Updated: Aug 31, 2020
By: Melissa D. Goolsarran Ramnauth, Esq.
Trinidad and Tobago is a nation of two islands located in the Caribbean Sea, just north of Guyana. The Amerindians, Spanish, Africans, French, British, and Indians all had a significant impact on the islands.
In the beginning, the the islands were mainly inhabited by the Arawak and Carib Amerindians. The former was a more peaceful tribe and the latter was known for their willingness to war. There is dispute as to the Amerindians’ original name for the island but Christopher Columbus renamed the island "La Isla de la Trinidad" in 1498. Tobago was also supposedly called “Tobaco” and its named signified the importance of tobacco to the natives. European language corruption caused the name change on both islands.
The islands were taken by Spain following Columbus' discovery. Spain spent many years at war trying to conquer the natives and convert them to Catholicism. In 1699, Spain’s continued forceful conversion caused a violent uprising that resulted in the deaths of hundreds of Amerindians, members of the Church, and members of the local government. After this, the tension between the two groups was generally settled for the next hundred years.
Spain then enslaved Africans to work on the plantations. At one point, the enslaved Africans outnumbered the plantation owners and free workers. The Africans did their best to preserve their African traditions despite severe oppression, and despite being thousands of miles away from home. This perseverance would eventually spawn the gift of Trinidad Carnival-- a celebration that many around the world look forward to annually.
In 1777, Spain offered free land to those willing to pledge allegiance to the King in order to populate the islands. Many French planters during the French Revolution took advantage of the land proposal. The mass French exodus to Trinidad had a greater cultural impact on Trinidad compared to the minimal impact of the Spanish.
In 1797, the British invaded Trinidad and Spain surrendered without a fight. Britain began importing Indian indentured servants on May 1, 1845, with the first ship being the Fatel-Razak. The indentureship period lasted from 1845 to 1917 and involved approximately 147,000 Indians working on sugarcane and cocoa plantations. Many of these Indians would remain in Trinidad and form the majority of the country’s population.
Petroleum became Trinidad’s main export in the 1950s. The early oil discoveries and production were spearheaded and controlled by American companies and American businessmen. Thus, Trinidad and Tobago’s proximity to Guyana should raise caution concerning outside influence in Trinidad’s politics, and a power struggle to control potential oil profits from future discoveries.
In 1962, Trinidad & Tobago gained independence from Britain. Eric Williams, who was of African descent, served as the first prime minister until his death in 1981. He is often regarded as the “Father of the Nation.”
This briefing is derived mainly from Eric Williams’ insightful “History of the People of Trinidad and Tobago” and Bridget Brereton’s “An Introduction to the History of Trinidad and Tobago.”
Melissa D. Goolsarran Ramnauth, Esq. is an American civil litigation and bankruptcy attorney of Trinidian and Guyanese descent. She graduated magna cum laude from the University of Miami with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Political Science, a minor degree in History that focused on the slavery and indentured servitude eras, a minor degree in Criminology, and a Juris Doctor degree.