When, in 1580, some English sailors came ashore on the island we know today as Tobago, it was a good thing they did not remain long. We do not know how long they remained but they remained long enough to tie the British flag to a tree. This was said to mean they were claiming the island for England. All the better, then, that they soon disappeared. Because had they been caught by the owners of the island — the Caribs — they would have been claimed as well, and we’d have known nothing of it.
Tobago came into recorded history 45 years later when British settlers from Barbados led by an Anglican priest called Nicholas Leverton went to the island to found a settlement. This party was not as lucky as the English sailors. Caribs spotted them on the shore and they had to flee for their lives. Most fell to Carib arrows, and the few who escaped, arrived in Barbados wounded and bleeding.
From that date, 1625, Tobago was never left in peace. News had got around of the fierce Caribs and three nations in particular seem to have decided that the Caribs must never be masters of Tobago. These were the British, the French and the Dutch. Indeed the British felt it was they who owned Tobago because of the seamen who had tied the Union Jack to a tree.
In 1626, the year after Leverton was routed, Charles I gave a charter to the Dutch West India Company to found a settlement in Tobago. The Dutch sent a party in 1628 but the hostile Caribs drove them away, leaving many dead on the beach. One is not sure what happened in the time between but five years later the Dutch tried again and it was astonishing because the Caribs never challenged them. The Dutch called their settlement New Walcheren, and this was located in the northeastern corner of the island, on the site that Charlotteville occupies today. The truth about the Caribs seems to be that they had become scared, seeing the power of fire-arms. However, New Walcheren was not to flourish long, because the Spaniards in Trinidad, not trusting the Dutch, sent an expedition and drove he settlers away.
In 1641 Charles the First of England gave Tobago as a present to his godson, James, Duke of Courland. James at once thought of settling Tobago and he had a most favourable description of the island written up and circulated, encouraging settlers to find a new life in the island. The island was described as green and fertile, and beautiful beyond all telling. It is said that it was one of these pamphlets that got into the hand of the English writer Daniel Defoe leading him to write the classic, Robinson Crusoe. But, Crusoe or not, in the year 1641 Tobago was just beginning to live its violent story, as we shall see.
TOBAGO — CARNAGE AT COURLAND
No sooner had James, Duke of Courland, sent settlers to Tobago in 1642, than the Caribs, who the European plunderers had felt were now docile and accepting, rose up and brutally wiped them out. And that turned out to be the last of Carib resistance in Tobago. Despite the differences amongst the marauders of the sea they got together to annihilate the Caribs, and although no record exists of the inhumanity which must have reigned and the brutality which must have been the order of the day, the effect was total. So much was this so, that when in 1654 a group of 600 men, women and children from Courland arrived in Tobago, there was nothing to oppose them. They came ashore in what is now Great Courland Bay, and they formed a settlement which must go down as the first permanent settlement in Tobago. For no permanent Carib settlement was known, or so one is led to believe.
Certainly the Caribs were a nomadic people, moving from place to place, but groups of them did have their headquarters, as in the case of the Caribs of Martinique, of Dominica, St Lucia, and of course of Tobago. Tobago itself — originally pronounced Tobargo — was the Carib name for the island, which arose from the name they gave the crop of aromatic leaves in which they traded and smoked, and from which came the name: Tobaco. The name may have been tobaco in the first place and corrupted by one of the European nations to Tobago, one is just not sure. (But what is sure is that the Caribs gave names to all the islands that were their headquarters, thus we have Dominica, Columbus’ name for the island the Caribs called Wy-tou-koubouli (“Home of the Blessed”); St Vincent, which the Caribs called Hiroona; St Lucia, another Columbus name, which replaced the Carib Hewanorra; Martinique, which the Spaniards rendered as Martinico, but which the Caribs called Ay Ay; and Guadeloupe, another Columbus name for the island the Caribs called: Keru Kera.
