T&T history & society

Fort King George, Tobago. Photo by Chris Anderson

Important facts about Trinidad & Tobago’s history & society

A cultural melting pot

Trinidad and Tobago’s nearly 1.4 million people are English-speaking, but trace their roots back to Africa and India, China and the Middle East, Europe, and the Mediterranean.

Trinidad and Tobago is the home of Caribbean Carnival. It is also the home of calypso, the music which fuels the Carnival, and the steelband, which evolved in Port of Spain in the 1930s. These are just two of the many musical forms to be found alongside strong traditions of dance, literature, sculpture and painting.

The oldest evidence of human activity on Caribbean soil is in Trinidad: the archaeological site at Banwari Trace has yielded artefacts dating back to 5,000 BC. The first settlers in Trinidad and Tobago are reported to have been two First Peoples (aka Amerindian) tribes as early as 5000BC, often described as the Arawaks and the Caribs, though new research has provided a number of alternative narratives. The influence of the indigenous peoples of these islands is most obvious in place names of Amerindian origin: Arima, Icacos, Mucurapo — to name but a few.

After Columbus landed on Trinidad in 1498, Trinidad remained a neglected outpost of the Spanish empire until the late 18th century; an influx of French Catholic settlers and their African slaves, and the subsequent capture by the British in 1797, changed the island’s destiny. During the 19th century labourers were imported from several parts of the world, notably India.

Tobago was fought over by the Dutch, French, Spanish, and British, as well as settlers from Latvia, buccaneers and others, well into the 18th century, but was controlled primarily by the British from 1762.

Trinidad and Tobago became a single political entity in 1888. Since independence from Great Britain in 1962 Trinidad and Tobago has been a parliamentary democracy. In 1976 Trinidad and Tobago became a republic within the Commonwealth. In 1980 the Tobago House of Assembly was re-established.

Trinidad and Tobago is the Caribbean’s strongest economy. Unlike most Caribbean islands, Trinidad has a large industrial sector, including manufacturing and heavy industry. The energy sector, which includes oil, natural gas and petrochemicals has accounted for as much as 80% of the country’s exports. Tourism, mainly concentrated in Tobago, and agriculture are also central components of the economy.

A national identity

Coat of arms

The coat of arms features national birds scarlet ibis (Trinidad), cocrico (Tobago) and hummingbird; three ships of Columbus and Trinity Hills’ “three sisters” peaks; fruited coconut palm native to Tobago; and national motto: “together we aspire, together we achieve”.

National anthem

Forged from the love of liberty in the fires of hope and prayer,
with boundless faith in our destiny, we solemnly declare:
Side by side we stand, islands of the blue Caribbean Sea.
This, our native land, we pledge our lives to thee.
Here every creed and race finds an equal place, and may God bless our Nation.
Patrick Castagne, 1962

National flag

The Trinidad & Tobago flag features strips of red (fire, vitality of the sun); white (water, purity and power of the ocean); and black (earth, one people united on islands’ soil)

National flower

The chaconia (“wild poinsettia” or “pride of Trinidad & Tobago”) is a flaming red forest flower.

National birds

The scarlet ibis (Trinidad) and the cocrico (Tobago).

National instrument

The steelpan.

National pledge

I solemnly pledge to dedicate my life to the service of God and my country.
I will honour my parents, my teachers, my leaders and my elders, and those in authority
I will be clean and honest in all my thoughts, my words and my deeds.
I will strive in everything I do
to work together with my fellowmen, of every creed and race,
for the greater happiness of all, and the honour and glory of my country.

