Trinidad and Tobago’s most significant characteristic, its most precious possession, is its people. We are unique in the New World for our cosmopolitan population.
At a time when Tobago was being developed by the Dutch and the Courlanders as a tobacco and cotton island - and in London it was en vogue to say ‘rich as a Tobago planter’ - Trinidad was still a vast jungle, populated by a couple dozen Spaniards with their handful of slaves and a few thousand Amerindians, remnants of the many tribes who had lived here.
Trinidadians and Tobagonians today are without exception the descendants of immigrants. The Spanish were brought here by the avarice for gold and the famed El Dorado; the Africans were abducted from their homelands; the French were displaced by the French Revolution and by the capture of other Caribbean islands by the British; the British came with the colonial establishment, and the impoverished and disenchanted people from the Orient and Asia saw Trinidad as a ‘port of hope’ in the New World. Even the Amerindians, whose unrecorded history came to an end when the Europeans arrived in the Americas, had arrived iat some point in time, coming from the peninsula of Paria or the Orinoco delta.
The French Creoles and other Catholics
The fourth wave to arrive in Trinidad after the Amerindians, the Spanish and the first Africans, were mostly descendants of French people from other Caribbean islands. One of these ‘French Creoles’ was Philip Rose Roume de St. Laurent, who was born in Grenada. Roume de St. Laurent was able to obtain the ‘Royal Cedula of Population’ from the Spanish King Charles III. on the 4th November, 1783, a memorandum which granted free lands to foreign settlers and their slaves in Trinidad. The only stipulation was that the settlers were Roman Catholics. As a result, Irish, German, Italian and English families arrived.
The settlers started to arrive in Puerto d’España, plantation owners with their slaves who were driven from their estates in Grenada, Martinique and Guadeloupe by the turbulent times and the conquering British. Some were royalists who fled from the French Revolution in France and its aftermath in the Caribbean.
Under what was to be the last Spanish governor, Don José María Chacon, who assumed office in 1784, a steady stream of immigration was established and the population of Puerto d’España increased from under 3,000 to 10,422 in five years. In 1797, the figure of population of Trinidad stood at 18,627; 2,500 of which were ‘white’, 5,000 were ‘free blacks and people of colour’, 10,000 were slaves and 1,082 Amerindians.
Land was given to these settlers in accordance with the number of slaves they brought, and little by little they cut down the forest, created fields and orchards, and established an agriculture-based economy (sugar and cocoa) for the island.
The French settlers brought their culture to Trinidad. French words are still part of the local dialect of Trinidad, often in their broken ‘Patois’ form. Innumberable Trinidadians of all shades of skin have French ancestors somewhere in their family trees. They cultivated the jungle and converted it into farms, or plantations as they are called in the tropics. They built beautiful mansions with wooden fretwork and wrought-iron balustrades, some of which still exist today and are treasures of our national heritage. A distinctive style of dress developed, with the ladies wearing white dresses, with colourful ‘foulards’ at their necks and ‘madras’, checkered handkerchiefs from India, on their heads.
With this population explosion, Governor Chacon had to implement many innovations. He constructed government buildings for the public services, constructed a road to St. Joseph and a military barracks there, created the town of San Juan, instituted the parish of San Fernando in 1786, which he divided into two wards, created a police service, a fire department, a medical board and the first port health doctor. Today, Chacon is remembered by the National Flower of Trinidad, the Chaconia, and a street in Port-of-Spain bears his name.
The term ‘French Creole’ is by no means restricted to persons of purely French parentage born in the West Indies. It also included the free people of colour, the children of the French planters of the early times with their African slaves, and later, their mulatto, quadroon and octaroon mistresses. Some of these children were recognised by their fathers and legitimized and freed, receiving educations at French universities and inheriting land and property. Several of these families settled in the south of Trinidad, many in Port-of-Spain, their children becoming in turn the doctors, lawyers and school masters in the latter part of the 19th century. They were, however, a minority, almost a curiosity in the socially structured colonial society.
