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Trinidad and Tobago came under British rule at the end of the European wars that marked the close of the 18th century. It is interesting to observe how our population developed over the next century and a half. To understand why so many people came here from so many corners of the world, one needs to take the various economies that were developed here into consideration, as these shaped our collective characteristics and the uniqueness of the variety of cultures which have contributed in the formation of our national identity. However, to begin, it would be suffice to say that “We are all here because of sugar, cocoa and oil” in that historical sequence.
The Cedula of Population of 1783 and the Sugar Economy
The sugar, cotton and tobacco economies brought the first Europeans, mostly French families and “Free Blacks and Coloureds” (meaning people from the French Antilles, some of whom were of mixed European, mostly French and African heritage, but were free and slave-owning), and African enslaved peoples to Trinidad in the closing decades of the 18th century. The Cedula of Population of 1783, which was the endeavour of a French Creole Grenadian by the name of Phillip Roume de St. Laurent, was the legal instrument that made their settlement possible. This document, according to Professor Carl Campbell of the UWI, must be viewed as our first constitution, as it outlined the legal framework that made the populating and settlement of a Spanish colony by a non-Spanish people possible, thus putting into place an Afro-French-Creole population that expressed a French identity.
Upon arrival, the cedulants encountered the remnant Spanish colonists as well as the remainder of the Amerindian population which pre-dated Spanish colonisation. This influx of farmers and unfree labour, which occurred against the backdrop of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars, led to large-scale cultivation of the countryside mainly with sugar, but also with all sorts of other agricultural produce for export and domestic consumption. French and Creole Patois speaking, the free population was in the main Catholic, and apart from some Republican elements, was almost entirely French Royalist in outlook, a distinguishing quality that would endure for some one hundred and fifty years, influencing cultural mores, manners, cuisine and the Carnival arts.
Tobago and Emancipation
Tobago, our elder sister, with her older history of European colonisation and African slave importation, was already an established plantation economy in the 1780s, possessing representative institutions, albeit very limited. Tobago had in fact changed hands several times as a result of the various European conflicts. From the time it became a British colony in 1814 until its eventual union with Trinidad, Tobago had sugar and cotton as the main crops until these were replaced by coconuts. Tobago, one could say like Barbados, is a Protestant island. Over the generations, Tobagonians became a conservative, hard working, land-owning Yeomanry, who are well known for their hospitality and their sense of serenity. Towards the end of the 19th century, Tobago, despite possessing its own representative systems was ignoble reduced to becoming a Ward of Trinidad.
In 1807, ten years after the capture of Trinidad, the British government abolished the trade of African slaves in the Empire, and thirty-one years later, in 1838, all enslaved people were given their full freedom. This action—for whatever the reasons given or the causes explained, whether an expeditious economic necessity, a political trick to achieve a moral position, or an act that was based on a sense of ‘justice and humanity’—when passed into law by the government of the United Kingdom was in truth significant moral achievement. These laws, when enacted, demonstrated a major advancement of Western civilization.
Emancipation signalled the end of that first plantation economy. For the sugar planters—mostly French, although by this time there were some English—this meant an acute dearth of labour on the estates. Many were reduced to poverty, despite being paid large sums for the loss of free labour. The former enslaved people received nothing. Understandably, the former slaves did not feel inclined to continue the hard labour in the cane fields for their former masters, even for wages. After the horrific experience of slavery, they preferred to set up themselves in their own small-scale operations, as artisans, labourers, gardeners, clerks, minor trades people, or simple just to do nothing at all.
The French-Patois speaking Free Blacks and People of Colour, who had benefited from the generous terms of the Cedula of Population, having survived attempts by the British colonial government to reduce their legal rights and other privileges, also suffered as the result of this first plantation economy coming to a close. They were joined, however, by the more upwardly mobile former slaves and commenced the ardorous process of gaining an education and establishing themselves in the new post slavery society. In fact, they, by the end of the 19th century, had created a core professional class, from which a university-trained intelligentsia would eventually emerge.
After some “experimentation” (in fact, British Prime Minister Canning described Trinidad a few decades later as an “experimental colony”) with people from China and Portuguese Madeira and other improvished Europeans, all groups having proven unsuitable for work in the cane fields, the British government began from 1845 to 1917 to “import” people from the Indian sub-continent as indentured labourers for the sugar estates. This scheme worked very well for the British investors and a new thriving sugarcane economy was reestablished and continued to flourish well into the 20th century.
