Trinidad and Tobago 2

Trinidad and Tobago

Trinidad and Tobago 3
Newly arrived indentured Indian laborers in Trinidad and Tobago.

Indentureship contracts were sometimes exploitative, to such an extent that historians such as Hugh Tinker were to call it “a new system of slavery”. Despite these descriptions, it was not truly a new form of slavery, as workers were paid, contracts were finite, and the idea of an individual being another’s property had been eliminated when slavery was abolished. In addition, employers of indentured labor had no legal right to flog or whip their workers; the main legal sanction for the enforcement of the indenture laws was prosecution in the courts, followed by fines or (more likely) jail sentences. People were contracted for a period of five years, with a daily wage as low as 25 cents in the early 20th century, and they were guaranteed return passage to India at the end of their contract period. However, coercive means were often used to retain laborers, and the indentureship contracts were soon extended to 10 years from 1854 after the planters complained that they were losing their labor too early. In lieu of the return passage, the British authorities soon began offering portions of land to encourage settlement, and by 1902, more than half of the sugar cane in Trinidad was being produced by independent cane farmers; the majority of which were Indians. Despite the trying conditions experienced under the indenture system, about 90% of the Indian immigrants chose, at the end of their contracted periods of indenture, to make Trinidad their permanent home. East Indians entering the colony were also subject to certain crown laws which segregated them from the rest of Trinidad’s population, such as the requirement that they carry a pass with them if they left the plantations, and that if freed, they carry their “Free Papers” or certificate indicating completion of the indenture period.

Trinidad and Tobago 4
Colonial flag of Trinidad and Tobago, 1889–1958

Few Indians settled on Tobago however, and the descendants of African slaves continued to form the majority of the island’s population. An ongoing economic slump in the middle-to-late 19th century caused widespread poverty. Discontent erupted into rioting on the Roxborough plantation in 1876, in an event known as the Belmanna Uprising after a policeman who was killed. The British eventually managed to restore control, however as a result of the disturbances Tobago’s Legislative Assembly voted to dissolve itself and the island became a Crown colony in 1877. With the sugar industry in a state of near-collapse and the island no longer profitable, the British attached Tobago to their Trinidad colony in 1889.

Early 20th Century:

In 1903, a protest against the introduction of new water rates in Port of Spain erupted into rioting; 18 people were shot dead, and the Red House (the government headquarters) was damaged by fire. A local elected assembly with some limited powers was introduced in 1913. Economically Trinidad and Tobago remained a predominantly agricultural colony; alongside sugarcane, the cacao (cocoa) crop also contributed greatly to economic earnings in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

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