On the 24th of November, 1783, the King of Spain signed The Royal Cedula of Population. This decree opened up the island of Trinidad to Catholics from any country that would swear fealty to the Spanish Crown. The effect on Trinidad was drastic and immediate. In 1773, the population was approximately 1,000 people of all races. By 1797, the population had swelled to 18,627. What had been an underdeveloped and backwater settlement, became a significant colony in the West Indies.
The largest pool of potential colonists that fit the conditions of the Cedula were the French, and they came in droves. These settlers came mostly from other French colonies, such as the French West Indies, Acadia (Canada) and Louisiana. In his book, The History of Trinidad, E. L. Joseph notes that the idea for the Cedula originated with a Frenchman, and he postulates that his ultimate goal was to take over control of the colony from the Spanish. The influx of French settlers did just that, and the island became a Spanish colony in name only.
The French brought with them a strong sense of community, and managed to preserve their customs and language. Of this group of immigrants, the whites and about one quarter of the people of color were land owners, and their primary language was Patois, their French Creole dialect. They were called the “new” colonists, to distinguish them from the older Spanish people. The older, wealthier families were an elite group. They were white, Catholic, of legitimate birth, and an aristocratic family. One could also enter this group by marriage.
These families lived in large estate houses, with many servants and ornate furnishings. They dressed formally for dinner, and strict manners were observed. As a result, Trinidad rapidly became known as one of the most cultured societies in the West Indies.
It became accepted for the French planters to have colored mistresses. The resulting offspring were sometimes legitimized and educated abroad by their fathers. Many of these offspring eventually settled in the southern part of Trinidad.
After the surrender of the colony to the British, these French proprietors lost much of their political power, but their plantations continued to prosper until the emancipation of the slaves in 1834. Many accepted the buyout offered by the British government for their slaves, and sold their lands. When sugar fell on hard times, many planters made a second fortune growing cocoa.
A second group of French emigrés consisted of French noblemen that fled France during the revolution. Some came directly to the West Indies, but many were allowed to join British units to fight the revolutionaries. They ended up fighting in the Caribbean battles of the 1790’s, and settled in Trinidad after hostilities ended.
Over time, the elitism of the French subsided as they inter-married with other ethnic groups. The descendants of the French remain a significant force in Trinidad to this day, especially in the professions, as lawyers, doctors, and educators.
(The information on this page was obtained primarily from The Book of Trinidad, edited by Gérard A. Besson, and Bridget M. Brereton. Port-of-Spain: Paria Publishing Company Ltd., 1991.)