Time capsule: a Trinidad & Tobago historical timeline

c 15,000–1,000 BC: islands part of South America; settled by Amerindians
1498: Christopher Columbus lands in Trinidad on July 31, claims island for Spanish and names it after Catholic Holy Trinity
1596: Tobago claimed by British
1627–1650: Courlanders settle Tobago’s west coast near Plymouth, and Dutch the east
1699: Trinidad First Peoples rebel against Capuchin missionaries (Arena Uprising)
1757: Trinidad’s Spanish governor moves capital to Port of Spain from St Joseph
1768–9: first Tobago Assembly established; Scarborough made island’s capital
1776: oldest forest reserve in western hemisphere designated in Tobago
1781: French seize Tobago, convert it to sugar colony
1783: Spanish governor Chacón’s Cedula de Población entices Catholic white and free coloured settlers to Trinidad with land incentives; rapid development begins
1790: great fire of Scarborough destroys much of downtown; hurricane ravages island
1797: Trinidad captured by Sir Ralph Abercromby’s British fleet
1801: massive slave uprising in Tobago quelled
1806: first Chinese workers imported to Trinidad
1807: slave trading abolished in British empire
1808: great fire of Port of Spain destroys much of the city
1814: Tobago ceded to British under Treaty of Paris
1816: six companies of free blacks from the United States (mainly Baptist) settle in southern Trinidad, and one in Tobago
1834–8: slavery abolished in the British Empire, leading to apprenticeship (1834) then emancipation (1838)
1834–1917: indentured labour imported to Trinidad from other islands, China, Portugal, Syria, Lebanon, and India
1857: first oil well drilled in Trinidad near Pitch Lake
1858–84: Trinidad governor criminalises Carnival activities
1881: Canboulay Riots in Trinidad
1884: Hosay Riots in Trinidad; Tobago’s sugar industry collapses
1889–98: Tobago merged with Trinidad; Tobago Assembly disbanded
1903: Water Riots in Port of Spain; Red House burns down
1908: commercial oil production begins in southern Trinidad
1914: first calypso recorded in Trinidad
1925: first national elections (limited franchise)
1931: Piarco International Airport opens
1935–41: first steelpans emerge in Laventille, Trinidad
1937: oilfield and labour strikes led in southern Trinidad by Tubal Uriah “Buzz” Butler
1940: Crown Point Airport opens in Tobago; national airline British West Indies Airways (BWIA) commences operations
1941: Chaguaramas peninsula leased to United States for 99 years; American military remain through World War II
1945: public emergence of steelbands; universal suffrage implemented
1951: repeal of ordinance prohibiting activities of Spiritual “Shouter” Baptist faith
1956: self government under Eric Williams’ People’s National Movement (PNM)
1958: islands join Federation of West Indies
1960: Trinidad campus of University of the West Indies (UWI) established
1962: islands leave Federation, gain independence from Britain; Dr Eric Williams becomes first Prime Minister
1963: Hurricane Flora devastates Tobago; Chaguaramas returned to Trinidadian control
1970: “Black Power” uprising in Trinidad
1974: Garfield Blackman (Ras Shorty I) releases first soca album
1976: new republican constitution; President Sir Ellis Clarke replaces British monarch as head of state
1980: Tobago House of Assembly restored; islands enjoy economic prosperity
1981: George Chambers (PNM) succeeds Williams as Prime Minister
1983: oil prices fall, crippling local economy
1986: National Alliance for Reconstruction (NAR) unseats PNM in national elections; Tobagonian ANR Robinson becomes Prime Minister
1987: Noor Hassanali appointed second President
1990: unsuccessful coup attempt by Afro-Islamist Jamaat al Muslimeen
1995: coalition government between United National Congress (UNC) and NAR unseats the PNM; Basdeo Panday becomes Prime Minister
1997: Arthur Napoleon Raymond (ANR) Robinson SC, OCC appointed third President
2002: PNM regains power under Patrick Manning, ending the hung parliament after the 2001 elections
2003: George Maxwell Richards, TC, CM appointed fourth President
2007: Caribbean Airlines replaces BWIA as national carrier; record oil prices fuel economic boom
2008–9: Trinidad & Tobago host the 5th Summit of the Americas and the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting; country begins to feel negative economic effects of global financial crisis
2010: UNC-led coalition government (People’s Partnership) ousts PNM at general and local elections under Kamla Persad-Bissessar (SC), the country’s first female Prime Minister; Caribbean Airlines completes purchase of Air Jamaica; country struggles with stagnating economy in the wake of the global financial crisis
2011: state of emergency declared in the islands to help deal with an escalating crime situation. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) removes islands from DAC list, exempting them from certain kinds of development aid funding
2013: Anthony Thomas Aquinas Carmona, SC appointed fifth President
2015: oil prices crash, causing economic slowdown; PNM, under Dr Keith Rowley, wins general elections.

  1. Tell me what you can about San Fernando’s indigenous history, obviously there’s a wealth of hard data here you are not aware of. I have been researching the coastal extremes of our southern city for at least 2 years and it is just amazing of the artifactual assemblage acquired, moreso of the paucity of info. or historical literature of this, the oldest indigenous settlement in the eastern caribbean. with Banwari tr. being just one of many satellite communities. Res.SRFPC // Wye


  2. *2015: oil prices crash, UNC empties the treasury, economy slows down: PNM wins election


  3. I am in the process of researching the degree of racism, greed and corruption in Trinidad&Tobago. Why racism extends to Europeans and why most of the racists would like to live and or retire in European countries? Why they behave differently when resident in the USA and Canada mainly.


  4. Hi, can you provide some of the references for the historical data? I am interested in learning more.



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