And what of Tobago, or shall we say Tobaco? It remained a Carib island at least up to around the year 1654. The settlers from the little European duchy of Courland — which today is Latvia — called the bay in which they landed, Courland Bay, and their settlement was Niew Vlissingen. Later that same year the Dutch arrived to settle, and unlike the pattern of ejecting other strangers and taking their place, they went to the opposite shore and peaceably settled. That Dutch group was led by the brothers Adrian and Cornelius Lampsins. Although there was no hostility between the two groups, it will be remembered that in 1642 Charles the First had given Tobago as a present to his godson, James, Duke of Courland, and on the other hand, in 1626 the very Charles the First had given the Dutch West India Company a charter to settle the island. So the duke, an Englishman, and the Dutch government, claimed Tobago. The seeds of conflict? Yes, the seeds of conflict, but stifled by a treaty of friendship between Holland and the little duchy. The two communities existed side by side, the Courlanders at Great Courland Bay, and the Dutch at Roquely Bay. They were free of enemies because the Caribs were already bludgeoned into subjection. The only possible unrest had to come from they themselves. But they were living lovingly and matters were proceeding extremely well. But for how long?
TOBAGO - LAMPINSBURG
In 1658 trouble flared up in Europe between the Duchy of Courland and the Swedes. The Swedes by force of arms over-ran Courland, captured the duke of Courland and imprisoned him. When this news reached Tobago the Dutch, far from showing sympathy to the Courlanders, marched across the island, seized the Courlanders’ territory and brought it under Dutch rule. No sooner had the Dutch felt secure in their dominion over Tobago than the British took up the cause of James, duke of Courland, and called on the Dutch to withdraw. Before the Dutch could react the British swooped on Tobago and captured it.
Then the French came into the picture. The French declared that in 1656 a Frenchman who was shipwrecked on Tobago had claimed the island for France, and they asked the British to leave peacefully. The British had left a garrison of only 50 men at Great Courland Bay and now 25 Frenchmen landed after dark and they made such a racket with their drums that the garrison got scared, thinking it was a whole French army. Then the French commander appeared at the British headquarters saying the French force was down the hill but as he did not want to spill unnecessary blood he insisted they remain there, and he was now asking the British to give up their arms. Then they must leave quietly under cover of night. The British commander did just that, and the 25 Frenchmen took over the fort. But the Frenchmen were really soldiers of fortune and had no genuine interest in Tobago. Their commander, Monsieur Vincent, kept a garrison there until March 1667. Then he set fire to everything and he and his men withdrew.
The Dutch then seized the opportunity to re-occupy Tobago. They returned to where they were before, on the shores of Roquely Bay, which in honour of the Lampsins brothers they were now calling Lampsins Bay. They made a street, built houses, a church and wharves. They built an impressive star-shaped fort with the governor’s house in the middle of it, and there was also an arsenal of ammunition and gunpowder. They called the town “Lampsinsburg.” One was going to say that the folk of Lampsinsburg lived happily ever after, but this was not quite so.
Within the decade war broke out between Holland and France, and in the heat of a Tobago battle between Vice-Admiral D’Estrees and the Dutch Admiral Jacob Binkes, about 1,000 Frenchmen made an assault on Lampsinsburg. A French cannon-ball dropped in the powder magazine of the fort and there was need to say no more. The explosion must have rocked the whole island. The Dutch commander and about 250 of his men were blown to bits.
TOBAGO - INDEPENDENT AND SELF-GOVERNING IN 1768
After the cannon-ball of 1677 which destroyed Lampsinsburg, there was still no peace amongst the marauders of the sea. All three nations — the French, the British and the Dutch — craved Tobago and wanted to dominate it. In 1679, following the war between the French and Dutch, a treaty signed at Nijmegen in Holland restored Tobago to the Dutch. But as usual, peace treaties made little difference.
So after this period of 78 uneasy years in the Carib Sea, the British, who had grown stronger, pounced and took Tobago from the French in 1762, and felt she would be able to keep the island this time. British settlers were brought in from Barbados, and a great number came from England. Some settled near to the old Lampsinsburg and others remained beside the bay into which they had come in from Barbados — and which bay they named Barbados Bay. They called their settlement Georgetown, after the British king, George III, and it was Georgetown that was considered the capital.
On February 10, 1763 the Treaty of Paris confirmed Tobago as British, and later on in the year, October 7, the British authorities declared Tobago an independent, self-governing state. They appointed a General Council of eleven planters to administer it. Tobago was placed in the Windward Island group, with headquarters in Grenada, and the then governor of the Windward Islands, who was Robert Melville, sent out Alexander Brown to Tobago to govern it. The General Council was very enthusiastic about Tobago and when Lieutenant Governor Alexander Brown arrived in the island it was already being divided into parishes, and orders were given for the construction of a House of Assembly. This was at Georgetown, and the General Council held its first session there on April 10, 1768.
