Nelson Island could be safely called the “Ellis Island of Trinidad and Tobago.” However, this chapter in the history of Nelson Island is but a fragment of its actual legacy. Belonging to the tiny five island chain called the Las Cotorras by the Spanish, Les Perroquets by the French and later coming to be generally known as the Five Islands, Nelson Island was originally a fort used by the Spanish. Though little is known of the Spanish exploits on the island, if one is to explore its present state, small remnants of this past history would be seen. There is a sentry stone on the western side of the island facing Port of Spain. It was said that the sentry would often sit there perched among the trees with his musket waiting in surprise for any intruder lurking nearby.
The British overtook Trinidad in 1797 from the Spanish in what may have been one of the easiest showdowns in Caribbean military history. While legally Spanish laws were still in effect, the British governor conscripted the King’s Negroes to erect a quarantine station at Nelson Island. Little record of this can be found because of the 1808 Great Fire that raged through Port of Spain, destroying valuable documentation of the colony. However, if one examines this building today, a small plaque states the date it was erected and by whom.
As time elapsed in the history of Trinidad, enslavement ends in 1838 and Indian Indenture begins in 1845. The initial system for Indentureship saw that the Indians landed at Port of Spain were medically examined, paperwork completed and they were dispatched to the estates for work. By 1866 however, this system was reorganized and relocated to Nelson Island. The system involved that the Immigrants would disembark unto barges which brought them to the island. Once there, they would be medically examined and separated by severity of illness. Persons who were weakened by the voyage would stay at the convalescent station on the island while others that had contagious diseases would be sent to Lenaghan Island for treatment. The extent of paperwork was also changed as the first registrations which span the years 1845-1856, commonly called General Register A, compacts the information while subsequent Registers are split into General, Ship and Estate Registers. Once all inspections were passed and all formal paperwork was completed, they would be dispatched to the various estates.
The first ship to enter Nelson Island was the Humber on December 26, 1866. It is unclear though, from the records, which immigrant was the first to touch soil at Nelson Island but this new system would continue until the end of Indenture in 1917. Similarly, returning immigrants to India were checked and dispatched from the island. This exercise continued into the late 1930’s. Some of the first dated ships that took persons back to India were the Arima 1869 and the Atalanta 1870, though there may have been earlier ships – their dates are unknown.
On this historic occasion of Indian arrival in Trinidad and Tobago, Nelson Island should not be forgotten. It speaks to a cultural legacy that has withstood the ebb and flow of our history ensuring its survival as it continues to add flavor into our ever-expanding cultural melting pot.
Brereton, Bridget. A History of Modern Trinidad. Kingston, Jamaica: Heinemann, 1981. Print.
MacLean, Geoffrey, and Vel A. Lewis. The Built Heritage of Trinidad and Tobago. Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago: National Trust of Trinidad & Tobago, 2012. Print.
Verteuil, Anthony De. Western Isles of Trinidad. Port of Spain, Trinidad: A. De Verteuil, 2002. Print.
Williams, Eric Eustace. History of the People of Trinidad and Tobago. London: A. Deutsch, 1964. Print.