Columbus' arrival

Trinidad was discovered by Columbus and he claimed it for Spain on his third voyage in 1498. Whether he named the island after the day of the Holy Trinity, or after a group of three hills that he spied from the sea is a matter of dispute. At that time there were probably seven tribes of Amerindians living on the island. It was their hostility which prevented successful colonization until the end of the 17th century when Catalan Capuchin missionaries arrived. European diseases and the rigours of slavery took their toll on the Amerindian population and by 1824 their numbers had been reduced to 893.

Spanish rule

The first Spanish Governor was Don Antonio Sedeño who arrived in 1530 but who failed to establish a permanent settlement because of Indian attacks. In 1592 Governor Don Antonio de Berrio y Oruna, founded the town of San José de Oruna (now St Joseph). It was destroyed by Sir Walter Raleigh in 1595 and not rebuilt until 1606. In 1783 a deliberate policy to encourage immigration of Roman Catholics was introduced, known as the Royal Cedula of Population, and it was from this date that organized settlement began with an influx of mostly French-speaking immigrants, particularly after the French Revolution. Many also came from St Lucia and Dominica when these islands were ceded to Britain in 1784. Others came with their slaves from the French Caribbean when slavery was abolished and from Saint Domingue after the War of Independence there (including the Compte de Lopinot, whose house in Lopinot has been restored).

British rule

British rule in Trinidad began in 1797 when an expedition led by Sir Ralph Abercromby captured the island. It was formally ceded to Britain by Spain in 1802 under the Treaty of Amiens. African slaves were imported to work in the sugar fields introduced by the French, until the slave trade was abolished in 1807. After the abolition of slavery, in 1834, labour became scarce and the colonists looked for alternative sources of workers. Several thousands of immigrants from neighbouring islands came in 1834 to 1848, and some Americans from Baltimore and Pennsylvania came in 1841 and Madeiran 'Portuguese' came seeking employment and were joined by small numbers of European immigrants - British, Scots, Irish, French, Germans and Swiss. There was also immigration of free West Africans in the 1840s. In 1844 the British Government gave approval for the import of East Indian labour and the first indentured labourers arrived in 1845. By 1917, when Indian immigration ceased, 141,615 Indians had arrived for an indentured period of five years, and although many returned to India afterwards, the majority settled. The first Chinese arrived in 1849 during a lull in Indian immigration. In 1866 the Chinese Government insisted on a return passage being paid which put an end to Chinese immigration. Labour shortages led to higher wages in Trinidad than in many other islands and from emancipation until the 1960s there was also migration from Barbados, Grenada and St Vincent. In the 1980s and 1990s there has been immigration from Guyana.

Colonial Tobago

Tobago is thought to have been discovered by Columbus in 1498, when it was occupied by Caribs. In 1641 James, Duke of Courland (in Latvia), obtained a grant of the island from Charles I and in 1642 a number of Courlanders settled on the north side. In 1658 the Courlanders were overpowered by the Dutch, who remained in possession of the island until 1662. In this year Cornelius Lampsius procured Letters Patent from Louis XIV creating him the Baron of Tobago under the Crown of France. After being occupied for short periods by the Dutch and the French, Tobago was ceded by France to Britain in 1763 under the Treaty of Paris. But it was not until 1802, after further invasions by the French and subsequent recapture by the British, that it was finally ceded to Britain, becoming a Crown Colony in 1877 and in 1888 being amalgamated politically with Trinidad. By some reckonings Tobago changed hands as many as 29 times and for this reason there are a large number of forts.

Dr Eric Williams

The first political organizations in Trinidad and Tobago developed in the 1880s, but in the 1930s economic depression spurred the formation of labour movements. Full adult suffrage was introduced in 1946 and political parties began to develop. In 1956, the People's National Movement (PNM) was founded by the hugely influential Dr Eric Williams, who dominated local politics until his death in 1981. The party won control of the new Legislative Council, under the new constitutional arrangements which provided for self-government, and Dr Williams became the first Chief Minister. In 1958, Trinidad and Tobago became a member of the new Federation of the West Indies, but after the withdrawal of Jamaica, in 1961, the colony, unwilling to support the poorer members of the Federation, sought the same Independence rights for Trinidad and Tobago. The country became an independent member of the Commonwealth on 31 August 1962, and became a republic within the Commonwealth on 1 August 1976. Dr Williams remained Prime Minister until his death in 1981, his party drawing on the support of the ethnically African elements of the population, while the opposition parties were supported mainly by the ethnic Indians.

