Mount Irvine

History of Tobago

Introduction: A Brief Summary

Tobago was first sighted by Columbus in 1498. Since then, the island has been fought over by numerous nations, numerous times.

The original Carib population was forced to defend their island against other Amerindian tribes. Then, during the late 1500's and early 1600's, they were faced with European colonists. Over the years, the Dutch, English and French transformed Tobago into a battle zone and the island changed hands 31 times before it was finally ceded to the British in 1814 under the Treaty of Paris.

From about 1672, during a period of stability under temporary British rule, plantation culture began. Sugar, cotton and indigo factories sprang up and Africans were imported to work as slaves. The economy flourished and by 1777 Tobago was exporting great quantities of rum, cotton, indigo and sugar. However, the French invaded again, in 1781, and destroyed the plantations. They forced the British governor to surrender and the island's buoyant economy fell into decline.

In 1814, when the island was again under British control, another phase of successful sugar production began. However, a severe hurricane in 1847, combined with the collapse of plantation underwriters, marked the end of the sugar trade. Without the highly profitable sugar production, Britain had no further use for Tobago and in 1889 the island was made a ward of Trinidad. Without sugar, the islanders had to grow other crops. They planted many acres of limes, coconuts and cocoa and exported their produce to Trinidad. In 1963, Hurricane Flora ravaged Tobago, destroying the villages and crops. A restructuring programme followed and attempts were made to diversify the economy. The development of a tourist industry began.

Postcard Photos

We extend our thanks and appreciation o Scott Henderson, of Canada, for allowing us to illustrate this article with many of the wonderful old postcards of Tobago that he has collected. The black and white postcards date from the early 1900s to the mid-40s. The colour postcards are a little later. Click on the postcard image to see a larger copy.

Detailed History

We are grateful to Mr Edward Hernández, curator of the Tobago Museum, who provided the basis of our more comprehensive detailed history of Tobago.

Continue to detailed history >

Tobago archaeology cannot be separated from the other islands of the Southern Caribbean. The region was originally inhabited by three early Amerindian cultures. The Ciboney were the first. Very little is known of them, but experts date them from 700 to 1000 BC. Where they came from is not known. It is believed that all aboriginal cultures in the Caribbean had been there since the Stone Age. The Arawaks and Caribs, who followed the Ciboney, originated from the late Stone Age.

Columbus sighted the island of Tobago and named it Bellaforma (beautifully or well formed) . There is a period of about one hundred years with no recorded history. In 1580 British seamen visited the island and reported that it was uninhabited. In 1596, Raleigh's lieutenant, Lawrence Keymis, visited the island and also found it uninhabited. James I, King of England, subsequently claimed the island for Britain.

In 1614, Spain tried to establish trade with the island. While returning to Holland from Brazil in 1627, Captain J. Gijsz visited Tobago. He reported that the island was uninhabited and would be a good place to establish a settlement. In 1628, Charles I, King of England, granted Tobago to Philip, Earl of Montgomery who later became Earl of Pembroke. In 1629, Jan de Moor, Burgomaster of Flushing, sent an expedition of Dutchmen who established a settlement called New Walcheren (probably Plymouth). Disease and Amerindians wiped them out but more settlers were sent in 1632.

In 1636, the Spaniards from Trinidad attacked Dutch settlers on Tobago. Cornelis, Jan de Moor's son, was captured and the settlers driven out. In 1637, English Puritans from Barbados attempted to settle there. Amerindians killed most of them and the survivors sailed away to Providence Island, Bahamas. The Earl of Warwick purchased Pembroke's rights to the island and, in 1639, sent an expedition to the island. This was attacked and destroyed by Indians. James, Duke of Courland (Kurland, Latvia), who was said to have been the godson of James I, had been granted the island by King Charles I. He too sent an expedition to Tobago. These settlers made peace with the Amerindians but fever wiped out the settlement.

Three years later, in 1642, James, Duke of Courland, sent another expedition to Tobago, with the assistance of the Dutch. A settlement was established on Courland Bay. Later that year, the Earl of Warwick established another settlement. Tobacco and indigo were planted. The Amerindians again destroyed the settlers. The few who survived managed to escape to Surinam (Dutch Guiana). Tobago was offered for sale in England in 1647 but there were no buyers. The Courlanders were driven out by the Amerindians in 1650 and went to Pomeroon (British Guiana).

