No other island in the West Indies has experienced such an ongoing immigration as Trinidad has. In 1826, just before the emancipation of the slaves, the population stood at 23,123 slaves, 8,404 Free Blacks, 2,005 Whites and 655 Amerindians.
After emancipation in 1838, West Indians, mostly of pure African descent, began to come to Trinidad from the neighbouring islands.
Encouraged by the planter interest facilitated by the British Administration, motivated by the freedom to travel and in pursuit of better opportunities, West Indians came from all the islands in the Caribbean. This immigration was so intense that it was remarked that the Trinidad Creoles were being overwhelmed by the other West Indians.
According to Prof. Bridget Brereton, the figures for immigration from the British West Indian islands between 1871 and 1911 were, at a conservative estimate, 65,000, about an average of 1,625 a year. Barbadians looking for a way to acquire plots of land, which for blacks was difficult, came here. This was facilitated by the 1873 Barbados Act which made provisions for assisting immigration.
Planter oppression was greater on that island and wages very low. As such, in this period, a vast majority of West Indian immigrants were from Barbados. This movement slowed somewhat between 1846 and 1861, but after 1864 many came to Trinidad so as to enjoy the prosperity that was happening here. Some 14,000 were living in Trinidad in 1897.
The vast majority of immigrants who came were working-class black people. This movement was just a part of a wider movement taking place during the latter half of the 19th century. Capital was moved out of the older West Indian colonies to the newer "unsaturated" territories.
It was necessary for the Secretary of State for the colonies to solve the overpopulation of some of the islands. Trinidad possessed a large land mass and a small population. These new arrivals did not necessarily go into the recently abandoned cane fields. They were escaping exactly such a fate in their own home islands. They did not want to make contracts with the planters. Instead they got their jobs in the many public works projects taking place all over the island, such as roads and railways.
It was estimated that 3,000 West Indian immigrants, most of them male, had arrived in Trinidad in 1873. Many of these were masons, brick layers, carpenters and other skilled labourers. The public works department had 400 West Indians working on the railways.
Urban institutions grew as a result of the prosperous state of the economy, driven by sugar cane, cocoa and coffee and supported by a growing commercial sector. Families, local whites, expatriates and well-off black people could afford to have a yard boy, a coachman, a cook, a maid or two, a nanny or two, a large house on upper Richmond Street or Victoria Square and could have as many as five domestics working on a regular basis. In some cases, dependents such as former servants, even former slaves, were part of the extended household. Some of these older folks could wield a strong influence, particularly in French Creole households, where in some cases the relationships may have been of long, sentimental or even familial standing.
Many West Indians went into the public institutions in Trinidad. They became wardens and nurses in the hospital, in the jail or in the asylum, work for they were by far the best suited for this work, as they came from small communities and were often kinder and just more understanding than Trinidadians. Many went into the police service which recruited from one generation to the next. They hardly ever bought estates and did not become agriculturists, although some bought land around Arima and Sangre Grande and grew cocoa.
There were a few small business proprietors. They settled in "large numbers in the long and almost continuous village" between St. Joseph and Arima where they raised large families and worked as artisans, mechanics, shoemakers and tailors. They were found to be, especially the Barbadians, able, peaceful and hardworking. They wrested most of the small industries from the more easy-going Trinidadian Creoles.
Barbadians were thought to be energetic, more so than the local Creoles. But like most immigrants they just had to work harder. Coming from Protestant islands, Barbados, St. Vincent, Antigua for example, they spoke English as opposed to those who came from Catholic islands like Grenada, St. Lucia, Dominica, who spoke Patios. British administrators in the civil service found them easy to deal with. As Dr. Brereton notes:
"This command of English made it easier for them to move into strategic jobs in the civil service as skilled workers, mechanics, craftsmen, policemen, teachers, minor civil servants and they, after forming a potentially mobile upper working class, became ambitious for their sons to rise to middle class status through the schools. The civil service became their most steady employer."
As the bureaucracy necessary to operate this prosperous island grew at a pace, it could afford an increasingly elaborate bureaucracy. People who were now 'Trinis' depended on this bureaucracy as a secure life-time employer. The civil service in Trinidad became, by the 1950s, almost entirely made up of black people. This was not a result of an accident of history, but it was literally a policy of the colonial administration, and it was carried forward in a mindless manner. It served to segment the society and to create a dependency on the state by a very large segment of the population from one generation to the next, thus hampering entrepreneurial experiences in families and preventing personal growth and development in individuals.
