Jamaica and Trinidad & Tobago have storied histories

By Murphy Browne Wednesday July 11 2012 in Opinion
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During this year two Caribbean island nations will be celebrating 50 years of independence from colonial rule. Jamaicans will celebrate the 50th anniversary of their country’s independence on August 6, 1962. The 10,990 square kilometres (4,240 square miles) Caribbean island is the 3rd largest island in the area.

 

The indigenous people (Arawaks) named their island “Xaymaca” (land of wood and water) but the island was renamed Jamaica by the European colonizers. The island was first seen by Europeans when Christopher Columbus made his second journey to what Europeans referred to as the New World. Columbus had been searching for a way East but lost his way and thought he had reached India so he mistakenly referred to the indigenous people as Indians.

 

Columbus’ arrival signaled the end of the indigenous population of the island. Foreign European diseases to which the Arawaks had no immunity and a combination of inhumane treatment by the Europeans who attempted to enslave the Arawaks along with the suicide of many, decimated the population of indigenous people.

 

After losing their enslaved native labour force, the Spaniards began importing enslaved Africans who were kidnapped and taken from the African continent. Between 1509 and 1655, the island was colonized by the Spanish who eventually lost the island to the British. The tribal conflict in Europe spilled over to the New World where Europeans fought for domination of the lucrative slave trade and the new fertile lands. The Spanish in Jamaica were under constant attack by British pirates encouraged by the British government who coveted the rich land. Eventually, in 1655, they successfully wrested Jamaica from Spanish possession.

 

All was not rosy for the British after they captured Jamaica from the Spanish. The fleeing Spanish freed the Africans they had enslaved and left them with enough weapons to pose serious threat to the conquering British. The Africans set free by the Spaniards fled to Jamaica’s interior and resisted re-enslavement by the British. This new community of freed Africans made life difficult for the British whose enslaved Africans would hear stories of the Maroon communities.

 

The most famous of the Maroon leaders is Nanny (the sole female of Jamaica’s seven National Heroes) whose exploits and fame are legendary. The fighting spirit of enslaved Africans and Maroons in Jamaica is legendary even contributing to the start of the Haitian Revolution. The complete emancipation of Africans by the British government on August 1, 1838 owes much to that fighting spirit which continued until Jamaica was granted independence from British colonial rule 124 years later on August 6, 1962.

 

The people of the twin island state of the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago will celebrate their 50th anniversary on August 31, 1962. Whatever the original inhabitants of the 5,128 square kilometres (1,980 square miles) area named their island home, Christopher Columbus renamed it “La Isla de la Trinidad” (The Island of the Trinity). It is said that Columbus gave the island its name when he saw three mountain peaks along the southeastern coast as he travelled by the island on his third voyage to the New World in 1498.

 

Former Prime Minister, the late Dr. Eric Williams, wrote in his 1962 book, “History of the People of Trinidad and Tobago”, under the heading, Our Amerindian ancestors: “Columbus set out on his third voyage on May 30, 1498 and sighted the island, which he christened Trinidad, at noon on Tuesday, July 31. On this same voyage Columbus is alleged to have sighted Tobago. What is certain is that he did not land in Tobago but proceeded from Trinidad to Hispaniola. Trinidad remained in Spanish hands from July 31, 1498, until it was surrendered by the Spanish Governor to a British naval expedition on February 18, 1797.”

 

Columbus claimed Trinidad for Spain but did not settle on the island. Spaniards who went to the island after Columbus’ sighting kidnapped the native inhabitants (Arawaks and Caribs) and took them to work in the Spanish colonies in the Americas. The native population of the island also dwindled because they fell victim to foreign European diseases.

 

The first attempt to establish a colony on the island came in 1592 almost 100 years after Columbus first saw the three peaks on the island. It is said that a group of Spaniards settled in a community they named San Jose de Oruna after they failed to find the famed mythical city of El Dorado in neighbouring Venezuela which is seven miles from Trinidad.

 

The Spanish took enslaved Africans to Trinidad to replace the homegrown labour force (Arawaks and Caribs) they had decimated. Dr. Williams also wrote, under the heading “Africa to the Rescue”: “They were dragged by the millions from their native land in Africa to the Western Hemisphere. What began as a mere trickle in 1441, with twelve African slaves captured by the Portuguese and taken to Portugal, became a roaring torrent in the 18th and 19th centuries, and one estimate, almost certainly on the conservative side, is that the slave trade cost Africa at least 50,000,000 souls. Africans became important elements in the population in all the Caribbean countries, in Brazil, and in the United States of America. They constituted also an important element in the population of Trinidad and Tobago, and were automatically resorted to, as in other parts of the Spanish dominions, as soon as the decimation of the Amerindians by the Spanish conquest was recognised.”

 

The decimation of the native population and the kidnapping and forced migration of entire communities of Africans did not weigh heavily or even at all on the minds of the Spanish who used these populations to enrich themselves because, as Dr. Williams so aptly points out: “In Trinidad, and in the other parts of the Spanish West Indies, the conquest had decimated the Amerindian population, whom the jurist Sepulveda had contemptuously dismissed as being closer to the monkey than to man. So the Spaniards and other Europeans after them, promptly proceeded to introduce, as a substitute for Amerindian labour, the labour of slaves from Africa.”

 

Trinidad changed European hands a few times before the August 31, 1962 independence because the Europeans fought like cats and dogs over possession of land in the New World just as they did in Europe.

 

The first conflict between these European tribes on the island took place in 1595 when the infamous English pirate Walter Raleigh and his gang invaded the Spanish settlement San Jose de Oruna and burned the place to the ground. Raleigh was supposedly executed for his crimes in 1618.

 

Trinidad’s sister island had an equally colourful history. From the pen of Dr. Williams we learn that: “If there was one West Indian colony with a sadder history than that of Trinidad in the first 300 years after its discovery by the Spaniards, that colony was Tobago. Tobago suffered from the competition of rival colonialisms. It was a never-ending free-for-all in Tobago. Britain claimed the Island on the ground that it formed part of the acquisition of Sir Thomas Warner in 1626. France claimed it as part of the grant made by Cardinal Richelieu to the French West Indian Company some twenty years later. Holland, grant or no grant, asserted its own claim to the Island. Spain lived in constant apprehension of an attack from Tobago on Trinidad. This is how Tobago lived up the end of the 18th century – between Britain and France, or between France and Holland, or between Holland and Britain, now invaded by the buccaneers, now attacked by Spain, now settled by Courlanders.”

 

Dr. Williams, a historian and politician, led his country’s independent movement and became the first Prime Minister of the independent nation, remaining in that position until he transitioned in 1981.

 

tiakoma@hotmail.com

 

  • Dreyer said:

    Having listened to an interview the bookreportradio had with Steve Berry, author of the ‘The Columbus Affair”, I’ve been led down an absolute gold mine of history, and that of Jamaica, and of the West Indies. I had never known. I had never known about the diseases that were swapped between continents (the Columbian Exchange), or of the ‘Hooked X’ business. This little Berry find is going to keep me busy for a long time. Did Simon Wiesenthal also speak of the islands in his book ‘Sails of hope;?


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    Tuesday July 31 at 9:24 am

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