The Cocoa Economy creates the first Trickle-down Economy
Towards the last quarter of the 19th century, cocoa farming came into its own as significant acreages in the northern, central and southern regions were devoted to this crop. Cocoa was an important addition to the agricultural economy of these islands, because it involved many levels of the society. It meant that a much larger cross-section of society were able to enjoy what could only be described as a windfall. Cocoa formed the livelihood for people of various ethnicities, including those of Amerindian descent, known to us as cocoa pañols. From small holdings—and these were in the vast majority, belonging to ‘ordinary’ people—on to the large estates, belonging to the French Creoles and foreign firms such as Cadbury’s, people of all backgrounds were able to benefit materially and so improve themselves and educate their children as a result of the cocoa economy. Cocoa was a genuine trickle down economy. From the countryside to the towns, particularly as the railways were extended, Trinidad bustled with agricultural activity. Small and large businesses were set up in Port-of-Spain and San Fernando to export the island’s produce, of which its cocoa was regarded as the best in the world. By the end of the 19th century, King Cocoa had dethroned King Sugar as the colony’s most profitable export. It was at that time that Tobago and Trinidad were joined together as a twin-island colony by Colonial Office decree.
Commerce flourished with the growth of the import-export houses that lined Marine Square, now Independence Square, and saw the introduction of numerous insurance companies and commercial banks. All this served to produce an enlarged and more specialised Civil Service. These all provided jobs and increased income streams for the emerging middle class, which grew exponentially in this period, thus making Trinidad and Tobago one of the more prosperous colonies in the British West Indies. The pretty suburbs of Port of Spain and San Fernando with their gingerbread house architecture emerged during this time, and grand public buildings were erected. It was during this era, towards the end of the 19th century, that Port of Spain, which still possessed its original Spanish and French architecture, with its Grand Savanna, tree-lined streets and spacious parks, was known as the most attractive town in the British West Indies.
This greater spread of wealth and access to education led the population to a more vocal demand for greater self-rule, reform of the colony’s administration, and participation in the affairs of government by the local intelligentsia and the emerging Labour movement.
In the meanwhile, people continued to come to Trinidad and Tobago. In fact, no other territory in the West Indies has experienced such a constant stream of immigration over the last two centuries. Besides the Indian indentured workers, immigrants in quantity came from the other West Indian islands from the late 1840s and indeed from all over the world. From Europe came Germans, Corsicans, the Scots and some Irish, from Asia came more Chinese, and from the Middle East, as the 20th century dawned, came the Lebanese and Syrians.
Oil Discovery and the Birth of the Trade Unions
Trinidad was famous from early times for its pitch lake at La Brea. Sir Walter Raleigh in caulking his ship there in the 1590s, could be regarded as our first exporter of petroleum. Oil, however, was extracted in Trinidad in commercial quantities in the early 20th century in the south of the island, adding yet another facet to the colony’s overall wealth. This attracted yet another wave of immigrants. Social inequalities and low wages that had always existed emerged more dramatically during this period, particularly in the years between the world wars, which led to the coming into being of a strong Trade Union movement that fought not only for the rights of workers, but for a greater say and a deeper involvement of everyone in the colony’s affairs. The Trade Unions’ new and robust involvement in civil society, notably headed by the oil and sugar workers, together with the Reform Movement, was instrumental in putting into place the foundation for the political movements that were to form the features of our nascent national identity and later the Independence movement, as our earliest politicians were invariably Trade Union leaders.
The First and especially the Second World War made Trinidad and Tobago’s oil a precious commodity, making us doubly blessed by having a two-tiered economy comprising agriculture and petroleum, unique in the Caribbean. The refineries at Point Fortin and at Pointe-a-Pierre led the way in the world’s development of high grade aviation fuel. This 100 octane aviation fuel was instrumental in the overall successful war effort, and in particular in the winning of the Battle of Britain, where the Spitfires and the Hurricanes were flying on ‘Trinidad oil’. This period saw the establishment of American bases in Trinidad which provided jobs for skilled and unskilled workers, both blue collar and white collar. And also left its mark on the social fabric of these islands many felt in a negative way.
The post-war era witnessed the de-colonisation of the former British Empire, when within a decade the most amount of nations came into existence since the Wars of Liberation broke Spain’s domination of the New World.