But although Georgetown was the capital, having the House of Assembly, the more desirable place to settle seemed to be the old Lampsinsburg, or so the people of Georgetown seemed to think. At least the settlers of Georgetown felt so, for they drifted to Lampsinsburg in great numbers. Many of them must have originally come from the town of Scarborough in England, for that is how they re-christened the old Lampsinsburg: “Scarborough.” In fact, a map as early as 1765 bears the name “Scarborough.” Therefore Georgetown did not survive long as the capital of Tobago, for although it had the House of Assembly, and saw its first sitting in 1768, which confirmed it as the capital, the House of Assembly was transferred to Scarborough in 1769.
THE FRENCH AGAIN, AND MUTINY IN TOBAGO
After the House of Assembly was moved to Scarborough in 1769 the members of the assembly took steps that never again should Tobago be invaded and taken. Between the years 1777 and 1779 it ordered the building of Fort King George on the hill above the town and strengthened it with abundant ammunition to protect Scarborough. They also set out to create an economy by the widespread growing of sugar-cane, indigo and cotton, and the production of sugar and rum.
For the first time Tobago looked less like an Island Fortress just awaiting capture and more like a home to a settled population. By 1780 the town of Scarborough, according to estimates, had about 4,000 people. Since Governor Alexander Brown in 1764, it had had various governors over the following 15 years: Governor Roderick Gwynne, who came in 1767; Governor William Stewart in 1768; Governor William Young in 1770: Peter Campbell, 1777; John Graham in 1778, and Governor George Ferguson in 1779.
And why is the narrative interrupted in 1779? Because the French interrupted the peaceable life of Scarborough. They engaged the British and captured heavily-defended Scarborough, and of course took Tobago. They re-named Scarborough Port Louis, and having inherited a fine town, they installed a governor, Monsieur de Peynier. This changing of hands was in 1781. In 1783, when Anglo-French hostilities ended, a peace treaty signed in Paris ceded Tobago to the French. In 1784 Arthur Dillon took over as governor. He was an Irishman domiciled in France, where he was made a Count. In 1789 Count Dillon had to go to France, and the acting Governor Chevalier de Jobal, faced a mutiny. The garrison at Port Louis was disgruntled over pay and other arrangements and in 1790 they burned down Port Louis. Naturally, the British would come back at this stage. They re-captured Tobago in 1793.
DUEL CONTINUES FOR TOBAGO
When the British re-captured Tobago from the French in 1793 there must have been great relief, for, as can be imagined, the French just had a military presence there, and had not settled down to develop and colonise Tobago. So the crops of sugar, indigo, and cotton which the British had established must have been completely neglected over the 12 years of French rule. There had not been harmony either. Joining Dillon in Tobago in 1786 was Roume de St Laurent, the man responsible for the Spanish Cédula of Population for Trinidad (1783), but who went back to France penniless, blaming Spain for not giving him the recognition he deserved. The Maréchal de Castries, Minister of the Marine to Louis XVI, named him Intendant of Tobago. In 1791, however, the French authorities sent him to Santo Domingo to help quell a slave revolt there.
Maybe that 12-year period of French rule in Tobago was the last and only significant French period there, for at least they had an administration. Yet all that remained behind are a few French place-names like Bacolet, Les Couteaux, Anse Fourmi, and almost nothing of French Culture.
The British revived the crops and to some extent re-organised trade again. The African slaves, who, led by Sandy, had carried out a half-hearted and failed rebellion in 1770, now settled down to being a resilient and industrious people, cultivating land accessible to them, and those who became free, bought land. Tobago seemed full of hope for the British as it faced the start of the 18th Century.
On resumption in 1793 the authorities appointed William Myers as Lieutenant Governor, and that same year there was the first of three governors-in-chief of the Windward Islands who administered Tobago. They were: George Ricketts, who succeeded Myers; William Lindsay in 1795; Stephen de Lancey in 1796; and Richard Martin in 1800. Later that same year President of the House of Assembly, John Robley, acted as Governor.
But after all this could there be conquest again? No, not conquest, as such, but the return of the French. The Peace Treaty of Amiens of March 25, 1802, ceded Tobago to France. This was the same treaty, incidentally, that let the British retain Trinidad. The island of Trinidad had fallen only once, while its neighbour, Tobago, had fallen about a dozen times. And would Tobago fall yet another time?
