Comings & Goings
Our ancestors came to Trinidad and Tobago from many different places, and in a wide variety of circumstances. From the African slave to the petit noblesse of France, the indentured Indian to the British civil servant, they have blended together to form a true melting pot of a society. These pages will look at the different major groups that immigrated to and emigrated from Trinidad and Tobago, with an eye towards understanding the why, when, and how of their coming and going.
The circumstances under which our ancestors came into and left Trinidad and Tobago are many, but the reasons can usually be stated in one word: economics. Whether it was the slave that was forcibly brought to the island, or the individual seeking opportunities in the United States during one of the many downturns, it all revolved around economics.
Trinidad Immigration Timeline
pre-Columbus (before 1498)
When Columbus arrived in 1498, he found several tribes of Amerindian peoples inhabiting the island. The two largest groups were the Arawaks and the Caribs. The Arawaks lived in the southern part of the island, and were largely agrarian. The Caribs, on the other hand, lived in the northern part, and were very warlike. They made periodic raids on their neighbors to the south in Trinidad, as well as some of the other islands. It is believed that they had migrated from the Amazon region of South America.
These natives were eventually subdued and gathered into “missions” to be civilized and taught religion by Spanish priests. They eventually died out due to disease and forced servitude. A small group of people in Trinidad claim descent from the original Carib natives.
Pre-Emancipation Development (1498-1834)
The Spanish made several attempts to settle the island, but it wasn’t until the establishment of the town of San Josef de Oruna (present day St. Joseph) in 1592 that this goal became a reality. Due to a lack of commitment and resources, however, Trinidad was really a backwater outpost until the Cedula of Population was issued in 1783 and the subsequent influx of settlers. Although these immigrants were primarily French, some Irish, English and German people arrived during this period as well. With this economic growth came an increase in the slave trade, and the African population swelled significantly at this time.
Post-Emancipation Labor Shortages (1834-1917)
With the emancipation of the slaves in 1834, Trinidad planters faced a severe shortage of labor. Group after group of immigrants were brought in to fill this need. The major groups were:
1834-1848 West Indians
1834-1860 Portuguese (mostly Maderians)
1836-1840 Europeans including English, Irish, Scots, Germans, Swiss, and French
1841 Americans from Pennsylvania and Baltimore
1844-1917 East Indians
The Oil Boom
The discovery of oil in Trinidad resulted in an economic boom. Many workers were needed to perform the work, and experienced oil men came from all over the world. Unexperienced labor came primarily from local sources, as well as other West Indian islands.
Other immigrants included Corsican, Lebanese and Syrian merchants, and members of various religious orders.