Tobago was once a part of the first, original British Empire, like Jamaica, Barbados and the American colonies, but distinct from India, South Africa or Trinidad.
Tobago has several layers of history, which is why you can stand with your face to the wind, overlooking a truly lovely sweep of the blue seas and lush landscape, with the ruins of an early 17th century Dutch windmill just behind you and a great old rusting cannon, marked for a Georgian king who died in the 1820s, at your feet.
You get a feeling for the past and of ancient things, of the creek and "whoosh" of the mill's four wings, its huge 40 ft sails turning in the very same air in which you now stand. The lines of ox carts bringing the cut cane to be ground, the work songs of slaves going to the fields, living, dying, unmarked and unrecorded lives and deaths by the tens of thousands who toiled the Tobagonian soil.
The great estate houses have all but vanished. In the 19th and 20th century, buildings were put upon their old ballast block foundations, and if you have the time and look very carefully, you may find an old piece of iron, maybe some links of chain, a huge hook, a broken hinge, a great copper caldron in which sugar may have been boiled.
Tobago possesses a profound sense of times already past. In 1769, Port of Spain was a mud and thatch assemblage of huts built in a swamp, just as the Caroni swamp is today, with a handful of Spanish people, forty or fifty of them, a few slaves, all so poor that their living conditions were hardly different from each other.
Tobago, on the other hand, was well into its third, possibly fourth establishment. Its population was arranged with 10,800 slaves, 1,050 free blacks and 2,300 Europeans. Already the upper regions of its central main ridge were designated as "woods for the protection of rains". The treaty of Paris of 1763, which marked the end of the Seven Year War, now made Tobago British. By Royal Proclamation in 1764 the island was divided into parishes. In April 1768, a Legislative Council was convened. Trinidad would not see anything like that for almost 100 years. 54,000 acres of land were sold. This produced £154,000, at a period when the entire establishment in Trinidad, the European men could just arrange one suit of proper clothes between them all (just in the event of visitors from abroad)! This shows how poor Trinidad was in the pre-Cedula days.
Plantation development in Tobago commenced in earnest with the sale of 500 acres at Courland Bay. The first export of sugar came from Bushy Park in St. Mary's Parish. The drive for development was on. The 10,800 slaves bore the brunt of the actual labour of clearing the forest for the planting of a variety of crops, while enduring the appalling conditions of slavery. They cultivated sugar cane on a large scale.
It is hardly surprising that there were several slave revolts during the late 18th century in Tobago. These were more often than not started by the newly arrived slaves. 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 Queen's Bay Estate was also suppressed. The plantation economy, centered as it was on the system of slavery, perceived the slaves as merely a factor in the production of crops, a commodity like axles for carts or grinding wheels for windmills, expensive to buy, requiring upkeep and maintenance, not to be unnecessarily misused or destroyed, but basically - albeit expensively - replaceable.
There was very little money on the plantations. Food, shelter and clothing were provided by the estate. It was self-sufficient in the crafts and skills necessary to maintain its work, stock and tools. Transactions between the estates and London were handled by bills of exchange and a system of credit.
The services necessary to provide for the shipping and sale of goods and for the management of income were provided by the merchant banker, who operated out of London. He provided the ships that would transport the products of the estates to England and made arrangements for a constant supply of slaves from the west coast of Africa. These were procured by African merchants, mostly Muslims.
The proceeds of the goods sold in England were used to settle the planters' financial commitments and arrange for supplies and stock. Any residuals were credited to the accounts of the planters with the merchant houses. Produce served as the unit of account and medium of exchange and thus was regarded as a form of money.
In 1776, Tobago's economy suffered a serious setback, as hordes of leaf-eating ants destroyed thousands of acres of sugar cane, ravaging plantations in the windward parishes. This forced a change to the cultivation of cotton, which proved to be an early and timely attempt at diversification and, during the next 15 years or so, up to 15,000 acres were changed to cotton cultivation.
