Republic of Trinidad and Tobago celebrates 50 years of Independence on August 31st, 2012

 

       

 

As far as the Caribbean is concerned, the year 2012 and indeed the entire decade of 2010 is significant for a number of reasons. The years commemorate a great time in the history of the Caribbean. It rekindles a time when for many countries, the Union Jack was lowered to declare independent nations.

One such country was the combined Islands of Trinidad & Tobago. Trinidad & Tobago was granted independence from Britain on August 31st 1962.  However, Trinidad and Tobago took things one step farther when in 1976, the country severed its links with the British monarchy and became a republic within the Commonwealth.

Trinidad’s History

The islands of Trinidad and Tobago were originally established by Amerindians of South American origin. Trinidad was first occupied by pre-agricultural traditional people approximately 7,000 years ago. The Arawaks were living happily in Trinidad before the arrival of Europeans. These people were mainly Arawakan-speaking groups such as the Nepoya and Suppoya, and the Yao, while Tobago was occupied by the Island Caribs and Galibi.

Similar to other islands of the Caribbean, the islands of Trinidad and Tobago were encountered by Christopher Columbus and his band of bandits around 1498. However, in the 1530’s, a violent soldier, Antonio Sedeno and his army of men also had intentions of conquering Trinidad.  During this time they embarked upon a mission and docked on the southwestern coast of Trinidad bent on controlling the Orinoco and the Warao.

They brutalized the native Carib Indians on many occasions, and subsequently built a fort.  Between 1530 and 1595 various conquerors controlled and decimated various regions of Trinidad.  Some of these invaders included Cacique Wannawanare, Domingo de Vera e lbarguen, San Jose de Oruna, Antonio De Berrio, and Walter Raleigh.

In the 1700s, Trinidad along with Central America, Mexico, and some southwestern parts of the US were known as provinces to the Viceroyalty of New Spain. Trinidad was not densely populated, the make-up of the population consisted of a few Spanish colonist with a few slaves at their disposal. Because of the meager population, Roume de St. Laurent, a Frenchman living in Grenada, was able to obtain an edict governing several forms of land grants to encourage population growth in Trinidadian from the Spanish king, Charles III in 1783. This opened Trinidad to immigration, mainly from the French Caribbean islands.

These land grants were doled out to Roman Catholic settlers.  In order to get the land grants, these men had to pledge allegiance to the king.  News of the land grants created a wave of criminals (Scots, Germans, Italians, and English men) to descend upon the island. This land grant arrangement caused a gradual population increase from about 1000 to over 18,000 by 1797. The French Revolution (1789) also contributed to the population growth as Martiniquan planters and their slaves came to Trinidad and established the farming of sugar and cocoa.

In 1797, General Sir Ralph Abercromby and his pirates arrived off the coast of Chaguaramas.  Surprisingly, the Spanish governor, Chacon, did resist the capture of Abercromby. Trinidad became an official British colony 1802 and this opened the doors to more British capitalists and enslavers. The importation of slaves brought to work on the sugar plantations offset Trinidad’s growth rate. Many sugar estates were created and the inhumane importation of forced labour continued. These operations were very profitable, therefore, the trend continued for a long time. However, the increased efforts of the Abolitionists, the slave trade began to dwindle. This caused the operations of the sugar plantations to become less profitable.

The abolition of slavery in 1838, created a greater need for workers, therefore, plantation owners and the British instituted a system of indenture.  Under this system they contracted workers from China, Portugal and India.  The indentured servant system lasted from 1845 until 1917 and over 147,000 Indians were contracted to work in Trinidad on sugarcane plantations.  Under this system individuals were contracted for a five-year period for meager wages and were promised a return passage to their homeland. However, the indentureship contracts were often for longer periods, sometimes 10 years.

As an incentive to keeping the workers employed the British and the plantation owners offered them parcels of land. Laws were also instituted to control the Indians (indentured Indians) while they were off the plantation. Some of the laws included: carrying permits (‘Pass’) or, a certificate (‘Free Papers’) indicating that their period of indentureship was over.

The cultivation of cacao (cocoa) also enhanced Trinidad’s economic development late 19th and early 20th centuries.  The collapse of the cacao crop, (due to disease and the Great Depression), lead to the acute development of the petroleum industry which progressively dominated the island’s economic output.

The continued demise of the sugar and cocoa industries created great hardships for people in the rural and agricultural communities.  These developments influenced the labour movement in the decade of 1920-1930. One of the most significant movements was organized and lead by Tubal Uriah ‘Buzz’ Butler.  He and members of the Indian community (notably, Adrian Cola Rienzi) united the working class of various industries to protest for better working conditions for all workers.  They also championed the cause of repatriating the British.

This British Home Office and the Trinidadian elite, (mainly children of the plantocracy) did not relish these efforts.  In order to subvert these efforts, they instigated divisions among the lines of race.  Their efforts succeed in creating chaos which led to the collapse of the labor movement.  The continued Depression and the growth of the petroleum industry created changes in Trinidad’s social structure.  By the 1950s, petroleum had become a staple of Trinidad's export market and responsible for a burgeoning middle class.

