Slavery in Trinidad & Tobago
A Brief Summary
By: Melissa D. Goolsarran Ramnauth, Esq. | Trademark Attorney
Enslaved Africans began arriving consistently in Trinidad around 1776 when Spain invited foreigners to settle on the island. The settlers mostly came from the neighboring French Caribbean islands and brought enslaved Africans. In 1783, Spain, in an effort to increase Trinidad’s population further, offered free land and tax benefits. The enslaved population already outnumbered the free population by 1797, while the Amerindians only totaled 1,000.
Cotton was the first major profitable crop in Trinidad. It was quickly replaced by the sugar industry. The sugar plantations were highly concentrated in the valleys near Port of Spain and labored by the enslaved Africans.
Africans endured life-threatening conditions from the moment they were captured. Those in Trinidad were likely from the east coast of Africa. Those from the west coast were forced to march in a line, also known as a “coffle,” all the way to the east coast. The Africans were stored in buildings until the European ships arrived to take them to the Americas. Many also died waiting at the ports from starvation and disease. On the ships, the Africans were not allowed to sit, eat, use facilities, or use their muscles (for more than a few minutes) for three months.
In Trinidad, the Africans were forced to labour on the sugar plantations. The terrible living and working conditions further caused illness and death. The mounting death rate of enslaved Africans in Trinidad created the need for the constant supply of enslaved Africans from Africa or the neighboring islands.
The harsh conditions of slavery almost immediately led to revolts. The first recorded revolt was in 1770, and led by a man named Sandy. He arrived in Tobago in the 1760s and worked for Samuel Hall’s sugar estate. The rebellion lasted for 6 weeks. 20 whites were killed, including Samuel Hall. Sandy was never captured. He escaped to Trinidad and Trinidad’s Spanish governor refused to send him back to British Tobago.
The slave trade ended in 1808 but the enslaved were not freed at this time. Abolition only ended importation of enslaved Africans. The British passed laws banning certain punishments, recognizing holidays, discouraging family separation, and allowing Africans to buy their own freedom. The laws failed to improve conditions, and the British emancipated all enslaved Africans on August 1, 1834.
Owners were actually compensated because “their” enslaved Africans were freed. On the other hand, some Africans were forced to become apprentices and work for six years without pay. After the apprenticeship ended, the Africans faced nearly insurmountable discrimination and poverty.
There were several other groups of freed Africans including many Mandingos (Muslims from West Africa), former enslaved Africans from the United States who fought for the British, and former soldiers who had fought for the British in the West Indies who later settled in Manzanilla. Jean-Baptiste Philippe, a doctor from a prominent family, wrote “A Free Mullato” detailing the freed injustices. It may have been the first book ever written by a Trinidadian.
The Africans attempted not to return to the plantations and estates where they were previously enslaved. New villages were formed close to the sugar estates and some Africans became small farmers. They maintained certain African traditions of communal farming, also known as “gayap” in Trinidad or “len hand” in Tobago. Some Carnival traditions may also have African roots. Others moved to town and became trade workers. Correspondingly, the sugar estates declined and the planters sought new labor. Indians would fill this void as indentured servants.
Slavery is an unfortunate part of Trinidad and Tobago’s history. Nevertheless, a reminder of the past could serve as a reminder to descendants of enslaved Africans that they are resilient.
Melissa D. Goolsarran Ramnauth, Esq. is a trademark and business attorney. She writes weekly articles on West Indian history and politics to raise awareness of the past, and educate the Caribbean diaspora on the need for legal contracts and trademarks.
She graduated magna cum laude from the University of Miami with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Political Science, a minor degree in History that focused on the slavery and indentured servitude eras, a minor degree in Criminology, and a Juris Doctor degree.
MDGR Law, P.A.