Arresting Trinidad and Tobago Ethnicities: An Introduction to our Historical Background

This blog post is the first in a four part series about Trinidad and Tobago’s ethnic background. In this installment we will explore the groups that inhabited the island of Trinidad from Spanish Rediscovery in 1498 to British Arrival in 1797.

The historical experience in Trinidad and Tobago has seen the marriage of many ideas, ideologies and most of all, cultures. Perhaps it was fate or by design that Trinidad would become  a meeting point and later the melting pot for Caribbean peoples and other cultures. Later, Tobago would be unceremoniously joined to Trinidad in what would prove to be an unlikely match that would further inculcate the general theme of cultural mixture in a heterogeneous society.

Geographically, Trinidad is the closest island to mainland Latin America, namely Venezuela. As the most southerly island in the Caribbean region, any strategic world power at the time of colonialism could stand ground in Trinidad and steer into Latin America or peer into the Caribbean archipelago of islands. However, the Spanish, who first colonised the island, was not concerned with military strategy rather, their lust for gold and riches overshadowed any other passion. Thus, the island remained vastly uninhabited and underdeveloped for the major part of almost 300 years.

trini

Spanish abuse of the perceived “expendable labour force” – the Amerindians, now duly termed the First Peoples, reduced the thriving population “…from around 30,000-40,000 in 1498 to 15,000-20,000 in 1592… to 1,495, and their numbers would continue to decline, slowly but steadily, in the 1780s and 1790s.”(Brereton 16) Forced enslavement, miscegenation, migration and death would gently ease out the first proprietors of the island of Trinidad. Today their small but close-knit communities would tell their heritage, legacies and inculcation of foreign cultures to create unique traditions such as the annual Santa Rosa Festival celebrated in August.

State of Windward island of Trinidad, its population and agriculture on the 31st of December of the current year of 1786, and a comparison of the situation in the year of 1785. Signed by Jose Maria Chacon.

State of Windward island of Trinidad, its population and agriculture on the 31st of December of the current year of 1786, and a comparison of the situation in the year of 1785. Signed by Jose Maria Chacon.

Our Spanish heritage may have eroded with the arrival of the French through the Cedula of Population in 1783 and the hostile takeover by the British in 1797 but many place names, building structures and city constructions still remain. Port-of-Spain for example, is a city that was created in the image of a Spanish town – tight streets and city blocks surrounded by parks and squares. Apart from the infrastructural influence, the cultural influence is also strong – parang and pastelle, though most featured at Christmas time, are indicative of Spanish cultural heritage.

Two maps depicting city streets and parks on the left Barcelona, Spain and the right Port of Spain, Trinidad

Two maps depicting city streets and parks on the left Barcelona, Spain and the right Port of Spain, Trinidad

The French brought enslaved persons to work the plantations. Free blacks and mulattoes also came to Trinidad during the time of the Cedula of Population in 1783. This breathed new life into the otherwise stagnant economy so much so that “…Port of Spain… transformed from a sleepy little fishing village into a bustling, cosmopolitan port.” (Brereton 19) This steady flow the latter group would never cease as persons would come to Trinidad seeking better opportunities than those offered in other islands. French masquerades quickly evolved into Cannes Boules and later the Carnival celebrations of the modern era. Family ties, business and place names remain, a telling factor of our majorly French influence.

By the arrival of the British, the colony was already a cultural melting pot with a convoluted hierarchical and ethnic structure, governed by Spanish hands with French purse strings, driven by a black enslaved labour force. Where the British would factor into this equation, the result was a more complex society with a rigid resistance to British culture.

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Works Cited

Brereton, Bridget. A History of Modern Trinidad, 1783-1962. Kingston, Jamaica: Heinemann, 1981. Print.

Carmichael, Gertrude. The History of the West Indian Islands of Trinidad and Tobago: 1498 – 1900. London: Redman, 1961. Print.

Stark, James H. Stark’s Guide Book and History of Trinidad. N.p.: Sampson Low, Marston, 1897. Print.

Williams, Eric Eustace. History of the People of Trinidad and Tobago. London: A. Deutsch, 1964. Print.

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