Trinidad and Tobago - language, government, economy, cities, history, tourism, people, education, religion

Read about Trinidad And Tobago: language, government, economy, cities, history, tourism, people, education, religion, agriculture, climate ...



Trinidad and Tobago, country comprising the southernmost of the islands in the Caribbean Sea. Trinidad, Tobago, and the adjacent islets that make up the country are situated off the northern coast of South America. The country’s capital and largest city, Port-of-Spain, is on Trinidad, the larger of the two islands.

Trinidad and Tobago has a varied population. Descendants of immigrants from India make up the largest group, followed closely by people of black African descent. Each group makes up about 40 percent of the population. The remainder are of European, South American, Middle Eastern, Chinese, or mixed ancestry. Trinidad and Tobago’s culture reflects this diverse population. Calypso music originated here, as did steel bands, which use oil drums cut to various sizes as drum heads. Every year before Lent the islands throw a huge Carnival party featuring calypso and steel bands.

The politics of Trinidad and Tobago largely follows ethnic lines. Eric Williams, a historian and political scientist who led the country to independence in 1962, founded one of the two major political parties, the People’s National Movement, which draws its support largely from black Africans. Trinidadians of Asian ancestry generally support the opposition parties.

Deposits of petroleum and natural gas give Trinidad and Tobago one of the highest per capita income levels in Latin America. However, the petroleum industry employs relatively few people, and unemployment has plagued the island nation. Sugarcane was long the main industry, and Africans were brought in as slaves to work on the sugar plantations. After the abolition of slavery, indentured servants came from India and other countries to work on the plantations.

The first European to reach Trinidad and Tobago was Christopher Columbus. He named Trinidad (meaning “Trinity” in Spanish) after three peaks he saw from his ship. The name he gave Tobago, Bella Forma (“Beautiful Shape”), did not stick. The island’s present name comes from the word tobacco, which Carib Indians grew on Tobago. Columbus claimed Trinidad for Spain, and it remained a Spanish colony until 1802, when Britain took it. Tobago’s history remained separate until Britain joined it with Trinidad in 1889. Before then, Tobago changed hands many times. Trinidad and Tobago gained independence from Britain on August 31, 1962, and became a republic on August 1, 1976.


Trinidad lies about 11 km (7 mi) north of the coast of Venezuela on the South American continent, opposite the mouth of the Orinoco River. The Gulf of Paria separates Trinidad from the mainland of South America. By far the larger island, Trinidad covers an area of 4,828 sq km (1,864 sq mi). Tobago, 32 km (20 mi) northeast of Trinidad, has an area of 300 sq km (120 sq mi). The country’s total area is 5,128 sq km (1,980 sq mi).

Geography of Trinidad and Tobago

Although relatively small, Trinidad has a varied geography. Three ranges of hills run roughly east to west across the island. They reach their highest point of 940 m (3,084 ft) above sea level at El Cerro del Aripo in the north. The Northern Range, where El Cerro rises, is a continuation of mountains that form the Paria peninsula of Venezuela. Thousands of years ago Trinidad and Tobago formed part of the South American mainland.

Apart from the hills, most of the rest of Trinidad is lowland, generally below 300 m (1000 ft) in elevation. Crops are grown on the lowlands between the hills. The flat central plain is used for growing sugarcane. Swamps, particularly mangrove swamps, adjoin much of the low-lying coastal area. Rice is grown in parts of these wetlands.

Trinidad has only one natural harbor, at Chaguaramas on the western coast, but the entire Gulf of Paria provides safe anchorage. The northern coast of the island is rocky and indented with sandy bays, the southern coast is steep, and the eastern coast is exposed to heavy surf. In southwestern Trinidad is an asphalt lake, filled with crude oil that has seeped up from the ground. The 42-hectare (104-acre) Pitch Lake is the world’s largest natural reservoir of asphalt.

The island of Tobago is of volcanic origin. Tobago is the summit of a single mountain mass that rises from the sea floor and reaches an elevation of 550 m (1,804 ft) above sea level. The southwestern part of the island, however, is flat or rolling and formed of coral. The coastline is broken by inlets and sheltered beaches.

Climate in Trinidad and Tobago

Trinidad and Tobago has a tropical climate with little seasonal variation. Temperatures are a little higher than in the Caribbean islands farther north, but northeasterly trade winds provide a moderating influence. Temperatures seldom rise above 32°C (90°F) and range from 21° to 26°C (the 70°s F) in January and from 26° to 32°C (the 80°s F) in July.