Nothing remains of the Frenchness of Trinidad’s French Creoles, except some family names. As a recognisable group with distinct traditions, language, customs or outward appearance they have vanished completely. But they gave, in their decline, to the country personages like Poleska de Boissière, José Dessources, Captain A. A. Cipriani and Dr. Eric Williams, Trinidad and Tobago’s first Prime Minister.
Slavery was a harsh and oppressive system, degrading to all who were a part of it. However, the period of slavery in Trinidad was a relatively short one, compared to other Caribbean islands or the United States. Barbados and Jamaica, for example, possessed slave populations from as early as the beginning of the 16th century.
Slavery in Trinidad really started with the Cedula of Population in 1783, when French settlers, free blacks and people of colour were granted land and came with their African slaves from Martinique, Grenada, St. Lucia and Guadeloupe to work on the estates. Fifty years later, the British, who had conquered Trinidad in 1797, abolished slavery in 1834.
In the first five years after the British conquest, the slave population rose from about 10,000 to nearly 20,000. In 1807 the slave trade was prohibited, and there was a gradual decline in the island’s slave population between 1807 and 1834.
Slaves came from a very wide geopgraphical spread, from Senegambia in the west Africa to Angola in the south. In 1813, the largest ethnic group was formed by people from the Bight of Biafra (39.4% of the African-born slaves).
There was one remarkable group of Africans living in Trinidad before Emancipation: the Mandingoes. These people came from the region of West Africa between the rivers Gambia and Senegal and they were Moslems. They never lost their sense of identity, their religion or their longing to return to Africa. Under the leadership of Jonas Mohammed Bath, they formed a distinct association, acquiring property in Port-of-Spain and cocoa estates in the country, and bought freedom for other Moslems from Senegambia.
In the last decade before Emancipation (1823 - 1834) the planters mounted an almost hysterical propaganda campaign against the abolitionists. It failed, of course, and in August 1834 the British Parliament enacted the formal end of slavery. But this did not mean ‘full free’: all slaves over the age of six were to be ‘apprenticed’ to their former owners and would still have to work 45 hours a week unpaid. The ‘Apprenticeship’ was to last six years for field slaves and four years for domestics. The Apprenticeship was abolished on 1st August, 1838, and full freedom was granted to all categories of ex-slaves.
Free Blacks and People of Colour
Miscegenation has been a central feature of Caribbean society from those early days of Spanish conquest when the ‘mestizo’ class was created from Spanish-Amerindian sexual contacts. With slavery, a new group began to emerge: people of mixed European and African ancestry, the result of sexual contacts between the settlers and the slaves. These were the ‘gens de couleur’, the people of colour, many of whom became eventually manumitted and legally free. Particularly in the French colonies in the Caribbean, where the Creoles had settled for good, the people of colour, as a class, increased rapidly.
Another group were those people who were not of mixed racial origin, but had in one way or another acquired manumission. These were the ‘affranchis’, the free blacks.
These two groups were the intermediate groups between whites and slaves in the Caribbean slave society. A difficult, ambivalent position, since they did not belong to any one master but had to show subordinance to all whites.
Typically, a European man would make an attractive ‘fille de couleur’ his mistress; normally he would free both her and her children. If he was upper class and reasonably well-off, his children by his coloured mistress might receive a privileged upbringing and live in the great house of the estate.
The Cedula of Population of 1783 offered important incentives to free blacks and coloureds. They received free grants of land: 16 acres for each man, woman and child and half of that for each slave brought. This was about half the grant that a white settler would be granted, but still an attractive offer. Article 5 of the Cedula also promised that all settlers the rights of citizenship after five years residence, including the rights to hold public office if qualified. It made no distinction between whites and coloureds, a remarkable situation that was peculiar to Trinidad.
Leading families such as Philippe, Cazabon, Saturnin, Beaubrun, Patience, Boudin, de la Grenade, Vincent, Louison, Latraille and Mortel, to name a few, came to Trinidad from Martinique, Guadeloupe, Ste. Domingue, Grenada and St. Lucia. These free coloureds spoke excellent French, were often cultivated and educated people, established estates of cocoa, cotton and sugar, owned slaves, practised professions in a few cases, and held officers’ commissions in the island militia. They contributed in no small way to the development of Trinidad with the establishment of an educated black middle class unique in the western world.
