Friday 10 August 2012


A historian, whose name I cannot bring to mind, wrote that the Lesser Antilles, that curving island chain facing the rolling Atlantic breakers, are the "orphans of three centuries of sea power".
To get an idea of the development of Tobago is to begin to understand the manner in which it has been adopted and orphaned, abandoned and colonised, annexed and amalgamated over the centuries. David Niddrie, writing on Tobago, remarked:
"Once Columbus had broken his way into the Caribbean Sea, the Lesser Antilles became strategic defense and supply bases, vulnerable to all who sought to displace one naval power by another. From Puerto Rico southward, as far as Trinidad, the Spanish therefore sought to prevent any other maritime nation from settling these islands, so that the treasure galleons might have free passage between El Dorado and Cadiz."
Of all the European sea-going powers, it was only the Portuguese who did not challenge Spain in these waters. The Courlanders, the Dutch, the English, and the French, fiercely fought each other and Spain on an ongoing basis for more than two hundred years from the end of the 15th century on to the end of the 18th. Absurd wars commencing out of petty rivalries between autocratic rulers who were elaborately and intimately related to each other. These wars, starting out as set piece battles, where companies of men were moved about the countryside like tin soldiers on distant European battle fields, found frightful reflections of themselves in the Caribbean on remote islands that were previously known only to the migrating birds and the native Amerindians, engaged in perpetually following the tides' currents and the setting sun in search of unrecorded destinies.
Between the islands of Tobago and Trinidad lies a body of water known as the Galleons Passage, through which the huge lumbering treasure-laden ships, sailing from the silver mines of the Argentine and bound for the mints of Cartagena, passed. As such, Tobago became a key island amongst these contending powers. To the eye of the 17th century marauders, the beauty of Tobago lay along its leeward coast with its well-concealed, deep, safe harbours from which attacks upon Spanish shipping could be launched with impunity. To the cartographers of previous centuries, the Guyana coast was known as the Wild Coast, and although a Spanish possession, as just about everything was in the western hemisphere, it was not really held in strength by Spain. Both the British and the Dutch were attracted to this formidable wilderness. They would sometimes think of Tobago as a base camp for adventures, forays up into the great river systems, often to vanish without a trace.
By the mid-17th century, the French too sought to influence events. Tobago as a consequence was often caught up in these conflicts of interest. Did Columbus discover Tobago? Did he see it at all? This is in serious doubt. It is more than likely that it was stumbled upon by Amerigo Vespucci several years later.
The priest Bartolomeo de las Casas thought that Columbus called it Belaforma. Others said that its first name was Assumption, or Asuncion. But at last, it was called Tobago, after the shape of a tubed instrument called "tavaco" by the naturals, in which they smoked a herb that they called "cohiba" (tobacco). Sir Walter Raleigh may be given the dubious credit of introducing the herb now known as tobacco to the world after his visit to these islands. Today, both the French and the Dutch still spell Tobago, Tavaco.
A favourite of Queen Elizabeth I was the Earl of Leicester, Robert Dudley. He crossed the Atlantic, having in mind to explore the Wild Coast, and visited Tobago using it for "a place of arms". A Spaniard by the name of Juan Rodriguez created a homestead and made an attempt at the cultivation of tobacco for the purpose of export to Europe. This might have taken place around 1614. King James I of the United Kingdom, gave away Tobago several times. First he gave it to James Hay, Earl of Carlisle, in 1625, then, a few years later, he gave it to Philip Herbert, the Earl of Pembroke. Then, at the christening of his godson Jakob, the son of the Duke of Courland (Latvia), he presented it to the boy. This might well be the most controversial birthday present ever given, in that this gift was to bedevil the West Indies and various European nations for centuries!
It must be borne in mind that Tobago was not James' to give away at all. In fact, the Dutch, breaking away from the hegemony of Spanish domination, were to make a concerted effort to make the island their own. They too wanted the island as a base camp for their excursions to the Wild Coast. To the adventurers, sailing slowly with the night breeze beneath a brilliant, star-studded sky, the mountains of Tobago may have appeared intrusive shadows disturbing the gorgeous geometry of the constellations. With the dawn, the pastel skyscape would slowly give away to a view of lush tropical beauty, most attractive for cash crop farming.
Tobago, although small, compared to other islands, has such a variety of natural regions, each well suited to some specific crop. Tobago did not evolve as a monoculture as other islands, such as Barbados, whose economy has been dominated by sugar cane. In Tobago, the Europeans planted sugar cane, cocoa, cotton, indigo, cinnamon, peppers and tobacco. This was a very desirable feature, in that as prices for various commodities altered, with a bit of luck and careful planning, one could always have something to take to the market that would fetch a good price.
White people made money in Tobago. By the 18th century, the island began to be increasingly British, although France still had a hand to play. Notwithstanding, by 1773, there were 84 mills grinding cane, to which some 5,000 acres were devoted. 15,000 acres were under cotton. The cotton producers of Manchester sought the very fine yarn spun from cotton grown by a Mr. Robley of Tobago. Slavery came to Tobago with the Courlanders, who owned a slave-buying station on the west coast of Africa. It came with the Dutch as well. But it was with the English that Africans were to arrive in great numbers. With a high mortality rate, the slaves were replaced with a startling regularity, and quite literally worked to death.
There were revolts where white people were killed and there were of course reprisals. Slaves, however, were expensive, and there is a case recorded where 19 slave insurrectionists, tried and sentenced to be hung, were taken to the fort above Scarborough. Instead of hanging them all, the frugal Tobagonian planters hung one man nineteen times, giving the impression to the crowd of Africans beyond the walls that justice was taking its course!
In the period after emancipation, when the salubrious effects of Christianity, as interpreted by first the Moravians and then the Methodists, tended to whittle away retained African concepts and religious beliefs, Tobago was to receive several hundred freed Africans taken from Portuguese slave ships in the mid-Atlantic. David Niddrie recounts in his book "Tobago":
"One old man, aged 76 years, in the Scarborough market was able to relate his grandparents' account of the arrival of these new Africans who on their first free day, a Sunday, hollowed out the trunk of a silk cotton tree, stretched a hide over it and proceeded to beat out a wild dance rhythm in front of the Methodist church. While within three years those selfsame Africans had taken English and Scottish surnames and were going to church as avowed Christians, they undoubtedly reinforced African customs which were falling into disuse."
When one looks at the list of names of the Europeans who have owned lands in Tobago in the 18th and 19th centuries, it is remarkable that there are no white people there any more with a long and established ancestry. Their names, however, do survive this as the result of the female slaves who shared their beds, their lives and their misfortunes. Several old family names survive from 1764 settlements.
"Those whites who exploited the island in the 19th century had long since bankrupted themselves and disappeared into obscurity, yet many of their names remain with black people," writes Niddrie.
Some families still have stories handed down over the generations. There are even a few mementos that have survived in families. Attached is a photograph of a piece of needle work collected by Tom Cambridge while warden of Tobago, and a reproduction of Betty Creton's will.

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