In times gone by, it was almost exclusively men who were allowed to do have careers and influence the course of history. What did the other half of the population do? A look at women in the history of Trinidad and Tobago
Much has been said about the men who shaped the society in our country for the past 500 years. Arrival Day commemorates the moment when people from all corners of the world set foot on our shores, sometimes by their free will, sometimes by force, their eyes full of hope and their pockets in various states of emptiness. They disembarked, found a place to stay, settled and eventually prospered in Trinidad and Tobago.
Like all recorded history, this picture of Arrival Day too is really only the male version of the process of immigration and settlement. For the Trinidadian and Tobagonian women of all cultures and ethnic backgrounds, the same process should rather be celebrated by something called ‘Endurance Day’: they endured the process of settlement in the harsh conditions of the climate and of the society and raised families.
Most women who came to Trinidad came in the wake of men: as wives, slaves, workers, sisters, aunts, cousins etc. Hardly ever would they have been the propagators of migration and settlement in this unknown colony in the Caribbean. Even less likely was that they owned any substantial amount of money or property (which included in some unfortunate times also other human beings, i.e. slaves).
There are no records of women in Spanish times before 1783, and it can be safely assumed that the outpost of Trinidad was mainly ‘manned’ by men, soldiers and administrators. The Amerindian women who still lived here were part of a tribal system of male hunters-warriors and female housewives (or should we rather say ‘ajoupawives’). The catholic missionaries who with great determination propagated Rome’s dogmas were male as well, of course.
The Dutch and the Courlanders who attempted to settle in Tobago might have had some brave wives who made the long voyage from the seashores of the North Sea and the Baltic Sea to the small island. One can imagine the hard work, clearing the forest, wrenching fields and vegetable gardens from the jungle, and all this in totally unsuitable clothes for the tropics! Women in the 17th and 18th century were clad in several layers of long skirts, blouses, laced bodices, stockings, not to mention the long unspeakables (panties).
In 1783, when the Cedula of Population brought thousands of Catholic settlers and their slaves to Trinidad from the other Caribbean islands, Port of Spain saw a hitherto unknown amount of women step ashore. French and patois-speaking, often already used to the climate and the frugality of plantation life from Grenada, St. Lucia, the French Antilles and Haiti, these women - black and white - followed their men or their masters to Trinidad. Hardly any of the European or free coloured women would have come by herself, bringing her own slaves and claiming her own plot of Trinidadian soil. The African women who came as slaves were, naturally, deprived of expression of their free will and or making decisions for themselves. For all of these women it is not the arrival in Trinidad and Tobago that is noteworthy, but it is the endurance with which they ploughed on, supporting their men and sons in establishing plantations in Trinidad’s wild countryside.
When England captured the island in 1797, many Englishmen came here as administrators and planters. They, too, brought wives and slaves to Trinidad and Tobago. Like many a diplomat’s or engineer’s wife today, many of these British women must have hated coming here! No social life in comfortable circles, clothes that were a handicap, no modern amenities in the houses and cities, and a population that they didn’t understand! It was difficult to get from A to B in a country that had only dirt tracks, and the isolation between women from different Europan countries and of different religions must have been almost total.
In plantation life, European women had the matrimonial duty of producing children, raising them, overseeing the running of the household and garden, and dealing with the house servants and house slaves. They had no say in business decisions, no access to education, and hardly any leisure or diversion. What a life!
The slave women too produced children, sometimes with other slaves, sometimes with overseers and European masters. The catholic church saw to it that they were married, but whereas marriage in the context of Europe was an economical contract, it was more a spiritual moralistic affair for the slaves.
The main thing that women dealt with in the isolation of plantation life was death. The fear of poison was always there, but that was only one side of the grim reaper. There was no medical service, no transportation to the main cities, no advanced medicines, and only rudimentary hygiene. Women died during childbirth, children died frequently from infections, cholera could wipe out the family and the plantation at a rate of several persons a day. Mosquitoes, snakes and scorpions brought sickness and death. Slaves died from infected injuries and from despair. Looking back, it is no wonder that Trinidad and Tobago’s women radically turned to religion and became fervent believers - all this death had to be dealt with somehow!