Address delivered at Tourism Awareness Workshop 8th October, 1990

Tobago has a more exciting history than any other West Indian island. History records that on his third voyage to the West Indies in 1498 Columbus discovered Trinidad. When he sailed out of the Bocus on his way north of Hispaniola, he is alleged to have sighted Tobago. Some say he called it Bella-forma (beautifully shaped), others say he called the island Conception. What is certain is that he did not land in Tobago but sailed past and continued north.

But for well over a thousand years before this, perhaps even longer, the island of Tobago had already been inhabited by Amerindian peoples- The Arawaks the Caribs. These were short, brown skinned people with long, black hair and broad, high cheekbones who came island hopping in their canoes from the mainland of South America. They crossed from Venezuela to Trinidad, then to Tobago, later to St. Vincent and the Grenadines and Dominica. They were primitive people, they could not read or write and left no written records; but their man made things called artifacts found in different layers of the earth are mostly concentrated in their burial grounds or rubbish heaps. Several methods or tests enable scientists to make a reasonable guess at the age of the artifacts. The science of reading unrecorded history from diggings and old artifacts we call Archaeology. So some of our history of Tobago has been put together from the findings of archaeologists, from pictures, maps and written records.

WE have a very young audience here this afternoon but perhaps one or two persons may be senior enough to remember Mr. Thomas Cambridge, who was an amateur archaeologist was digging in the Plymouth area with his bayonet, in the hope of coming across something of interest when he chanced upon a find which he afterwards discovered to be an ancient burial ground containing five skeletons, myriad pieces of pottery and some stone implements. The skeletons disintegrated on exposure but the other items were later identified as Arawak relics.

The Arawaks were no great warriors, on the other hand they were very skilled people. Most of these artifacts unearthed by Mr. Cambridge were first displayed at the fort, Tobago and later at the Mt. Irvine Museum of Tobago history. Hopefully they will soon be on display for all to see when the house of assembly sets up a museum at Fort King George.

The Arawaks who were the more peaceful of the two Amerindian groups, had come to Tobago first. They had left the South American mainland to escape from the warlike Carib Indians, but the Caribs pursued them and after a time took over the island, for when they fought, the Caribs killed the Arawak men but kept the women and younger children.

Artifacts were unearthed from Tobago within the last thirty years from the middens or rubbish heaps bear evidence of unbroken Carib occupation of the island. Artifacts have been found at Mt. Irvine, Studley Park, Glamorgan and Bethel.

The late C.R. Ottley, a Tobagonian historian who died five years ago tells us how these Caribs lived. I quote "Running stark naked through the primeval forests which covered the whole island, they hunted deer, the armadillo, the wild hog, the manicou and the iguana. They trapped or shot with their bows and arrows the Tobago pheasant, the Cocrico. Among the rocks they collected whelks, conks and other shell fish. The turtle became an easy prey as it went lumbering back to the sea leaving behind its cache of large nutritious eggs, which according to a writer of the time, "the Indians extol as a rare delicacy." Added to these foods the manioc or the cassava, the staple diet of all Indians in the Caribbean was cultivated in large quantities all over the island." From the cassava they made cassava bread as well as a strong alcoholic beverage.

Tobago is rich in Amerindian and other artifacts. Experts can make comparative studies of the artifacts found here with those of Amerindians who still live on the South American mainland, and whose way of life is hardly different from what it was hundreds of years ago. I think a word of caution is in order here- we have to be careful lest we destroy this heritage, digging for artifacts has to be done very carefully and only by trained archeologists in order to collect relevant data.

When Europeans eventually started colonizing Tobago in the 17th century the Caribs resisted as best as they could, in fact, they murdered many of these European intruders, but eventually their weapons were no match for the more sophisticated artillery of those intruders, so most of the Caribs moved to St. Vincent and the Grenadines. Some were still living here in Tobago up to the end on the 18th century, and a few had even intermarried with African slaves. As late as 1760 an old map (now preserved in the Archives of the British Museum in London) shows three main settlements of Caribs: King Peter lived with his tribe of 160 people near Moriah and has left his name to the bay we know as King Peter's Bay, King Rouselle and his people inhabited Lambeau Hill, while King Cardinal held sway at Studley Park, the 1786 census identified twenty four people listed as Caribs at Man of War Bay. The 1790 census identifies five Caribs in Little Tobago.

