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History of Trinidad

Brief History of Trinidad

Human settlement in Trinidad dates back at least 7000 years, the native peoples of Trinidad, were the Amerindian Arawaks. Until the arrival of Christopher Columbus they led relatively isolated lives, under threat from the neighbouring “war like” Caribs. The Amerindian name for the island, thought to have been in common use since 1000 AD was ‘Ieri’ the land of the humming bird.

Columbus landed in Trinidad in 1498, however finding no gold, went on a slave raid. They rounded up Arawak men women and children sending some to Spain and others to work on the land. The island remained largely unpopulated, until Spanish settlers came a century later. The Spanish reign, following Columbus’ arrival and naming in 1498, would last almost 300 years till British occupation beginning in 1797. The Arawak and Carib Indians-were largely wiped out by the Spanish colonizers and the survivors were slowly assimilated.

The town of St Joseph (then San Jose de Oruña) founded by Don Antonio Sedeño, but actually settled in 1577 by Don José de Oruña and named as the capital in 1592 when the Spanish Governor to Trinidad and Guyana, Don Antonio de Berrio y Oruña arrived. In 1580 Don Antonio de Berrio y Oruna sailed a Royal Charter to search for the legendary El Dorado for the Spainish. Other Conquistadores including Sedeño, Ponce de Leon and de Barrio y Oruña, would use Trinidad as a base whilst in search of the “El Dorado Gold”. The town suffered numerous raids from buccaneers, pirates and even Sir Walter Raleigh and was plundered and burnt to the ground more than once. Between 1500 and 1783 Trinidad would remain essentially underdeveloped and under-populated.

Once the Spanish settlement had been established, the enslaving of the native Amerindian population began. The Spanish introduced a system of ‘encomiendas’ where the Amerindians were stripped of their culture and religion (by converting to Catholicism), moved to villages and land and forced into labour to pay a fee or tribute to the ‘encomiendo’ (the Spanish authority)

Four ‘encomiendas’ were established, and still remain in name today as villages or towns. Acangua (San Juan), Arauca (Arouca), Tacarigua (Same) and Caura (Orange Grove). They were linked by an Amerindian path from Acangua to Arauca, that is now part of the Eastern Main Road. The ‘encomiendas’ were abolished in 1716, and later missionaries continued where the Spanish Capuchin’s left off at Santa Rosa de Arima.

The Arena Uprising began on December 1st 1699 and concluded in execution at St Joseph on January 14, 1700. On December 1, 1699, the Amerindians who worked the ‘encomienda’ for the Catholic mission church at Arema rebelled killing the priests and desecrating the church. They ambushed the governor of the colony killing him and his party before escaping into the bush, they were later tracked and executed.

By 1783 the Spanish government realised that to keep Trinidad the island had to be populated. The Cedula of Population was decreed which allowed Roman Catholic French plantation owners and their slaves to emigrate from the French colonies to Trinidad, in order to stimulate the (sugar based) economy. 1787 Mr Picot de Lapeyrouse established the first sugar estate and factory in Trinidad. It attracted French, free Black, and other non-Spanish settlers; Trinidad remained under Spanish rule until the British captured it in 1797.

In 1797 the British took control of the island, on 18th February 1797, Spanish Governor Chaçon of Puerto de Los Hispanioles (Port of Spain) peacefully surrendered to General Sir Ralph Abercromby which began the British rule of Trinidad. In April 1797, Abercromby leaves Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Picton in charge, as Commandant and first British Governor of Trinidad.

1802 Treaty of Amiens, signed on 25 March 1802 and ratified on 18 April of that year between Sweden, Denmark, France, Spain and Britain. Britain agreed to restore all the colonies captured to their former owners, except for Trinidad, which Spain ceded to Britain. The trade in slaves to Trinidad is outlawed in 1806; and Britain abolishes the slave trade from Africa in 1807.

Hostility was brewing between Britain and America (former colony), with war on the US/Canada border between 1812 and 1814. Britain had raised companies of men to fight, from Europe as well as its Colonies, including freed Black men. Between 1815 and 1816, almost one hundred of these free black war heroes from the West Indian Regiment, arrived to settle in Trinidad. Most went to settle in villages near Princess Town, naming the village after the company to which they belonged. The villages Third and Sixth Company, still exist today. The free Black population grew in 1816 by American Blacks who had been enlisted by the British from among the slaves of the Southern States of America during the Virginian war of 1812-1813. Up to 1,000 of them settled in the South of Trinidad and Manzanilla.

With the abolition of the Slave Trade in 1807, abolition of slavery in 1833, the British became short of labourers. Indentured servants including large numbers of ex-slaves migrated from the Lesser Antilles the 1830s until 1917.

The sugar plantations which had dominated the Trinidadian economy during the nineteenth century gave way to cacao. Colonial government opened land to settlers interested in establishing cacao estates. Venezuela achieved independence from Spain in 1811; rich in oil Venezuelan farmers with experience in Cacao cultivation were also encouraged to settle in Trinidad, where they provided much of the early labour in these estates. Haji Gokool a Kashmiri-born immigrant, who went on to become one of the wealthiest men in Trinidad, was one of many Indian immigrants who had completed their indentured servitude and established cocoa estates. The arrival of black pod disease in the cacao fields in the 1930s, coupled with the Great Depression destroyed the Cacao industry in Trinidad.

In 1956 Trinidad and Tobago receives the right to internal self-government, and the People’s National Movement (PNM) is formed, led by Eric Eustace Williams who becomes the first chief minister, (between 1958 and 1962 the islands become a territory of the British West Indies) and then prime minister until 1981.

Find out more about the history of the Caribbean Islands
Barbados | Dominica | Grenada | Jamaica | St Lucia | Trinidad | Tobago

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