Although no month is dry, Trinidad and Tobago has less rainfall from January to May than from June to November. The amount of rain that falls is strongly influenced by topography. For example, the windward eastern slopes of the Northern Range on Trinidad receive more than 3,600 mm (140 in) a year, and the leeward west coast receives less than 1,500 mm (60 in). Trinidad and Tobago lies south of the principal Caribbean hurricane path, and hurricanes are infrequent. There have, however, been damaging tropical storms.

Plants and Animals in Trinidad and Tobago

Trinidad’s diverse plant and animal life includes both Caribbean and South American species. Habitats range from the rain forests in the Northern Range region to the wetlands of the eastern and western coasts. Forest reserves and government-owned lands cover almost one-fourth of the country, and many areas of both islands have been declared national parks, wildlife reserves, or protected areas. The wetlands of Trinidad include mangrove swamps, fresh swamps, grassy freshwater marshes, palm marshes, and waterlogged savannah land. They are inhabited by caimans, iguanas, snakes, and various kinds of monkeys, including howler monkeys and capuchin monkeys. Other mammals include the protected manatee and dozens of species of bats.

The slopes of the Northern Range are covered with hardwoods, palms, and flowering trees, such as the silk-cotton tree (see ceiba), mahogany, balata, poui, and immortelle, which provide cover for the giant bromeliads and orchids growing among them. Animals include the brown brocket deer, collared peccary, manicou (a kind of opossum), agouti, ocelot, and armadillo. The islands attract leatherback turtles and also have hundreds of species of butterflies.

The range of habitats means that Trinidad is a birdwatcher’s paradise. Many parrots and macaws, the savannah hawk, and the red-breasted blackbird are to be found in the lowlands. The Caroni Swamp is famous as the roosting place of hundreds of scarlet ibis, the national bird of Trinidad and Tobago, and egrets. The entire island of Little Tobago, off Tobago’s northeastern coast in the Caribbean Sea, is dedicated to the Bird of Paradise Sanctuary, home to nearly 60 species of birds including birds of paradise brought from Indonesia.


The history of Trinidad and Tobago is reflected in the makeup of its population, among the most ethnically diverse in the Caribbean. Blacks of African ancestry and Asians of Indian ancestry each make up about 40 percent of the population. The remainder is mainly of mixed ancestry, although there are also small groups of people of Chinese, European, South American, and Middle Eastern descent. The ethnic diversity of Trinidad and Tobago owes its origins to slavery and its abolition. African slaves were imported in the 18th century to work the plantations. However, following emancipation in 1834 there was a shortage of labor, and the British government encouraged immigration from India, China, and Madeira.

The population (2009 estimate) of Trinidad and Tobago is 1,229,953. The capital and chief city, Port-of-Spain, has 55,000 people (2003 estimate). Other major cities are San Fernando (55,784), an industrial center and transportation hub, and Arima (24,874), both on Trinidad. The population of Trinidad is unevenly distributed. The region of greatest density is the western half of the island, roughly the area between Port-of-Spain in the north and San Fernando in the south. The administrative center and port of Scarborough is the largest town on the less industrialized island of Tobago.

Language and Religion in Trinidad and Tobago

English is the principal language spoken in Trinidad and Tobago, but as a result of the large population of Indian descent, many people also speak Caribbean Hindustani (also known as Trinidad Bhojpuri). The involvement of Spain in the country’s colonial history has left pockets along the southern coast where Spanish is spoken. Each of the islands has its own English-based Creole, and a French-based Creole is spoken in parts of the north and west of Trinidad.

The history and ethnic complexity of Trinidad and Tobago also is reflected in the religions practiced. About three-fifths of the people are Christians, with Roman Catholics constituting the largest single group (30 percent). Anglicans form another substantial community (12 percent), and Hindus (25 percent) and Muslims (see Islam) (6 percent) make up the major non-Christian bodies.

Education in Trinidad and Tobago

Education in the country is free, and attendance at school is compulsory for children between the ages of 5 and 11. Virtually all children attended primary school, and 82 percent of children of secondary school age were enrolled in 2002–2003. Most schools are maintained or aided by the government. Higher education is provided by teacher-training colleges, technical institutes, and the University of the West Indies, which has faculties in the arts, social sciences, natural sciences, education, agriculture, medicine, and engineering on the Trinidad-Tobago Campus (1960) in Saint Augustine, Trinidad.

