Trinidad was the first inhabited island of the Caribbean, having been settled by Amerindians from South America as early as 5000 BC. They called the island "Leri", the land of the hummingbird. Later, Trinidad and Tobago became the first Caribbean Islands occupied by both the Igneri, a peaceful subgroup of the Arawak tribe; and the hostile Caribs.
The history of Trinidad & Tobago is one of invasion and conquest since its discovery by Christopher Columbus, who claimed it for Spain, in 1498. He christened it La Isla de la Trinidad, for the Holy Trinity, which he saw represented by three peaks on the southern coast. Trinidad’s sister island, Tobago, was named in 1502 for the tobacco the local Carib Indians smoked. The Spanish who followed in Columbus’ wake enslaved many of Trinidad’s Amerindian inhabitants, taking them to toil in the new South American colonies. Spain, in its rush for gold, gave only scant attention to the potential of Trinidad’s land, which lacked precious minerals. A Spanish colony was founded on Trinidad in 1532. It took until 1592 for the Spanish to establish their first settlement, San Josef, just east of the present-day capital of Port of Spain, but the colony was destroyed by Sir Walter Raleigh in 1595. Over the next two centuries unsuccessful attempts were made by Spanish colonizers to establish tobacco and cacao plantations but crop failures and a lack of support from Spain left the island only lightly settled. In 1704 it was declared a neutral territory, which left room for pirates to use the island as a base for raiding ships in the Eastern Caribbean. The British returned to establish a colonial administration on Tobago in 1763, and within two decades 10,000 African slaves were imported to establish the island’s sugar, cotton and indigo plantations.
The Spanish recovered their possession and held on to it until 1797, when it was captured by a British naval
expedition. The Spanish Crown’s most important Governor (from 1784 to 1797) was Don José Maria Chacon, a multilingual Spaniard with a black mistress and mulatto children. He was most responsible for the British colonizing Trinidad. Chacon executed a well
negotiated surrender preceded by a weak fight with the British. Apparently, he felt abandoned by the Spanish and trusted the British more than the French whom he called "treacherous friends". Trinidad was formally ceded to the British crown under the treaty of Amiens in 1802.
Tobago was raided and settled by the Dutch in the 1630s and they introduced sugar cane to the island. The French – with the Spanish as their allies on this occasion – took over in 1781, expanding sugar production using slave labour. The British took possession of Tobago in 1814, after the Napoleonic wars. Slavery was abolished in the 1830s prompting the British
to import thousands of indentured workers, mostly from India, to work in the cane fields and service the colony. The indentured labor system remained in place for over 100 years. In 1888, Tobago was amalgamated with Trinidad and administered as a single colony thereafter.
The depression of the 1930s led to a series of strikes and riots and the growth of a labor movement on the islands. Reforms began after World War II, with the introduction of adult suffrage in 1945. The British sponsored the West Indies Federation as a potential post-colonial model, in the belief that most of the Caribbean islands would be unable to survive politically or economically on their own. The Caribbean peoples thought otherwise and the Federation collapsed in the early 1960s. By this time, Trinidad & Tobago had already been granted internal self-government and achieved full independence on 31 August 1962. The islands’ leading political figure for the next two decades was Eric Williams, who served as prime minister from independence until his death in 1981. His party, the People’s National Movement (PNM), has dominated the country’s politics since independence, winning every general election from independence until the mid-1980s. Unlike other Caribbean islands, Trinidad is blessed with many natural resources. The island’s prior ancient status as part of the mainland means it shares substantial marine oil and gas reserves with its neighbor Venezuela and the 1970’s oil boom wealth transformed Trinidad & Tobago into democratically middle class nation. In April 1970 a uprising is put down by security forces. On 1 August 1976 Trinidad and Tobago got a new constitution and became a presidential republic.
The PNM’s main support comes from the Afro-Caribbean population. However, during the mid-1980s, the nation’s other ethnic groups, especially those of South Asian origin – descendants of those transported as indentured labour to work the sugar plantations in the 19th century – became more involved in politics and began to pose a threat to the hegemony of the PNM. And so, at the 1986 general election, the three-year-old National Alliance for Reconstruction (NAR), a coalition of four opposition parties under the leadership of Arthur Robinson, formed a government for the first time. The Robinson government took Trinidad into the Caribbean Common Market (CARICOM) in 1988, although the benefits were more than offset by the unfortunate, simultaneous collapse of oil prices, which cut government revenues and plunged the country into recession.
Over the next two years, popular discontent with the government was greater than normal but by no means a serious threat. The attempted coup of July 1990, staged by a 100-strong group of Islamic extremists, under leadership of Yasin Abu Bakir, thus came as a considerable surprise, although it was comfortably suppressed after five days. Militant Islam has since played no role in the country’s politics and although voters now tend to divide along ethnic lines, there is minimal political violence of the type seen in Jamaica or Guyana. However, the NAR was fatally damaged by the incident and, in December 1991, it was heavily defeated at the polls by the PNM, under Patrick Manning. It has since been wiped out – even in its Tobago stronghold – as an electoral force.
The 1990s saw the rise of the predominantly Asian United National Congress (UNC), under the leadership of Basdeo Panday, which narrowly won the December 1995 election. The Indian and Afro-Caribbean populations both account for around 40 per cent of the electorate and both main parties therefore competed fiercely for the 20 per cent mixed-race vote. The election of December 2000 followed a similar pattern, with the UNC once again coming out on top with a small majority. Panday continued as prime minister but his government was brought down by a serious corruption scandal (the UNC has been persistently dogged by such allegations) after less than a year. At the December 2001 poll, the UNC and Patrick Manning’s PNM were tied on 18 seats each. After 12 months of almost paralysed government, the country went to the polls once again, in October 2002. This time, the PNM, with Patrick Manning still at the helm, was returned with small working majority.