Contemporary politics

In 1986, the National Alliance for Reconstruction (NAR) ended 30 years' rule by the PNM, which had been hit by corruption scandals and the end of the oil boom of the 1970s, winning 33 of the 36 parliamentary seats in the general election.

The 1991 elections brought another about turn in political loyalties, with Patrick Manning, of the PNM, leading his party to victory, winning 21 seats. By mid-term the Government was suffering from unpopularity and lack of confidence. In 1995 the economy began to improve and the Prime Minister took a gamble in calling early general elections to increase his majority. His tactic failed, however, when the United National Congress (UNC), led by Basdeo Panday, and the PNM both won 17 seats. Although the PNM received 48.8% of the vote compared with 45.8% for the UNC, Basdeo Panday formed an alliance with the NAR, who again won the two Tobago seats, and he was sworn in as Prime Minister on 9 November 1995. A lawyer and trade union leader, he was the first head of government of Indian descent.

Elections were held in December 2000, after a bad-tempered campaign. The opposition PNM accused the Government of large-scale corruption. With high energy prices and continuing economic growth, the UNC claimed a record of strong 'performance' and attacked the personality of Patrick Manning (PNM leader). The UNC won 52% of the popular vote and 19 of the 36 seats. However, the PNM disputed this result in a number of court cases, alleging electoral malpractice.

In September 2001, three cabinet ministers were fired for speaking out against alleged government corruption. Accordingly, the UNC lost its parliamentary majority, and new elections were held in December 2001, in which both PNM and UNC won 18 seats. With no constitutional mechanism for choosing a prime minister in a 'hung' parliament, both party leaders agreed after discussions that the choice should be made by President Robinson. On Christmas Eve, he appointed Mr Manning of the PNM as Prime Minister. However, the UNC then immediately said that while the President could choose, any choice other than Mr Panday was unconstitutional. With the UNC also reneging on an agreed choice of Speaker, parliament could not function. With a number of official inquiries into corruption allegations in progress, six people including a former UNC finance minister were charged formally with corruption and money laundering in March 2002. New elections in October 2002 gave the PNM a working majority, with 20 seats to 16 for the UNC. In 2006, Mr Panday was found guilty of corruption and given a prison sentence, although he remained on bail, pending an appeal. A dissatisfied faction of the UNC set up a new party, Congress of the People, in time for the 2007 elections.


Trinidad and Tobago became a republic within the Commonwealth on 1 August 1976 under a constitution which provides for a President and a bicameral Parliament comprising a 31-seat Senate and a 36-seat House of Representatives. Tobago has its own 12-seat House of Assembly, which runs many local services. In 2003 the presidential election was won by Max Richards, a former principal of the University of the West Indies. The electoral college which votes for the president is made up of the House of Representatives and the Senate.


Petroleum, natural gas and their products dominate the economy, providing about 31% of GDP, 33% of government current revenue but only 3% of employment. Production is around 150,000 barrels a day. There is one refinery, at Pointe-à-Pierre. The island has substantial proven reserves of natural gas of 733 billion cu m, producing about 28 billion cu m a year. These are used as a basic raw material for the production of petrochemicals such as methanol and ammonia, to provide liquefied natural gas for export and to provide electric power throughout the country. Trinidad's mineral deposits include asphalt from the pitch lake at La Brea on the southwest coast, gypsum, limestone, sand and gravel, which are mainly used for construction.

Agriculture now contributes only 0.8% of GDP and employs only 5% of the labour force. Coffee and cocoa production has fallen and the sugar industry is being phased out. A shortage of fruits and vegetables pushed up prices by 26% in 2006.