A third attempt to settle the island was made by the Duke of Courland. More than one hundred families arrived from Europe. Willem Mollens, a Dutchman, officially claimed Tobago in the name of the Duke and renamed the island New Courland in 1654. In the same year, Adriaen and Cornelis Lampsins, heirs of the de Moors, attempted a settlement in another part of the island, with Peter Becquard as Commander of the expedition. He renamed the island New Walcheren. Thus Tobago became divided into two parts. This led to a dispute between the Courlanders and Dutch settlers. It was reported to the States General in Holland, who supported the Courlanders against their own countrymen. Duke James became the undisputed master of the island. He was seized in Europe by the King of Sweden and taken to Riga. The Dutch planters in Tobago surrounded the Courlanders, who surrendered to them and in 1659, Mollens, the Governor of the Courland colony, was forced to leave the island. The Dutch settlers then obtained a grant of Tobago from Louis XIV of France, in 1662. The French West India Company surrendered their rights and the French created the Lampsins 'Barons of Tobago'. Charles II of England re-granted Tobago to the Duke of Courland in 1664, but he did not attempt another settlement at that time. In 1663, New Walcherenhad a population between 1000 and 1500 colonists and 7000 slaves.

Four English vessels, under the command of Captain Poyntz, captured the Dutch settlement in 1666, and took 150 prisoners. The French came over from Grenada and evicted the small garrison that had been left there, but then abandoned the island. The Treaty of Breda allowed the French to keep Tobago. Abel Tisso, a Frenchman, was appointed by the Dutch, as Governor, to reform the settlement. In 1672 the English under Sir Tobias Bridges captured the Dutch Governor, took 400 prisoners, destroyed the settlement and then abandoned the island. The Dutch began another settlement in 1676 with a large number of negroes captured from the French at Cayenne and Marie Galante. In March 1677, the Dutch Admiral Binckes defeated the French fleet in Roodklip Baai (Rockley Bay). Towards the end of the year the French returned, captured the Dutch Governor, destroyed the settlement and then abandoned the island. The Duke of Courland tried in vain to get settlers for Tobago. Tobago was restored to the Dutch by the 1679 Treaty of Nineguen.

In 1681 the Duke of Courland again attempted to settle in the island. He granted a title to some London merchants headed by Captain John Poyntz. After the arrangements had all been made, the Privy Council in London delayed sailing pending negotiations for a treaty. In 1685, Poyntz published a pamphlet about Tobago. In spite of the fact that the British Government had declared in 1687 that the grant made to the Duke of Courland was null and void, he made further attempts to settle the island. Around this time, English and French companies tried to establish themselves.

In 1698, HMS Speedwell was hastily dispatched from Barbados, with soldiers, to suppress pirates who had established themselves on the island. On hearing that preparations were being made for a settlement under the supervision of the Duke of Courland, to be held by Sir William Waller, the British Government issued orders to stop all vessels leaving for Tobago. In 1699, the British Government again declared Courland's grant null and void. At the same time, the right of the British Crown to Tobago and St. Lucia was affirmed.

In 1702, Captain Poyntz and others petitioned the British Crown, asking to be allowed to settle Tobago. The petition failed. The island became a no-mans-land and, in 1705, a French squadron used the island as a base for attacks against the English West Indian islands. In 1714, Ayris, called the Paramount Indian Chief, was sent from Barbados to Tobago, where he became Governor. In 1715 he appealed to the English Governor of Barbados for protection against rebellious negroes. He was assured of British protection. Britain then claimed sovereignty against the French.

In 1721 the Governor of Barbados was authorised to make grants of land in Tobago for the cultivation of cocoa, indigo, etc., - but not sugar, as this would have been against the interest of Barbados. At this time the island was virtually a pirate's nest. Then, in 1725, the Governor of Barbados reported that the French were still claiming Tobago. He was instructed to maintain England's right, but to avoid a clash with the French.

