The unique character of the Tobagonian people has been moulded by the island's history. More than 90% of Tobago's population are of African origin. Their forbears were brought to the island's sugar plantations as slaves. Slavery was abolished in the British dominions in 1807, but it was not until 1838 that the transition was complete and every slave freed. There was a shortage of labour on the island, so owners gave their former slaves plots of land as an incentive to keep working on the plantation.
The North American financial crisis of 1884 resulted in the financial collapse of Tobago. Estates were sold for ten shillings an acre. Many peasants took advantage of the offer. This meant that even less labour was available for work on the plantations.
The peasants built homes on their land and eked a simple but adequate living through subsistence agriculture. The rich coastal waters and rainforest were bountiful. They lacked for little and were dependent upon no one. Time had little meaning. With no industry or commerce, family and community became the only focus of the islanders.
From this heritage sprang the very great pride that is so apparent in every modern Tobagonian. As land and property owners, they hold their heads high and feel subservient to no one. They are still very conscious of their historical background and many Tobagonians still associate 'service' with 'servitude'. Jobs in service are still perceived as being of low status.
Tobagonian people are by nature friendly and hospitable. They have great pride in both themselves and their island. Show any interest and you're likely to be dragged off on a spontaneous tour, with nothing more than a smile expected in return. Understanding and respecting this pride is the secret to getting the best from Tobagonians and therefore Tobago. The secret is simple: your respect will be repaid many times over.
It is easy for first-timers to get off to a bad start because of the 'pride/servitude' issue. Tobagonians have taken the art of not making eye-contact with patrons to a new level. It can be hilarious watching a waiter or waitress ignore a demanding first-timer who has had the temerity to snap their fingers and bellow "Get me …".
Some years back, I was discussing this subject with a Tobagonian business owner friend. I live in rural Suffolk, in England, where it is considered highly rude to walk pass someone without acknowledging them, when away from urban areas. My friend agreed, but also said that if she was passing a foreigner, she felt 'presumptuous' to speak first.
This comment surprised me. This lady is a pillar of the community, well respected and liked and highly familiar with the ways of foreigners. I found it disappointing that someone in her position could feel "presumptuous" to address a (white) foreigner before they had spoken to her. She might have been an exception, rather than the rule, but it does shows how deeply ingrained the taint of slavery can be. Most of us never give the subject a thought. Maybe we should.
Your first impression may well be that most Tobagonians are haughty and unfriendly. Do not be put off by their initial countenance. I was brought up in the region and taught that what is known as a 'polite face' represents sober attention. Smiles are reserved for something funny, or someone well-known and liked. Similarly, interrupting someone's conversation is considered extremely bad manners, so a waiter approaching you with a 'polite face' and not saying a word, while you hum and hah and ponder over what to order, is being very polite – not unfriendly or haughty, as you might think.
A very useful tip is to start every conversation with "Good morning" or "Good evening", as appropriate, and close it with "OK" as you walk away. A quiet "Good morning" as you enter anywhere that locals gather, such as a mini-mart, bar or café, can do wonders. Avoid abbreviating it to "Hi", or even "Morning" and, more important still, NEVER, ever, use sickening platitudes like "Have a nice day". This is particularly important when driving in the more remote parts of the island. If you stop to ask directions and start a conversation with "Can you tell me the way..." you may just receive a cold stare. Start with "Good morning, can you tell me...." and they are likely drop what they were doing, jump in the car and take you there personally.
The pace of life on the island is so slow that it is almost stationary. Given the nature of island life, time has little, if any, meaning. If you are to appreciate Tobago, you must switch off your northern concept of time as soon as your aircraft lands. The best thing you can do is to pack your watch in your suitcase. Nothing runs to time. A business that claims an opening time of 9am will probably open sometime before 11am. I remember one busy petrol (gas) station closing for two hours in the middle of the day because the owner was tired. The gentle shrug and non-judgemental "He gone for sleep, man" from another driver, sat patiently waiting for fuel, said everything one needs to know about Tobagonian nature. If you let your frustration show, you will immediately cross the divide.
It is a sad reflection on modern life that these guidelines apply less to younger people than older and less in urban areas like Crown Point and Scarborough, where residents are now well-used to foreigners. However, even in these areas you will be treading on safe ground if you apply these guidelines. The courtesy you extend will be repaid many times over as you unlock those huge smiles that rise all the way from the feet. And those smiles are the reason that we love Tobago so much and return year after year.
The bottom line is that polite, well-mannered people who treat Tobagonians with respect and consideration release the magic of the island without even realising how.