Tourism is an important source of foreign exchange, but only really in Tobago. Of 460,195 total stopover arrivals in 2005, 33%, around 154,000, were leisure tourists staying in hotels and guesthouses, most of whom go to Tobago. Business visitors made up 18% of the total and 60% are Trinidadians and visitors staying with friends and relatives. Tobago now has 2,200 hotel rooms available, following an expansion in construction, notably a 200-room
hotel, while Trinidad has slightly fewer. There were 67,000 cruise ship passengers in 2005, most of them to Port of Spain but with some to Tobago. Neither island is a major cruise port.


Trinidad has one of the world's most cosmopolitan populations. The emancipation of the slaves in 1834 and the adoption of free trade by Britain in 1846 resulted in far-reaching social and economic changes. To meet labour shortages, over 150,000 immigrants were encouraged to settle here from India, China and Madeira. Of today's population of approximately 1,276,000, about 38% are black and 40% East Indian. The rest are mixed race, white, Syrian or Chinese. French and Spanish influences dominated for a long time (Catholicism is still strong) but gradually the English language and institutions prevailed and today the great variety of peoples has become a fairly harmonious entity, despite occasional political tension between blacks and those of East Indian descent. French patois is still spoken here and there, eg in the village of Paramin, just north of Port of Spain.

Tobago's population, mainly black, numbers about 51,000. The crime rate is catching up with Trinidad's but the people are still noticeably helpful and friendly.


Catholics are still the largest religious group but Hindus are not far behind. The Anglican Church and Methodists are also influential, as are many evangelical groups and the Muslim organisations. Spiritual Baptists blend African and Christian beliefs; the women wear white robes and head ties on religious occasions. They can be seen performing baptisms in the sea on the coast to the west of Port of Spain on Sunday nights. Orishas follow a more purely African tradition. Most East Indians are Hindu, some are Muslim, while others have converted to Christianity, particularly Presbyterianism (Canadian Presbyterian missionaries were the first to try converting the Indian population).

Carnival and visual arts

The most exciting introduction to the culture of this republic is the Carnival, or 'De Mas', as locals refer to the annual 'celebration of the senses'. Alongside a strong oral/literary tradition goes a highly developed visual culture, reflecting the islands' racial mix. The most obvious examples are the designs for the carnival bands, which often draw on craft skills like wire bending, copper beating, and the use of fibreglass moulds. A fabled, controversial Mas' designer is Peter Minshall, who designed the opening ceremony for the 1992 Barcelona Olympic Games and for the Atlanta Games in 1996. Michel Jean Cazabon, born 1813, was the first great local artist (an illustrated biography by Geoffrey MacLean is out of print, but there is an illustrated book on the Lord Harris Collection with plenty of information). Contemporary work to look out for includes paintings and other artwork by Christopher Cozier, Irenée Shaw, Sarah Beckett, Che Lovelace, Mario Lewis, Wendy Nanan, Emheyo Bahabba (Embah), Francisco Cabral, and Anna Serrao and Johnny Stollmeyer. Other established artists include Pat Bishop, Isaiah Boodhoo, LeRoy Clarke, Kenwyn Crichlow and Boscoe Holder.

Carnival is a national obsession. It is an extraordinary spectacle and a vibrant time to be in Trinidad. Much of the country's artistic energy is poured into these heady few days. Carnival in Trinidad is considered by many to be safer, more welcoming to visitors and artistically more stimulating than its nearest rival in Rio de Janeiro. Commercialization is undermining many of the greatest Mas' traditions, but some of the historical characters like the
Midnight Robber
and the
Moko Jumbies
can be glimpsed at the Viey La Cou old-time Carnival street theatre at Queen's Hall a week before Carnival and often at
(pronounced joo-vay) on Carnival Monday morning, and in small, independent bands of players. But it's a great party, enlivened by hundreds of thousands of costumed masqueraders and the homegrown music, calypso and steel band (usually referred to as 'pan'). The traditional venue for the majority of Carnival events, Queen's Park Savannah, is likely to be replaced from 2007 because of a major construction project.