Ferdinand, Duke of Courland, supported by the King of Poland, tried to regain Tobago in 1731. In the same year he offered to sell the island to the Swedes, but the Swedish Ambassador in England, on making enquiries regarding Courland's rights to the island, was told that Courland had no rights and warned the King of Sweden to stay away from Tobago. In 1733, the Swedes attempted a settlement and landed 25 families and slaves, but they were driven out by the Amerindians.

In 1748, Marquis de Caylus, the French Governor of Martinique, attempted a settlement and landed troops and then built a fort. The British remonstrated to the French Government, who disowned the Marquis's act. The English and French governments agreed to declare the island neutral. The subjects of both nations left the island and the fort was destroyed.

The English captured Tobago in 1762 and the Treaty of Paris ceded it to Britain in 1763. T. Alexander Brown was appointed Lt. Governor in November 1764. The only inhabitants were the Amerindians and a few French turtle hunters. In December 1764, General Robert Melville was appointed Governor General of Grenada, Tobago, St. Vincent and Dominica. His official residence was in Grenada. The Land Sales Proclamation was issued and the first recorded sale, Lot 1: 500 acres at Courland Bay, was to James Simpson. Tobago was divided into parishes at this time. There were still Amerindians scattered all over the island, but only in small groups. These groups were led by 'King Peter' 'King Cardinal' and 'King Roufelle'.

The first session of the Tobago Legislative Council & Assembly was held in April 1768 at Georgetown, Barbados Bay (Studley Park) where the first town was established, but never finished. The Seat of Government was moved to Scarborough in 1769. A house at Orange Hill became the residence of the Lt. Governor.

An insurrection of slaves occurred in 1770 at Queen's Bay and the first shipment of sugar from Tobago left Gedney Clarke's Estate in St. Mary's Parish (Studley Park). The population at that time was 209 white men and 3,090 negroes. In this year, John Paul, who later changed his name to Jones, visited Tobago. He was brought before the Court of Vice-Admiralty and charged with ill-treating his ship's carpenter. John Paul Jones, the son of a gardener, was born in Scotland in 1747. He died in poverty in Paris and was buried there. He is regarded as the founder of the U.S. Navy. His masthead is said to have been the first to fly the "Stars and Stripes".

Two insurrections of slaves occurred in 1771 and the militia put both down. There was another insurrection of slaves in 1774. The cultivation of sugarcane was abandoned in 1775, because of devastation by millions of ants. Cotton was planted in its place. The population at that time was about 2,300 whites, 1,050 free people of colour and 10,800 slaves. Two years later, in 1777, American privateers raided the island. They arrived in armed boats and got away with whatever they could.

In 1778, an American Squadron tried to capture Tobago but was driven off. It was about this time that guns were mounted on estates for their protection. Settlers raised money to buy the cannons in order to defend themselves. This may account for the substantial number still to be found on the island.

In 1779, the French captured Grenada and took the British Governor General prisoner. The population of Tobago in 1780 was 11,087. Exports of cotton were 2,619,000 lbs. and indigo 27,000 lbs. In 1781, the first clergyman of the established church started his work on the island and started the church register. During April of that year, the French captured the island. Lt. Governor Ferguson was taken prisoner. The French government ordered that all land owners produce titles to their land within a month. In 1782, Cotton Hill (French Fort) was fortified.

Tobago was ceded to the French, in 1783, by the Treaty of Versailles. The French appointed Philbert de Blanchard as Governor of the island's population which had dropped to less than 800 inhabitants. The French troops mutinied in 1790 and Scarborough was destroyed by the resultant fire. In August of that year, a hurricane caused considerable damage on the island.

On 15 April 1793, Tobago was re-captured by the British, who initiated a separate Government with her own Governor, a Legislative Council (appointed by the British Crown) and a representative House called the General Assembly. The following year, a militia was formed, followed in 1795 by the Corps of Black Jaegers for internal protection. The Corps was made up of 100 trusted slaves under the supervision of white officers. The Government issued a proclamation requiring all male inhabitants to take oaths of allegiance to the British Crown. Most of the French inhabitants refused and were regarded as prisoners of war.

By 1798 sugar was back in cultivation, so indigo and cotton became less important to the island. Negroes were allowed to trade freely, enabling many to buy freedom.

