Dr. Eric Williams said in his ‘Broadcast to the Nation’ on Independence Day, August 31, 1962:
“Our National Flag belongs to all our citizens. Our National Coat of Arms, with our National Birds inscribed therein, is the sacred trust of all our citizens. ... Let us always be able to say, with the Psalmist: ‘Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity’.”
Williams’ appeal for unity is by no means new in the cosmopolitan society of Trinidad. More than 200 years ago, long before the first arrival of Indian, Chinese, Portuguese or Arab immigrants, even before the British settled here, Sir Ralph Abercromby, who took Trinidad from the Spanish crown, gave the island of Trinidad its ‘Old Motto’, a verse from the Latin Aeneid of Virgil, Book IV, line 112: ‘Miscerique probat populos et foedera jungi.’
(He approved of the mingling of peoples and their being joined together by treaties.)
[After the famous Roman poet Virgil (Publius Vergilius Maro, 70 - 19 B.C.), who wrote: 'Miscerive probet populos, aut foedera iungi’.]
The concept that a group of people uses a flag, a song and maybe a verse as a symbol for pride, patriotism, reverence and a sense of belonging can be seen in the widest sense as a western concept. It goes back to army warfare, when the legionaries or soldiers had to be able to identify who is where and where is who by coloured pieces of material affixed to long sticks - the idea of a ‘flag’ was born. The ‘Coat of Arms’ was another highly visible identity mark for men who were covered from head to foot in protective metal. Friend or foe looked very similar in armour, yet were identifiable by their coat of arms on their shield. Little by little, as regions were welded together by generations of warfaring tribes and family feuds, those flags and coats of arms became symbols for all the inhabitants of that region.
The original Amerindian inhabitants of the Americas had no idea of flags or coats of arms, at least not in the European sense. They would paint symbols on their skin, and worship certain totems as symbolic for their tribes. When the Europeans - in Trinidad’s case, the Spanish, in Tobago’s case, the Dutch - came to these shores, one of the first things they did was to unfold the standard of their respective royal house. In the case of Spain, this procedure was enhanced by the firm planting of yet another symbol on the beach of Erin Point: a wooden cross, in the name of His Most Catholic Majesties, King Ferdinand and his wife Ysabel of Spain. It must have seemed a strange spectacle to the Amerindians who witnessed it, but being master embroiders themselves, they must have surely appreciated the fine workmanship in the Royal Standard of Spain that Columbus brought: the gold castle of Castille and the lion rampant, appliquéed on red and silver. With the cross, the Amerindians had probably no relationship whatsoever, having never seen it before. With the ‘requerimiento’, Columbus declared their land as Catholic, Papal and a grant to his King.
Columbus himself was made governor of Trinidad, and indeed, admiral of the whole Caribbean. Thus, he also unfurled his own flag in Trinidad, a green cross on white ground with the letters ‘F’ and ‘Y’ (for Ferdinand and Ysabel). Columbus was thus the first governor of Trinidad and Tobago, which the discoverer saw from far away on the horizon and named ‘Bellaforma’. Columbus had a coat of arms as well, which was bestowed on him after his first voyage in 1493. It comprised the golden castle of Castile and the lion rampant of the Spanish standard, with some gold islands, waves of the sea and his own arms. Later on he altered the coat of arms slightly, and the image reproduced here goes back to Oviedo, Historia de las Indias, 1535.
Columbus might have been the first governor, but the first resident governor to come here was Don Antonio Sedeño in 1530. He settled in Cumucarape (today Mucurapo) and doubtlessly flew the Spanish standard over his ajoupa. Some 60 years later, in 1592, Domingo de Vera founded San José de Oruna (St. Joseph) as the first capital, and the flag of Spain again was hoisted there. It was the time of the conquistadors, and Governor Antonio de Berrio, who followed his agent de Vera to San José, intended to use it as a safe haven for the exploratory trips into the South American mainland in search of El Dorado. In 1595, San José was ‘conquered’ by a British conquistador, Sir Walter Raleigh, but Trinidad did not (yet) become a British possession. The Spanish flag remained on the staff, fluttering a bit sadly above the smoking cinders of San José de Oruna in Raleigh’s wake. Somehow, its pride was a bit tarnished, since Dutch and English flags were unfurled in small enclaves in the south, Punta de Galera and Moruga. In the 1650s, Governor López de Escobar put an end to those ‘alien’ settlements.
