Tuesday 9 August 2011

The first mass media in Trinidad

In the early 19th century, when Trinidad was still sparsely inhabited, it already possessed several newspapers. Long before electrical lamps lit up the capital, there was enough advertising revenue to support three local papers.

In 1799, two years after the British conquest, the first newspaper in the English language was published in Trinidad by M. Gallagher, entitled ‘The Trinidad Weekly Courant’. Population figures of 1797 show that 2,500 people were ‘white’, 5,000 were ‘free blacks and people of colour’, 10,000 were slaves and 1,082 Amerindians. One wonders how many of those French- and Patois-speaking people had access to the weekly, and how many were literate or able to read English!

In those times, newspapers from Europe were laid out on tables in a ‘newsroom’, where gentlemen were able to sit, smoke a pipe or cigar, and study the latest newspapers that the last merchant or postal sailing ship had brought to Port-of-Spain. The first newsroom was openened in 1815.

In 1825, the ‘Port-of-Spain Gazette’ was established. This paper was to become Trinidad’s leading newspaper. On 21st January, 1832, the Port-of-Spain Gazette announced - teethgrittingly, but in polite words - the start of a competitor:


The ‘Port-of-Spain Gazette’ begs to inform the inhabitants of Trinidad that it has pleased His Excellency the Governor to withdraw from this paper the whole of the Government printing and all advertisments. Economy is the plea. An unknown individual, self-styled ‘The Government Printer’, takes leave to inform the public that he has started a public newspaper called the ‘Royal Gazette’. We understand that this paper will have the Government patronage which we formerly enjoyed, and the Government assigns as a reason that it will thereby be saved £170 sterling per year. This new printer says that the use of a colonial newspaper is merely to compress the news received by the mail.”

Expressing its scorn over this new competitor in passionate metaphors, the Port-of-Spain Gazette writes on1st February, 1832 in its editorial:

“The far famed Junius said that the man who can neither write common English nor spell well, is hardly worth attending to.This remark is so applicable to the ‘Royal Gazette’ that we shall in future be guided by it. But our readers may be assured that we shall watch it and its secret director closely; that upon the slightest misrepresentation calculated to injure your cause with those from whose hands you expect redress - we should rather say justice for the cause of the planters, merchants and other inhabitants, - we will crush the viper even though we perish in the act.”

But obviously, there was enough advertising revenue for the various Gazettes, since on the1st March, 1839, the Port-of-Spain Gazette announced yet another opening:


The Newsroom on the King’s Wharf as announced was opened to the members this morning. It is really an elegant, spacious and airy building, and fitted up for the purpose in a neat and becoming manner, and it is a great ornament to that part of the town. Another talble, for which there is space enough, on which to place the French papers would we think be a considerable improvement.”

It has to be remembered that a large part of the genteel, literate population of British-owned Trinidad was French-speaking, so the article in the Port-of-Spain Gazette had its merit!

Eleven years later, more competition was at hand, and this time it was not as dreaded as the establishment of the ‘Royal Gazette’. The Port-of-Spain Gazette writes on the 25th January, 1850:


Our advertising columns contain the prospectus of a newspaper to be established early in the ensuing month in the town of San Fernando, and to be entitled the ‘San Fernando Gazette’ and ‘Naparima Agricultural and Commercial Advertiser’. We gladly welcome the establishment of a third newspaper in Tirnidad, and hope notwithstanding the hardness of the times, that it may prove a source of profit to its proprietors.”

Doubtlessly, the fact that a daily postal service from Port-of-Spain to San Fernando was established in 1852 contributed to the spreading of the Port-of-Spain Gazette to the southern city. It might not have been that easy to ‘prove a source of profit’ for the San Fernando Gazette, but the paper prevailed.

In 1872, the West India & Panama Cable made first direct telegraphic communication to Trinidad possible. News from the United States and Europe could now be published with much less delay by the Trinidadian papers.

“The subsidy payable by this colony has now commenced; and so has the obligation of teh company to furnish us with a daily bulletin of European news.” (Port-of-Spain Gazette, 9th March, 1872)

On 1st July,1882, the following list of the newspapers then in existence in Trinidad was published in the Port-of-Spain Gazette:

The Advertiser, issued gratis, circulation 250, weekly

Fair Play, general news, 150, weekly

New Era, general news, 250, weekly

Palladium, Roman Catholic news, but edited by a Protestant clergyman, 60, weekly

Port-of-Spain Gazette, general news, 400, weekly

Royal Gazette, Government advertising sheet, weekly

Chronicle, general news, bi-weekly, 260

Guppy’s Almanach, yearly

San Fernando Gazette, general news, 110, weekly.

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