Thereafter there is no record of Carib presence in Tobago. They all dies or disappeared. The nearest island where they can still be found living apart from all the other found living apart from all the other inhabitants is Dominica. Of course there are much larger numbers of them living close to us in Venezuela, Guiana and Surinam. Descendents of Caribs live in Trinidad in the Arima district but they are not separate from the rest of the population. The memory of these early Tobagonians is enshrined in the name of the island. This name was given to it by the Spaniards, who incidentally never occupied Tobago. Tovaco, the word from which Tobago is derived was in fact a 'Y' shaped hollow instrument used by the Carib Indians for inhaling the smoke of the tobacco leaf. They made a wood fire, and when only the charcoal remained they scattered dry tobacco leaves on the embers. Then placing the small ends of the "tovaco" in their nostrils and the other large and longer extremity in the smoke they gave themselves up to a communal delight, when they became intoxicated with the fumes they experienced dreams of great joy and received inspiration for their common tasks. The Spaniards got mixed up with the word Tovaco and called the island Tobago. The Wild Indian speech Band which up to recently was popular at Carnival time is also a reminder of the Carib Indians. So much for the Amerindians.

Columbus made four voyages to the West Indies between 1492 and 1502. The Spaniards started colonizing right away, but they concentrated on the larger islands- Cuba, Hispaniola, Puerto Rico, Jamaica- for they were interested in searching for gold and silver and they figured that the bigger the island the greater would be the find. Then in 1530 they decided to colonize Trinidad as a base from which to explore the South American mainland. Tobago was left untouched. This fact explains some of the differences in culture between the sister islands. From 1530 to 1797 Trinidad was a Spanish colony, and during the later part of this Spanish occupation numbers of French families steeled in Trinidad.

Tobago was never occupied by the Spanish and the periods of French occupation in the 18th century were so fleeting that except for the place names like Les Coteaux, Morne Quiton, L'Anse Fourme, Bon Accord and Petit Trou, the French left no lasting memories. These facts explain why parang which is such a hit in Trinidad because of the Spanish influence has never caught on in Tobago. We can also understand why there is an absence of the strong French-Creole element in the Tobago population, or why patois which is common in Petit Valley and other areas in Trinidad is unknown in Tobago except perhaps among a few settlers from Grenada.

Tobago remained undisturbed for a long time. A few English adventures set foot here in 1580 and reported that the island was uninhabited, so the Caribs must have been clever in the art of camouflage. But these Englishmen did not remain, for although Spaniards only occupied the larger islands, the Spanish government claimed monopoly as first comers to the whole Caribbean area and adopted a hands-off keep out attitude to other Europeans. During the 16th century the Dutch and English carried on illicit trading with some of the Spanish colonists. Names like John Hawkins and Francis Drake come to mind, while French privateers and pirated frequently attacked.

But with the dawn of the 17th century other European powers were determined to put down roots and establish colonies of their own; they accepted Spain's monopoly in the areas she had occupied but felt free to settle in unoccupied islands. As the King of France so effectively expressed it "I would like to see the clause in Adam's will that deprives me from my share of the world." These other Europeans started settling on the Guiana coast then moved on to the islands.

By the 1620's to 1630's everybody wanted Tobago. Tobago was fought over again and again, it was taken and re-taken by the Dutch, French and English and changed hands thirty one times. Because of these numerous wars her final settlement came very late. Here are some probable reasons for all this fighting over our island.

  • The extreme fertility of the soil and the fact that it is well watered
  • The rarity of hurricanes
  • The numerous bays from which produce could be shipped
  • Its excellent climate
  • Man of War Bay, one of the finest natural harbors in the West Indies, in which a fleet of the wind jammers of that period could maneuver safely
  • Its strategical position with regard to the Spanish Main
  • There mere fact that one nation considered it worthwhile fighting for was quite enough in those days for another nation to try and take it away.

