The native Caribs – reportedly one of the most peaceful and friendly tribes in history – held out against Amerindians, but were unable to defend their land from the arrival of the Europeans (and their imported diseases) in the 1500s. Fought over fervently by the English, Dutch and French – as well as the Spanish and Latvians, known as Courlanders – the island changed hands repeatedly over two centuries in a series of bloody battles. So rapid was this giant game of pass-the-parcel that no-one even knows for sure how many times it was conquered – though it is estimated to be around 32. What is known is that it has changed hands more times than any other Caribbean island.
Sadly for Tobago, its fertile soils were ideal for growing those crops most closely associated throughout history with slavery, bloodshed and exploitation: sugar and cotton. Under British rule in the 18th century, these crops, along with indigo and rum, were exported in vast quantities, and Tobago’s fortunes mirrored the ebb and flow of the volatile markets. This was made possible, of course, by the thousands of Africans who were shipped here to work on the plantations as slaves. The British Empire’s abolition of slavery in 1807 initially had little impact on the island’s production. Slaves remained on the plantations, where they were expected to work as “apprentices” for a number of years. Extraordinarily, passive resistance and non-violent protest across both Trinidad and Tobago proved successful – and full emancipation was finally granted in 1838.
One positive byproduct of the plantation era, however, was the establishment of the Main Ridge Forest Reserve in 1776 – the oldest protected forest in the Western hemisphere
. English scientist Stephen Hales made the connection between the forest and Tobago’s abundant rainfall* – and consequently its abundant freshwater, which was much-needed by passing ships as well as plantation owners. This unusually forward-thinking response is therefore one of the earliest examples of environmental conservation.
By the late 1800s, the loss of slave workers combined with repeated invasions and a devastating hurricane ravaged Tobagos plantations – and its economy. After being lusted after for so long, this troublesome little island was soon seen as causing more problems than it was worth; in 1889, it was annexed to Trinidad to become the Colony of Trinidad and Tobago. Full independence within the Commonwealth was gained in 1962, and the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago came into being in 1976
Tobago’s turmoil was not behind it however, as Hurricane Flora all but razed the island in 1963
– an event so devastating it is still talked about today. Acres of cacao, coconuts and citrus trees were washed away, and citizens were forced to start from scratch – again.
This time, tourism was deemed to be a more sustainable industry. The island had attracted attention as the setting for the Swiss Family Robinson film and as the location for Princess Margaret’s honeymoon – both in 1960, while members of the Beatles vacationed there later in the decade. Tourism is now the main industry on Tobago, although thanks to the revenue from Trinidad’s oil and gas, it has never needed to grow at the rapid – and frequently ruinous – pace of other Caribbean islands. Where once the lack of 200-room hotels and five-star service may have been considered a disadvantage, today’s eco-conscious travelers are excited to discover a piece of the true Caribbean, where family-run guesthouses outnumber all-inclusive suites, and diving and birding – not sunbathing and bar hopping – are the top activities.
As the parcel is passed along yet again – this time to the more respectful world traveler – it is being recognised as one which still has many, many layers to unwrap, belying its compact size. As well as its natural wonders, Tobago’s colourful past has created a unique appeal to visitors, as reflected in the welcoming words of Trinidad and Tobago’s national anthem: “Here every creed and race / Finds an equal place”