Trinidad, prior to Columbus’ landing, was populated by Amerindians who lived in a largely agrarian society. It is believed that these people migrated from the South American mainland and eventually spread all the way up the Caribbean chain.

Spanish Period

Christopher Columbus discovered Trinidad during his third voyage in 1498. The story says that he named the island Trinidad after it’s three peaks on the southern coast in thanksgiving for finding land after a long trip at sea. Columbus landed on the island and replenished his provisions, then continued on to Venezuela. He returned to Trinidad once again for provisions before continuing his voyage north.

The island remained largely ignored until 1532 when the first governor, Don Antonio Sedeno, arrived to start a colony. This and several further attempts were largely unsuccessful until St. Joseph was founded in 1592. The fact is that Spain truly had neither the manpower nor the economic strength to adequately support and develop the colony, and the setlers often times had to resort to trade with the British, and other rivals of the Spanish, just to survive.

This all changed in 1783 with the issuing of the Cedula of Population, which allowed any Catholic person to settle in the island. Although Catholics came from many countries, the French were by far the most numerous. It is said that the colony in this period was Spanish in name, but French for all other intents and purposes. These colonists began large scale agricultural development, which in turn necessitated the importation of large amounts of African slave labor. Until this time, slaves had been relatively scarce on the island.

British Period

Port of Spain In 1797, war in Europe had spread into the Caribbean. The British captured Trinidad without a shot, and it was formally ceded to England in 1802.

The British retained the Spanish constitution, which provided for a Governor , a council of appointed advisors known as the Council of Advice, and the Cabildo, an elected body. The Council of Advice eventually became the Legislative Council, and the Cabildo evolved into the Port of Spain City Council.

In 1834, the British abolished slavery. The slave owners then turned to indentured servitude to fill their labor needs, and thousands of immigrants were brought to the island. Some were Portuguese and Chinese, but most of the indentured were Indian. This practice continued until the early twentieth century, when the Indian government put an end to it.

Throughout the nineteenth century, the island experienced cycles of prosperity and recession, largely dependent on the world sugar industry


The British first claimed the island of Tobago in 1608, but it changed hands repeatedly for over 200 years. It was, at times, under the rule of both the French and the Dutch, but was finally ceded to England by France in 1763.

Tobago’s economy was largely agricultural, but the relatively small size of the island made it nearly impossible to be truly self sufficient.



In 1889 Trinidad and Tobago were united as one colony. The early twentieth century saw the discovery of oil in Trinidad, which resulted in strong economic growth and prosperity. The island became strategically important and the Americans established several bases in Trinidad during WWII as a result of the Lend-Lease arrangement with England. Many an American serviceman returned to the US with a Trinidadian bride.


trinidad flagA drive for increased local rule and eventual independence began with the trade unions in the 1920’s. Some constitutional reform was instituted, and universal sufferage was approved in 1945, but it was not until 1950 that the Legislative Council was modified so that the majority of the members were elected. The 1950 Constitution also provided for an Executive Council, and a ministerial system. The drive for self rule culminated with Independence in 1962, subsequent to the failed experiment called the British West Indian Federation.

Trinidad and Tobago became a Republic in 1976.

(The information in this section was obtained primarily from History of the People of Trinidad and Tobago, by Eric Williams. Port of Spain: PNM Publishing Company Ltd., 1962.)

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