As early as 1608 James I King on England claimed Tobago for England but no attempt was made to colonize the island. In 1628 Jan de Moor of Flushing Holland sent people to settle Tobago. These Hollanders landed and made the first settlement at New Walcheren where Plymouth now stands. Thus Plymouth has the distinction of being the site of the oldest fort and town in Tobago. This early settlement was abandoned because of diseases and attacks by native Caribs. Note the date of this first attempted settlement, roughly 100 years after Spanish settlement of Trinidad, In that same year 1628 Charles I now King of England granted the island of Tobago to the Earl of Pembroke whose son later disposed of his grant to the Early of Warwick . The Dutch made another attempt in 1632 but were driven out in 2636 by Spaniards from Trinidad.

In 1637 the Rev. Nicholas Leverton arrived with Englishmen from Barbados and settled. More settlers arrived in 1639 but the following year the Caribs drove out the English. By this time interest in Tobago was high and by 1649 the French also had a footing.

In 1641 Charles I King of England made a second grant of the island, this time to his god son James Duke of Courland, a small principality on the Baltic now known as Latvia. The Duke of Courland, anxious to find living room for his excess population and to replenish his empty coffers by developing trade, sent out a ship, the Duchess Courland armed with forty cannons and having on board 120 soldiers plus 680 families to occupy Tobago.

The Courlanders landed in what is now known as Courland Bay and set up Forty Jacobus around which the town Jacobusstadt gradually developed. Slaves were brought from the duke's other crown colony in Gambia, Africa to Tobago and were employed for the cultivation of the soil.

Meanwhile the Dutch had settled on the other side of the island at the Dutch Fort. In 1655 they attacked the Courlanders but were defeated and forced to surrender. They asked for permission to remain on the island and this was granted. Three years later when back in Europe Swedish troops invaded Courland and held Duke James prisoner, the Dutch in Tobago were not slow to take advantage of the fact that the colony at the Fort Jacobus was now cut off from the source of its supplies. They surrounded the Courlanders and forced the governor to surrender.

News of the progress of the Dutch spread to the other islands. In 1666 a fleet of English privateers from Barbados took the Cutch by surprise, captured the fort and hoisted the Union Jack.

Then came the French and again the Dutch. The tug of war was on. In 1684 Tobago was declared a "no man's land" by the major European powers. Over the fifty odd years since it was steeled the colonists which included Latvians, Germans, Scandinavians, Dutch, British, French, Jews and Gambians had traded with North America, Brazil, Europe and Africa but by the end of the 17th century Tobago became a rendezvous for pirated who infested these seas.

In the 18th century the French tried to settle but again in 1748 the Treaty of Aix-la-chapelle declared the neutrality of Tobago. In 1792 England who at that time had powerful naval units stationed in the West Indies realized the expediency of having a base as near as possible to the Spanish stronghold Trinidad, which they had decided to attack as soon as the opportunity offered. A fleet with large garrison and adequate military equipment was accordingly sent to Tobago. Fort James was repaired and manned one more. In 1763 England's claim to the island was guaranteed by the Treaty of Paris which ended the seven year war between Britain and France. This year marks the beginning of the true development and settlement of the island; and the new owners lost no time in anglicizing the place names. The first English governor arrived in Tobago in 1764 and in the 1768 Legislative Assembly met at the new capital George Town (Studley Park).

Tobago, like the older British colonies had its own elected Assembly. The Governor and the council and the Assembly together made laws for the island. Tobago had its own Chief Justice, Attorney General and Solicitor General.

Its interesting to note that under British rule Trinidad never enjoyed the measure of autonomy which Tobago had for over a century. Throughout the 18th century there were clashes between the governors and planters in the Assemblies of various islands. The governors were the servants of the government back in England, and when they carried out instructions they sometimes clashed with Assembly members who were determined to rule with as little interference as possible from the British Government; so after Trinidad was taken from the Spaniards in 1797 it was made a Crown Colony with much more limited powers and controlled from the Colonial Office through the Secretary of States for the colonies.

In the 1770's Tobago's population grew rapidly - white planters as well as negro slaves. Sugar and its by-products were fetching high prices in Europe so the English planters embarked on the development of sugar estates. Soon Tobago was producing more sugar per acre than any other West Indian island. By 1777 Tobago was able to export 24,000 cwt. of sugar, 160 000 gallons of rum, 1 500 000 lbs of cotton and 5000 lbs of indigo.

