[Caribbean Literature]

Trinidad -- an ethnic history in brief

Kathleen Ho '05, Northwestern University

Trinidad is always associated with its twin island state Tobago. First colonized by the Spaniards in 1498 and later in 1797 by the British, Trinidad and Tobago finally gained independence in 1962. It has a highly diverse population from the mass labor required for the plantation production of coffee, cocoa, cotton and sugar. Slaves came from Africa, and later indentured servants from Europe, China and India. The majority of Trinidadians are Indians who maintain a rural lifestyle; whereas the Africans migrated to urban areas. It is at this point that Africans began to be identified as "creole." Ethnic tensions and hierarchies were soon established as the Africans developed contempt for rural Indians who in turn despised the Africans for assimilating to western culture and society so easily.

The economy begins to play a key role in the relations between all the ethnic groups. Here, ethnic groups were identified with an economic label, the Indians with sugar, Africans with oil, and Europeans with big multinational business. This development fueled the grounds for ethnically located political parties to emerge, which only weakened already tenuous race relations. A pervasive feeling among the African community in Trinidad is a fear of Indian encroachment into the political arena; therefore, they need to be monitored and contained. The Indians project common stereotypes on the African community. For example, they think Africans are lazy and unkempt. In religious terms, the community is heavily split as well. Indians identify themselves as Hindus or Muslims; whereas, Africans are predominantly Christians.

These differences are manifested not only in the political arena, but also culturally. Calypso is seen as a "Black Thing," which is asserted in the politics of Black hegemony. The lyrics serve to establish African pre-eminence, against not only the Indians but, originally, the Europeans. Trinidad Indians in the 1970s had not yet mustered a counter-cultural force to challenge the African calypso and carnival. They will later in the 1980s and 1990s.

With the rise to power of the Peoples National Movement (PNM), cultural pluralism was suppressed in favor of assimilation. The PNM tried to unify the disparate cultures of Trinidad as part of their nation-building efforts. Creole culture became even more predominant under the PNM administration.

The complexities of the African-Indian rivalry cannot be seen as either solely economic or entirely cultural; instead, they interact and affect each other. The Africans perceive Indians as a threat in the economic and political arena, but at the same time, culturally and within the realm of symbolic politics Africans enjoy an uncontested hegemony.


Ambursley, Fitzroy and Robin Cohen. Crisis in the Caribbean. Kingston, Jamaica: Heinemann Educational Books Ltd, 1983.

Premdas, Ralph R. "Identity in an Ethnically Bifurcated State: Trinidad and Tobago." Ethnonational Identities. Eds., Steven Fenton and Stephen May. Houndsmills: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002.

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