A Brief History of Trinidad & Tobago
Columbus discovered Trinidad on Tuesday 31st of July 1498 on his third voyage. By all accounts his crossing was a hard one. He was forced to take a more southerly route to avoid a hostile French Fleet and this led him into the doldrums. While drifting in the still heat of the equator his water barrels burst and his food rotted.
It was in this situation that Columbus sighted the Trinity Hills or the Three Sisters on the southern coast of Trinidad. To Columbus it must have seemed providential as he was down to his last casket of water.
It is not certain why Columbus named Trinidad after the Holy Trinity, some say it was because he had entrusted this voyage to the Holy Trinity, others say it was because he had made a promise to name the first land he say in honour of the Holy Trinity. What ever the reason Trinidad was named after the Holy Trinity.
Columbus first landed on the south coast near Point Erin to collect water. Later, after rounding Icacos Pt. he sailed into the Gulf of Paria and went on to explore the coast of Venezuela (which he thought was an island). He later returned to Trinidad and anchored in a bay of island of Chacachcare (one of the small islands off the coast of Trinidad). After claiming the island for Spain he sailed through the Grand Boca, it was at this point that he sighted Tobago in the distance and named it Bellaforma.
The word “discovered” is often seen as contentious when applied to Columbus on two counts. Firstly, in a purely technical sense there were already native Indians who called the Americas home. Secondly, it seems Eurocentric and tends to imply that history starts from the day Europeans arrived. Regardless Columbus’ “discovery” marks the start of the modern history of the region and the event ushered in the forces which would shape what we see today.
Trinidad was largely ignored until 1531 when an attempt was made to settle the island. This proved unsuccessful as did a later attempt in 1569. The first permanent settlement was made in 1592 by Domingo de Vera in the old capital of St. Joseph. Shortly after in 1595, Trinidad was visited by Sir Walter Raleigh (founder of Virginia) who was en route to what he thought was El Dorado, (he found mainly mosquitoes, bush and despair). In addition to visiting the Pitch Lake Raleigh felt it necessary to burn the newly St. Joseph. This was to be a familiar pattern for the next century as Trinidad became the base of choice for expeditions to El Dorado and a haven for smugglers and pirates. However these activities did little to develop the island and at times the Spanish population fell to as little as 160.
Being in the backwaters of the Spanish Empire the local population was neglected and official ships rarely visited. Poverty became so widespread that in 1740 the local leaders wrote to the King complaining that they could only go to mass once a year and in clothes borrowed form one another!
Turmoil in Europe, especially in France, and a liberalization of emigration policies by the Spanish authorities encouraged settles from France and the French Islands to the north (Martinique, Guadeloupe etc.). War in Europe also bought a fleet of 17 British ships into Trinidad waters in 1797 and without much of a fight Trinidad changed hands and became a British possession. For the next century Trinidad became a typical British sugar colony with its fortune following the price of sugar on its roller-coaster ride. Important events include the emancipation of slaves in 1834, the beginning of indentured labour schemes in 1852 which bought Chinese and East Indians to Trinidad. In 1871 the first telegraph cable was laid (at Macqueripe Bay) linking Trinidad with the rest of the world. Trams and railways were also introduced in the second half of the 19th Century.
As said earlier, Tobago was supposedly sighted in 1498 by Columbus on his third voyage and named Bella Forma, but its present name is most probably a corruption of “Tobacco.” This was grown by the original Indian inhabitants and later as a crop by settlers.
In 1608 James I claimed sovereignty over the island and for the next 200 years Tobago changed hands like a hot potato between the Dutch, the French and the English. Estimates of the number of changeovers range between 22 and 32. Among those who tried to settle the island were the Courlanders, (from Latvia), but for most of the 17th and 18th Centuries Tobago was a haven for pirates. In 1763 Tobago was ceded to the British by the French, and the land was divided into parishes and sold.
Like Trinidad, Tobago shared the fate of most islands in the West Indies and became a British sugar colony. Interestingly Tobago became embroiled in the American War of Independence when in 1778 an American squadron tried to capture the island. They were however repulsed by the British warship Yarmouth.
Trinidad & Tobago
In the second half of the 19th Century the recession in the sugar industries encouraged the movement towards amalgamation of the West Indian islands into administrative groups in order to cut administrative costs. In 1889 Tobago was united with Trinidad to become the Colony of Trinidad &Tobago. Later in 1899 it became a ward of the colony.
If Trinidad was a sugar economy in the 19th Century it became an oil economy in the 20th. With the advent of the automobile and the conversion of the British Navy from coal to oil the search for and the production of oil received a strong boost. Oil was discovered in the Guayguaygare, Point Fortin, and Forest Reserve areas. Over time oil and oil related exports came to dominate the economy and transformed much of populace from a rural to an urban one.
Besides oil another important event was the establishment of U.S. bases on the island in 1941. This was agreed to in exchange for 50 destroyers which at the time was sorely needed by an overstretched Britain. These bases included a large chunk of the Chaguramas Peninsular as well as an air base at Wallerfield. The G. I.’s injected American culture and money into a stagnant economy and shifted the focus of country from Britain to the U.S.
After the war independence seemed inevitable and as a precursor Britain tried a brief political experiment called the British West Indian Federation. This attempted to unify the various islands under one political and economic umbrella but internal tensions soon surfaced and the group split. Led by Dr. Eric Williams Trinidad and Tobago became an independent member of the Commonwealth on 31st of August 1962. Later, on the 1st of August 1976 Trinidad and Tobago became a presidential republic within the Commonwealth.