The Amerindians

Given its proximity to South America, Trinidad was among the first of the Caribbean Islands to be settled by Amerindians from the continent approximately 6,000 years before Christopher Columbus. The earliest history of Chaguaramas is of the Saladoid Amerindians occupation from 100-400 AD, as substantiated by names like Macqueripe and Chacachacare. Chaguaramas itself is an Amerindian word describing the once palm-fringed shoreline.

Trinidad served as a transit point in the region’s trade network and was quickly populated by the Yaio, Nepuyo, Chaima, Warao, Kalipuna, Carinepogoto, Garini, and Aruaca tribes. Historians generally sub-group these tribes under two major language families - the Arawakans and the Cariban.  

According to historians, the Arawakan tribes had settled communities with agricultural based economies and well-developed cultures.  The Cariban societies were more nomadic and as a result had less codified cultures.  To maintain their communities, Caribans raided other tribes and as a result developed a reputation for being fierce and warlike.

European Contact

Upon the arrival of Christopher Columbus and his fleet during his third voyage to the Americas in 1498, Trinidad and Tobago had its first contact with Europeans.  The Spanish did not have a vested interest in settling either island and faced active resistance from the Amerindians for most of the 16th and 17th centuries.  Nevertheless, contact with the Europeans was devastating.  In 1592, historians estimate that Amerindians numbered at least 40,000 persons, but most Amerindians eventually died from slavery, general hardship, warfare against the Spanish and epidemics, such as small pox and cholera.

In 1699, in response to the brutality suffered at the hands of Spanish friars, the Amerindians, led by Chief Hyarima, launched their first major rebellion, known as the Arena Uprising, however the Spanish retaliated ruthlessly, further reducing the Amerindian population.

In 1759, the Mission of Arima was formed, consolidated and eventually enlarged in 1785, giving the Amerindians control of 2,000 acres of land.  A number of tribes were pressed into Arima, however, the influx of foreigners did not wane and in 1783 Trinidad's Amerindians were further displaced from their lands to make way for French planters and their African slaves. Two larger former Amerindian Mission Towns, Arima and Siparia, allowed a small handful of Amerindians to survive.

Current Influence

Today, at least 12,000 people in northeast Trinidad are of Amerindian descent and the Santa Rosa Carib Community is the last remaining organized group of people identifying with an Amerindian identity and way of life.

The Amerindian influence is still strong in modern Trinidad and Tobago. Two of the country’s oldest festivals originate with Amerindian tribes: The Santa Rosa Festival in Arima and La Divina Pastora in Siparia.

Place names have endured the test of time, including Arima, Paria, Arouca, Caura, Tunapuna, Tacarigua, Couva, Mucurapo, Chaguanas, Carapichaima, Guaico, Mayaro, Guayaguayare, Chaguaramas, the Caroni and Oropouche rivers, and the Tamana and Aripo mountains.

Words continue to be used in every day conversions, such as, cassava, maize, cacao, tobacco, manicou and agouti.

Their tools remain relevant even today as the Amerindians are responsible for the canoe, the bow and arrow, and the ajoupa.

Amerindian cuisine is included in the diet of many Trinbagonians, from cassava bread, farine, warap and barbecued wild game,to corn pastelles, coffee, cocoa and chadon beni.

Even the popular Christmas music, parang,is a hybrid of Spanish and Amerindian musical styles, which emerged from the evangelization of the Amerindians and their conversion to Catholicism.

For more reading: 

First People’s Presence in Trinidad and Tobago
Amerindians Left Their Mark on T&T