Arresting Trinidad and Tobago Ethnicities: An Introduction to our Historical Background Pt 2

This blog post is the second 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 after the British takeover in 1797 to 1889 joining with Tobago.

As times changed, slavery became increasingly unprofitable and the “Purse Strings” of the island sought new forms of labour to drive production. The first Chinese wave came in 1806, “147 workers arrived in Trinidad, followed by a further 192 in the same year.” (Williams 77) A second wave came in 1852 and as Walton Look Lai states “The years 1852-54 saw the first attempts at an organised emigration effort from the Chinese mainland to the British West Indian plantations (British Guiana, Trinidad and Jamaica) from both Fujian (Fukien) and Guangdong (Kwangtung) provinces.” (Look Lai 98)

The Portuguese were noted as arriving in Trinidad since the 1630’s according to Eric Williams’ book,  “A History of the People of Trinidad and Tobago” however, the Portuguese community in modern Trinidad and Tobago can be traced from the emigration waves of 1834 -35 and later according to Bridget Brereton, 1846. Many family names and businesses still exist today, a telling reminder of their contribution to the diversity within the island.

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From the mid 1840’s onwards to 1917, a new wave of labourers voyaged to Trinidad. According to Bridget Brereton:

“India seemed to offer an inexhaustible reservoir of labour: its population was huge; most of its people were accustomed to agricultural labour in tropical or similar conditions; many lived close to destitution and might be persuaded to emigrate; much of the subcontinent was under British control so that difficult negotiations with foreign authorities would not be necessary; and the cost of immigration , though high, was not prohibitive as in the case of the Chinese.” (Brereton 100)

Indentured immigrants from India offered a much needed reprieve from the inherent loss of the African labour force at emancipation. The Blacks in the society would later aspire to become a budding middle class which would change not only the economic landscape but also the social topography of the island. The Indians however, were greeted with much apprehension both by the other ethnic groups in the society and the “Purse Strings” of the island. Donald Wood in the book “Trinidad in Transition: The Years after Slavery” states that “the planters of Trinidad were first lukewarm about the introduction of those who saved them from utter collapse and who in the fullness of time largely replaced the Negroes on the estates.” (Wood 107) While the Indians were “saving” the Trinidad planters from utter ruin, Tobago, later to be joined in a largely unwanted matrimony by both parties was already on a steady decline.

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Tobago was a highly contested island for centuries. All European powers were in a constant quest to ‘charm the beauty.” At one point it seemed as though the quest began on an inverse slope as they were destined to make Tobago a desolate island. However, after much contestation,  it was officially ceded in the 1763 Treaty of Paris to Britain. This did not mean that its colourful past would become a shade of grey rather, the story of Tobago developed into a legacy of prosperity then quickly underdeveloped into economic bankrupcy. Eric Williams points out that “the slave economy in Tobago was completely bankrupt at the time of emancipation in 1834. ” (Williams 123) This intensified after 1838 and was exacerbated by the devastation brought by the 1847 hurricane.

Needless to say, Tobago tarried on largely employing the metayage system but the

“competition in the British market, from slave-grown sugar from Cuba and Brazil and from increased production of European beet sugar, caused a sharp fall in world prices in the last decades of the nineteenth century. The resulting Sugar Depression of the 1880s and 1890s eliminated most Tobago producers from the world market.” (Craig-James 7)

The economic bankruptcy led to the state’s inability to sustain itself and thus it was duly joined to Trinidad, with much apprehension and debate, on January 1, 1889. The union “was made closer on 1 January 1899, when all decision-making powers in the united colony were centralised in Trinidad.” (Craig-James 8) However, Tobago was much different from Trinidad not only in economic wealth and prowess but also in ethnic make-up.Trinidad Royal Gazette 1886

By 1889, Trinidad was the most heterogeneous colony in the British West Indies while Tobago was like the other older British homogeneous colonies. Though many European powers had a hand in the place names and much of the cultures of the island, one must note that beside these persons, the other major ethnic group were the Africans. Even though to its new partner Trinidad, it was shrouded in mystery and apprehension, there is no hidden story behind its ethnic background.

The joining of Trinidad and Tobago offered no comfort to the “Purse Strings” that controlled the former.  The possibility however,  that the ethnicities that dominated the Trinidad landscape would somehow intertwine with that of the latter would further add to the cultural complexity and beauty of the Trinidad and Tobago society.

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.

Craig-James, Susan E. The Changing Society of Tobago, 1838-1938: A Fractured Whole Volume I: 1838-1900. Arima: Cornerstone Press Limited. 2008. Print.

Lai, Walton Look. The Chinese in the West Indies: 1806-1995: A Documentary History. Barbados: Press U of the West Indies, 1998. 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.

Wood, Donald. Trinidad in Transition: The Years after Slavery. London: Oxford UP, 1968. Print.

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