At the turn of the 20th century, ‘Pax Britannica’ (British Peace) and the great powers of Europe ruled large parts of the world. The colonial powers had drawn borders across continents that crossed mountains and cleaved apart whole peoples. It was, one could say, fashionable to be not merely a nation, but an Empire.
It was during these years tha people of a much much older empire came to settle in Great Britain’s crown jewel Trinidad, a people who had their roots in the very antique origins of mankind’s earliest civilisations. These new settlers hailed from what was then called the Ottoman Empire, yet another colonial power whose Turkish rulers imposed their own particular brand of ‘Pax’, this time along an Islamic concept of civilisation, upon many countries and peoples around the eastern Mediterranean, amongst them Greater Syria, which comprised then the countries of Iraq, Syria, Palestine, Jordan and Lebanon.
The handful of settlers who came to Trinidad came mainly from mountain villages of Syria and the coastal towns of Lebanon, all then part of the Ottoman Empire. From the seashores of the eastern Mediterranean to the islands in the furthest west journeyed young Christian men and women, in search of a better fortune than what would have been their lot under an oppressive Muslim government. They left their home because their was no scope of development for them there: as a Christian minority, they were banned from landholding, couldn’t travel freely and had to endure all kinds of vagaries from the part of the local sheiks.
One of the earliest immigrants to Trinidad was Elias Ibrahim Galy. His family lived in the town of Macheta Azar, Tel Kalah, in Syria, and Galy was born in 1889. At the age of 21, he left his elder brother, his three sisters and his parents and came to Trinidad. He left behind an environment where trade and commerce had flourished for hundreds, if not thousands, of years, and where three of the world’s big religions - Judaism, Christianity and Islam - had their origins. Also among the earliest arrivals in Trinidad from the Middle East were Abdullah Gabriel, Yussef Sabga, as well as the Abdullah, Chami, Hadad and Matouk families.
Before World War I, there were less than 100 Syrians and Lebanese in Trinidad. The small community they formed here had started with two or three of the young men who left the Middle East to look for a new life in the ‘New World’, and who, as they started to establish themselves, brought over their siblings, parents or cousins. Starting more often than not as peddlers, their tenacity and frugality made it possible for them to save parts of their earnings, and given their entrepreneurial spirit, some were able to establish stores and even a hotel in the city. Since almost every immigrant to Trinidad spoke no English, they tended to assist each other and help each other to get started in the unknown environment. In some cases, one or the other Syrian or Lebanese had not even intended to come to Trinidad, but wanted to got to the United States, Brazil or Argentina instead. The voyage in those years was by steamship only, and legend has it that sometimes a gruffy ship’s captain told a young Arab that the fare wasn’t enough all the way to the U.S., so he should get off in Trinidad and take a train to New York! Be it how it may, the adventurous youths found the climate pleasing and the commercial atmosphere of Port of Spain promising, and they stayed on.
The Syrian and Lebanese immigrants were mostly of Orthodox or Maronite denominations. Those Christian minorities in the Middle East go back to the times of the Crusades, when knights from western Europe went to the Ottoman Empire in the 12th and 13th centuries to conquer the ‘Holy Land’. Settling in east Port of Spain, in the immediate vicinity of the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, they found it easy, however, to integrate with the Roman Catholics of Trinidad, and soon formed part of the Cathedral’s congregation. Their children were baptised as Catholics.
Life in Trinidad at the turn of the 20th century offered many opportunities. The cocoa economy was booming, which made for a reasonably comfortable middle class and for an exceptionally well off upper echelon. Sugar was the other powerhouse behind the colony’s fortunes at the time, and the wealth of Trinidad spread across the towns and the countryside. The ‘Magnificient Seven’ around the Savannah are testimony to those early 1900s, and were just finished and sparkling new when the Arab immigrants came to Port of Spain. Those mansions and the society that went in and out of them, however, was completely unattainable for the Arabs then. The English and French Creoles, who constituted the upper classes, were then strictly segregating themselves from any poor immigrant classes, be they Portuguese, Chinese, Arab or from the moon, for that matter. Bound together by language and customs, each nationality formed their own little community, helped each other and assisted newcomers to establish themselves.
In the Syrian and Lebanese community, it was Yussef and Rahme Sabga who helped many newly arrived Arabs to start in Port of Spain. Often, Yussef would put up the bond required by the immigration authorities for a newcomer, and the Sabga house on Charlotte Street was a welcome first haven for a lot of Arabs whose descendants became Trinidadians and Tobagonians.
Historically, east Port of Spain has been the first area of the city to be settled, first by the Amerindians, then by the Spanish, and later by the French and English. From the area around the Roman Catholic Cathedral, the town spread into northwards, eastwards and later westwards. This part of town was also the first settlement of the Syrian and Lebanese community. Life was not easy in what was then considered the city's slums. Loneliness was also something the newcomers had to deal with. Not being able to speak any English or Patois, and separated from their wives and children, they had to be brave and overcome many frustrations. The support system that the local Arab community provided helped them along the way financially and emotionally.
In the period between the first and second world wars, the Ottoman Empire collapsed, and the French and British mandate took hold. Greater Syria was divided into what is now Syria and Lebanon. During this time, another wave of immigrants from the Middle East came to Trinidad. Among them were the Fakoory and Matouk families. Also around that time came the families of Naim Sabga and Norman Sabga with his son Anthony, who had been brought over by their relative Abdou Sabga, Yussef's son. The Sabga family name became a prominent local name with great currency in the business world.
In a very real sense, Anthony Sabga epitomizes the strong entrepreneural spirit of his people and to demonstrate what hard work, dedicated sacrifice and the fearless taking of calculated risks could achieve. He received an honorary doctorate from the University of the West Indies for his longstanding achievements in business, and his wife Minerva Sabga was honoured by President Sir Ellis Clarke with a Hummingbird Medal for her lifetime contribution to welfare and charity in the nation. As the 20th century came to a close, Tony Sabga developed his father's small business into one of the foremost conglomerates not merely in Trinidad and Tobago, but in fact in the Caribbean.
In the late 1940s and early 1950s, the community had prospered and started to move out of the city centre and in the then newly developed suburb of Woodbrook. Their stores, however, remained in downtown Port of Spain - names like 'Syria House' and 'Lebanese House' bear witness to that to this day. In those years, in 1950 to be exact, the Syrian and Lebanese women organised themselves into a charitable organisation, the 'Mediterranean Star' (later to be renamed 'Syrian Lebanese Women's Association of Trinidad and Tobago'). Within the framework of this association, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, the women of the Arab community organised highly succesful fundraisers for local charities as well as acted as a preservation agent for Middle Eastern cultural expressions like Arabic food, music and dancing.
The Syrian and Lebanese community was the last ethnic group to have come to Trinidad in the 20th century. The people from the Middle East had the challenge to integrate into Trinidad's society when the island's status as British Crown Colony was slowly coming to an end. From this community came outstanding businessmen and -women, legal and medical professionals, artists and many many other professionals - one might say they have successfully taken part in the forming of our nation!