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Trinidad & Tobago - History

Trinidad & Tobago History

Trinidad was sighted in 1498 by Columbus, who christened it La Isla de la Trinidad, for the Holy Trinity. The Spanish who followed in Columbus' wake enslaved many of Trinidad's Amerindian inhabitants, taking them to toil in the new South American colonies. Spain, in its rush for gold, gave only scant attention to the potential of Trinidad's land, which lacked precious minerals. It took until 1592 for the Spanish to establish their first settlement, San Josef, just east of the present-day capital of Port of Spain. Over the next two centuries unsuccessful attempts were made by Spanish colonisers to establish tobacco and cacao plantations but crop failures and a lack of support from Spain left the island only lightly settled.

As a result, the British took the islands from the Spanish in 1797. Slavery was abolished in the1830s, prompting the British to import thousands of indentured workers, mostly from India, to work in the cane fields and service the colony. The indentured labour system remained in place for over 100 years.

Tobago was also sighted by Columbus and claimed by the Spanish but there were no attempts to colonise it. During the 17th century, Tobago changed hands numerous times as the English, French, Dutch and even Courlanders (present-day Latvians!) wrestled for control. In 1704 it was declared a neutral territory, which left room for pirates to use the island as a base for raiding ships in the Eastern Caribbean. The British returned to establish a colonial administration on Tobago in 1763, and within two decades 10,000 African slaves were imported to establish the island's sugar, cotton and indigo plantations.

Tobago's plantation economy slid into decline after the abolition of slavery but sugar and rum production continued until 1884, when the London firm that controlled finances for the island's plantations went bankrupt. Plantation owners unable to sell their sugar or rum quickly sold or abandoned their land, leaving the economy in shambles but most of the islanders with a plot of land; those who had no money to purchase land simply squatted.

In 1889 the British made Tobago, which previously had its own independent legislature, a ward of neighbouring Trinidad. Demands for greater levels of autonomy grew following WWI. The depression of the 1930s led to a series of strikes and riots and the growth of a labour movement on the islands. As a consequence, the British granted universal suffrage in 1946 and took measures to institute self-government. Independence eventually came in 1962. In April 1970 the 'Black Power' movement's public demonstrations created a political crisis and an army mutiny, but the government held on to power. Just as it seemed that the country's prospects were slipping, oil was discovered. The oil boom in the 1970s brought prosperity to the islands but the East Indian community became increasingly isolated from political power. In July 1990, members of a minority Muslim group attempted a coup. They stormed parliament and took 45 hostages, including prime minister ANR Robinson, who was shot in the leg after refusing to resign. Since then, the oil business has taken a downturn and the government has implemented austerity programmes while boosting its efforts to promote tourism on the islands.

In 1994, the government introduced tough ant0-crime measures to combat what was perceived to be an alarming rise in crime levels in some neighbourhoods. More petroleum and natural gas reserves were discovered in the late 1990s, promising a return to prosperity for the nation. The political process, however, is mired in uncertainty, with the opposition becoming increasingly unwilling to participate in a process it sees as inherently geared towards the government.

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