Social change and continuity in Tobago, 1880-1940



Dr. Rita Pemberton –

Dr. Rita Pemberton

The last two decades of the 19th century ushered in a process of change in Tobago that continued into the 20th century.

While the locus of this change was the economic situation of the island, it led to the transformation of other facets of life. The sugar crises of the 1880s, particularly the collapse of the sugar industry in 1884, wreaked havoc on the island’s export-dependent economy, with profound consequences for its class structure. .

Tobago plantation society was based on a dominant planter class which consisted of a small white group supported by a group of colored planters.

This liaison was created to balance the population differential between whites and blacks, provide support to the white ruling class against black resistance, and to fill vacancies in the administration caused by the shortage of white men.

This alliance has been eroded by the decline of the older generation of white planters, a direct consequence of the decline of the sugar industry. The population of white planters, managers and lawyers dwindled as many sought to cut their losses by selling or giving up their estates and returning to the UK. The population of old color planters was also reduced, through migration and death.

Both groups were replaced by the development of a new class of planters.

Colored emigration created a social void in the middle class which was filled by the upliftment of working class members who became landowners. This was made possible by the availability of land with the disappearance of the sugar industry. Thanks to favorable conditions for the purchase of land, a new class of black landowners was created, whose members rose through the social ranks within the community of landowners.

The growth of this group led to a weakening of the ruling class, which consisted of black, colored, and white landowners, some of whom were migrants from Trinidad and other Caribbean territories.

At the start of the 20th century, land ownership became an important social marker that narrowed the gap between blacks and whites.

It should be noted, however, that considerations of race and color remained predominant. As black people were promoted to the upper level of the landowning class, there was no commensurate adjustment in their relationship with their white counterparts. Black and colored landowners remained socially ostracized compared to their white counterparts. They all moved in different social circles and were never invited to major social events, which remained the preserve of the white group.

The middle group on the social scale was made up of blacks of color and upward mobility whose members included landowners, teachers, clerks, overseers, and skilled artisans. Their numbers were reduced by migration, which increased during the 20th century as people left in search of better opportunities in greener pastures – the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Maracaibo and Trinidad .

As a result, there has been a marked change in Scarborough’s population, which has caused concern among residents. Migrant families have sold their properties to people from rural communities, which has aggravated another social barrier, that between urban and rural dwellers.

The growth of the middle group was facilitated by the upward movement of part of the working class which generated increased incomes from a range of activities. Some were engaged in commercial activity, such as cocoa buyers, usually small traders who held licenses to trade in cocoa and coconuts and who were also cocoa producers; others, men and women, were traffickers who traveled to the countryside and bought foodstuffs to trade in Trinidad; the captains of the sloops that transported articles for trade between Trinidad and Tobago; small owners of new emerging business sectors such as snackettes and restaurants.

The expansion of education through the creation of secondary and private schools generated more qualified people for teaching and office services; and there were migrants from Granada and St Vincent.

The working class of Tobago had unique characteristics. Among its members were landowners, some of whom continued to work as laborers on the estates and also employed other members of their group. The working class supported themselves and their families through multiple economic activities. They were all farmers who grew food and cash crops, combined with other forms of employment. These included: skilled trades; fishing; stevedores and dockworkers; agricultural labour; and increasingly, the Department of Public Works.

In the face of continual complaints from the planting community about a labor shortage, the numbers of the working class were augmented by expired Indians from Trinidad, Grenada, and St. Vincent, usually as part of contractual arrangements with windward estates, which have suffered most from internal migration. This group changed the makeup of the island’s population from a totally African population at its base to a mixed population with a sprinkling of Indians.

The three most important differences between the middle group and the working class were the most important. First and foremost, the color biases that dominated the plantation era continued to prevail.

Within the middle group, shades of darkness were important. Since the mixed population lived mostly in and around Scarborough, traditionally populated by the free colored population, it was also the center of the middle group. Its members held firmly to Victorian ethics of language, dress, food and conduct. They avoided menial work and employed black workers as servants to do jobs they considered degrading.

Second, there was a perceived difference between urban dwellers who embraced more facets of European culture and presumed themselves to be more sophisticated than rural dwellers.

This perception was reinforced by another very strong difference between these two groups, that of culture. In stark contrast to the Victorian leanings of the middle class, the working class was strongly African-oriented and its members engaged in practices despised by the middle group.

The imperial government supported color prejudice. Imperial policy persisted in appointing white professionals and high-level administrators and in refusing to appoint suitable black people, simply because there was a desire to prevent blacks from holding important positions. The imperial government also listened to calls from members of the white community who refused to be treated by non-white doctors for white doctors to be made available to rural communities.

The only white people who regularly interacted with the black population were the clergy and agricultural officers whose job it was to increase scientific practices in agriculture. White planters formed the Tobago Planters Association, in a futile attempt to prevent the empowerment of the working class. In the end, they were forced to change their approach and face the harsh reality that control was in the hands of Trinidad administrators.

Thus, while there was a shift in the admission of the black population to higher social groups, discrimination based on race, color, and culture persisted within and between social groups.


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