Agriculture just before Independence
In 1955 there were 409 agricultural credit societies with 16,000 peasant membership, assets $300,000 and working capital of $1,067,140. Sugar Estates canes acreage 36,000. Farmers’ canes acreage 44,000; number of farmers 111,000. Citrus acreage planted 13,000, 432,000 crates of citrus handled in 1954. Bananas 45,546 stems exported in 1953, Rice; 18,000 acres devoted to rice production in 1953, 288 mills produced 12,000 tons of rice. Coconuts, 40,000 acres under cultivation, 21,400 tons of copra valued $1,840,509, 1953. Cocoa 120,000 acres under cultivation produced 200,000 cwt., in 1954. Forest production reserves in 1953 were 49,000 acres; protection reserves, 194,900 acres; Teak plantation 7,000 acres. Timber production for 1954 all woods, 5,607,000, ft. Life stock population; 1954, cattle, 37,900, water buffaloes, 3,000, goats, 39,000, sheep, 5,000, swine, 35,000, horses, 2,400, mules,2,800, donkeys, 6,000, poultry, 1,134,244.
“Because of the perception that industrialisation by invitation was the motive force for growth and development, agricultural production in general received little emphasis. The combined result of these foreign policy strategies was that from being net exporters of food, Trinidad and Tobago became net importers of food from 1963.”
(Rosina Wiltshire-Brodber, Institute of International Relations, UWI. Excerpt from “The Independence Experience 1962–1987” by Selwyn Ryan (editor), p. 298)
Bhadase Sagan Maraj
Born in Caroni on 28 February 1919, losing his father as a lad of 13, he was looked after by loving relatives. Bhadase Sagan Maraj understood that education was the ticket to independence, first a Canadian Mission School in Caroni, later Pamphylian High School in P.O.S. As a young man he became a wrestler, set himself up as a contractor, by 1939 he was working for the U.S. Army on the Bases. He entered warehousing, he went into trucking. He became involved with the development of the residential area to be known as ‘Champs Fleurs’. Representing the Hindu Sanatam Dharma Association he travelled to the U.K. in 1949. He was elected President, Caroni East Indian Association and served as patron and member of several East Indian organisations. He entered politics and won the Tunapuna seat in the Legislative Council ‘handsomely’ in 1950. In 1952 he formed the Sanatan Dharma Maha Sabha, a religious organisation which had as its goal the preservation of Hindu philosophy and possessed a political wing, the People’s Democratic Party (PDP). A great wellspring of support rose about him. He was, however, not without detractors, who accused him of using his “Indianness” for political ends. It touched him, and he declared that he was a Hindu and could do nothing else but. He embarked on a school building programme. He became the leader of the Democratic Labour Party (DLP) in 1953. He passed the reins of leadership to Rudranath Capildeo in 1960.
His name is famous, in fact synonymous in the struggle for improvements in the lot of the working classes in Trinidad and Tobago. Born in Grenada in 1897, he worked as a telegraph clerk there and saw service in the West India Regiment in World War I. He came to Trinidad in 1921 and found employment in the oilfields, where he was injured on the job. He then became a Spiritual Baptist preacher. In 1936 he was expelled from the Trinidad Labour Party for his “extremist tendencies”. He formed the British Empire Citizens’ and Workers’ Home Rule Party. He was also the founder and President of the British Empire Workers and Ratepayers Trade Union. He was instrumental in the organisation of hunger marches in 1935 for the unemployed, taking the march into Port of Spain. He style was courageous and confrontational, and he fearlessly challenged the Imperial might of Great Britain. Organising workers in the oil industry, he led the oilfield strikes of 1937 for improved wages and better working conditions in which several workers as well as police officers were killed. As a result of these riots, a Royal Commission of Inquiry was held in 1938, resulting in some modest improvements in working conditions for workers on the whole. At the outbreak of the Second World War, Butler was interned on Nelson Island for alleged seditious practices and served 18 months for inciting to riot and sedition. Butler visited the United Kingdom in 1948 where he lectured, returning in 1950. He was elected to the Legislative Council 1950–1955 for St. Patrick West. He served as a member of the Standing Orders Committee. The Butler Party captured the largest block of seats in the Legislative Council, but the Governor of the day chose to exclude Butler, and instead Albert Gomes became the first Chief Minister. Butler is looked upon as the founding father of the Oilfields Workers’ Trade Union (OWTU) and the labour movement and is honoured with a statue in Fyzabad. He was awarded the Trinity Cross, the nation’s highest honour, in 1970. Butler passed away in 1977.
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