The twin-island nation of Trinidad and Tobago is located in the southern end of the Caribbean, just off the coast of Venezuela. Its rich and varied heritage lends itself to a vibrant society and cuisine spawned from an array of ethnicities and religions. The islands have also positioned themselves as a regional centre for culture and sport, attracting 197,700 tourist arrivals in 2019, according to the Ministry of Tourism. Developmentally, the World Bank categorises T&T as a high-income country, and it has the fourth-highest GDP per capita in the Americas in terms of purchasing power parity after the US, Canada and the Bahamas. T&T is the largest producer of oil and gas in the Caribbean; however, like many hydrocarbons-producing nations worldwide, the slump in global energy prices beginning in 2014 negatively affected broader growth. Nevertheless, the situation has provided a renewed political momentum towards greater economic diversification as a means of ensuring sustained development.
Geography & Climate
T&T’s maritime borders meet with those of fellow island nations of Grenada, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, and Barbados to the north; Guyana to the south-east; and Venezuela to the south and west. The Gulf of Paria separates the South American continent from T&T by 11 km at its shortest point between Trinidad and Venezuela.
Trinidad is the fifth-largest island in the Caribbean and has a total land area of 4828 sq km. Located on the north-west of Trinidad is the capital and T&T’s largest city, Port of Spain. Other notable settlements include San Fernando, Arima, Point Fortin and Chaguanas. Trinidad has three highland areas: the Northern Range, the Central Range and the Southern Range. The majority of the island is relatively flat by nature, covered by the Caroni Plain, which accounts for much of the country’s arable land. The Northern Range is a mountainous and densely forested region stretching from the coast to Toco in the east and the Chaguaramas peninsula on the west. The region is home to 430 species of birds and more than 100 mammal species, including red howler and capuchin monkeys, ocelots and small deer. The highest peak is Cerro del Aripo, at 940 metres above sea level. The topography is much less pronounced elsewhere, with the smaller mountains of the Central and Southern Ranges occupied by forested hill and a wildlife range, respectively.
Tobago is located 38 km off the north-eastern coast of Trinidad, and at 300 sq km, it is significantly smaller in size. The island’s major towns include Scarborough, the capital city and main population centre, Roxborough and Charlotteville. Tobago is largely hilly and mountainous with the highest point, Pigeon Peak, which is near the town of Speyside and reaches 550 metres above sea level.
The climate on both islands is tropical, and temperatures do not vary significantly, averaging 26.5°C throughout the year. There is a wet and dry season, with rainfall averaging 2200 mm per year. The former season runs from January to May and the latter from June to December. Tobago’s inland may occasionally experience a drought during the dry months, and its exposure to north-easterly winds means that it experiences slightly lower temperatures than those of Trinidad. Although tropical storms occasionally affect the archipelago, their position to the south of the North Atlantic hurricane basin isolates them from the brunt of most of the region’s storms.
The islands were first inhabited around 7000 years ago by Amerindians, specifically the Caribs and the Inegri. On Christopher Columbus’ third voyage to the Americas in 1498, the Spanish first arrived on the islands, at which time the islands received their modern names. It is believed that Columbus named the larger island Trinidad after a vow he had made in Europe to name the first land he encountered on his upcoming voyage after the Christian holy trinity. He therefore named it in full La Isla de la Trinidad (the Island of the Trinity). Tobago’s name derives from the Carib word for tobacco, Tavaco, which was smoked and cultivated on the island by the Amerindian natives.
Both islands were colonised in 1532, and the first seat of European governance was established in 1592, known as the Royal Cabildo. The majority of the native population subsequently died of diseases or were sent to work in other Spanish colonies, to be replaced by slaves which the Spaniards transported from Africa. This led to a plantation-based economy focused first on tobacco and later cacao.
Dutch and French-led invasions of Tobago followed for nearly two centuries, and the island changed hands multiple times between 1650 and 1814 – more so than any other Caribbean island. Trinidad’s status as a Spanish territory was constantly threatened during repeated raids throughout the 17th century by the English, Dutch and French. A formal surrender of the territory to the English took place in 1797, and its status as a crown colony was formalised in 1802. The Treaty of Amiens granted the islands to the British, with Tobago following Trinidad in becoming a crown colony in 1814. In November 1888 the administration of both was combined to become the colony of T&T in 1889.
Slavery was abolished throughout the British Empire in 1833, resulting in the liberation of slaves in T&T in 1834. This decision impacted much of the agricultural economy – in particular Tobago’s tobacco industry. Free trade was adopted in 1846, and the islands attracted a number of migrants from India, China and the Portuguese island of Madeira between 1845 and 1917. They came initially as indentured labourers to work in agriculture on short contracts, after which they were granted land or given the right to return home. This eclectic mix of ethnicities has contributed to the country’s diverse multiculturalism today.
In 1937 T&T experienced labour riots, which led to a number of deaths and represented the start of the country’s trade union movement. In 1958 the country joined the West Indies Federation, subsequently gaining independence from Britain in 1962.
The country retained Queen Elizabeth II as its titular head of state, but elected Eric Williams as the country’s first prime minister in August 1962. The Queen’s role was retained until 1976, when the country formally became a republic.
Economic instability in the 1960s and early 1970s led to growing student discontent and the emergence of the Black Power movement. However, pressure on the government eased as a result of the surge in international oil prices between 1973 and 1982, providing the government with much needed capital for necessary investment in infrastructure and social services, as well as greater prosperity for the population following rapid industrialisation.
Williams, who had led the independence movement, and subsequently, the country during the first three decades following independence, died in office in 1981. Following his death, George Chambers was elected to lead the People’s National Movement (PNM) in the 1986 election until his eventual defeat in 1986 by the multi-ethnic coalition political party the National Alliance for Reconstruction (NAR). The NAR was led by ANR Robinson who campaigned on a platform of divestment of state-owned companies and a restructuring of the country’s civil service.
The government succeeded in boosting economic growth and keeping inflation low, but was widely unpopular and suffered a number of splits and resignations. Following this, in 1990 a small group of Islamists led by extremist organisation Jamaat Al Muslimeen attempted a coup and took Prime Minister Robinson and several ministers hostage for six days, before being defeated by the army.
The NAR was voted out of office in 1991 to be replaced by the PNM, whose Prime Minister Patrick Manning maintained many of the NAR’s policies. In 1995 the United National Congress (UNC) came to power led by Basdeo Panday, the country’s first prime minister of Indian descent. From this time, the governments in the country began to follow a cyclical pattern, alternating between the UNC and the PNM. The UNC-led coalition with a number of left-leaning parties won the elections under the People’s Partnership umbrella. This resulted in the election of Kamla Persad-Bissessar, the country’s first female prime minister in 2010.
The PNM took back power in the 2015 election, having received 52% of the popular vote, and 23 of the 41 seats in the House of Representatives. Keith Rowley became prime minister in September of that year, and was elected on a platform of urgent fiscal management following the drop in global energy prices beginning in 2014. Prime Minister Rowley will remain as the head of state until the general elections scheduled to take place in September 2020.