Tobago’s History

Christopher Columbus allegedly saw Tobago during his pirating in 1498, he called it Bellaforma, however; he did not land there. The name, Tobago, might have arisen from the previous name, Tobaco, due to mispronunciation.The Dutch and the Courlanders (people from Courland and Semigallia in modern-day Latvia) captured Tobago in the 16th and 17th centuries.  The major economic activity then was the cultivation of tobacco and cotton. Ownership of Tobago went from Spanish, British, French, Dutch and Courlander colonizers. However, during the Napoleonic Wars, Britain wrested ownership and combined the islands of Trinidad and Tobago as one colony in 1889.

 

Tobago has a varied mix of individuals. This ethnic potpourri was created from: the scars of colonialism inflicted by the Spanish, French and English are still etched in the culture of the island: the workforce which comprised African slaves, Asian indentured servants, free African indentured labourers, workers from Portugal: and the influx of people from other Caribbean Islands, Venezuela, Syria, and Lebanon also impacted on the ethnic composition of Tobago.

 

Independence

The United Kingdom granted independence to the nation of Trinidad and Tobago in 1962. Dr. Eric Williams, a great Caribbean historian who is widely regarded as ‘The Father of The Nation’ became the first Prime Minister.

 

The character of the society was dramatically changed due to the presence of American military bases in Chaguaramas and Cumuto in Trinidad during World War II.  In the post-war period, the quasi freedom from colonization inspired many Caribbean islands to form a closer relationship, thus, the West Indies Federation was born in 1958 as a channel towards independence.

 

However, the unity of the federation was a short-lived Federation upon the withdrawal of Jamaica. In 1976, the country severed its links with the British monarchy and became a republic within the Commonwealth, though it retained the British Privy Council as its final Court of Appeal.

The petroleum industry continued to be successful for Trinidad and Tobago, the period between 1972 and 1983 was extremely fruitful because of rising prices of petroleum products.  The Republic’s economy boomed and this greatly enhanced the living standards of the populace.  There was another significant rise in the profits from the production of petroleum products since 2003.

Politics

Under the 1976 republican Constitution, the head of state of Trinidad is a President chosen by an electoral college composed of the members of the island. The head of state of Trinidad and Tobago is currently President George Maxwell Richards. The country retains a Prime Minister as the head of the government. In 2010, an early general election was called and was held on May 24.

 

The People’s Partnership won the elections 29-12 replacing former Prime Minister Mr. Patrick Maning with Mrs. Kamla Persad-Bissesar, the first female Prime Minister in Trinidad & Tobago. Persad-Bissessar is the political leader of the United National Congress and leads the People's Partnership, a coalition of five parties, formed for the general election of 24 May 2010. It is safe to say that the country’s political climate demonstrates some semblance of maturity, void of excessive political turmoil and tribal violence.

Economy

Fuelled by investments in liquefied natural gas (LNG), petrochemicals, and steel, Trinidad &Tobago’s economy is one of the most sturdy and fastest growing in the Caribbean. Economic growth between 2000 and 2007 averaged slightly over 8%. While this has steadily decreased to approximately 2%, it is nonetheless promising.

 

Bilateral Relations

Apart from a well-remembered local squabble sparked by PM Bissesar’s comments regarding assistance to disaster stricken nations, problems with trade within the Caricom and a number of other issues, Trinidad retains a good diplomatic relationship with countries in the region and elsewhere.

 

Trinidad and Caricom

"Still alive but I am barely breathing." This line from a popular song seems to describe accurately the current state of the Caricom integration movement. The same can be said for Trinidad and Tobago’s involvement in the organisation, as is true for many other Caribbean countries. The fact is that the influence of CARICOM and the CSME has significantly weakened and any hope for the future is unsure.

 

T&T and Canada

Prime Minister the Honourable Kamla Persad-Bissessar SC, M.P. met with the Governor General and Commander-in-Chief of Canada, His Excellency the Right Honourable David Johnston C.C., C.M.M., C.O.M., C.D., and a high profile Canadian delegation at the Diplomatic Centre on May 01.The aim of the visit was to improve the Canada-Trinidad and Tobago bilateral agenda, to commemorate 50 years of diplomatic relations between the two Commonwealth nations, and to celebrate Trinidad and Tobago’s 50thanniversary of Independence. Before the start of the bilateral meeting, Governor General Johnston presented the Prime Minister with a commemorative coin. "We've been great neighbours and we celebrate fifty years of a wonderful and cordial relationship” said Governor General Johnston.

The bilateral discussions centred on cooperation in the areas of healthcare, energy, education, security and trade, and concluded with the signing of two agreements between the Government of Canada and the Government of the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago.

Under the 1976 republican Constitution, the head of state of Trinidad is a President chosen by an electoral college composed of the members of the island. The head of state of Trinidad and Tobago is currently President George Maxwell Richards.

