History and Culture in Trinidad and Tobago


The better part of this morning was spent packing for a long weekend in Trinidad, the island we have heard much about and seen little of. I only packed absolute necessities, knowing my itinerary allowed me to pack an outfit for each day’s activity and no more. I also packed some skincare and hygiene essentials but left makeup, jewelry, and shower products at our guest house in Tobago.

We arrived at the airport at 10:15 and checked in for our flight which left at 1:15. Upon arrival, we ate lunch in the local food court. I had two doubles from the place nearest the airport on the far left of the u-shape of restaurants. It was $12TT total, and there’s cold water at a fountain in the plaza. I would strongly recommend only getting pepper sauce if you’re the type of person that likes to feel like your tongue is on fire. I tried a bite with some and immediately broke into a sweat, and I consider myself someone that can handle a fair amount of spice. Doubles are an Indian dish with a doughy flatbread somewhat like a thick tortilla with curried chickpeas filling. As with most East-Indian dishes, expect to get your hands dirty. You eat this dish by tearing off pieces of the bread and pushing the filling onto it and eating it bite by bite this way. It tastes delicious, savory, and the pepper sauce gives a bite that is cut by the bread.

We drove from the airport to Pax Guesthouse, about thirty minutes from the airport and fifteen from Port of Spain. I’ve learned that this guesthouse was a British monastery built in the 1800s, named Pax for peace. The guesthouse has beautiful views from every angle, tons of hidden patios and sitting rooms, and every room is furnished with a comfortable bed, desk, armoire, and a sink. As this is a guesthouse most of the rooms share a communal bathroom for each floor. There are rooms with private bathrooms for a slight extra cost. The rooms are about $900TT a night though it will be cheaper if you call directly rather than booking through Expedia. Prices are raised for Carnival at all residences. The guesthouse is central to Port of Spain, the capital where events like Carnival take place, and the airport, as well as access to transportation that will get you anywhere else on the island. It also has a hike of about a mile from the guesthouse to a church built around the same time and boasts gorgeous panoramic views of the city below and the rainforest that it rests between.

We had a dance rehearsal for our performance tomorrow and then dinner at the guesthouse which was a pork stew with side salad, split pea soup, and veggies on the side. It was absolutely delicious but was more similar to American food than local cuisine. Breakfast is included, dinner is a slight extra cost. While dinner was delicious I always advocate trying local cuisine.

Following that, we had a brief history class about Trinidad and Tobago in order to inform our understanding of the country and the relationship between the islands. The islands boast a diverse population influenced heavily by colonialism. The first peoples, called the Amarindians for all of the many tribes that settled here, came from what is now Venezuela across the difficult 10-mile passage. According to the Fort King George museum, this passage is the stuff of literal legend, the Warao tribe told the tale of “the Serpent’s Mouth:” according to legend the passage is inhabited by the “Snake of Being,” a giant serpent which consumes anyone who dares try and navigate the sea. They called Trinidad ‘lere’ for ‘the island.’ It did not mean ‘land of the hummingbird’ as some (including Google) claim, though there are many species of hummingbirds here. (Side note: Pax guesthouse has hummingbird feeders on several balconies and terraces that draw the hummingbirds from the rainforest.)

The first invaders were the Spanish in 1498, it was at this time that Colombus named the island Trinidad after the Holy Trinity because he saw three mountains from the sea that he believed were the father, the son, and the holy spirit beckoning to him. The Spanish didn’t develop or colonize the land, only on the search for El Dorado, the city of gold. It was nearly half a century before any colonizers would attempt to settle on the island. Eventually, French plantation owners from nearby Caribbean islands were invited to settle and granted land based on the number of Sub-Saharan African slaves they brought to work the plantations. This was the first introduction of Africans and of French to the population on the island. The French were welcomed under a secular agreement in which they were governed by the Spanish and had to identify and ‘seem to be’ Roman Catholic. The slaves, of course, saw none of this wealth.

With the French came French language, dancing, and culture. The masquerade balls held by the French were witnessed by the slaves that worked within the house and imitated in the barracks, where no language was shared between the slaves as a consequence of colonial efforts to isolate and confuse, but this mimicry of the flirtatious French dancing met traditional African movements. Belle and pique are two of the kinds of dance that cropped up from this. It was through this that a new kind of dance and celebration was created, what would eventually become Carnival.

The British soon arrived on the scene in the 1790s, as can be said with most countries, and when the British fleet arrived the Spanish governor, Chacon, set fire to the entire Spanish fleet present at Trinidad and Tobago in surrender. It was a very nonviolent overturning of power from the Spanish to the British.

By this point, it was a British colony, with a French-speaking population, and Spanish laws.

The British began developing more of the land for a variety of crops including sugar and cacao and brought more slaves via the Atlantic Slave Trade to work on this land. They also put in place more rules and structure, establishing a capital, a government, and laws over all of the people now inhabiting the island, both free and enslaved. This was met with deep protestation and there were riots and uprisings by the enslaved.

The slaves were emancipated in 1894 but didn’t gain freedom until 1898. They were forced into ‘apprenticeships’ to learn how to be free before they were granted their freedom, these ‘apprenticeships’ were of course just another way of saying slave labor. Following emancipation, the free blacks were able to demand high wages because they were the only labor on the island. The response was to search for other laborers. The first laborers to be brought were Chinese, but this labor-force wasn’t efficient enough in the climate and so other laborers were brought in. The Chinese were able to establish businesses and began fishing. The new labor force was Ea