The British conquest of Trinidad in 1797 did not lead to an immediate deterioration in the position of the free coloureds and blacks. The first British military governors Picton, Hislop and Munro neglected to enforce the humiliating anti-coloured rules that existed elsewhere in the Caribbean. But under the first civil administration, that of Sir Ralph Woodford, serious racial prejudice was institutionalised.
Fortunately for the free blacks and people of colour, a leader emerged: Jean-Baptiste Philippe, whose family was one of the leading coloured planters of Trinidad. Educated as a lawyer, Philippe petitioned to the Colonial Office and the Secretary of State for their rights. To back up the petition, Jean-Baptiste wrote the famous book ‘Free Mulatto’. Philipe succeeded, and in March 1829, an Order in Council was issued from London giving full legal equality and civil rights to Trinidad’s people of colour and free blacks.
The Liberated Africans
After Emancipation in 1834, planters in Trinidad were anxious to get labourers from virtually any part of the globe. Africans who had been captured by foreign slavers were, at this time, often freed by British naval ships in West African waters. These ‘liberated’ Africans, who were never legally slaves, were sent to either St. Helena, a small island in the South Atlantic, or Sierra LEone in West Africa. Conditions were not good in either place, so an organised emigration to the West Indies began just after 1838.
Trinidad received between 1841 and 1861 a total of 3,383 from Sierra Leone and 3,198 from St. Helena. Tobago also received a few. They were indentured to the estates for a year, but unlike the Indians, they did not receive a free return passage.
Despite their lack of numbers, their contribution to Trinidad’s culture was profound. They reinforced African cultural legacies that might otherwise have died out. ‘Shango’ was probably introduced by Yoruba immigrants in the 1840s and 1850s. In Belmont, the Rada community, descended from Dahomey immigrants, maintained its ancestral rites well into the 1950s.
This African diaspora cleared the forest, created by its blood and sweat the bases for the first economies, established the island’s dominant cultural forms and provided its earliest eminent sons and daughters. Families like the Lazars, J.J. Thomas, Maxwell Phillip, Vincent Brown, the Nurse family and many others contributed in making unique in terms of professionalism, scholarship and sport.
The British and the Irish
Long before the British conquest of the island in 1797, several English families had settled in Trinidad. Most of them were merchants who organised the developing colony’s import-export trade in the the post-Cedula years (1783-97). The protestants among them, who were actually banned from settling according to the Cedula, profited from Governor Chacon’s generous interpretation of the law. Quite a few Scots and Irishmen also settled here in this early period.
In 1797, General Sir Ralph Abercromby with his squadron sailed through the Bocas and anchored off the coast of Chaguaramas. The landing of the troops took place at Mucurapu, which was then a sugar factory called ‘Peru’, which belonged to an Irish family named Devenish. They met with no resistance, even though the swampy ground was a most ill-chosen spot. At Peru estate, they found rum, sugar and limes, and mixed up a good rum punch.
Governor Chacon decided to capitulate without fighting. At the command of Vice-Admiral Don Sebastian Apodaca the Spanish fleet in Chaguaramas Bay was set on fire. Trinidad became a British crown colony, with a French-speaking population and Spanish laws.
Naturally, the conquest and formal ceeding of Trinidad in 1802 led to a considerable influx of settlers from England or the British colonies of the Eastern Caribbean. For instance, Burton Williams came from the Bahamas and brought many slaves with him. Williamsville in central Trinidad is named after him. Another is A.C. Carmichael who came from St. Vincent with his slaves and bought Laurel Hill estate in Tacarigua.
As the English community grew more complex in the middle of the 19th century, with some of them being expatriates who only came to Trinidad to govern and work, but not to settle, and some of them becoming Creoles who developed strong roots in the Caribbean, many of the Catholic English and Irish intermarried with the French Creole population. Examples of these are the Frasers, the O’Connors, the Devenish and the O’Hallorans.
