The late nineteenth century was an important era in the history of the twin island state of Trinidad and Tobago. During the 1880s and 1890s, these islands underwent the process of unification, where Tobago was declared a “Ward” of the island of Trinidad in 1899. This process of unification however, predated the 1880s as it was an imperial dictate of the British Empire in the closing years of the nineteenth century. The unification of these colonies was saturated with issues of political, economic and social change. Let us dive into this interesting period in our history and begin the saga that is the unification of Trinidad and Tobago.
The road to the unification of the colonies of Trinidad and Tobago began in the 1870s when Tobago, at that time was a part of the Windward Island Confederation. The islands of this Confederation had one thing in common, they were all considered to be unviable economic interests on their own. Bridget Brereton noted in the case of Tobago that, “For the last decades of the nineteenth century, Tobago’s economic situation seemed hopeless.” However, this Confederation failed due to violent opposition by the people of Barbados which climaxed in the Confederation Riots of 1876. Even though this Confederation failed, there was still a need to unite Tobago with a more prosperous British possession as this would have strengthened the Tobagonian economy. In 1879, Governor Gore of Tobago proposed the annexation of Tobago to Trinidad, yet this was rejected due to the great expense of establishing communication between the islands and the high cost of colonial administration. Though the 1870s closed with no major steps towards the unification of these two colonies the possibility of this happening was greater than before.
In the 1880s, the question of the unification of Trinidad and Tobago was still vital as the 1880s proved to be no more lenient towards the Tobagonian economy. In 1884, there was the collapse of Gillespie Brothers in London and this signalled the end of sugar production in Tobago. By 1886 the Secretary of State for the Colonies announced the intention to annex Tobago to Trinidad and gave two options.
- The colony of Tobago may be wholly and completely incorporated with the colony of Trinidad or
- The colony of Tobago may be annexed to the Colony of Trinidad as a dependency, having a separate Treasury and subordinate Legislature, holding to Trinidad the same relation that the Turks and Caicos do to Jamaica.
On the 19th January 1887, the Tobago Legislative Council agreed unanimously to the second option as well as negotiating that there be free trade and common external tariffs. It should be noted however, that there was opposition to this annexation from the merchants and other sections of Tobagonian society. Even though these individuals were strongly against annexation, the first step was taken with Her Majesty’s Order in Council of 17th November 1888 which stated that Trinidad and Tobago were to become a joint colony as of January 1st 1889.
Although at the beginning of the 1890s, Trinidad and Tobago were joined, the islands were not completely unified as they each retained a certain amount of independence from the other. This period was one with widespread petitions to the British Crown arguing for and against total unification with Trinidad. In December 1893, there was the Petition for Closer Union which argued for Tobago to be incorporated into Trinidad by becoming a “Ward”. This petition was put forward by the labouring class and some individuals from the middle class. Susan Craig James describes this petition as, “… a historic petition, which was decisive in shaping the views of British officials on the future of Tobago.” In October of 1898 an Order in Council constituted Tobago as a Ward of Trinidad.
One hundred and sixteen years onwards, the unification of Trinidad and Tobago still exists. Through the process of unification these two islands became linked and this process must be appreciated. Visit the National Archives of Trinidad and Tobago to view more documents on the process of unification and its repercussions for both islands.
Brereton, Bridget. A History of Modern Trinidad: 1783 – 1962. Champs Fleurs: Terra Verde
Resource Centre. 2009. Print.
Craig – James, Susan. The Changing Society of Tobago: 1838 – 1938 A Fractured Whole. New
York: Cornerstone Publishing. 2008. Print.