Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
The Republic of Trinidad and Tobago is a two-island state located at the bottom of the Antillean chain, in the southern Caribbean Sea. Trinidad lies just 10 kilometres away from the Venezuelan coast. Tobago is situated 32 kilometres to the northeast of Trinidad.
Trinidad is considered to be the earliest-settled part of the Caribbean. The first inhabitants of both Trinidad and Tobago were pre-agricultural indigenous groups from the Orinoco Delta of South America who first settled at least 7,000 years ago.
Until the 15th and 16th century Trinidad was home to a number of Arawak (Taino) and Carib (Kalinago) related groups including the Nepoya, Suppoya and Yao, while Tobago was occupied by Caribs and Galibi.
The indigenous name for the island was Ka-iri or I-ere. The title Trinidad originated with Christopher Columbus who named it after the Holy Trinity when he encountered the territory in July 1498. The name Tobago is possibly derived from the indigenous word: ‘tabaco’.
Spain was the first European nation to establish a presence in 1532 but due to a lack of settlers eventually accepted any Catholic European. This open policy led to substantial immigration from France and other Catholic countries.
Originally a sugar colony, most of the indigenous population was worked to death or driven into exile. For over 200 years afterwards hundreds of thousands of Africans were shipped in and forced to provide slave labour on the plantations.
During the 17th and 18th centuries Trinidad changed hands a number of times between European powers. Following the slave uprisings in Haiti and France’s other Caribbean colonies, many French families moved to Trinidad from Haiti and the other islands. Trinidad was officially ceded to Britain from France in 1814 following the Treaty of Amiens.
The 300-year institution of African enslavement was finally abolished some three decades later in 1833.
For a brief period in the 1840s a few Africans from the Gambia and Sierra Leone were actually encouraged to come to Trinidad as wage labourers but contractors had much more success with Portuguese families seeking to escape crop failures and famine on the island of Madeira.
Being ill equipped to withstand the very harsh Caribbean plantation conditions the Portuguese soon moved to the main urban centres to become traders and shopkeepers. (See also Guyana, Antigua and St Vincent)
A better solution to the looming labour shortage was found in acquiring Chinese, East Indian, or other Asian emigrant labourers contracted to work for five years in return for wages and free passage. Beginning in 1835 numerous Chinese took advantage of the arrangement but either quickly repatriated or like the Portuguese moved to the towns to engage in commerce.
Between 1845 and 1917 more than 150,000 indentured labourers (Muslim and Hindu) from colonial India were brought to the Trinidad by the British to work on the estates leading to a rapid increase in sugar production. (See also Guyana, Jamaica, Suriname and Guadeloupe)
The islands were combined into the British colony of Trinidad and Tobago in 1889 and around this period cacao production using Venezuelan migrant labour began to rival sugar. This continued until the early twentieth century when oil was discovered (1902) and cacao production collapsed due to disease and the Great Depression.
Thereafter petroleum production increasingly became the major economic activity encouraging emigration from other West Indian islands and Venezuela and stimulating the trend towards more urban growth and industrialization. During World War II American military bases were established in Chaguaramas and Cumuto which produced even more changes in the character of the society.
With their urban presence and educational background Afro-Trinidadians were in the forefront of the post war anti-colonial movement and early foreign emigration. Trinidad was a major force behind the 1958 formation of the West Indies Federation as a vehicle for decolonization. When the Federation dissolved in 1962, Trinidad and Tobago opted for independence and in 1976 severed links with the British monarchy to become a republic within the Commonwealth.
Main languages: English (official), Hindi
Main religions: Christianity, Hinduism, Islam
Main minority groups: East Indians 500,000 (40%) (1990 Census)
East Indian and people of African descent make up the majority of the population. Afro-Trinidadians represent approximately 39 per cent and Indo-Trinidadians, 40 per cent (1990 Census). The remainder of the population is mostly of mixed ethnicity drawn from European, Chinese and Syrian-Lebanese minorities. Tobago’s population is almost entirely of African origin.
Euro-Trinidadians, especially descendants of the former colonial planter class, are often referred to as French Creoles, even if descended from Spanish, British, Portuguese or German settlers. There are also mixed-race Cocoa Panyols whose ancestors were migrant labourers of combined Spanish, indigenous, and African origin who came from nearby Venezuela between the late 19th and early 20th century to work on the cocoa estates.
A small mixed Carib population who trace their descent from the original indigenous inhabitants is also present organised around the Santa Rosa Carib Community.
Although demographically the largest group, Trinidad’s East Indians existed for several decades essentially as a minority in socio-cultural and political terms until the November 1995 election when an Indo-Trinidadian became prime minister for the first time.
Within the Indo-Trinidadian population there are Hindus (mostly small farmers), Muslims (mainly merchants and urban workers) and some predominantly middle-class Christians. Indo-Trinidadians are well represented in the private sector, and also in agriculture.
From independence in 1962, Trinidadian politics was largely dominated by the People’s National Movement (PNM), which has always been associated with the more urban Afro-Trinidadian community. However, In 1986 the National Alliance for Reconstruction (NAR), a coalition of four rural oriented Indo-Trinidadian parties including the predominantly Indo-Trinidadian United Labour Front (ULF), won overwhelmingly.
