Tuesday 23 August 2011

Little Tobago

Long ago, Little Tobago was a preferred hiding spot for pirates. When agriculture and trade started to flourish in this part of the West Indies, the pirates were driven from their rocky shelters of Tobago’s coastlines. Little Tobago, in fact, became a successful spot for planting cotton. As C.R. Ottley puts it in his 1950 Tobago-publication:

“The annual output of cotton surpassed that of sugar for which Tobago had become famous abroad. In the year 1788, no fewer than 1,476,900 lbs of cotton was sent up by brigantines to the mother country. As a cotton producer, it was recorded that Little Tobago outdid all other parts of the island in its yield per acre, even though it contains only 450 acres.”

Little Tobago in the outgoing 18th century had a wooden house for the planter, a Scotsman, and quarters for the African slaves. The dwellers led a self-supporting life, catching fish and growing provisions in a vegetable garden, surrounded by cotton fields.

The cotton industry, however, was to come to an end in Tobago when the United States of America officially seceded from Great Britain in 1783.

“Very soon cotton from America’s extensive fields with unrestricted importation flooded the English market, and because of its competition the cotton industry soon disappeared from both the island of Tobago and its smaller namesake,” writes Ottley.

The Scottish planter and his slaves left Little Tobago. Throughout the 19th century, the islet was - besides an occasional case of leprosy being sent there to end his or her days - uncultivated and unused. Little Tobago was forfeited to the Crown for non-payment of land taxes, and in 1812, an Englishman bought it for £805. He tried to cultivate it, but soon tired of its monotony and left, leaving the island once more to the British Crown.

In Tobago’s declining economy of the 19th century, Little Tobago lost a lot of its value, and in 1898, Sir William Ingram was able to purchase it for only £225.

Sir William’s pet project was the importation of pet birds. In 1909, he spent a whopping £1,000 on twenty-four pairs of Birds of Paradise, which a Mr. Frost got for him from Aru Island, New Guinea. Their owner set them free in Little Tobago, and had a caretaker to feed them and to shoo away the predatory hawks.

Since the splendidly-feathered animals were not able to fly the 1.5 miles to the Tobago ‘mainland’, they remained in Little Tobago. When Sir William died, they started to be neglected, and their numbers dwindled. In 1928, the Government of Trinidad and Tobago took over Little Tobago as well, and from then on the Birds of Paradise started to fare a little better. Little Tobago became an orchard and a bird sanctuary of these spectacular creatures, and visitors were able to see them at the cost of two shilling (48 cents).

In the middle of the 20th century, a hurricane swept over Tobago, and the precious birds were all swept out to the sea and drowned.

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