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Tobago’s Capital: Scarborough

Trinidad & Tobago Express Ferry. Photographer: Martin Farinha

The Trinidad & Tobago Express Ferry. Photographer: Martin Farinha

Scarborough, fought over throughout its history by the Dutch, French and English, is now a thriving, bustling little town. It is by no means a tourist-trap full of souvenir shops, but rather the service centre of Tobago, with typically Caribbean shops and much that is of historical interest.

Tobago’s capital hugs the shore of Rockly Bay and straggles up its eastern flank, a patchwork of red roofs and narrow, climbing streets. It’s a small, functional town of about 20,000 – nearly half Tobago’s population – that has been the island’s centre of government for more than two centuries, since 1769. It has grown up to service the needs of the local community without pretension; around Main Street you can find all the basic services — banks, market or supermarket, drug-stores, photo centre (on Burnett Street), clothing stores.

In many ways unchanged by time – small businesses in old buildings – the town’s architecture still features lacy fretwork on wooden “ginger-bread” houses; traditional tin roofs; wooden shingles on roofs and walls; and decorative balconies. (Of course, there are also new concrete, air-conditioned buildings, but that’s not altogether a bad thing: but standing in line in an air-conditioned bank can be a welcome relief from the sun.)

Today, Lower Scarborough is the centre of much of the town’s activity. This area around the harbour and waterfront has been settled for more than three centuries. Part of it is still called Dutch Fort – in the mid 1600s, Holland controlled Tobago and was a big trading power in the Caribbean. Nothing remains of the Dutchmen’s fort now – it vanished in 1677 when Rockly Bay was the scene of two epic struggles with the French, which broke Dutch power in the Caribbean for good. In the process, the bay was littered with ravaged warships.

The old Milford Road skirts the shoreline as it approaches from the west, with the sea on one side and a string of businesses – banks, restaurants, fast food outlets, craft, bars, vendors – on the other. Nearby are the market, the Post Office, the Public Library (you must be resident in Tobago for three months to borrow books), the bus terminus (tickets must be bought before boarding the buses), gas stations and restaurants — including a chicken-and-chips joint on Wilson Road, and a roti shop and two Chinese restaurants on Milford Road. Two small malls, Breeze Hall and Sangster Hill, lead off Milford Road.

The streets of Scarborough are lined with stalls, offering a myriad of unrelated goods — the vendors don’t often specialize except for fruit and vegetables. The market is in Lower Scarborough, and is especially worth a visit on Friday and Saturday mornings.

Opposite the bus terminal, is a side gate to the small but pleasant Botanic Gardens, a welcome oasis of brightly-flowering shrubs and trees, with a good view over the town and the bay. The main entrance is from a lay-by on the Claude Noel Highway.

From Lower Scarborough, a short sttep climb up Burnett Street brings you to James Park, named after Tobago’s pioneering political hero, A.P.T. “Fargo” James. Overlooking this small open space is the old Court House, one of the town’s more distinguished buildings, dating back to 1825 and once much admired for its Georgian style. This was the meeting place of Tobago’s Executive and Legislative Councils in colonial days; and the Tobago House of Assembly meets there now. (The abolition of its century-old Assembly by the British in 1877 was one of Tobago’s sorest humiliations; its restoration in 1980 gave back to the island some control over its internal affairs). Outside the building a memorial to George V’s coronation in 1911 proclaims “One Flag, One Empire, One King”.

Off Wilson Road is Dutch Fort, the historic site of the first fort in Scarborough. Stretching in a triangle from Lower Scarborough to the Claude Noel Highway are the Botanic Gardens: you can play hide-and-seek between the gigantic roots of the samaan tree.

To reach Upper Scarborough, climb either Burnett Street or Castries Street (with its attractive basket shop). Castries Street links Lower Scarborough to Main Street, which is crossed by Bacolet Street. In Bacolet there is a batik workshop where you can try the art yourself. Also two excellent restaurants.

Back on Main Street, you begin the steep climb up Fort Street, passing the remains of a fine old wooden house and, on the left, the lovely balconied rectory of the Methodist church. Near the top of the hill, some towering tropical vegetation signals your arrival at the Scarborough County Hospital; above it is Fort King George, built by the British between 1777 and 1779.

Fort King George, 450 feet above the sea, was named after an earlier king — George III, crowned in 1804. This historic complex is the real pride of Scarborough, and definitely merits a visit. Follow Main Street into Fort Street, up the hill and through the hospital grounds, and you emerge onto a glorious headland that offers a panoramic view of Scarborough, southern Tobago, the east coast and the central hills. The fort’s surroundings are landscaped and manicured; historic cannon gleam darkly in the sunlight.

The British started a barracks on this hilltop in 1777, at the height of their rivalry with France, but they lost the whole island to the French in 1781, before they could finish it. The French expanded the project into a fort, which they called first Fort Castries, then Fort République and (after a mutiny) Fort Liberté. In 1793, the British snatched Tobago (and the fort) back again, and this time held on, apart from a brief French interruption in 1801–3. The fort was eventually renamed; and remained a military garrison until 1854. The main building – today housing a craft shop and art studio – is the old officers’ mess, located of course in the best position. Below it is the old powder magazine with its thick stone walls, a military cemetery shaded by stately palms and samaan trees and vivid flamboyants, and the old cell block and water tank. The former military hospital is now the National Fine Arts Centre, and houses a collection of Tobago painting and craft, including a striking bust of A.P.T. James by the German artist Luise Kimmé.

Past the fort’s original, dome-shaped water cistern, the Officer’s Mess, a fine example of Georgian Military Architecture perched on top of the hill with an astounding view of the countryside. Another of the original, but modified, buildings houses the Tobago Museum, with its military and domestic artifacts, and an interesting display of Amerindian finds. The Tobago Museum is the best place for getting a sense of the island’s history. The museum features artifacts — tools, weapons, utensils, some striking faces and animal figures— from Tobago’s earliest settlers, the Amerindians. Some of these date back to 2500 B.C. The other main theme is Tobago’s long and painful military history — remnants of the epic struggle the European powers fought over the island (Tobago changed hands about 30 times); and of the endless tussle over its government and status. It’s all carefully researched and presented in this small museum, with the Atlantic breeze whistling through the windows.

The lighthouse atop the fort is relatively new, built in 1958. Below, the remains of the former Military Hospital house the Art Gallery, with its display of local art and, at times, travelling exhibitions. Nearby is a favourite spot to sit, under a cool tree next to the powder magazine. Behind you, hefty cannons point out to sea; on your right the towering royal palms still mark the spot where the sweeping driveway to the fort once was — you can almost hear the galloping of hooves.

Below and to the right Scarborough sprawls over the hillsides that curve around the glittering Buckley Bay. In the harbour below, perhaps, a sleek white cruise ship completes the picture of a busy Caribbean market town and port.

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A team of of writers discovering Trinidad & Tobago for 25 years and counting!

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