In 1778 during the war of American Independence the Americans joined in the fight for Tobago but the squadron of ships sailing south to capture the island encountered the British warship "Yarmouth" which blew up the American ship "Randolph" and the rest of the squadron returned to America.

The see-saw continued for a while. The French captured the island in 1781 and it remained in their hands until it was recaptured by the English in 1793. Then at the Treaty of Amiens in 1802, to suit her own convenience England ceded Tobago to the French. Finally Tobago became British again in 1814 and remained a part of the British Empire until in association with Trinidad the two islands became an independent territory on August 31st 1962.

During those years of frequent changes of flag the settlers learned to change their allegiance to safeguard their sugar estates which had become prosperous. Tobago was slave society. In 1790 the population was essentially African. Out of every one hundred people in the community ninety-four were African slaves, two were of mixed blood and four were whites. As would be expected Tobago had its share of slave rebellions. The first of these was in 1770 led by an African slave called Sandy, in the Leeward end of the island. In 1771 there was another in the Parlatuvier, Bloody Bay area and in 1774 one on Queen's Bay Estate.

For the first three decades of the nineteenth century Tobago continued to prosper economically; even the abolition of the slave trade in 1807 did not affect this, for the high birth rate among the slaves provided sufficient labour. Then came the Emancipation Act of 1834 and Full Freedom for the Africans in 1838.

A large number of ex-slaves became peasant farmers growing mainly ground provisions and rearing goats, sheep and poultry. The Tobago Abolition Act stipulated that estate owners must furnish the ex-slaves with small holdings for their own cultivation. Men who continued to work on estates as hired labourers were paid one shilling a day and the women eight pence.

Life was far from easy for the liberated slaves, they now had to provide their own clothes, salt fish and salt meat which had previously been provided by the estate owners. They now had to pay for medical attention, they were faced with a series of droughts and poor crops, rents had to be paid to the estates for their house spots and taxes had to be paid to the government on their houses. The passing of the Sugar Duties Act in 1846 by the British Government was a blow to the estate owners. Previous to this Tobago sugar shipped to England had enjoyed protective tariffs. Now the planters had to contend with foreign and slave grown sugar from places like Cuba and Brazil. The price of sugar fell from 58 shillings per cwt. in 1840 to 29 shillings in 1847.

New factory equipment such as steam mills, vacuum pans and centrifugal driers which separated molasses from sugar crystals could only be profitably installed on large estates, so in Trinidad, where there were much larger estates, machinery was installed for the production of crystal sugar; in Tobago where the estates were much smaller planters continued manufacturing raw black sugar, the freight rates of which were twice that of crystal sugar.

To make matters worse a disastrous hurricane struck the island in 1847. Thirty-one great houses and thirty-three sugar works were destroyed and four hundred and fifty-six labourers' cottages blown away. People sat on their door steps and wept. The British Government did not give the colony one cent as a grant, although for almost a century Tobago had boosted England's industrial economy. A loan of £50,000 was all that was forthcoming.

Then came the final blow - the West India Bank on which most planters depended went bankrupt.

But Tobagonians did not despair. No doubt this was because of the significant part which the Moravian and Methodist missions had played in the lives of our Tobago people. Before Emancipation they had started educating African slaves in Sunday Schools; after Emancipation day schools were set up. It is to their credit that within a couple of decades almost every man and woman in Tobago could read and write, and their high standard of literacy was often remarked on.

After the hurricane white planters and former slaves rallied together. The planter had no money to pay wages so the metayer system was introduced. Under the system the state owner provided the land and the equipment while the labourers did the work, then the profits were shared, the estate owner took one half along with the molasses to the labourers (metayers). This system kept can cultivation alive in Tobago until the late 1880's.

Although the African section of the population had been freed in 1838 they were not enfranchised until 1861, thanks to the determined efforts of Governor Drysdale. Before 1861 only the whites could vote, now anyone meeting certain property requirements could vote. To qualify ne had to own ten acres of land or a house with an annual rental of £10, or be earning £100 a year.