The country retains a Prime Minister as the head of the government. In 2010, an early general election was called and was held on May 24.The People’s Partnership won the elections 29-12 replacing former Prime Minister Mr. Patrick Maning with Mrs. Kamla Persad-Bissesar, the first female Prime Minister in Trinidad & Tobago. Persad-Bissessar is the political leader of the United National Congress and leads the People's Partnership, a coalition of five parties, formed for the general election of 24 May 2010. It is safe to say that the country’s political climate demonstrates some semblance of maturity, void of excessive political turmoil and tribal violence.

Petroleum                                                                                                                                    The main source of income of the Islands is petroleum. You can well imagine, as Trinidad &Tobago is the largest producer of petroleum in the Caribbean with the expansion of their LNG plant in the last 6 years. In fact, Trinidad & Tobago is the largest supplier of natural gas in the Western Hemisphere with two of the largest methanol plants in the world.

Declines in oil and gas prices have however reduced government revenues which will challenge the new government's commitment to maintaining high levels of public investment. Regardless, according to the Wall Street Journal, “Trinidad and Tobago has earned a reputation as an excellent investment site for international businesses and has one of the highest growth rates and per capita incomes in Latin America.” 

Manufactured Goods

The manufacturing sector is vastly centred on foods and beverages. You may be aware of products such as Sunshine Snacks, a favourite around the Caribbean.

Construction

There are several construction projects underway– major highways and bridges are being built along with additional universities and hospitals.

 

Tourism

Tourism is not as important in Trinidad as most other Caribbean nations. Regardless, this sector is seeing progressive growth. On the other hand, having beautiful beaches, the sister island Tobago’s main economy is centred on tourism. Of note, water-sports and ecotourism are of growing significance.

 

Education

Trinidad and Tobago boasts one of the best educational systems in the Caribbean. In fact, education is free up to the tertiary level and compulsory between ages 5 and 16. This is not surprising as the country expends most of its budget on education (as a single sector). To this end, the country is considered one of the most educated countries in the world with an exceptionally high literacy rate exceeding 98%.

Crime

Crime is a lingering problem on the islands, centred on gang related violence. In fact, in recent years tourists have increasingly become targets for robbery, sexual assault and even murder. At one point, many believed that the islands had overtaken Jamaica as the crime capital of the Caribbean. While homicides increased two percent in Jamaica in 2008, murders were up a staggering 38 percent in Trinidad and Tobago.

 

In 2011, a 9pm curfew was imposed last in Port of Spain and three other towns as part of a nationwide state of emergency imposed to curtail gang violence. Apart from the obvious problem with gangs, the twin islands do not have many other lingering problems to tackle unlike their regional counterparts.

 

Culture 

Trinitobagonians are fun loving people and are serious about their culture, wherever they have settled, they continue to practice and preserve their rich and diverse cultural identity. As such, the islands are known for many things and has given the world many gifts such as VS Naipoaul, Billy Ocean and Niki Minaj, just to name a few. Trinidad and Tobago is known for its Carnival and is the birthplace of steelpan, calypso, soca, chutney and limbo. Carnival in Trinidad is a world renowned spectacle that islanders and tourists alike await every year.

Music

Trinidad and Tobago is best known for Calypso music, soca music and steelpan, including internationally in the 1950s through artists like Lord Kitchener and Mighty Sparrow; the art form was most popularised at that time to main stream audiences by Harry Belafonte. Along with folk songs and African and Indian-based classical forms, cross-cultural interactions have produced other indigenous forms of music including soca, rapso, chutney, and other derivative and fusion styles. There are also local communities which practise and experiment with international classical and pop music, often fusing them with local steelpan instruments. 

 

Foods

Trinbagonian dishes are often stewed, or barbecued. In addition, Trinidadians often add various pepper sauces to their meals, for example curry mango, chataigne (breadnut), channa, pumpkin, or mango kuchela. One popular dish in Trinidad and Tobago is shark and bake. Another very popular and nationally well known dish with distinctly African roots is callaloo, a creamy and spicy side dish made of dasheen leaves, ochro or okra, crab, pigtails, thyme, coconut milk and shado beni (from "chardon bénit," French thistle or Fitweed) or bhandhanya (Hindi bandh dhanya, "closed cilantro") or cilantro. Callaloo is often served with cornmeal coo coo, plantain, cassava, sweet potatoes, dumplings and curried crab. Pelau, a rice-based dish of Afghani origin, is a very popular dish in Trinidad and Tobago, as well as stewed chicken, breadfruit oil down, macaroni pie, pepperpot, and ox-tails to name a few.

 

A variety of fish can be bought at local merchants throughout Trinidad and Tobago, such as flying fish, king fish, carite, sapatay, red fish, bonito, lobster, conch and crab, tilapia and seasonal cascadura. Tobagonian food is dominated by a wide selection of seafood dishes, most notably, curried crab and dumplings, and Tobago is also known for its preparation of provisions (various ground vegetables), soups and stews, also known as blue food across the country.

 

As the celebratory period approaches, we can expect the national holidays to be celebrated with functions, parties and a confluence of other events. Needless to say, Trinidad and Tobago has accomplished much in the last fifty years. It is therefore not difficult to envision many more accomplishments to be celebrated in the years to come.

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