Culture of Trinidad and Tobago

A variety of cultures exist side by side in Trinidad and Tobago. In Port-of-Spain you can see Christian churches, Hindu temples, and Muslim mosques; hear Asian music and West Indian steel bands; and meet people of African, Asian, and European ancestry who are all citizens of Trinidad and Tobago. A strong tradition of cricket playing reflects the country’s British heritage. Much of the country’s charm stems from cultural differences, which are expressed in Muslim and Hindu festivals and in the famous Carnival, or De Mas, that takes place on the two days before Lent. Carnival is a huge street party with hundreds of thousands of costumed masqueraders parading and dancing to calypso songs and steel bands, which are known locally as pan.

Calypso, one of the best-known expressions of the country’s complex musical heritage, dates from the 18th century and is a mixture of musical forms from all the immigrant groups, with witty lyrics and often with political overtones. Rapso, a contemporary development, fuses calypso and rap. Chutney is an Indian version of calypso, which is sometimes blended with soca (a mixture of soul and calypso) to create chutney soca. Pan music developed out of bands that used tins, pans, and bamboo to make percussion instruments until World War II, when it was discovered that oil drums could be converted into instruments with their top surfaces tuned to all ranges and pitches. Parang comes from the islands’ Spanish heritage and is sung in Spanish accompanied by guitar, cuatro, mandolin, and tambourine. There are also Indian drumming and vocal styles that are used at the Hindu and Muslim festivals.

The artistic tradition of Trinidad and Tobago goes back to Michel Jean Cazabon, an artist born in 1813, and today includes many fine painters and sculptors. Trinidad also has a well-developed oral and literary tradition with many internationally known writers. These include C. L. R. James; Samuel Sevlon; Shiva Naipaul and his brother, Nobel Prize-winner V. S. Naipaul; historian and former prime minister Eric Williams; Earl Lovelace; and Valerie Belgrave. The monologues of Paul Keens-Douglas are an entertaining introduction to the local dialect.


Trinidad and Tobago’s gross domestic product (GDP) in 2007 was $20.9 billion, providing the country with a per capita income of $7,380. This relatively high per capita income reflects the fact that the country is a petroleum producer. The petroleum industry provides about one quarter of the GDP, one third of government revenue, and nearly two-thirds of foreign exchange earnings. The industry, however, employs relatively few workers. To combat unemployment, the government has encouraged the development of a variety of industrial enterprises. Most of the country’s industry is concentrated on the island of Trinidad. The island of Tobago, apart from the development of tourist facilities, remains dominantly agricultural.

Although Trinidad and Tobago’s petroleum-based economy provides its citizens with a per capita income well above the Latin American average, living standards fell significantly after the petroleum boom years of 1973 to 1982. Widespread unemployment, large foreign debt payments, and fluctuations in world oil prices all served to destabilize the economy of Trinidad and Tobago in the late 1980s and early 1990s. In 1994 the republic had its first year of sustained economic growth since the early 1980s. An economic recovery followed. Unemployment fell from a high of 22 percent in the late 1980s and early 1990s to about 10 percent at the end of 2003.

In 2004 the crude petroleum production of Trinidad and Tobago totaled 49.3 million barrels. Two petroleum refineries are located at Point-à-Pierre and Point Fortin on the island of Trinidad. In the early 2000s proven reserves were expected to last only another ten years, and the government was encouraging further exploration and diversification, notably into the development of natural gas, of which there are huge reserves.

Agriculture of Trinidad and Tobago

Agriculture accounts for less than 2 percent of GDP and employs about 7 percent of the labor force. However, the soil is rich and farmers grow a wide variety of crops, both for domestic consumption and for export. The most important commercial crop is sugarcane. Other crops grown on Trinidad include rice, cacao, coconuts, citrus and tropical fruits, flowers, and vegetables. Livestock are also raised. The chief products of Tobago are cacao, copra, coconuts, livestock, poultry, and limes. In 2003 the state-owned sugar company closed, eliminating an estimated 8,000 jobs on Trinidad. The company later reopened a single sugar plant with a much-reduced workforce.

Manufacturing in Trinidad and Tobago

Industry, excluding mining and quarrying, accounts for about 42 percent of GDP and about 28 percent of employment. This sector expanded in the early 1990s mainly because of the development of joint-venture projects with foreign firms based on the utilization of oil and natural gas either as energy sources or raw materials. These ventures, sited at an industrial estate set up at Point Lisas, produced petrochemicals; steel; ammonia, urea, and other nitrogen-based fertilizers; and the synthetic fuel methanol (see Gasohol). By 2000 Trinidad and Tobago had become the world’s leading producer of methanol. Other manufactured goods include cement, clothing, processed food, tobacco products, beer and rum, and sugar. Plants on Trinidad also assemble motor vehicles and durable consumer goods such as refrigerators.