Cotton was grown successfully in the 1860's but economically the island was going downhill. In 1874 the Constitution was changed and a one chamber government was set up. The Legislative Assembly controlled by planters restrained the economic ambitions of the peasantry by imposing taxes on villagers who owned horses, donkeys or boats, but the planters themselves were not required to pay these taxes. They even introduced a tax on dogs as the peasants used dogs for hunting in order to supplement their diet. The Belmanna Riot on the Roxborough Estate led by "Ti Piggi" had far reaching results. On 6th June 1876 The Elective Legislative Assembly suspended its constitution and turned the island over to the British Government to be made another Crown Colony.

Meanwhile the production of beet sugar in Europe was striking a cruel blow to Tobago's already fading economy. Economic and political crisis led to the appointment of a Royal Commission in 1882 to enquire into conditions in Tobago and other West Indian islands. After unsuccessful attempts to link Tobago with St. Vincent, St. Lucia and Grenada the British Government decided that it would be in their best interest to link Trinidad and Tobago in order to cut administrative expenditure. There had never been such intercourse between the two islands, at first this was because of the language difference, but even after Trinidad became British the attitude continued. Most of Tobago's West Indian trade had been for a long time directed to Barbados which had become the island's chief importer of its farine, ground provisions, coconuts, firewood, starch and hogs.

Trinidad did not want the union because she felt it would be a financial burden, Tobago did not want the union because she was afraid of losing her autonomy. There was a wave of public meetings held in school rooms all over Tobago. In spite of all this the draft legislation went through and in 1889 Tobago was linked with Trinidad under a Commission. Tobago's internal affairs and revenue were kept separate from Trinidad and administered by the Financial Board. Nobody was happy with the arrangement but worse was to come. In 1889 Tobago was made a ward of the colony of Trinidad and Tobago.

Meanwhile Gillespie & Co. Of London which held interest in several Tobago estates went into bankruptcy. Estates were abandoned left and right or sold for a fraction of their true worth. Land was going for ten shillings per acre and many Negro peasants promptly bought as much land as they could. Planters in the Leeward district turned their attention to the growing of coconuts. Instead of sugar-cane, while those on the Northern and Windward parts of the island turned to cocoa production.

20th Century

From the start life was rough and people had to work very hard, but over the years the Tobagonian developed a strong character, a love of country and the ambition to own a plot of land with a few fruit trees around his home. We learned to be thrifty and to make full use of the materials at our disposal. The goat was the poor man's cow, children drank goat's milk and grew strong and healthy. Without electricity and refrigeration we preserved what food we had - jams and jellies were the order of the day, cassava was turned to farine, meat and fish were "corned" (sun-dried or smoked) ginger, sorrel, ochroes were dried in the sun and stored.

Every part of the coconut was used - the oil from the kernel was used for cooking as well as on the hair or skin, the shell for fuel, the husk to produce fibre for mattresses (there was a fibre factory on Friendship Estate), the husks also provided our local scrubbing brushes, the straw from the leaves was plaited into hats and baskets, the trunks from the trees were cut to make posts for structures like kitchens and rotten trunks provided manure. Bush teas were popular and carried crab or oil down supplemented the meat which could not always be bought.

Tobagonians became skilled survivors and when in 1925 Bishop's High School, the first Secondary School in the island was opened parents sacrificed and sent their children although it meant paying school fees. We today have to make sure that we hold on to that fighting spirit, that we help ourselves, that we do not sit back and wait for everything to be handed us on a silver platter.

Tobago had been given a seat on the Legislative Council when she was joined with Trinidad and had elective representation from 1925. James A. Biggart was the first elected member, he was followed by Isaac A. Hope in 1931. Both these gentlemen were Tobagonians. In 1936 George De Nobriga a white estate owner was elected. These men tried their best to get a piece of the economic cake for Tobago but their efforts were treated with scorn and Tobago was sadly neglected.

Tobagonians fought for survival, they adopted the "len han" system. This system was used to build houses, to prepare lands for planting, to reap crops, to build coffins for funerals, wherever they could avoid financial expenses, and the result was strong community spirit and social togetherness. Fighting hand in hand for survival Tobagonians succeeded to such an extent that the island's exports In 1938 were as follows:

  • Cocoa - 3, 394, 191 lbs
  • Coconuts - 1, 730, 65
  • Tobacco - 5, 945 lbs
  • Lime & Lime Oil - 7, 580 barrels
  • Copra - 3, 465, 535 lbs
  • Livestock valued at $64, 460

Added to this was a considerable quantity of sweet potatoes, yams, bananas, dasheens and pigeon peas. Ample supplies of these provisions were still left for the local market in Scarborough. Today most of the supplies for the local market have come from Trinidad. How do we as Tobagonians feel about that? Is their message here for us?

