A historical review of Trinidad and Tobago in the last 500 years, prepared in commemoration of the ‘Fin de Siècle’ 1999-2000
Amongst the earliest settlers of Trinidad’s of whom we have proof were the Banwari people, who lived in the Oropouche lagoon in south-west Trinidad. These Meso Indians, as archeologists call them, were fishermen, hunters of small game and collectors of wild fruits, vegetables, nuts and shellfish. They built canoes from the giant trees that grew in the ancient forest and had the ability to navigate, enabling them to explore and settle the islands of the Caribbean archipelago.
Their history is a book now forever closed. Their legacy, however, consists of middens, mounds containing sherds of broken pottery, shells, bones and clay figurines, and of course many place names. Erin, Piarco, Mayaro, Cumana, Moruga, Ortiore, Oropouche, Guayaguayare, Ariapita, Couva: many of these names represent Amerindian names of plants, trees and animals. Mucurapo means ‘place of the silk cotton tree’, Chaguaramas is the name for the palmiste palm, and Tunapuna means ‘on the river’.
Whereas other Caribbean islands were inhabited by only one or two Amerindian tribes, Trinidad was settled by many, due to its close proximity to the South American mainland. When Columbus discovered Trinidad in 1498, he encountered several tribes, who spoke a variety of languages, some known today as Arawak and Cariban. Early records show that at that time, Trinidad was inhabited by 40,000 Amerindians. On the south coast Shebaio and Aruac (Lokono) had settled. The Nepoio lived on the south east and east coast of Trinidad. The Yao settled along the south west coast, and the Carinepagoto occupied the north west of Trinidad. In central Trinidad, the Tamanaque must have had their villages. The Quaqua, the Salive, the Chaguane, the Pariagoto and the Chaima complete the number of eleven tribes of which the names survived.
Besides those, several other tribes must have lived in Trinidad, but their names are not preserved. It is likely, for instance, that Cariban-speaking groups occupied most of Trinidad circa A.D. 1500, since also Tobago was inhabited by the Cariban-speaking Kalina in the early seventeenth century.
The Trinidad Amerindians were entirely naked except for girdles and headbands of multi-coloured cotton cloth. Bodies were painted red with roukou and feathers were used for decoration. Tribal headmen wore a golden crown and golden eagle-shaped ornaments on their breasts.
The tribes in Trinidad engaged in trade with those on the continents via the Gulf of Paria and the waterways: stone for making axes and other implements were obtained from Paria and the Guianas. Golden objects and other products of South America were bartered with the Orinoco Indians for pearls, salt and probably tobacco.
The Amerindians practised shifting cultivation. Fields were burned in the dry season and planted at the beginning of the wet season. When the soil was depleted after a couple of harvests, they were abandoned. The crops consisted in cotton, cassava, tobacco, maize, beans, squashes and peppers. Generally, their diet was very rich in protein, legumes and fish.
Society was loosely organised. Their villages with their bell-shaped houses moved frequently. The village headman was an elder kinsman and most of the people of the village were related to him. Religion was characterized by a universal belief in spritis of nature; deities were not worshiped. Medicine men served as curers and advisors due to their ability to contact spirits. Villages often formed alliances against villages of other tribes. Men fought with darts, sling stones and bows and arrows. They also practised ritual cannibalism.
When the Spanish conquistadors arrived in the outgoing 15th century, the days of the Amerindians were numbered. Their culture was destroyed by the Catholic missionaries of the Cisterciensan and Capuchin orders, who set up missions along the east and south coasts of Trinidad, and by the more modern and brutal European civilisation which brought many deseases that decimated the natives. A lot of the Amerindians were massacred by the colonizers, who were much better armed. Those who survived had to adapt to the Cross, the Book and to labouring for somebody else. Their villages and extended families disintegrated within a few generations. Many re-crossed the Gulf of Paria to the mainland.
But their legacy is still with us today, even as we drive through the countryside. Many of the major streets in Trinidad are built on Amerindian footpaths, such as the Eastern Main Road all the way to Mayaro, the Royal Road, the Mayaro-Rio Claro Road, and even the road to Maracas. ‘Indian Walk’ in southern Trinidad is reminiscent of the Amerindians who came to Trinidad from Venezuela, landed with their canoes on the south coast, and walked with all their goods to peddle them in the little markets of Mission Village.
Missions of the Catalan Capuchin Priests (established between 1687 and 1708)
- San Jose de Oruna (St. Joseph)
- Savana Grande
Missions of the Aragon Capuchin Priests (established between 1758 and 1837)