In 1778, with the American colonies in rebellion, an American squadron attempted a raid on Tobago. Their squadron comprised two ships of the line, three brigs and a schooner. They were engaged by the British battleship H.M.S. Yarmouth. During the encounter, the American ship Randolph was blown up with her crew of 315 men. The remainder of the squadron withdrew.
Tobago produced in 1780 35,122 cwt. of sugar, 1,868 puncheons of rum and 1,518,000 lb. of cotton, 20,600 lb. of indigo and 1,600 lb. of ginger. There were 1,637 working cattle and 946 horses. Almost 24,000 acres of land had been cleared. Notwithstanding, Tobago with its length of just 26 miles and width of seven, was not an important possession from an agricultural point of view. However, its value to the British crown lay in its strategic military and naval position. It lay well to windward, which was important in the age of sailing ships. Any force collected there could easily be launched against any of the islands, including even Barbados. A battle fleet coming from Tobago would have a speedy opportunity to fall upon an enemy beating against the prevailing wind.
Tobago was basically out of the hurricane area and had excellent harbour for the ships of those days. It has been felt by historians that the defense of the island was neglected in this period, and that the fortifications such as Fort George in 1777 and the small redoubts listed below came a bit late.
The island could boast of a militia of some 350 men. There were two companies of the 62nd regiment and later two companies of the 48th regiment. The French involvement with the rebellious American colonists eventually led to open war between France and England in 1778. In that year, the French Admiral Comte d'Estaing was in the West Indies with a squadron having 9,000 soldiers on board. He was unable to save St. Lucia from capture by the British, but was able to take St. Vincent and Grenada from the English. The English planters in Tobago saw this as a catastrophe in the making.
A French squadron of nine ships of the line were sighted off the island on 23rd May, 1781. The British under Lt. Governor George Ferguson surrendered only after a gallant 10-day struggle against overwhelming odds.
Ferguson had upon sighting the French, immediately mastered all able-bodied men, some 427, comprised of planters, militia, sailors and regular troops. The French first attempted a landing a Minister Bay, named by the Dutch Luggart's Bay, but high seas drove them off. They tried again at Rockly Bay. Once again the weather proved too bad for a landing.
The following day, they succeeded in putting ashore 3,100 men at Great Courland Bay. Major Hamilton of the militia, who had manned a two-gun battery at Black Rock across the bay, was able to bring the French ships under heavy fire, until he was forced to retire.
Lt. Governor Ferguson in the meantime had retreated and regrouped his men at Concordia, on the heights above Scarborough, and not far from Mason Hall, fighting a guerrilla action all the way.
The French general Philbert Blanchelande in hot pursuit demanded their surrender, having set up a battery at French Fort, which was then a cotton plantation overlooking Concordia. A French attack on the English position failed in the night, as the French lost their way.
Ferguson and his small band refused to surrender, requesting the French general "not to trouble me again upon this point". From the heights of Concordia, Ferguson was able to see more French troops landing in Plymouth and was forced to wait until the dead of the night to fall back to the base of the main ridge, Caledonia Estate. He did this so well that when the French stormed his position the next day, they found that he had gone.
Ferguson fell back through the forest and steep mountain sides and fortified a mountain top position so as to make a final stand. By this time, the French landed some 400 men at Man-of-War Bay, intent to take Ferguson from the rear. Still, the British resisted. It was only when the French started to burn the plantations that Ferguson's force, many of them planters in short of ammunition and food, decided that the wisest course of action would be to surrender. the French congratulated the English on their gallant defense. The conditions and the laws laid down by the English were left unchanged, although Scarborough was renamed Port Louis.
Redoubts in Tobago
Great Courland: two 18-pounders and one 6-pounder
Little Courland: one 18-pounder and one 9-pounder
La Guiria Bay: two 6-pounders
Queen's Bay: two 9-pounders
Bloody Bay: one 6-pounder
Englishman's Bay: one 6-pounder
Castara Bay: one 6-pounder
Sandy Point: two 18-pounders, two 9-pounders
Fort Granby: two 18-pounders, one 9-pounder, four 6-pounders with three 5.5"-mortars