832 was virtually unchanged for nearly a century. In 1925, however, elected members—though with a very restricted income and property franchise—were added to the Legislative Council. In 1946, adult suffrage—the vote for everyone over 21—was enacted. Between 1946 and 1962, the colony moved slowly, through a series of constitutional changes, towards full self-government. Independence was achieved on 31 August 1962, and Trinidad and Tobago became a republic (still within the Commonwealth of the former British colonies) in 1976. 

Of course the system of Crown Colony Government was designed to prevent a vigorous political life or opposition to the British governor and his officials. But in the twentieth century a labour movement developed, especially the Trinidad Workingmen’s Association, founded in 1897 but especially active between 1919 and 1937, under the leadership of A.A.Cipriani and others. Serious labour riots in 1937, led by T.U.Butler, a former oil worker, led to the development of a modern (British type) trade union movement in the years between 1937 and 1956, which had considerable influence on the colony’s political life. In 1956, Eric Williams and a few colleagues founded the People’s National Movement (PNM). This new party narrowly won the elections of that year, and formed the government which steered Trinidad and Tobago through the process of decolonization, culminating in national Independence in 1962. (The PNM held power without a break between 1956 and 1986, winning six consecutive general elections.) 

After Trinidad became a British colony in 1797, the plantation development begun by the French settlers continued. British planters arrived from the older colonies, often with their slaves, and British capital helped to expand the sugar industry. The number of slaves increased significantly in the early 1800s, before the British abolition of the transatlantic trade, and by around 1815 enslaved Africans comprised about 67% of the population. 

Britain abolished slavery in her empire in two stages between 1834 and 1838. The former slaves, freed without land grants or any monetary compensation, often left the plantations to live in new villages, seeking wage work when it was available, and trying to become independent small farmers on lands they bought, leased or squatted on. Others went to the towns; many became artisans of different types; women worked as seamstresses, washerwomen and domestics, as well as being peasant farmers and vendors or hucksters. 

Without their accustomed servile labour force, Trinidad’s planters agitated for indentured workers from Asia, following the precedent set by Mauritius and British Guiana. Between 1845 and 1917, about 147,000 indentured workers from India arrived. Most stayed in the island when their indentures were up, and their descendants now constitute about 40% of the national population. Smaller numbers came from China. Other migrants arriving in the post-emancipation decades included people from Portuguese Madeira, West Africa (as indentured workers not slaves), Venezuela, the smaller British Caribbean colonies, and Syria and Lebanon. By the twentieth century the colony had an extremely diverse population in terms of ethnicity, places of origin, religion and culture.

Sugar remained the backbone of the colonial economy throughout the nineteenth century, but cocoa expanded rapidly towards its end, and overtook sugar as the colony’s leading export crop by about 1900. Both crops dominated plantation production into the 1900s, but cocoa declined sharply in the 1920s to 1940s, never to recover. The exploitation of oil, found in the southern half of Trinidad, became the colony’s most important source of revenue by the 1930s. The demands of World War 2, and the development of marine production in the 1950s, only increased the domination of oil in the island’s modern economy. 

Trinidad and Tobago developed a rich cultural life from early colonial times, enhanced by the striking diversity of the population. Carnival, calypso and the steelband (which emerged just after World War 2) were at the heart of the Creole cultural complex. Indo-Trinidadian forms of folk arts, festivals and religious observances (Hindu and Islamic) enriched the mix, while the smaller ethnic communities made their own contributions, whether in food culture, music or various festivals.

Catégorie : Waves of Colonization

Pour citer l'article : (2013). "Trinidad, 1498-1962" in Cruse & Rhiney (Eds.), Caribbean Atlas, http://www.caribbean-atlas.com/en/themes/waves-of-colonization-and-control-in-the-caribbean/waves-of-colonization/trinidad-1498-1962.html.


M. Anthony, (1997) Historical Dictionary of Trinidad and Tobago. Scarecrow Press: Lanham, Md., & London.

B. Brereton, (1981, 2011) A History of Modern Trinidad, 1783-1962. Terra Verde Resource Centre: Champs Fleurs, Trinidad.

E. E. Williams (1964), History of the People of Trinidad and Tobago. Andre Deutsch: London.