Music and theatre

Calypsonians (or kaisonians, as the more historically minded call them) are the commentators, champions and sometime conscience of the people. This unique musical form, a mixture of African, French and, eventually, British, Spanish and East Indian influences, dates back to Trinidad's first 'shantwell', Gros Jean, late in the 18th century. Since then it has evolved into a popular, potent force, with both men and women (also children, of late) battling for the Calypso Monarch's crown. This fierce competition takes place at the Sunday night Dimanche Gras show, which in turn immediately precedes the official start of J'Ouvert at 0400 on the Monday morning, marking the beginning of Carnival proper. Calypsonians band together to perform in 'tents' (performing halls) in the weeks leading up to the competition and are judged in semi-finals, which hones down the list to six final contenders. The season's songs blast from radio stations and sound systems all over the islands and visitors should ask locals to interpret the sometimes witty and often scurrilous lyrics, for they are a fascinating introduction to the state of the nation. Currently, party soca tunes dominate, although some of the commentary calypsonians, like Sugar Aloes, are still heard on the radio. There is also a new breed of 'Rapso' artists, fusing calypso and rap music. Chutney, an Indian version of calypso, is also becoming increasingly popular, especially since the advent of radio stations devoted only to Indian music. Chutney is also being fused with soca, to create 'chutney soca'.

Pan music has a shorter history, developing this century from the tamboo-bamboo bands which made creative use of tins, dustbins and pans plus lengths of bamboo for percussion instruments. By the end of the Second World War (during which Carnival was banned) some ingenious souls discovered that huge oil drums could be converted into expressive instruments, their top surfaces tuned to all ranges and depths (the ping pong, or soprano pan, embraces 28 to 32 notes, including both the diatonic and chromatic scales). Aside from the varied pans, steel bands also include a rhythm section dominated by the steel, or iron men. For Carnival, the steel bands compete in the grand Panorama, playing calypsoes which are also voted on for the Road March of the Year. Biennally, the
World Steel Band Festival
highlights the versatility of this music, for each of the major bands must play a work by a classical composer as well as a calypso of their choice. On alternate years the National Schools Steel Band Festival is held, in late October/early November. A pan jazz festival is held annually in November, with solos, ensembles and orchestras all emphasizing the versatility of the steel drum,

Other musical forms in this music-mad nation include parang (pre-Christmas). Part of the islands' Spanish heritage, parang is sung in Spanish and accompanied by guitar, cuatro, mandolin and tambourine. The big annual
competitions are at Paramin, in a natural hillside amphitheatre, and at Lopinot. For the Hindu and Muslim festivals, there are East Indian drumming and vocal styles such as chowtal, which is particularly associated with Phagwa in early March.

Flora and fauna

The rainforests of the
Northern Range
running along the north coast and the wetlands on the east and west coast are more extensive, more dense and display a greater diversity of fauna and flora than any other ecosystems in the Caribbean. The
Forestry Division
has designated many parts of Trinidad and Tobago as national parks, wildlife reserves and protected areas. On Trinidad, the national parks are the Caroni and Nariva Swamps, Matura and Chaguaramas.

Many flowering trees can be seen on the islands: pink and yellow poui, frangipani, cassia, pride of India, immortelle, flamboyant, jacaranda. Among the many types of flower are hibiscus, poinsettia, chaconia (wild poinsettia - the national flower), ixora, bougainvillea, orchid, ginger lily and heliconia.

The islands are home to 60 types of bat, and other mammals include the Trinidad capuchin and red howler monkeys, brown forest brocket (deer), collared peccary (quenk), manicou (opossum), agouti, rare ocelot and armadillo. A small group of manatees is being protected in a reserve in the Nariva Swamp. Other reptiles include iguanas and 47 species of snakes, of which few are poisonous: the fer-de-lance (locally,
), bushmaster and two coral snakes. The variety of fauna on Tobago is larger than on other similar-sized islands because of its one-time attachment to South America. It is home to 210 different bird species, 123 different butterfly species, 16 types of lizards, 14 kinds of frogs, 24 species of snakes (all of them harmless), and it has some spectacled caymans at Hillsborough Dam.

Trinidad and Tobago together have more species of birds than any other Caribbean island, although the variety is South American, not West Indian. No species is endemic, but Tobago has 13 species of breeding birds not found on Trinidad. Some estimates say that there are 433 species of bird, including 41 hummingbirds, parrots, macaws, the rare red-breasted blackbird, the nightingale-thrush and the mot mot. There are also 622 recorded species of butterfly.