And just as the French Creoles who had their first families as remembered in the rhyme ‘and this was sweet old Trinidad, land of the sugarcane and the cocoa pod, where the Ganteaumes spoke only to the de Verteuils, and the de Verteuils spoke only to God’, so had the English Creoles their ‘first families’, the Warners for example. Charles Warner served as Attorney-General between the 1840s and the 1860s. He was the most important influence behind the ‘anglicisation’ of this period and became the ‘bete noire’ of the French Creoles and the catholics. The Anglican Church was introduced, along with English textbooks, English laws, English schooling. The local French population was edged out of higher posts in the administration. After 1876, when Charles Warner had to resign his office, the period in which English families had a monopoly over government, came to an end. From then on, locals re-entered posts, and a dual school system was introduced, where church schools could receive state aid. The English Creoles, however, continued to form an important element in Trinidad’s official life.
The first Germans came with the conquering English forces in 1797. Later on, several other German families settled in Trinidad mainly as traders. Since the wars of liberation in Venezuela were in large part financed by German banking houses (like the Fugger), there was an influx of Germans into Trinidad via that country.
One of the very successful German families is the Siegert family. Dr. Johann Gottlieb Benjamin Siegert, a medical doctor from Silesia who emigrated to the town of Angostura on the Orinoco, invented the famous ‘Angostura Bitters’ there. His sons later established the company in Trinidad. Others were the Wuppermann, Boos, Urich, Schroder and Strasser families.
After emancipation in 1838, many of the freed slaves withdrew from labour on the sugar estates. Eventually, the planters in Trinidad got the government in London and the local authorities to adopt a scheme to bring people from India to work on the plantations.
The first ship-load of 217 Indians arrived in Trinidad on the ‘Fatel Rozack’ on 10th May, 1845. Over the whole period of immigration (1845-1917) a total of 143,939 people came to Trinidad from India. The great majority came from the British Indian provinces along the Ganges river, especially the United Provinces Bihar and Orissa, while a smaller group came from South India. Hindi or a variant (especially Bhojpuri) was their main language and Hinduism their main religion. A significant minority were Moslem. The majority were simple country folk from traditional communities of village India.
The Indians entered a system of indentureship, where they had to work on a plantation for several years, at the end of which they could choose a free return passage to India or a small parcel of land in Trinidad to live on. As Indian children were born in Trinidad and grew up without any first-hand knowledge of India, more and more Indians decided to stay. The Indian peasantry soon developed, growing rice, cocoa, sugar cane and raising livestock.
As they were gradually transformed from immigrant labourers to settlers, the Indians contributed a great deal to their new society by practising their rich diversity of religious and cultural forms. Temples and mosques were built, Hindu and Moslem festivals were introduced. Indian dance, music and song enriched the already complex Trinidad culture, as did Indian cuisine, arts and crafts.
The first group of Portuguese came to Trinidad as early as 1630. These were explorers bound for Brazil who would come ashore on Trinidad’s east coast. Sephardic Jews from Portugal were also in Trinidad in the late 18th century. The first group of 25 Portuguese immigrants came in 1834. They had been solicited illegally by people who manned slave ships, and had come from the island of Faial in the Azores in the middle of the Atlantic ocean. Within less than two years, these Azorians died or returned to their island without leaving a trace.
The largest group of Portuguese to come to the island was from Madeira, a small archipelago belonging to Portugal off the west coast of Morocco. Madeira found itself in serious economic straits in the early 19th century. Overcrowding, a decline in the grape harvest, famine and religious tensions were shaking the islands. Two waves of Madeirans came to Trinidad in 1846 and 1847, the first one comprising rural people who fled the economic disaster, and the second urban dwellers who fled religious persecution.
Having found that the plantation work was not conducive to their health, the Portuguese opened shops soon after their arrival. Some of them ran dry goods stores in Port-of-Spain, others rum shops and adjoining small groceries on the estates. Since the Madeirans spoke no English, they could hardly find any other work than with Portuguese shopkeepers, and they hired each other.
In 1854, the Portuguese built their first lusophonic church at the corner of Charlotte Street and Oxford Street. It was called ‘St. Ann’s Church of Scotland’, but commonly referred to as the Portuguese Church, with the church service, bible texts etc. in Portuguese.