Tobago's crops failed in 1800 and there was a grave shortage of imported food. This resulted in widespread alarm. People were unable to feed themselves or their slaves. The population consisted of 2,300 Europeans, 1,050 Free Colonists and 10,000 slaves on 106 estates.

A threatened insurrection of slaves was averted in 1801 by the prompt action of Brigadier General H.L.Carmichael who seized 30 ringleaders when he heard of the plot. He hanged one on the signal staff at Fort King George, lowering and raising the body 29 times as a warning to the population.

The island was surrendered to the French under the Treaty of Amiens in 1802. General Sabuguet was appointed Governor. During his term of office the Council and General Assembly voted unanimously in favour of appointing Bonaparte as Council for life. They also decided to retain the existing constitution and laws.

In 1803 British troops landed at Arnos Vale and marched to Mount Grace. A slave, George Winchester, showed them the way to the Fort and the French surrendered without resistance. George Winchester was given his freedom and paid £30 to set himself up in business. In July of that year, a proclamation was signed allowing American vessels to bring in provisions and other goods. Lord Nelson anchored overnight in Courland Bay in 1805 while searching the Caribbean for the French fleet. Plans to defend the island were subsequently drawn up.

In 1807 the slave trade was abolished in all British dominions. At that time there were 15,000 slaves on Tobago. By 1812, an Indian called Louis, and his family of about 200, were the only remaining settlers on the north coast of Tobago.

The Treaty of Ghent marked the end of the war between Great Britain and the United States, in 1814, and a year later Tobago ceded to Great Britain by the first Treaty of Paris.

Tobago's motto "Pulchrior evenit" ("she becomes more beautiful") was adopted in 1816. All buildings were removed from the Market Place in Scarborough, to make it available for public purposes. An act was passed for the building of the St. Andrew's Anglican Church in Scarborough and the church was consecrated in 1819.

The foundation stone of the Court House and Public Office were laid in 1821. The building was considered to be one of the finest examples of Georgian architecture in the West Indies. Alterations since that time have ruined the original character of the building.

Scarborough was declared a Free Port in 1822. Agriculture was in a poor state. The New Welseyan Chapel opened in Scarborough in 1826 and two years later, a New Government House at Mt.William completed. In 1833 Tobago ceased to have its own Government and became part of the Windward Islands, administered by a Governor General in Barbados and a Lt.Governor in Tobago. The Agricultural Society was formed that year.

The Emancipation of Slaves was introduced in 1834. The Apprentice System, under which slaves were bound to their former masters for four to six years, came into force. Fortunately the transition period passed peacefully. 11,589 slaves were freed and compensation of £233,875 paid to previous owners.

In 1834, the Scotch Presbyterian Church made provision for a clergyman in the Island. The majority of the white population were Scottish. In this same year, the Agricultural Society awarded medals to persons voted to have produced the best sugar.

By 1835, Obeah was being practised in secret and could not be repressed. It persists even in current times. Presbyterian Churches were being built and schools erected and opened. In 1836 unrest among Apprentices led to permission being granted to hold revels, allowing the Apprentices to dance late into the night. The Court House was placed at the disposal of Presbyterian Church for Sunday service in 1837, whilst the church was being built and a branch of the Colonial Bank opened in Scarborough.

Unconditional freedom was granted to all who had been made Apprentices after the abolition of slavery in 1838. Many left the land and became fishermen. This led to discontent and a shortage of labour because labourers were not disposed to take possession of unoccupied land and would not allow their children to cultivate the soil. As a result, many estates went out of cultivation. Attitudes changed, education was now considered necessary and schools were opened.

The crops were poor for several years around 1839. A branch of West Indies Bank opened in Scarborough in 1840 and a year later the Royal Mail Steam Packet Co. began calling at Tobago. In 1843 a light house was erected at Bacolet Point.

During the period of Apprenticeship, few marriages had taken place. By 1843 marriages were frequent and an occasion of festivity. It was rare for the wedding ring to be returned to the clergyman, the accepted form of divorce at that time. Education was reducing Obeah.

In an effort to improve agriculture, Mr. Cruickshank of Prospect Estate introduced the Metayer System in 1843. This profit sharing system was adopted throughout the colony and later applied to cacao and sugar.

