The 17th century saw the foundation of an English colonial empire in the Americas and a great expansion in trade, both in terms of volume and content. The 17th century, the 1600s, also saw in England a change of dynasty. James II of England, a Catholic prince, had two Protestant daughters, and as such the Protestant power structure in England was not particularly put out. But when a son was born to the king and queen, seven prominent Englishmen signed an invitation to William of Orange, ruler of Holland, a grandson of Charles I and husband of James’ eldest daughter Mary to come to England and to save the country.
James II of the house of Steward fled to France. The battle of Sedgemoor waged prior to the fleeing of the king and produced many prisoners of the crown. Some were shipped to Australia and many to the Caribbean, Barbados in particular. Amongst those was a man called Henry Pitman. Prison conditions in Barbados were dreadful, and Pitman convinced of his eventual death in prison, made his escape to the west coast of that island. He eventually built a raft and fitted it with a sail that he had made from flotsam, and filled the bladders of many goats with water and laid in a store of smoked goat meat.
With these meager supplies strapped to his raft, Pitman set sail from Barbados one moonless night to be carried in every direction the wind and the currents would take him. After many days at sea, he saw on the horizon early one windy morning land, and doing the best he could with his ungainly craft he eventually landed, almost dead, on a wide, sandy beach. The setting sun was lighting the sea mists to gold, rising up to the thick green layer that fringed the shore.
Over the next several months, Pitman survived mainly on the unsuspecting giant sea turtles that he killed. He saw the remains of habitations and the wreckage of windmills with rusted machinery and torn sails. He also found skeletal remains of a man who had died in terrible battle. At night, he saw the fires of what must have been the ‘wild people of the mountains’, whom he, try as he might, never met in the daylight.
One day, many months after the great sea turtles had stopped coming to the beach to lay eggs, Pitman was half-crazy from loneliness and hunger. He saw as if in a dream a brigantine anchored in the wide bay. He was saved! Several years later, in 1689, Henry Pitman published his adventures in London.
Pitman called the island ‘Tortugas’. He reckoned it to be at 11˚, 11” north. In fact, he had landed in Tobago during one of the periods of respites from war and contention. Tobago had become neutral in 1684 by the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle. At that time, its population had been a motley bunch of survivors of previous attempts of conquest and colonisation. These, the first Tobagonians, were the products of discovery, slavery, was and abandonment. They were indeed the first children of the New World.
Many fascinating stories have emerged from this period in the history of Tobago about castaways, the lone survivors of some terrible battle, massacres and shipwrecks. Captain John Poynti’s account of a visit to Tobago in 1682 which was undertaken in conjunction with the Duke of Courland to boost the island as a settlement, is a detailed account and entitled ‘The Present Prospect of the Famous and Fertile Island of Tobago”. It was published in 1683.
Another famous castaway of this period was a man named Alexander Selkerk, who was marooned on Juan Fernandes island in 1704 and was not rescued until 1709. Selkerk personally told Daniel Defoe about his adventures which Defoe published in 1713. Sailing the world and visiting far-flung islands captured the imagination of hundreds of thousands all over Europe. Reading about these adventures in popular novels was en vogue. There was no television, and few pictures or visuals of any sort came into the hands of people. The world that seemed to be unfolding as described by writers like Defoe, was a fascinating revelation, probably as compelling as the internet today!
With such rich first-hand material, Daniel Defoe could hardly resist writing the stirring adventure of Robinson Crusoe and his native friend Man Friday, who is often portrayed as African. There is no doubt that Tobago was the island that Defoe used to place his hero, for we read that sailing from Brazil, Crusoe and his companions were blown off course by a terrible storm that lasted 12 days and that they had found themselves in 11˚ north latitude and were “gotten upon the coast of Guiana ...” Crusoe was cast ashore on a lovely island and lived there for some 25 years, before meeting Friday who told him “the land which I perceived to the west and north east was the great island Trinidad”.
The extent to which this story ‘sold’ Tobago in the 18th century can perhaps be seen when several years later, under the Treaty of Paris, Tobago was once more in British hands.
With so many assets and the Treaty of Paris guaranteeing its sovereign ownership by Britain, Tobago became an attractive proposition.
By a Royal Proclamation of 1764, the island was divided into parishes. A town was to be founded in each parish, although this was never materialised. Georgetown, overlooking Barbados Bay, was selected as the capital, and the first town to be laid out. In April 1768, the first meeting of the Legislative Council was held; the site, however, proved unsuitable and by 1769 the capital was moved to Scarborough on Rockly Bay.
An assembly building was constructed, which is still in existence. Areas were set apart for fortification; the land was laid out into allotments and advertised for sale; some 54,000 acres were sold and this produced the respectable sum of £154,050.
All this was directed by a Master Simpson who was the chief surveyor at that time. The three appointed commissioners for the sale of the land were William Young, William Hewitt and Roderick Wynne. By 1776, John Byres was the chief surveyor and completed his map of the survey of Tobago. The auctioning off of lands was long since been completed.
An interesting feature of the 1764 Tobago settlement programme was a conservation plan, where certain woodlands were set aside from the remainder of the island to ensure the water supply. This became the first forest reserve in the West Indies. The tract of forest, the upper reaches of the main ridge, was designated “Woods for the Protection of the Rains”. It remained untouched by man for more than 200 years.
The first Lieutenant Governor of Tobago was Alexander Brown, Esq., who landed at King’s Bay on 12 November, 1764.
The first lot of land sold in the Courland Bay Division was 500 acres at Courland Bay to Mr. James Simpson. A further 11 lots in the Barbados Bay Division were sold at the same time. The first export of sugar in 1769 was from Bushey Park in St. Mary’s parish, which at that time belonged to a Mr. Gedney Clarke. During this period of fairly intense development, the population stood at 2,300 Europeans, 1,050 free black and people of various colours and mixtures, and 10,800 African slaves.
The slaves, bearing the brunt of the actual physical labour of clearing the primeval forest for the planting of a variety of crops while enduring the appalling conditions of slavery, also cultivated sugar cane on a large scale. It is not surprising that there were several slave revolts during this period, invariably started by newly arrived slaves. The conditions of the slaves had vastly improved by this time, although legislation governing their behaviour was very strict. The first slave revolt in 1770 spread from Courland Estate to Mt. Irvine and Riseland. In 1771, two insurrections were put down by the militia. In 1774, the slave revolt on Queens Bay Estate, the property of Sir William Young, was also suppressed.
Tobago thus repopulated, retooled and reorganised, moved towards a future that was to be as tempestuous as its recent past. But this was the foundation for modern Tobago, as strange as it may appear. A lot of old masonry that exists, such as windmills, fortifications and estate wells, could date from this time. Thanks to neglect, a lot has survived!