By the turn of the 20th century, the entire Portuguese community was about 2000 strong. Madeirans kept immigrating and joining their families in Trinidad. The Presbyterians among them sometimes emigrated to Brazil and the United States. Eventually the Portuguese were absorbed by intermarriage into the larger Roman Catholic community, consisting of Afro-French, Afro-Spanish, Irish and English settlers. Names like Camacho, Coelho, Correia, Fernandes, Pereira, Querino, Ribeiro and Sá Gomes are what is left of their Portuguese legacy.
As early as 1806, a small number of men from China had settled in Trinidad, but significant Chinese immigration began after emancipation. Between 1853 and 1866, about 2,500 mostle male Chinese arrived to work on the estates as indentured labourers. 1866 marked the end of the immigration of these indentured labourers, because the Chinese government insisted on a free return passage, which would have been too costly. Non-indentured Chinese immigrants, however, continued to come to the island, many of them via British Guiana, where a Chinese community already had established itself.
After the Chinese revolution in 1911, immigration picked up and increased even more between the 1920s and the late 1940s, a turbulent chapter in China’s history. Trinidad’s Chinese population increased from 1,334 in 1921 to 8,361 in 1960.
Few of the early immigrants remained on the estates for long. Most of them became shopkeepers, market gardeners or butchers. They married Afro-Creole women and adopted Christianity. The post-1911 immigrants retained to some extent their original culture. Their languages Hakka and Cantonese survived among the Trinidad Chinese. Since the communist takeover of China in 1949, however, the links with China have dwindled to almost nothing and most young Chinese in Trinidad speak only English. Also, by 1960 virtually no Chinese practised Buddhism or Confucianism anymore.
Trinidad’s Chinese community has produced outstanding individuals such as Eugene Chen, who served as Foreign MInister in Sun-Yat-Sen’s government in China, Solomon Hochoy, first local Governor and first Governor-General after independence in 1962, artists Sybil Atteck and Carlisle Chang, Carnival bandleaders Stephen and Elsie Lee Heung, along with prominent businesspeople and professionals.
The Syrians and Lebanese
The first Lebanese men came to Trinidad in 1902, followed by Syrians in 1906. They had left their home country, Greater Syria, which was later divided by European powers into Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Palestine and Jordan. Religious persecution was the main reason for those Middle Eastern men, who were Christians, originating from the ‘Valley of the Christians’ in the Middle East, not far from the border between northern Lebanon and Syria. Originally Maronite and Orthodox in faith, they were quickly absorbed into the predominant Roman Catholic church in Trinidad.
Originally, they had wanted to go to America, but since they had to change ships in Trinidad (the steamer line from Marseille went to the French Antilles, Trinidad and Venezuela), some of them stayed on. Others had overslept on the boat, and were ‘dumped’ in Port-of-Spain, others again were refused entry into the United States because of health reasons.
At first, a handful of Syrians and Lebanese stayed in Trinidad. They peddled goods from door to door in the country, slowly saving up money and bringing over other male members of their family to join them. When they had established themselves, they also sent for their wives in the Middle East, or travelled back themselves to find wives.
The community slowly built up, sustaining itself first with peddling and then with the running of clothes and drygoods stores in downtown Port-of-Spain. The Syrians and Lebanese hardly intermarried with any other Trinidadian group, and have maintained their Arab identity to this day.
In 1950, the Syrian Lebanese Women’s Association was founded (initially called ‘The Mediterranean Star’), with the purpose to raise money for charity for Trinidad’s poor and preserve and promote the Arabic culture in Trinidad.
Today, the descendants of the Syrian and Lebanese immigrants form a powerful business and professional community, owning many trading and building companies in the country.
Sephardic and Ashkenazy Jews
There were two waves of Jewish immigration into Trinidad. Both were comparatively small. Sephardic Jews came from Spain and Portugal in the early 19th century. In the 20th century, Ashkenazy Jews from Europe who had to flee from Nazi persecution also came to Trinidad.