Caribs and Arawaks were Trinidad’s sole inhabitants until 1498, when Columbus arrived and christened the island La Isla de la Trinidad, for the Holy Trinity.
Initially, gold-hungry Spain gave only scant attention to Trinidad, which lacked precious minerals, but in 1592 a Spanish capital was finally established at San José, just east of present-day Port of Spain, and enslavement of the Amerindian population began in earnest. French planters descended en masse to assist the Spanish with development of the island, and West African slaves were brought in to supplement the labor forces toiling on tobacco and cocoa 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 labor 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, it 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.
A Free Colony
In 1889 Tobago joined Trinidad as a British Crown Colony. Even though Trinidad and Tobago’s demand for greater autonomy grew and anticolonial sentiment ripened, the British didn’t pay attention until 1956, when the People’s National Movement (PNM), led by Oxford-educated Dr Eric Williams, took measures to institute self-government. Independence was granted in 1962, and the country became a republic of the Commonwealth in 1976.
Frustration with the leftover colonial structure led to the Black Power movement, which created a political crisis and an army mutiny, but ultimately strengthened national identity. Bankrupt and without prospects, the country’s luck changed in 1970 with the discovery of oil, which brought instant wealth and prosperity. During the 1980s, when oil prices plummeted, a recession hit and political unrest ensued. Accusations of corruption and complaints from an underrepresented Indian community led to the PNM’s defeat in 1986 by the National Alliance for Reconstruction (NAR).
Corruption blossomed in a judicial system congested with drugs-related trials (the country is a stopover for the South American drug trade). In July 1990 members of a minority Muslim group attempted a coup, stormed parliament and took 45 hostages, including Prime Minister ANR Robinson. Though the coup failed, it undermined the government, and the PNM returned to power.