TOBAGO AFTER THE UNION
After the union of Trinidad and Tobago, which became effective as from the first day of January 1889, Tobago was administered by a Commissioner. The first commissioner was Loraine Hay in 1889, then T.C. Rayner in 1892, followed by W. Low in the same year. Then H. Sealey acted in 1893 and then came Low again, this time staying until 1897, when S.W. Snaggs acted. J.C. O’Halloran came that year, 1897, but the system was not working satisfactorily, and in 1898 it was thought better to make Tobago a ward of Trinidad, effective from the first day of January 1899. From that date until today, the Union has been tense, with Tobago politicians calling, from time to time for a breakaway from the union. Yet there are objective observers who insist that in recent years Tobago has had a fair deal.
Tobago, one of the few Caribbean islands Columbus could not “discover” is today “discovered” by tourists from all around the globe. Tourism is the life-blood of its economy and it is regarded as one of the favourite holiday resorts in the South Caribbean. But it has been slow to develop. For instance, although the first motorbus to ply a route in Trinidad took place around 1909-1910, it was not until 1921 that the first motorbus plied a route in Tobago —between Scarborough and Roxborough. In 1923, the coastal steamer service between Trinidad and Tobago was taken over from the Royal Mail Steamships by the government.
The first pipe-borne water supply in Tobago did not take place until 1925, while in Trinidad pipe-borne water was supplied in Port-of-Spain from around 1899. The first high school in Tobago, Bishop’s High School, was inaugurated in that same year, 1925. In 1925, also, Tobagonians could see for the first time what was lighting by electricity. The place was Fort King George in Scarborough. The electricity was battery-powered, though. A “delco service.”
But to go back a little: in September 1919, the wooded and mountainous islet of Little Tobago, which lies off Tobago’s northeastern coast, became the Isle of the Bird of Paradise. This became so thanks to Sir William Ingram. Sir William obtained the birds from New Guinea and sent them to Little Tobago by Mr. Woolford Frist.
In 1930 Shirvan Park race course was inaugurated, which was fine for sport, but in 1932, 1933 and 1934 the one-time outstanding sportsman, Mikey Cipriani, flew his little plane, “Humming-bird,” over Tobago and thrilled onlookers. But he could not land because there was no airstrip. Indeed, when on June 3, 1934, Mikey Cipriani was on his way to land in Tobago for the first time and to construct a proper airfield there, his little two-seater plane crashed in the Northern Range and he was killed. According to C.R. Ottley, the first Tobago newspaper, “The Tobago Times,” was issued. During World War II (1939 to 1945) and throughout the rest of the 1940s Tobago was almost cut off because of the fear of German submarines lurking in nearby waters.
Nothing eventful happened for a little while until in 1950, the first bank in Tobago, Barclays, opened its doors. Then on September 10, 1952, a most important event took place: Tobago was connected with electricity for the first time. This was through the Trinidad and Tobago Electricity Corporation which had built a power station in Scarborough. On the date mentioned, Chairman of the Commission, George de Nobriga, pulled the switch that shed electric light in Tobago. Another Tobago event of 1952 was worthy of note - the Hillsborough waterworks were opened, supplying most of Tobago with pipe-borne water.
A sad but memorable day came about 10 years later on the 5th of January, 1962. This day saw the death of one of Tobago’s most respected sons, A. P. T. James. Also in 1962, the Royal Bank of Canada opened a branch in Tobago.
Maybe the biggest event of the 20th Century in Tobago must have been the event that took place on the 30th of September 1963. The event? The visit of Hurricane Flora. The effect of this disastrous hurricane is still felt in many parts of Tobago, for the island’s vibrant agriculture never recovered, and the bread basket which Tobago had been up to then, has been obliterated.
Another big event of the 20th century was the introduction of a House of Assembly in Tobago in 1980. Since Tobago had its first House of Assembly in 1768 and gave this up after the Belmanna Riots of 1876, fearing it would not be able to keep law and order, the island had first reverted to a Crown Colony, as was seen, and a little later on became a ward of Trinidad. Now, in 1980, it had been given back its former glory, with the result that it had a great deal more autonomy in the Union.
In 1991, in keeping with Tobago’s status as a haven for visitors, Scarborough was given a modern deep-water harbour, and since the year 2000 its airport at Crown Point has been up-graded. Many would conclude that the 118 years of the Union (to 2007) has been as good to Trinidad as it has been good to Tobago, and of course they are asking for another 118 years and more.
Copyright NALIS, 2007