Map of Tobago

Map of Tobago

History of Tobago

Tobago has been inhabited for around 6,000 years and once formed part of a wide network of 'Amerindian' cultures extending throughout the Windward Islands and South America. Around the time of Columbus the Callenago or Kalina lived on Tobago and other islands to the north. Europeans later called them 'Caribbees', 'Charibs' or 'Caribs'. Spanish colonists described them as cannibals but there is no archaeological evidence of widespread cannibalism.

It is uncertain when Tobago was first discovered by people from the Old World. The neighbouring islands of Trinidad and Grenada were 'discovered' by Columbus' third expedition in 1498 when they reached South America, near the mouth of the Orinoco. According to Henry Iles Woodcock's History of Tobago (1866): "As Tobago may be seen at a distance of forty miles at sea, it is not improbable that Columbus came in sight of it in his course from Grenada to Trinidad on this voyage; and if seen, it would have been unlike the great adventurer had it not been visited."

There is no written record either of such a visit or of the original inhabitants but Woodcock cites Thomas Coke's History of the West Indies (1808-1811) as stating that 'as the result of the contest between the Black and Red Charaibs, in St Vincent, that several of the latter fled in their canoes to the continent of America, and others to the island of Tobago.'

Sir William Young (Governor of Tobago, 1807-1815), again cited by Woodcock, stated:

"There are three families of Red Charaibs settled in a corner of my Louis-d'Or estate, and their history is briefly this: Louis was five years old when his father and family fled (about fifty years past) from the persecution of the Africans, or Black Charaibs of St. Vincent. The family has since divided into three distinct ones by increase of numbers. Louis, the chief, is a very sensible man, and in his traffic for fish and other articles has obtained some knowledge of the French language ......... I interrogated Louis as to religion. He is now a Catholic, but says that the Charaib belief was always in a future state. Formerly, they used to bury the defunct sitting, with his bow, arrows, etc; but now, says Louis, we bury au long et droid (this was his expression), and could not easily start up and fly to heaven; but being long and straight, it can fly up directly when called. This argument was possibly suggested by the Catholic missionaries to make the poor Charaibs leave the old practice."

There were a number of failed settlement attempts, notably in 1625 and 1632. The first successful European colonists were sent by James, Duke of Courland - then an independent state in the Baltic where Latvia is today - in 1642. Great Courland Bay, on the Caribbean side of the island, preserves the name of that colony. The Dutch also settled but on the south side of the island. There followed a complicated series of land-grabs, skirmishes, claims, counter-claims, slave revolts and wars involving the Dutch, French and British interests in the Caribbean. Estimates of the number of times the island changed hands range between 22 and 32! Finally, Tobago became a recognised British possession under the treaty of 1814. Slavery was abolished in 1838 but most people in Tobago are still of African descent. Tobago was united with its much larger and subsequently more racially-diverse neighbour, Trinidad, in 1888. The islands became an independent country in 1962 and a republic in 1976. Tobago was granted internal self-government in 1987 with its own House of Assembly.

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