A disastrous hurricane proceeded by an earthquake and accompanied by thunderstorm passed over the Island in 1847. Private property valued at $150,000 was destroyed and led to the British Government granting a loan of $50,000 to help those affected.

In 1850 exports from Tobago were: 47,730 cwt sugar; 114,684 gals rum; 3,255 cwt molasses. Cultivation of cotton was advocated. In 1851 the population was 14,378 and in that same year, the British Government sent 292 liberated Africans from St. Helena to settle in Tobago.

The Land Tax was introduced in 1852 and British troops were withdrawn from Fort King George in 1854. The islanders were left to make their own defence and control law and order. However, the British Government promised to keep a 'vessel of war' within call, in case of trouble. The Police Force was augmented and armed Volunteer Corps established. A plot to destroy Scarborough, promoted by immigrant negroes from Barbados, was discovered and dealt with.

In 1855, British Imperial Customs Officers were replaced by Colonial Officers under the Treasurer. An Executive Privy Council, consisting of one member of the Legislative Council and two elected members, was introduced. A Legislative Assembly was appointed by the Lt. Governor.

The first public Hospital was opened in 1856 and two years later Tobago adopted the Encumbered Estates Act of 1854. Commissioners were appointed in London for the sale of lands by creditors or the owner. An equitable distribution was made to all creditors from the proceeds of the sale and a new, unassailable, grant issued for the property allowing it to pass to those with the capital to work it, or those prepared to sell the estate in small lots.

In 1860 the authority of the Imperial Post Office Department was vested in the Executive Government of Tobago. By 1861 the population was 15,410 with exports of sugar at 59,05 cwt; rum 109,047 gals; molasses 1,207 cwt. A further 225 liberated Africans arrived from St. Helena, in 1862, to augment the labour force. 23,195 lbs of cotton were exported in 1865 and the sale and export of the commodity became regulated.

A tax on dogs was introduced in 1867 and caused riots. In 1870, an Italian Roman Catholic Mission was set up at Mason Hall. A year later, the Franchise was extended to $5.00 to property holders. The Concurrent Endowment Act was passed in 1872. The Church of England ceased to be the established church of the colony. Annual grants of money were made to the Anglican Church, United Brethren (Moravians) and Wesleyans.

In 1874, the Single Chamber Act was passed, under which the Legislative Assembly was to consist of six nominated and eight elected members. The Privy Council was reduced to two members. There were riots in the Windward Districts in 1876. In 1877, a new Constitution Act Tobago decreed that Tobago was to be administered as a Crown Colony and the elective principle abolished. The last meeting of the Privy Council was held in December of that year. In 1880 the British Government ceased to provide the salary for the Lt. Governor and the offices of Administrator and Colonial Secretary were combined. The population at that time was 18,051 with exports of sugar at 65,467 cwt; rum 26,050 gals; and molasses 7,780 cwt.

By 1882, labour was very scarce. There were 32 distilleries on the island, but only 17 were working. Tobago had no public debt by 1883. The Agriculture Society held its first show and the opening day was declared a public holiday. At this time, two-thirds of the island was covered with forest. A Royal Commission (Crossman Commission) arrived from London, having been sent to enquire into conditions in the Islands.

In 1884 news was received that the firm, Messrs.A.M.Gillespie & Co. of London, had stopped payment. For many years this firm had carried on business in Tobago as commission merchants and ship owners. They had a virtual monopoly of agriculture and shipping interest, owning about four-fifths of the sugar estates. This event brought about the financial collapse of Tobago. Estates were sold for ten shillings an acre. Peasants took advantage of this offer, but this left little labour for the estates.

The Royal Commission recommended, in 1885, that Grenada, St. Vincent, St. Lucia and Tobago be made into one colony, provided that the proposal was acceptable to the majority of the inhabitants. This met with much opposition, so the matter was dropped. Later in the year, Barbados was made a separate colony and the other islands became the Windward Group, with a Governor in Grenada. Each Island retained its Legislature, presided over by a Resident Administrator. There was a sugar crisis in the West Indies in 1886. Tobago was in a state of depression due to lack of capital and immigrant labour. Modern methods were necessary for the development of the island. By an Order in Council, dated October 20th 1888, Tobago was made subordinate to Trinidad, as from January 1st 1889. The island was to be administered by a Resident Commissioner, who was ex officio a member of the Trinidad Legislative Council and appointed by the Governor of Trinidad.

