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A brief history of Trinidad and Tobago

Trinidad’s original inhabitants were Arawak and Carib peoples. Columbus landed there in 1498 on his third voyage, and the island was settled by the Spanish a century later. The Arawaks and Caribs were largely wiped out by the Spanish colonizers. Trinidad remained under Spanish rule until the British captured it in 1797. It was formally ceded to Great Britain in 1802. During the colonial period Trinidad’s economy relied on large sugar cane and cocoa plantations.

Tobago’s development is similar to other plantation islands in the Lesser Antilles and quite different from Trinidad. In the colonial period French, Dutch and British forces fought over possession of Tobago, and the island changed hands 22 times before it was finally ceded to Great Britain in 1814. Trinidad and Tobago were incorporated into a single colony in 1888. Trinidad and Tobago gained full independence in 1962 and joined the Commonwealth.

The first political party in Trinidad and Tobago with a continuing organization and program — the People’s National Movement (PNM) — emerged in 1956 under Dr. Eric Williams, who became prime minister upon independence and remained in that position until his death in 1981. Politics in Trinidad and Tobago generally run along ethnic lines with Afro-Trinidadians supporting the PNM and Indo-Trinidadians supporting various Indian parties. The PNM remained in power after the death of Dr. Williams, but its 30-year rule ended in 1986 when the National Alliance for Reconstruction (NAR), a “rainbow” party aimed at Trinidadians of both African and Indian descent and won a landslide victory by capturing 33 of 36 seats. In July 1990 the Jamaat al Muslimeen (JAM), with an unresolved grievance against the government over land claims, tried to overthrow the NAR government. The group held the prime minister and members of parliament hostage for five days while riots ripped through downtown Port of Spain. After a long standoff Black Muslim leader Yasin Abu Bakr and his followers surrendered to the Trinidadian authorities. In July 1992 the Court of Appeal upheld the validity of a government amnesty given to JAM during the hostage crisis.