Each October Trinidad and Tobago hold
Natural History Festivals
to foster understanding of the islands' flora and fauna.


Trinidad has mangrove swamps, fresh swamps, grassy freshwater marshes, palm marshes and water-logged savannah land, covering 7,000 acres of the Central Plain. A permit from the Wildlife Section of the Forestry Division (T6625114) is necessary for trips into restricted areas such as the Nariva Swamp and Bush Bush Island in the Aripo Scientific Reserve; 72 hours' notice is required; visit with a guide who can arrange it for you. The Nariva Swamp, the largest freshwater swamp in Trinidad, is a Wetland of International Importance under the Ramsar Convention. It contains hardwood forest and is home to red howler monkeys and the weeping capuchin as well as 55 other species of mammal of which 32 are bats. Birds include the savannah hawk and the red-breasted blackbird. A tour by kayak is recommended as you will see more than you would on a motor boat. You paddle silently across fields of giant water lilies, through channels in the thick forest of mangroves and towering silk cotton trees, with monkeys and parrots chattering overhead. The Caroni Swamp is usually visited in the late afternoon as it is the roosting place of scarlet ibis and egrets.


The Northern Range Sanctuary, Maracas, or El Tucuche Reserve, is a forest on the second-highest peak, at 3072 ft, covering 2313 acres. The slopes are covered with forest giants such as the silk cotton trees, which carry creepers and vines. The thick forest canopy of mahogany, balata, palms and flowering trees like the poui and immortelle provides cover and maintains a cool, damp environment no matter the heat of the day. The interesting flora and fauna include giant bromeliads and orchids, the golden tree frog and the orange-billed nightingale-thrush. There are several hiking trails, the most popular of which is from Ortinola estate (Maracas, St Joseph valley, which is on other side of mountains from Maracas beach; guides can be hired. The seven-mile trek to the peak takes five hours through dense forest; the views from the top are spectacular; for information on hiking contact the Field Naturalists' Club. Much easier is the three-hour trail to Maracas beach from Gasparillo village in Santa Cruz, not to be confused with Gasparillo near San Fernando. The trail is kept clear by a job-creation scheme and is easy to follow.

Trinity Hills Wildlife Sanctuary
lies west of Guayaguayare and was founded in 1934. Its forests are home to a large variety of birds, monkeys, armadillos and opossums. Permits can be obtained from the Wildlife Section of the Forestry Division.

Valencia Wildlife Sanctuary
has mostly been destroyed due to extensive quarrying in the area. No permit needed. The
Arena Forest
, is one of about 10 recreation parks, while five areas have been designated scenic landscapes (Blanchisseuse, Maracas and Toco-Matelot on the north coast, Cocos Bay on the Atlantic, and Mount Harris on the Southern Road, south of Sangre Grande). Permission to visit certain forests and watershed areas must be obtained from the
Water and Sewerage Authority (WASA)
. Although about 31% of the island remains forested, there is concern about the loss of wildlife habitats, with damage from hunting, illegal logging and quarrying and clearing of wetland for rice cultivation.

On Tobago, apart from two reserves (Buccoo Reef and the virgin and secondary forests of east Tobago), there are the
natural landmark, the
wetland, which it is hoped will be designated a scientific reserve, the
nature conservation area, the
scenic landscape, and three recreation parks (including Mount Irvine). The Main Ridge Rainforest is the oldest rainforest reserve in the Western Hemisphere but has not yet been made a national park. At the
Grafton Bird Sanctuary
some of the world's most beautiful birds, the blue crowned mot mots, are fed at 0800 and 1600 at the Old Copra House. They are not tame enough to be hand-fed but it is still a spectacular sight. Many of the small islands (Saut d'Eau, Kronstadt Island and Soldado Rock off Trinidad, and Little Tobago, St Giles and Marble Islands off Tobago) are reserves for wildlife with the largest seabird colonies in the southern Caribbean. They are important breeding grounds for red-billed tropic birds, frigate birds, man-o-war and other seabirds. A permit is needed to visit these areas, usually arranged through a tour guide.

This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF
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