On the other hand, undoubtedly the hard work, sacrifice and ambition of parents, grand parents and great-great grand parents had paid off in that remarkable individuals were produced. One thinks of Malcolm Nurse, called George Padmore, one of the founders of the international movement known as "Negritude" personalities like H.O.B. Wooding, and of Henry Sylvester, founder of the Pan African Movement. They were all sons and grandsons of Barbadian immigrants.
The adjustment to life in Trinidad was difficult for the immigrant. For those who, through luck, hard work, thrift and education found a footing here, there was the long road to self improvement. For those who fell between the cracks, life played out producing among the newcomers "swarms" of criminals, paupers and prostitutes. As one police inspector noted:
"The 1870s were notorious for crimes of wife beating, child beating, cutting and wounding. These were ascribed to Barbadian influence."
Studies also show that West Indian immigrants contributed an abnormally high proportion of convicts and hospital patients. The Colonial Hospital records for 1889 show 5,714 admissions, natives from India accounted 1,542, Trinidad Creoles 1, 680, Barbadians alone numbered 1,023 and from the other islands 744. Prof. Brereton notes that a
"Select committee of the Legislative Council considered the question of pauper and criminal immigration in 1893. It produced figures to show that while the proportion of natives of Trinidad to West Indians living in the island was 100:30 in 1891, the proportion in jail during 1888 - 92 was 100:109 and the proportion in hospitals and asylums was 100:94. It concluded that immigration from the West Indies 'embraces a most abnormal proportion of the worthless and vicious classes, of which these communities are riding themselves off the expense of Trinidad'."
The urban working class of Port of Spain grew at a pace in the 1880s to the 1900s, as the small islanders poured into the city's outer areas that had been forested just a few years before. The old city, dating back from Spanish times, deteriorated into horrendous yards. Areas such as Belmont, Laventille and East Dry River, which had been settled in the years after 1838 by coloured middle-class people, ex-slaves and their children, who were in the process of developing a low-keyed urbanization, were flooded by the small islanders, and many religious and cultural tensions arose. Calypsonians sang:
"Small islanders go back where you come from."
Increasingly, Trinidadians lost their 19th century "Creole soul" and acquired a Caribbean reality. The upshot of all this meant cheap labour for the moneyed interest of the colony and sewed the seeds of political avarice. The situation was investigated by the Surgeon General who revealed that small barrack rooms were being tenanted by dozens of persons. Some rooms on Prince Street and elsewhere were occupied by up to twenty adults. Such overcrowding brought hellish tensions, violence and antisocial behavior. The real problems were health, the spread of epidemics, death and mass human misery. The Surgeon General wrote:
"In epidemic times people become suddenly aware of the unpleasant fact that crowded away in the heart of large cities are hordes of destitute and suffering creatures more or less ill-fed, their diseases unattended to and their abodes the scene of squalor and every unwholesomeness."
It was unthinkable that it all could become worse but it did, in the period between the wars in the 1920s and 30s. Poverty was to hit a new low in Trinidad. The strikes and riots of this time came out of this neglect. With the advent of the second World War and the economy engendered by the arrival of the American forces, "money in the land" served to alleviate a desperate time. The 1940s and 50s saw a mass emigration of Trinidadians to London at first, than to New York, Toronto and other parts, very much in the same manner that the colonial administration allowed masses of people into Trinidad to drive down the cost of labour. In the main, the people who left Trinidad for greener pastures were urban middle class people with secondary and tertiary education. In turn, the politicians who took the country to independence encouraged immigrants from other islands to come, this time to maintain voter turnout affected by this Post War brain drain. A second wave of West Indian immigration took place, and again our culture altered as opposed to those who came in were rural, primary school educated and once more settled in the depressed areas that for runners had known. certainly, avarice drove the pursuit of cheap labour by the British colonial administration plus their need to alleviate overpopulated islands, as such Trinidad was a viable option. But in terms of local politicians, the question remains if the motive wasn't political avarice - a common cause of things in the history of the world.
The extent to which Trinidad was an immigrant society during the 19th century during the 19th century is seen by the following:
In 1861 the population was 84,438. In 1891 it was 200,028. Almost all as the result of immigration. the majority of immigrants came from the West Indian islands mostly British, India and Venezuela. In 1861 natives of India numbered 13, 488 and in 1891 numbered 45,028. From the British West Indies in 1861 there were 11,716 and in 1891 there were 33,180. From Africa, never knowing slavery, came freed Africans numbering 6,035.
A religious census in 1891 showed Roman Catholics to number 73,733. Hindu, Muslim, Confucian, Buddhist to be 64,413. Anglicans to number 46,920 and Wesleyans 6,312.
In 1881, there were 31,858 persons living in the city of Port of Spain with 2,706 living in Laventille. In 1891 "Greater Port of Spain" had an estimated population of about 50,000, that is about a quarter of the whole island.