Adult franchise was introduced in Trinidad and Tobago in 1946 and in that year Alphonso Philbert-Theophilus James, a Tobagonian who had worked in Trinidad for years, was elected as Tobago's representative on the Legislative Council. He served in that capacity for fifteen years, always advocating Tobago's cause or pressing some claim for his native land. He must have been a very happy man in 1952 for in that year electricity came to Tobago, the Scarborough harbour was dredged and deepened so that the coastal steamers could dock; and passengers no longer had to face the ordeal of going in fishing boats to the ships which were anchored out in the stream. In 1952 also a new water scheme at Hillsborough replaced the small inefficient supply put down in 1926 and Shell built its first storage tank in Scarborough to ensure a constant supply of gasoline.

The 1950's saw the emergence of women in politics. Pearl bailey and Lady Dorothy De Verteuil were contestants in the 1951 elections. The 1950's also witnessed the rise of a new political party, the P.N.M in Trinidad and its coming to power in 1956.

The 1950's were also the decade when W.I leaders were pushing for a Federation of the British West Indies. Dr. Eric Williams the Chief Minister who later became the first Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago said in 1957:

"Tobago is a test case. If Trinidad cannot develop Tobago, its claim to be the principal partner in the W.I. Federation, accepting responsibility of developing smaller islands falls to the grounds. Tobago's development is necessary to illustrate to the West Indies and the world outside our capacity for self government and taking care of our own affairs."

Soon after this statement a Tobago Development team was appointed to look into the affairs of Tobago, a Ministry of Tobago Affairs was started and the first five year Development Plan was put in place.

From the start of his political career in 1956 Dr. Eric Williams addressed himself to the abolition of the Crown Colony system of Government and on August 31st 1962 Trinidad and Tobago became an Independent Nation. The Union Jack was lowered and the red, white and black flag of Trinidad and Tobago was raised.

On 30th September 1963 Hurricane Flora struck Tobago. The eye of the hurricane with winds estimated at 120 mph passed right over the island. Houses lay in ruins, roads were impassable, telephone and electric wires lay on the ground, cocoa and coconut estates were devastated.

A public relief fund was started and contributions came from all over the world. The people organised co-operative groups to rebuild their homes and removed their families from the many tents that had been set up. The Government mounted a massive programme of re-construction and within two to three years Tobago had lifted its head again.

Meanwhile Tobago born Mr. A.N.R. Robinson was going through political training which would prepare him for the leadership of this country. In the 1958 Federal Election he defeated A.P.T. James and became a member of the Federal Parliament which was dissolved three years later. On a P.N.M ticket in 1961 he won a seat in Tobago and became the nation's Minister of External Affairs. His relationship with Dr. Eric Williams deteriorated until his final break with the P.N.M in 1970.

As leader of the D.A.C he won the two Tobago seats in 1976 and proceeded to campaigns tirelessly for a measure of internal self government for Tobago. The truth is that Tobago was not being given a voice in decision making which affected the island. Mr. Robinson pleaded eloquently for the rights of the neglected minority in Tobago. He attained his objective in 1980 when the House of Assembly Act was passed.

Then on 24th November 1980 the T.H.A held its first election. Once again D.A.C defeated the P.N.M and Mr. Robinson became the first Chairman of the T.H.A. With the success of the N.A.R in the 1986 general elections he became Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago.

In 1976 this country became a Republic within Commonwealth of Nations. This means that we have a Democratic government - a government chosen by the people, from the people, for the people. We no longer owe allegiance to the Queen of England.

How much does this mean to us in Tobago? Do we appreciate what we have? Have we learnt anything from the July 27th coup? What about the Tourism Thrust that is so much talked about? What can Tobago achieve? What contribution can you make? What contribution can I make? What can we do to ensure that optimum use is made of our deep water harbour and extended airport? What will be the last chapter of the history of Tobago twenty years from now?

Ladies and gentlemen I leave these questions with you

Top