British Colonial Period

During British rule in the late 1600s, sugar, cotton and indigo plantations were established and thousands of Africans were brought to Tobago as slave labour. In 1797, Sir Ralph Abercromby captured the island from Spain and claimed it for Britain.  Trinidad officially became a British Colony from the 1802 Treaty of Amiens. The first priority of the British was to fortify it against enemy attack and, as a result, they constructed Fort Picton and Fort George. Following a devastating fire in 1808, the capital was rebuilt and the interior of the island was opened up to development.

The abolition of slavery on August 1, 1834 posed a threat to Trinidad and Tobago’s agricultural economy, which relied on cheap field labour.  To help mitigate the impact of losing the island’s labour force, the British demanded a period of “apprenticeship” from all freed slaves. This was met with resistance from the freed slaves and there were mass protests and demonstrations that resulted in the Governor of Trinidad and Tobago proclaiming a general emancipation for all classes of slaves in 1838. 

Needing a new source of field labour, planters looked to the government for assistance. A new immigration office was established and from the 1830s until 1917 labourers were imported.  The first labourers were Chinese, free West Africans, and Portuguese from the island of Madeira.  These groups were quickly replaced by indentured servants from India, who first arrived in Trinidad on May 30, 1845.  Their work proved satisfactory to the planters and the Indian population quickly swelled.  Today, the East Indian population almost exactly matches that of the African population in terms of numbers.

In 1889, during a period of economic decline, Britain annexed the smaller Tobago to Trinidad as an administrative ward.  Great Britain ruled Trinidad and Tobago as a crown colony with no elected representation until 1925. Tobago had its own elected Assembly, although this was dissolved prior to the union of the two islands. In 1925, the country saw its first Legislative Council elections.  Universal adult suffrage was granted in 1946.  

There was a burgeoning movement for independence since the mid-19th century, which gained traction in 1937 with labour riots led by Tubal Uriah “Buzz” Butler. In 1956, the People’s National Movement (PNM), under the leadership of Eric Williams, was created.  Williams became Prime Minister upon Independence and held that position until his death in 1981. The British attempted to form one, independent West Indies Federation in 1958, however, upon the withdrawal of Jamaica, the efforts collapsed. 

Trinidad and Tobago achieved full independence in August 1962 within the Commonwealth with Queen Elizabeth II as its titular head of state. On August 1, 1976, the country became a republic, and the last Governor-General, Sir Ellis Clarke, became the first President.


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