The emergence of a national society evolved in cycles of centuries.
“The turn of the century” is a phrase pregnant with a sense of the auspicious, the momentous. For Trinidad and Tobago, the turn of the 18th century and the turn of the 19th century did in fact mark turning points in the overall development of the two islands.
In the case of Trinidad, the end of the 1790s, 1797 to be exact, marked the close of 300 years of Spain’s dominion over this island. 300 years of studied neglect, in fact. Various points of view have been put forward as to why Trinidad ‘de Barlovento’, “to the windward”, was not developed by Spain. Some sources say that it was because the original inhabitants, the Caribs, were man-eaters. This is true, as it was commonly put about by the Caribs themselves that Spaniards tasted much better than the English or the Dutch. Other sources say that these warrior tribes were in the process of conquering the island at the same time when the first Europeans arrived. One of the results of this conquest of Trinidad by the Caribs was their eating of the Aruac men and the marrying of the Aruac women. The equally conquering Spaniards, however, didn’t plan to either eat nor marry any Amerindians, but to enslave the whole lot. Different strokes for different folks!
Another reason for Spain’s neglect of Trinidad may have been the island’s proximity to the Orinoco delta. This river system, one of the world’s largest, could take ships right into the upper reaches of the South American continent, to the Guyanas, to Venezuela, Columbia, almost to the Andes themselves. If Trinidad had been developed, with a busy port, infrastructure for ships, provisions and labour, the island might have become a stepping stone, a base camp, from which all sorts of expeditions up the Orinoco could have been launched. The Spanish Crown had good interest in avoiding that. History had taught them that the rumour of a “Golden Civilisation” on the level of Peru and Mexico existed upstream of the Orinoco. It had already brought English conquistadors like Sir Walter Raleigh in the 1590s to Trinidad. In search of the fabled El Dorado, he had burnt the port of Trinidad, which is where Port of Spain is today, taken the island’s capital, San Jose de Oruna, released the governor’s prisoners, the island’s principle caciques, taken the governor captive and sailed up the Orinoco in search of the gold of El Dorado. And all that Raleigh was acting on was a rumour! The fact that he ‘lost his head’ (literally) a couple of years later perhaps makes the point about acting on rumours...
For whatever reason, the island of Trinidad remained uncultivated and basically uncolonised. It was not, however, entirely neglected. Early on, it was discovered that rich beds of pearl-bearing oysters lay just offshore all along the Western coast, from the Naparimas in the south to Chaguaramas in the north. This was, in fact, our first “industry’ - pearl fishing. So many tribal people died in this work of diving for pearls that the Gulf of Paria was called by the Spaniards the Gulf of Tears. Capuchin missionaries came from Aragon in Spain to convert the natives who had not died as the result of European contact, or who had not been captured and sold into slavery. These, the remainder, they “pacified” by robbing them of their culture.
Tobago during this period was having a very different sort of experience. Quite contrary to Trinidad, Tobago was being settled and also hotly contested. The United Provinces, now the Netherlands, was seeking to break away from Spanish rule. One of their ways of doing this was to establish for themselves a viable economy. Tobago became an object of opportunity for the Dutch. By the early 1600s, they were on the island, cutting the forest, importing slaves from Africa, and building windmills - cutting edge economical reasoning and technology at the time!
But the Dutch were not alone. The Courlanders, one of Europe’s mini states, not much bigger than Tobago, had been given the Caribbean island by James of England. (Not that it was his to give in the first place.) The Courlanders were settling around Courland Bay, and the Dutch on the other side of the island, around what is now Scarborough. For a while, they were unaware of each other’s presence, but upon discovery, they promptly had it out.
Tobago was much fought over by European leading nations of the day during the centuries that followed. The Dutch, the French, the English delivered an appearing never-ending round of conquest and settlement.
Tobago acquired institutions that were out of the ordinary in other colonies of the time. A House of Assembly, for example, occupied by the white planter interest, was already in existence in Tobago, while Port of Spain had nothing much going on.
Tobago was laid out in parishes. By the mid-1780s, towns were planned and a forest reserve created. For a tropical island in that period that was quite advanced. It is interesting to note that just as Trinidad was coming out of its long 300-year Spanish slumber with the conquest of the island by the British in 1797, Tobago was just about to enter a twilight that was to last almost a century and a half.
With Trinidad, the 1780s on through the 1800s saw the most rapid development that could be imagined. This was the result of the French colonisation of this Spanish island. History has asked the question why after some 300 years of virtual abandonment did Spain suddenly allow a French creole from Grenada by the name of de St. Laurent create a population here? It has been put forward that because the Kings of Spain were now of French descent, they were more keen on the development of their territories. It has also been said that the Spanish government needed to develop the island because the British or some other European power might seize it and in so doing gain a foothold on the continent.
Be that as it may. The facts are that the French came to Trinidad in 1783, brought thousands of slaves and opened up the island and created an agricultural economy which was to last until independence. But more than that, they established a cultural frontier. The French “colons”, both of European extraction and the more locally assembled variety, set the tone for how Trinidad’s dominant cultural forms in music, festivals and song (calypso) were to take form.
The century from the 1800s to the 1900s was a French century in Trinidad, despite the fact that the island was a British colony. Perhaps with exception of the Indian immigrants of the second half of the 19th century, Frenchness touched everyone's life, black and white alike. After 1845, the coming of the East Indians, however, was of great significance. By virtue of their separate rural and agricultural lifestyle, they retained their religious, cultural and social moiré, without impacting on the overall body politic for perhaps the first century of their immigration. The Indianness of Trinidad can only be compared in the Caribbean with that of Guyana.
Without doubt, the century between 1800 and 1900 saw the foundation for Trinidadianness put into place, comprising several ethnicities and economies. Sugar, cocoa and oil have helped to make this place so unique amongst emerging nations.
From 1900 to 2000, Trinidad has developed significantly, building on and benefitting tremendously from the institutions that were established by the British colonial system: the judiciary, the police service, educational, health and infrastructural amenities.
In keeping with the various economies, Trinidad has undergone a remarkable degree of industrialisation. Similar to other emerging industrial nations in the first decades of the 20th century, local labour had to struggle hard to maintain its dignity vis-à-vis the colonial power. The same accounts for voter franchise and the distinctive freedom of speech, expression and behaviour that is so much our own.
Looking back over the close to 220 years since the Cedula of Population presents the student of history with an amazing landscape. Class, race, skin colour, caste, gender: all were combined to produce immensely complex and fascinating patterns of human relationships. Notwithstanding the relatively healthy state of the country’s economy at any point in time, its success was really only ever due to its people and the evolution of a national society.