Tourism of Trinidad and Tobago

Service industries, including the government, financial, and tourism sectors of the economy, are by far the most important in terms of employment, accounting for 64 percent of jobs. Since the 1980s the government has placed increasing emphasis on tourism, including constructing a terminal for cruise ships in Port-of-Spain. The government also promotes the islands heavily abroad, particularly Tobago, where it hopes to spur hotel construction to take advantage of the sheltered beaches and pristine underwater environment. Tourism of Trinidad, traditionally based on birdwatching and nature tourism, has been boosted by the construction of marinas and boat-repair yards in the Chaguaramas area, which have attracted the yachting community.

Currency and Trade in Trinidad and Tobago

Crude and refined petroleum constitute 76 percent of Trinidad and Tobago’s yearly exports. Other exports are natural gas, chemicals, iron and steel, sugar, cacao beans, and rum. In 2007 exports were valued at $11.8 billion and imports at $7.2 billion.

The unit of currency is the Trinidad and Tobago (T.T.) dollar, consisting of 100 cents (6.30 T.T. dollars equal U.S.$1; 2007 average). The T.T. dollar was pegged to the U.S. dollar at T.T.$4.25 equaled U.S.$1 until 1993, when it was floated. It has since fallen in value.


According to the constitution of 1976, Trinidad and Tobago is a republic. The constitution provides for a president and a bicameral legislature, consisting of a Senate and a House of Representatives. The president is elected by an electoral college of members of both houses of the legislature. The House of Representatives has 41 members, elected by the people to five-year terms. The 31 members of the Senate are appointed by the president. The legislature granted Tobago its own House of Assembly in 1980. This 15-seat house has certain powers over local finances and runs many public services; however, it has no legislative power.


Christopher Columbus landed on Trinidad on July 31, 1498, during his third voyage to the Americas. At that time, the island was populated by relatively peaceful Arawak, who engaged in primitive agriculture; fierce Caribs; and several other Native American peoples from South America. The Caribs resisted European colonization until the end of the 17th century. After that, they and other indigenous groups on the islands gradually succumbed to European diseases, such as smallpox, malaria, and yellow fever, and to the rigors of slavery. By 1824 there were 894 Native Americans recorded on the island. Today there are none. After the indigenous population died out, Africans were brought in to work the land as slaves.

Colonial Rule in Trinidad and Tobago

Columbus claimed Trinidad for the Spanish Empire, and Spain appointed the first governor of the island in 1530. The Spanish governor failed to establish a permanent settlement because of Carib attacks. The island remained a Spanish possession for three centuries. Spanish interest, however, was on the American mainland, and Trinidad was neglected. During the 16th century Trinidad was visited by French corsairs, English privateers, and pirates of all nations in search of food, fuel, and water.

During the 18th century prosperity came to the sugar islands of the British West Indies, and Spain tried to develop Trinidad by attracting sugar planters. It had little success. European settlement of the island began in the late 18th century. Many of the settlers came from France, fleeing the French Revolution (1789-1799), or from former French territories in the Caribbean, such as Dominica and Saint Lucia, which were temporarily ceded to Britain in 1784. Others came from Haiti after the war of independence there. In 1797 a British force captured Trinidad and in 1802, under the Treaty of Amiens, it became a British colony.

Britain obtained in Trinidad a colony with large resources of pitch, or asphalt, used for caulking ships, and a harbor at Port-of-Spain. The soil on the island had not been worn out by centuries of agricultural exploitation, but a shortage of labor hindered agricultural development. Efforts to attract demobilized soldiers to Trinidad, following the Napoleonic Wars, failed. Britain abolished slavery in the 1830s, and after that the labor situation on Trinidad became critical. Between 1845 and 1917 more than 150,000 Muslim and Hindu Indians were brought as indentured servants to Trinidad by the British to replace plantation slaves. A terrible famine in Madeira in 1846 forced many Portuguese peasants on that island to seek a new life in the Americas, and many settled in Trinidad. The Portuguese settlers gave up agricultural labor for shopkeeping as soon as possible, however. Chinese immigrants began to arrive in the 1850s.

Tobago did not share the early history of Trinidad. Although sighted by Columbus in 1498, Tobago did not become a possession of Spain. King James I claimed the island for England in 1608, but the Dutch settled Tobago in 1632. Tobago remained a bone of contention among the British, Dutch, and French until 1814, when France, at the end of the Napoleonic Wars, had to cede the island to Britain. Tobago formed a part of the Windward Islands Colony until 1889, when it was joined to Trinidad.

