The Spanish who followed in Columbus’ wake enslaved many of Trinidad’s Native American inhabitants, stealing them to toil in the new South American colonies. Gold-hungry Spain gave only scant attention to Trinidad’s land, which lacked precious minerals. Finally in 1592, the Spanish established their first settlement, San Josef, just east of present-day Port of Spain. Over the next two centuries the Spanish and French imported slaves from West Africa to cultivate tobacco and cacao plantations.
British forces took the island from the Spanish in 1797. With the abolishment of slavery in 1834, slaves abandoned plantations; this prompted the British to import thousands of indentured workers, mostly from India, to work in the cane fields and service the colony. The indentured labor system remained in place for over 100 years.
Tobago’s early history is a separate story. Also sighted by Columbus and claimed by Spain, Tobago wasn’t colonized until 1628, when Charles I of England decided to charter the island to the Earl of Pembroke. In response, a handful of nations took an immediate interest in colonizing Tobago.
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 Caribbean. The British established a colonial administration in 1763, and within two decades slave labor established the island’s sugar, cotton and indigo plantations.
Tobago’s plantation economy wilted 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 quickly sold or abandoned their land, leaving the economy in a shambles.