Not so in Tobago, which changed hands frequently. Dutch, French and English flags succeeded each other. In 1628, Jan de Moor started the first settlement where Plymouth now is, called it ‘New Walcheren’ and, if he was so inclined, would have hoisted the Dutch flag. In the following centuries, the Dutch flag would have given way to the English, Spanish and French flags, and intermittently even the Courland standard - crayfish on scarlet ground - would have graced the island.
Around the turn of the 19th century, both Trinidad and Tobago finally remained in British hands. From 1606 - 1800, the British flew the ‘Grand Union Flag’ wherever they went, which was amended slightly in 1801 and remained so until today.
It was not until 1959, more than half a century after the annexation of Tobago with Trinidad, that the twin-island Crown Colony received its first distinctive flag. The Colony Flag had the Union Flag on the top left corner and the Armorial Ensigns (with the aforementioned Latin motto) on blue ground. The days of the British Empire were slowly coming to an end, and the day of the inauguration of the Cabinet system in Trinidad, the 10th July 1959, the Colony Flag was hoisted. Interestingly, the Armorial Ensigns had been given to Trinidad and Tobago only a year earlier, on the 13th October, 1958. It shows a seascape with a mountain in the middle, a jetty and ships on the water, flying the Colony Flag.
The design of the Armorial Ensign of 1958 was based on the Great Seal of the colony of 1803, which looks just like it and bears on its circumference the words: ‘Sigillum Insulae Nostrae Trinitatis’ (Seal of Our Island of Trinidad). On the reverse the seal reads: Georgius Tertius Dei Gratia, - Britanniarum Rex, Fidei Defensor’ (George III by God’s Grace, King of Britannia, Defender of the Faith’).
Tobago’s Great Seal dates from at least 1815, also from the reign of George III. It shows on one side four ships, three at anchor and one sailing. A coconut palm is on the left, hills, buildings and more palmtrees are in the background. A sun with rays and a face smiles above all. The motto is: ‘Pulchrior evenit’ (‘It emerges more beautiful’). The Flag Badge of Tobago is similar, with one ship, a hill and a palmtree in the foreground. Interestingly, albeit the fact that after Tobago’s unification with Trinidad in 1889 the common governor of both islands flew the Trinidad Flag Badge emblazoned on the Union Flag as his standard, the Tobago Flag Badge was impressed upon currency notes of the government of Trinidad and Tobago until many decades later.
On June 8, 1962, it was announced in London that Trinidad and Tobago would be granted independence on the 31st August of that same year. Feverishly, a new flag needed to be designed. A committee was appointed to choose a design and a new motto, and in no time - on 26th June, to be precise - the committee submitted a design, which the Cabinet approved.
Since then, the official flag of Trinidad and Tobago is on a red field, a bend dexter sable bordered silver’. And while there may be as many symbolic meanings of this design as there are people in T&T, the official one of 1962 reads:
“The Black represents for us the dedication of the people joined together by one strong bond. It is the colour of strength, of unity of purpose, and of the wealth of the land. Red is the colour most expressive of our country. It represents the vitality of the land and its peoples, it is the warmth and energy of the sun, the courage and friendliness of the people. White is the sea by which these lands are bound, the cradle of our heritage, the purity of our aspirations and the equality of all men under the sun.”
(Source: ‘Our Flag’ - Independence Publication - Gov. of Trinidad and Tobago, 1962)