In 1890, the population of Tobago was 18,353 with revenue of £8,695 and expenditure of £9,253. Imports were £23,403 and exports £19,371. Crops produced that year consisted of: sugar 22,382 cwt; rum 3,432 gals; molasses 7,360 cwt; coconuts 543,312; cacao 31 bags.

By 1898 the island was broke and in debt. It became a ward of Trinidad. "Tobago's humiliation was complete." (Eric Williams: History of the People of Trinidad and Tobago, p150). The Botanical Garden was started in 1899 and cultivation of cocoa began at Richmond.

Cocoa was well established on Tobago by 1908 and coconut palms were beginning to replace the sugar cane. The first few telephones were installed at this time and in 1915 the first motor cars arrived on the island. Riots, in sympathy with those in Trinidad, occurred in 1920 and a year later, a minor hurricane hit the island and caused landslides.

In 1925, a new Trinidad and Tobago constitution established seven constituencies, one of which was Tobago. Bishop's High School opened that year and in 1926 a water reservoir was built at the Fort. In 1927, the first Cocoa Fermenting Cooperative was started in Pembroke and in 1931 a Lime Growers Cooperative was formed. Sugar cane had now been almost totally replaced. The Tobago branch of the 'Band of Mercy', later to become the S.P.C.A., was formed.

There were further riots in Trinidad and Tobago in 1937. After things had quieted down, a British warship was sent and scattered leaflets over Tobago from its seaplane. In 1938, a Royal Commission was sent to inquire into conditions in the British West Indies. The Tobago Chamber of Commerce was inaugurated that year.

The Crown Point Airport opened in 1940 and later that year, the Development and Welfare Organization for the British West Indies set up. In 1941, the first community centre in Plymouth was built by voluntary labour. A radar station was built by the U.S.Army near Charlotteville, in 1942, and B.W.I.A. started their first commercial flights to the island. The Crown Point runway was extended in 1943 and, a year later, the first bus company connected all accessible parts of the Island.

The Second Colonial Development and Welfare Act was passed in 1945, raising great hopes in Tobago. Universal adult suffrage was introduced in 1946 and the island's first nursery school started, in Black Rock, in 1948. Excessive rainfall in 1949 caused severe damage to the northern part of the island. A new Constitution for Trinidad and Tobago was approved in 1950, giving the country more autonomy. Electricity was installed in Scarborough in 1952 and in 1953 the deep-water harbour opened on Scarborough waterfront. Tobago and Trinidad resolved to partake in an independent Caribbean Federation, in 1956, and free secondary education was introduced. Construction of the north coast road commenced.

Trinidad and Tobago became partners of the West Indian Federation in 1958, retaining their own Governor. In 1960 the ships 'Scarlet Ibis' and 'Bird of Paradise' started regular service to and from Port of Spain. 1962 marked the end of the West Indies Federation. Trinidad and Tobago became an "independent and unitary state" within the British Commonwealth under a Governor-General representing the Queen of England.

The Crown Point Airport was paved in 1962. A year later, Hurricane Flora destroyed many houses, estates and large parts of the rain forest, with a total loss of 17 lives. This was the first disastrous hurricane since 1847.

In 1967 Trinidad and Tobago became partners in the Caribbean Free Trade Area (CARIFTA) and the Caribbean Development Bank. The Championship 18-hole golf course opened at Mt. Irvine in 1969 and extensive housing development started all over the island. Riots, caused by imported Black PowerMovement members, disturbed the island's precious peace, in April 1970, but the results were more damage to morale than physical. The harbour facilities were extended in Scarborough in 1972.

Tobago gained more direct administration of its own local affairs when the Tobago House of Assembly (THA) was created in 1980. The island's tourism trade was starting to develop and received a major boost when the Crown Point Airport was upgraded to international status, in 1985, with the runway being lengthened and a new terminal building. A new and larger harbour was built in Scarborough at the same time.