During the 1920s pressure increased for greater local democracy, and a limited form of electoral representation was granted to Trinidad; Tobago already had a limited electoral system. However, property and language qualifications limited the vote to the rich, and demands for a democratic system increased.

Independence Gained

Universal adult suffrage (right to vote) was introduced in Trinidad and Tobago in 1946, and a new constitution in 1950 increased the level of local autonomy. In 1956 Eric Williams founded the islands’ first political party, the People’s National Movement (PNM), which won elections held in the same year. Williams became the colony’s first chief minister. Trinidad and Tobago became a member of the Federation of the West Indies in 1958, and in the following year gained full internal self-government. After Jamaica withdrew from the federation in 1961, Williams objected to his country’s having to support the poorer members, and the federation collapsed in 1962.

On August 31, 1962, Trinidad and Tobago became a fully independent country within the Commonwealth of Nations, with Williams as its prime minister. It joined the Organization of American States in 1967. In 1968, along with other English-speaking Caribbean states, it formed the Caribbean Free Trade Area (CARIFTA), which in 1973 was replaced by the Caribbean Community and Common Market.

In the early 1970s, the nation faced a social and economic crisis. Rioting erupted in Trinidad in April 1970, resulting in several deaths and many injuries. The situation was further complicated by a short-lived mutiny of elements of the army. Williams responded by declaring a state of emergency, which ended in 1972.

The political unrest was accompanied by an economic slump, although Trinidad’s oil revenues grew rapidly in 1973 as the island became the third-leading exporter of oil in the Western Hemisphere. But early in 1975 the rate of unemployment reached 17 percent, and the rate of inflation soared to 23 percent. That year labor strikes in the oil and sugar industries and sympathy strikes by transport and electrical workers paralyzed the economy.

Prime Minister Williams was widely accused of failing to provide adequate leadership to the country. Even so, the PNM easily won the 1976 elections. A new constitution made the country a republic within the commonwealth on August 1, 1976. Williams remained prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago until his death in 1981. His party, the People’s National Movement, drew much of its support from the black urban and the business communities. The opposition parties were supported mainly by the Indian community.

The Post-Williams Era

After Williams’s death in 1981, the PNM was hit by a series of corruption scandals. In the 1986 elections, the National Alliance for Reconstruction (NAR), formed by the merging of four opposition parties, won 33 of 36 seats in the House of Representatives, and Arthur Napoleon Robinson became prime minister. Robinson’s popularity rapidly declined as the economy worsened, and government efforts at reform were met with widespread labor unrest. Six NAR members defected in 1989 to form the United National Congress (UNC).

In 1990, following five years of severe economic recession and rising unemployment, Trinidad and Tobago was shaken by the attempted overthrow of the government by a militant Muslim group. The militants blew up police headquarters, seized the parliament building, and held Robinson and other government officials hostage for several days in the abortive coup attempt.

After a PNM victory in 1991 elections, Patrick Manning, a geologist, became prime minister. By mid-term the Manning government’s popularity reached a low, as his efforts to revitalize the economy wiped out jobs and wage hikes and the crime rate rose. Four new parties formed following splits in the opposition.

In 1995 the economy of Trinidad and Tobago began to improve, and Manning called an election. His gamble failed, however. The PNM and the opposition United National Congress party both won 17 seats in elections to the House of Representatives. The UNC then formed a coalition government with the smaller NAR, which had won only 2 seats. UNC leader Basdeo Panday became prime minister, marking the first time that a Trinidadian of East Indian descent had led the Caribbean nation. Race was an important factor in the elections, with the UNC receiving most of its support from rural Trinidadians of East Indian descent and the PNM winning votes mainly from urban residents of African descent.

Once in office, Panday worked to allay fears among blacks that his government would try to improve living conditions and employment opportunities for Indo-Trinidadians at the expense of Afro-Trinidadians. In the 2000 elections, the UNC maintained a narrow majority in the House. In 2001 Prime Minister Panday called for early elections because dissent within the UNC threatened its slim majority. In the elections, the UNC and the PNM each won 18 seats. Because the House was evenly split, and the prime minister is usually chosen from the party with the majority, both parties eventually agreed to let the president appoint the new prime minister. The president appointed PNM’s Patrick Manning as prime minister, but there was no agreement on who was to be speaker of the house. With the political process stalled, new elections were called for 2002. This time the PNM won a decisive 20 seats, and Manning continued as prime minister. The PNM easily won a majority in the 2007 general elections, increasing its number of seats in the House to 26.

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