Tobago’s peculiar culture

Dr Rita Pemberton  -
Dr Rita Pemberton -


One of the main distinguishing features of Tobago is the cultural difference between its population and that of Trinidad.

When in Trinidad, Tobagonians are identifiable by a number of characteristics, among them their social tendencies to be clannish and their language – both sometimes viewed as traits to be despised.

The clannish label is seen as a threat to the unitary state, particularly since the growth of the island’s autonomy drive. But perhaps more than anything else, this view reflects a lack of understanding of the island’s culture – a result of the island’s historical evolution, which was markedly different from that of Trinidad.

Amid constant complaints about the deprivation for development, Tobago suffered as a result of the policies that resulted in its isolation from the outside world. The population survived on its internal salvation. During this period of isolation, Tobago’s culture was forged from inherited African traditions and practices developed in the struggle to actualise freedom.

These practices of a primarily African-descended population shaped their responses to the challenges they faced – discrimination, exclusion from the island’s decision-making processes, exploitation and land deprivation. These were the mechanisms through which ruling class control was exerted over the population well into the 20th century. The population’s responses provided the threads from which group solidarity was woven.

Identity, the first thread, was the glue that held the community together. There were neither doubts nor misgivings about their African origins, and this was reflected in the continuation of many traditional African practices. Naming children after their grandparents; the ritual burial of the “navel string”; the use of African proverbs for child-rearing and socialisation; methods of cultivation and food preparation; birth, celebratory and funerary rites; and respect for the senior citizens and ancestors were all part of their tradition.

Secondly, the Tobago culture is centred on kinship. Family is important and respect is due to each member, even the remotest of cousins. The element of family tracing continues to be a practice and many of the “pumpkin vine” families who live across the length and breadth of the island can be identified. This stemmed from the fact that members of the family kept in touch with each other and family outings to visit those who lived in the more distant parts of the island were not unusual.

Grandparents and older folks played an important role in raising children. They passed on stories of the past, riddles, proverbs, folk beliefs and music traditions.

In addition to blood-related family, members of the community who had special connections or provided essential services were considered and treated as family, each with a specific designation. Godparents and friends of parents were nennen, compeh or macomeh; policemen were called "sarge"; bus conductors were addressed as "time"; teachers were abbreviated to "teach." Children were not allowed to be on a first-name basis with any adult, and were required to use “Mr” or “Miss” before their first names. Older siblings were called brother or sister.

Thirdly, property formed an important cultural base, especially given the struggle for land acquisition that occurred in the post-emancipation period. Property-owning was a badge of honour in the society, and provided a third strand of co-operation as people worked together to raise money to purchase land and to assist each other in a variety of land-related activities. The ancestral land, which housed several generations of the family, assumed an importance in the social configuration of the island as something to respect and to hold for generations.

Fourthly, there were a number of activities that kept the members of the community in a close relationship. Co-operative work, which was based on the len' hand system and was applied to all activities, allowed for continual close interaction among members of the community. It was used for clearing land for agriculture, planting and reaping crops, constructing and repairing homes. Groups of individuals would come together to take on the task, and would move from one person to the next until everyone in the group had their work done. The women prepared meals for the workers.

In the seafaring districts, the len' hand practice was used for knitting fish nets, hanging seines (which involved both males and females), pulling in the seine when the boats returned with the catch and cleaning and repairing boats.

Len' hand was also a mechanism for earning money to purchase land, whereby groups of workers came together to help each other to complete work contracts faster and increase their earnings.

There was also a social dimension to len' hand. Whenever families had bounties of any item, they used len' hand to share with relatives and neighbours. Although it was a normal activity, it was the agency of social welfare and the most accessible one that existed on the island for an extended part of the post-emancipation era. Families in need and older folks were supported by members of the community, orphans were accommodated by people in the community and weddings and funerals were organised on a len' hand basis to provide and prepare the food and venue for the activity, and to make the shroud and coffins.

The main means of raising capital for expensive ventures was the sou sou, which was popular on the island. It encouraged thrift and brought people together for mutual benefit. Training the next generation of skilled workers was done through an apprenticeship system, whereby young people were attached to the skilled people in the community to learn trades like dressmaking, tailoring, masonry, carpentry and shoemaking. This also facilitated interaction of the families involved in the arrangement, as well as between young people and the older members of the community.

Sport, recreation and religion provided other avenues for co-operation and were elements by which the population survived the challenges of the post-emancipation years. Sport tournaments were organised within and between the different districts in activities such as kite-flying, pitching marbles, football, cricket and netball. Community-based social activities such as dances, bazaars, weddings and celebrations of all kinds brought people together.

In addition, Tobago was a religious society and most people attended church on Sundays and church-related activities on other days of the week.

Protected from external corrosive influences by isolation, the island’s culture developed and the population survived on its inward grace. What some viewed as clannishness, was in fact, simply the tradition of Tobago togetherness – a survival mechanism that was a part of the island’s social and cultural norm.


"Tobago’s peculiar culture"

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