By 1989, the NAR split, with Deputy Prime Minister Basdeo Panday and three other Indo-Trinidadian ministers leaving to form the United National Congress (UNC).
In 1990 in an atmosphere of growing ethnic nationalism, 114 men of the Jamaat al Muslimeen, led by Yasin Abu Bakr (formerly known as Lennox Phillip), stormed the Trinidad and Tobago Parliament and held the government hostage for six days. The matter was resolved, and such events have not reoccurred.
In 1991 the PNM regained power, with the UNC as the main opposition party. In the election campaign opposition leader Basdeo Panday claimed the existence of a systematic discrimination against Indo-Trinidadians in the public sector and promised an Equal Employment Opportunities Commission.
Fresh elections in November 1995 brought Panday and the UNC to power in coalition with NAR marking the first time that an Indo- Trinidadian had become prime minister. Prime Minister Panday named many East Indian descendants to his Cabinet, while still maintaining an Afro-Trinidadian presence in government.
The general elections held in December 2001, resulted in an evenly divided Parliament, with both major parties winning 18 seats in the 36-member House of Representatives. With Parliament unable to form a majority, Manning called new elections. Despite inflammatory campaigning by both parties, elections proceeded peacefully and resulted in an undisputed 20 to 16 majority for the PNM.
Currently the PNM is primarily but not exclusively Afro-Trinidadian, and the UNC, is mainly but not wholly Indo-Trinidadian. In the national election of 2002, a majority of voters supported the PNM enabling them to retain control of the government.
Steadily rising world petroleum prices have once again brought increased national revenues some of which are being directed at programs aimed at reducing social and political tensions and instability.
With a per capita income of US$13,000 (2004), Trinidad and Tobago is one of the most prosperous nations in the Caribbean.
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Sources and further reading
BRERETON, Bridget – A History of Modern Trinidad, 1783-1962. (Kingston and Port-of-Spain and London and Exeter, NH: Heinemann) 262 pages hb, 14 plates, 2 maps, biblio, 1981; (ibidem)rep 1985.
Deosaran, Rames Some Issues in Multiculturalism: The Case of Trinidad and Tobago in the Post Colonial Era Ethnic Groups; 1981.
Figueredo, Alfredo E. and Stephen D. Glazier. A revised aboriginal ethnohistory of Trinidad. (in International Congress for the Study of Pre-Columbian Cultures of the Lesser Antilles, VII, Montreal, Canada, 1978.
Ryan, Selwyn One love revisited: the persistance of race in the politics of Trinidad and Tobago Caribbean Affairs [Trinidad] 1988.
Stark, James H. Stark’s Guide-Book and History of Trinidad including Tobago, Grenada, and St Vincent; also a trip up the Orinoco and a description of the great Venezuelan Pitch Lake. Boston, James H. Stark, publisher; London, Sampson Low, Marston & Company. 1897.
Trinidad and Tobago Country Reports on Human Rights Practices 2002 “retrieved 17 May 2007, http://www.state.gov/g/drl/rls/hrrpt/2002/18346.htm”
Trinidad and Tobago Country Reports on Human Rights Practices 2005 “retrieved 17 May 2007, http://www.state.gov/g/drl/rls/hrrpt/2005/61743.htm”
Aho, William R.; Brathwaite, Farley Race, Intergenerational Occupational Mobility, and Career Aspirations of African and East Indian Secondary School Teachers in Trinidad and Tobago International Review of Modern Sociology; 1977, 7, 2, July-Dec, 147-159.
Angrosino, Michael V. Metaphors of ethnic identity: Projective life history narratives of Trinidadians of Indian descent Journal of Narrative & Life History, 1995.
Bell, Robert R. Marriage and family differences among lower-class Negro and East Indian women in Trinidad Race 12:1 (1970).
Carter, Marina: Indian indentured migration and the forced labour debate Itinerario, Spring 1997.
Cross, M., The East Indians of Guyana and Trinidad, London, MRG report, 1987.
Emmer, P. C. Immigration into the Caribbean: the introduction of Chinese and East Indian indentured labourers between 1839 and 1917 Itinerario [Netherlands] 1990.
Ifill, Max B. We do not want Indian imperialism in the Caribbean [Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago]: People’s Democratic Society, 1987.
Naipaul, V. S. East Indians in the Caribbean : colonialism and the struggle for identity : papers presented to a Symposium on East Indians in the Caribbean, The University of the West Indies, June, 1975.
Nevadomsky, Joseph J.Changes over Time and Space in the East Indian Family in Rural Trinidad Journal of Comparative Family Studies; 1980.
Roberts, G.W. and L. Braithwaite: Mating among East Indian and non-Indian women in Trinidad Social and Economic Studies (1962).
Sanjek, Roger Caribbean Asians : Chinese, Indian, and Japanese experiences in Trinidad and the Dominican Republic [Flushing, N.Y.]: Asian/American Center at Queens College, CUNY, 1990.
Singaravelou. East Indian immigration and the plantation system in the French Caribbean. (in World Plantation Conference, 1st, Baton Rouge, La., 1984. Plantations around the world. Edited by Sue Eakin and John Tarver. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State Univ. Agricultural Center, 1986.
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