By Lawrence Brown
Trinidad and Tobago gained independence from Britain on 31 August 1962. Over the past years this twin-island republic’s political, economic and social fortunes have been, in a word, a mixed bag of blessings with periods of relative prosperity and progress and others of social tensions and aggravation. Today, as this CARICOM nation of just over 1,3 million people is goring through one of those very difficult periods that’s driven by a surging crime rate, internal social frictions and a serious undocumented immigrant problem.
Brief History and the Road to Independence
Before gaining its independence, the country was a British colony with the Queen of England as the Head of State. At midnight on 30 August 1962, the British flag (the Union Jack) was lowered and the red, white and black Trinidad and Tobago flag was raised for the first time.
However, Trinidad and Tobago’s history was one of conquest and colonization with the superpowers of the day fighting at various times for possession of these southernmost of the Caribbean chain of islands. The original settlers, the Amerindians, were no match for the invading marauders. Indeed, Tobago changed hands among the British, French, and Dutch but eventually ended up being owned by the British.
The island of Trinidad was a Spanish colony from the arrival of Christopher Columbus in 1498 to the capitulation of the Spanish Governor, Don José Maria Chacón, on the arrival of a British fleet of 18 warships on 18 February 1797. During the same period, the island of Tobago changed hands between the Spanish, British, French, Dutch and Courlander colonizers. In 1814, the British gained possession of Tobago, which it owned and maintained for a century and a half.
In fact, the British first ruled Tobago as a separate colony, but during much of the 19th century administered the island from the Windward Islands government. Tobago then became a crown colony in 1877 and in 1888 amalgamated with Trinidad under the colonial name of Trinidad and Tobago.
The road to Trinidad & Tobago’s independence is linked to the granting of the rights to vote in 1924, the culmination of many struggles and a petition submitted to the Colonial Office calling for the inclusion of “local” representatives in the governance of the colony. The continued demands for increased participation in governance came to its zenith with the labor-based “Butler riots” of 1937 calling for internal self-government.
This ultimately led to the British Parliament granting universal adult suffrage to Trinidad and Tobago in 1945 limited to persons aged 21 years and over. The evolution of the electoral and governing process was enhanced and refined since that time, due to the struggles of thinkers and labor leaders such as Tubal Uriah ‘Buzz’ Butler, George Weekes, Adrian Cola Rienzi, Arthur Cipriani, CLR James and the political and leadership skills of Dr. Eric Williams, the country’s first chief minister from 1956 to 1959, its first premier from 1959 to 1962, and first prime minister from 1962 to 1981. Self-government was gradually increased between 1946 and 1961 with the elections of those years serving as dress rehearsals for independence.
The return of Dr. Eric Williams from abroad heralded a vibrant era of party politics since he was encouraged to form a political party. On 24 September 1956, Dr. Williams’s party, the People’s National Movement (PNM), won 13 of the 24 seats on the Legislative Council. In 1958, a Federation of the West Indies was formed; but when Jamaica withdrew in 1961, Trinidad and Tobago decided that it was time to receive full independence so that it could pursue its own governance. On Friday, Dec. 29, 1961 the House of Representatives and the Senate sat for the first time in the history of the Parliament of Trinidad and Tobago.
In 1962, independence talks took place between Trinidad and Tobago and Britain at Marlborough House in London, resulting in full independence on 31 August 1962. Included in the talks was the leader of the opposition Democratic Labor Party, Dr. Rudranath Capildeo. The PNM governed Trinidad and Tobago continuously from 1956 until the death of Dr. Williams in 1981.
Upon Independence on 31 August 1962, Sir Solomon Hochoy was installed as the first Governor-General and the premier, Dr. Eric Williams, automatically became the Prime Minister. The British Monarch remained as the head of state and the Privy Council, the highest court of appeal. Dr. Williams in his Independence Day message to the nation 31 August 1962 called on citizens to protect democracy.
“Democracy means equality for all in education, in the public service and in private employment- I repeat, and in private employment.
“Democracy means the protection of the weak against the strong. Democracy means the obligation of the minority to recognize the right of the majority. Democracy means responsibility of the government to its citizens, the protection of the citizen from the exercise of arbitrary power and the violation of human and freedoms and individual rights of expression.
“Democracy means the freedom of worship for all and the subordination of the right of any race to the overriding right of the human race. Democracy means freedom of expression and assemble organization.”
In 1976, Trinidad and Tobago achieved its status as a republic, the president then assumed this role. Sir Ellis Clarke became the first president of the republic.