History of Trinidad

Trinidad and Tobago have come together in recent years

Photo credit: © Trinidad & Tobago Tourism Development Company Ltd

Trinidad and Tobago History

The islands of Trinidad and Tobago, though now united as one nation, have had their own separate histories. The islands have changed hands many times over the years, and the two have been united politically for barely 100 years. Still, their unique histories do share some similarities.


Columbus discovered the island of Trinidad in 1498 and claimed it for Spain. During this time, the Caribbean gold rush drew many Spanish sailors who exploited gold found in other colonies. Trinidad's lack of gold kept it from being settled immediately. Despite the Spanish claim on the island, they were not the first to own it.

Amerindian tribes known as the Carib and Arawak lived on the island before Columbus' time. It's not clear who dominated the population - the warlike Carib or peaceful Arawak - but it is believed that the majority of inhabitants were Arawak. Little was known about these native people because the Spanish used many of them as slaves.  The discovery of ancient pottery and bone fragments beneath the parliament building during a renovation project in 2013 along with DNA testing of 25 members of the Santa Rosa First Peoples Community indicates that there is a link to Amerindian and African ancestry dating back to AD 0-350.  These findings remain in the preliminary research phase, yet are still important to note. 

Though the Spanish claimed Trinidad for some 300 years, they did not settle the island until late in their reign, at which point some were arguing to the Spanish crown for better treatment of the Amerindian natives. However, this did not halt the process of enslaving the Arawak. The island was not economically viable for settlement until 1718 when cocoa plants began producing crops. Problems with the 1733 crop returned Trinidad to anonymity.

With less than 800 inhabitants in 1772, Spain made an attempt to entice settlers to Trinidad to augment the population of 300 Spanish settlers. About 400 Amerindians still lived on the island, and many French settlers were soon to join their ranks. Spain offered Catholic non-Spanish immigrants many incentives to immigrate to Trinidad. However, discrimination was still in place: Whites were offered twice as much land per person as non-whites, and those bringing in slaves were also granted a portion of land per slave. Immigrants were also forced to give their loyalty to the Spanish crown.

Just 25 years later the population had grown to more than 16,000, including 2,100 white Europeans and 4,500 free Africans. In 1797 the British took control of Trinidad from the Spanish, but they were left with the question of how to handle the large population of free blacks and few British settlers. Social and political pressures caused the British government to ban the importation of agricultural slaves to Trinidad.


Columbus sighted Tobago, but it was relatively ignored until the 17th century. Called Tobaco by its Arawak and Carib inhabitants, Columbus called it Assumption. The British claimed the island in 1626 and established Tobago's first colonial governing body. However, a great number of governments quickly began making claims to the island.

The Spanish invaded in 1636, worried about their settlements on Trinidad should the Caribs on Tobago form a coalition with the tribes on Trinidad. The Duchy of Courland, a Baltic state, was granted rights to the island in 1639. In 1646, both France and Holland claimed ownership of Tobago. The small country of Latvia claimed the island as a colony in 1664. France fought the Netherlands for control of Tobago and won decisively in 1678. Courland finally relinquished its claim to the island in 1690. Despite the large number of claims to the island, none of these countries ever truly settled Tobago.

The 1700s saw much fighting between the major powers, despite the fact that France and Britain agreed to the neutrality of Tobago in 1749. The neutrality was short-lived. France and Spain became allies in 1756 to go to war against Britain. At the end of the war, Tobago was a British territory.

France took the island back from the British in 1781 and offered incentives to colonists. Between 1771 and 1791 the island's population more than tripled to over 15,000, although 14,000 of the inhabitants were slaves. The end of the 18th century brought an end to the fighting over the island. In 1803 the British took Tobago from the French and have had control ever since.

British Control

Once under British control, Trinidad became a Crown Colony. Britain granted the island this unique status due to the unusually high number of land-owning non-whites on the island. The status of Crown Colony denied residents the right to vote, keeping non-whites entirely out of the political process. Many of the white residents were not British, so few objections were raised.

British Emancipation in 1834 gave Tobago its own representative government, but did not help Tobago's economic problems. The metaire system was introduced in order to sustain the economy. Workers were not paid for their labor, but shared crop profits with the landowners. However, even this could not bolster the island's economy.

Trinidad was also impacted by the 1834 Emancipation. Prior to that, the ban on the importation of slaves made agricultural production difficult, but not impossible. Despite the labor shortage, sugar, cotton, cocoa, and coffee were farmed on Trinidad. Indentured servants from China didn't stay long because the males were relocated to the island without their family or any social support structures. And despite the ban, some slaves were smuggled into the island. Indian workers became indentured servants between 1845 and 1917.

In 1833, Tobago was united with Grenada, St. Vincent, and Barbados under the governorship of Barbados. At that time, Tobago was still stubbornly refusing to give up rights to Britain, but this dispute was eventually settled. Tobago's request for association with the island of Trinidad was granted in 1898. Tobago remained somewhat fiscally independent, and the Tobagoins argued for more independence. Britain eventually brought the two islands together both financially and politically.

Racial and class relations have influenced the political and social history of both islands and have been a strain on Trinidad especially. The collapse of the sugar industry throughout the West Indies in 1897 truly hurt the islands, and Trinidad and Tobago struggled economically as a result.

Modern History

In 1910, Trinidad's world value changed when oil was discovered off the island's coast. Returns from the first World War also brought cultural changes, and by 1925 the people of Trinidad and Tobago received voting rights. Sugar production was almost nonexistent by 1929, but the oil industry bolstered the islands' economy.

Low quality of life in 1937 caused a sit-down strike, and 1946 brought the first universal suffrage election on Trinidad. The People's National Movement (PNM) led a political conference in 1956 that put forth a new political and social agenda, with goals to diversify and enlarge the economic base as well as fight for reform of island problems. Eric Williams, the leader of the PNM, kept control of the government for the next 20 years.

More social unrest arose in the early 1970s and the "February Revolution" brought thousands of workers and students into the streets. During the next 10 years, Trinidad and Tobago fought to establish international political and economic relationships with countries such as Cuba, China, and Russia.

In 1976, political and economic development spurred by the oil industry led to the decision to make Trinidad and Tobago an Independent Republic. The U.S. was the biggest trading partner with the islands in 1977. In 1981 Prime Minister Williams died, and in 1986 another political party, the National Alliance for Reconstruction, was voted into office.

In July 1990 a coup attempt on the islands' government caused some troubles, but the future is looking bright for Trinidad and Tobago. The economy is improving and the government is currently stable. While racial and class relations are not as smooth as they could be, the history of the islands has calmed down in recent years.


Help us improve! We welcome your corrections and suggestions.

About Food