Migration in 20th-century Tobago

Dr Rita Pemberton  -
Dr Rita Pemberton -

Dr Rita Pemberton

Migration, forced and free, constitutes an important theme in the history of Tobago.

While the movement of people during most of the 19th century was related to an inward flow in the effort to support a dying sugar industry, the 20th-century movements reflected both inward and outward migration with both negative and positive consequences for the island.

There were two movements which were related to the demise of the sugar industry at the end of the 19th century.

First of all was the departure of many of the traditional planters and planter-related businesses from the island, which was related to their loss of economic power due to the failure of the sugar industry, and with union with Trinidad, the loss of the influence they previously wielded during the first half of the 19th century and their replacement with a new set of plantation owners.

The first outcome of this development was the decline of the old planter class. whose numbers were considerably reduced: at the beginning of the 20th century there were only 18 estate owners out of the 116 estates on the island.

Of these, white planters continued to own Franklyns, Green Hill, Blenheim, Lucy Vale and Grafton Estates.

By 1920 the main white planters were Robert Smith Reid and his son, the Turpins, Mayow Short, Robert Archibald, Thorleigh Orde (Manager), John Murray and Henry Smith.

Coloured families owned Mary’s Hill, Orange Hill, Amity Hope, Crown Point, Milford, Smithfield, Adelphi, Castara and Craig Hall estates.

There were five black-owned estates on the island. which were: Golden Lane, Providence and Dunveygan, Parrot Hall and Hampden estates.

There were a number of new planters in the 20th century, who were mainly whites who came as part of syndicates or companies from Trinidad and the UK. In 1920, nine of these companies owned 21 estates and in 1940 they owned 16 estates.

Prominent among them was Gordon Grant and Company, a Trinidad firm which, in addition to owning properties in Tobago, also held mortgages over several estates.

Also included were Portuguese landowning families like the Mendez brothers, who owned Friendsfield, Goldsbrough, Bacolet and Invergordon estates, Ignatius Ferreira, who owned Johnsville, and Mary de Freitas, who owned Mount Dillon estate.

It must be indicated that the new white planter class retained the position held by its predecessor, of social dominance on the island.

Secondly, in the effort to stimulate the development of a cocoa industry to replace sugar, a scheme which encouraged Grenadian immigrants was implemented. As a result, a number of immigrants came to Tobago from Grenada and Carriacou.

Sometime-expired Indian indentured workers came from Grenada, St Vincent and Trinidad to Tobago, some under contracts with estates in Tobago east.

Also included among the immigrants were some black and coloured Grenadians who purchased estates in Moriah, Mason Hall, Montpelier Estate and Les Coteaux. These investors were able to take advantage of the very low price of land, which sold in Tobago at £2 per acre compared to £20 elsewhere in the region.

Thus there was a new emerging black planter class on the island. While they did not all remain in total possession of their properties, some of those who sold facilitated others from the black community to become landowners. For example, lots from the Hampden Estate which were resold to aspiring black landowners have remained with those families to the present day.

A new business community was established on the island which marked an important departure from the practice of the past. Traditionally, there was a close relationship between planters and merchants on the island and many commercial enterprises were related to plantation-owning families who established estate shops, which members of the freed population were compelled ad nauseam to patronise.

Chief among the new business operators was Millers Stores Ltd, an English company which opened in 1900 and occupied the property which was previously owned by the McCalls, at the crest of Burnett Street in Scarborough.

Another English firm was D Hope Ross and Company, which sold produce and dry goods; alcohol shops were established by the Ferreira, de Freitas, de Souza and Dias families. A new set of produce and dry goods stores, including those run by Isaac Hope in Scarborough, Roxborough and Moriah, George David Hatt and Barbadian Capt William Hovel, was established. These businesses permanently removed the exploitative influence of the hated estate shops

Then followed other immigrants. The first Chinese immigrant began operations at Mt St. George in 1911. He was followed by several others in the 1930s, including James Young Kow, and the Koo and Wong families.

Syrian-Lebanese businessmen, including Abraham Morales, a hardware merchant, arrived in 1916 and werefollowed by several others, including the Habib, Mourad, Abraham and Elias families, as well as a number of other itinerant salesmen, all of whom were engaged in dry goods.

Migration deprived the island of some of its valuable human resources. The economic pressures caused by the downturn in agriculture on the island forced some to seek better opportunities in the US, UK, Maracaibo (Venezuela), Guyana and Trinidad. This movement was further stimulated by the two world wars.

Given the limited opportunities for education and training and promotion on the island, public servants and teachers who sought promotion were forced to relocate to Trinidad. In addition, those seeking training in the police force, nursing and entry into secondary schools were forced to migrate. Clerks and tradesmen caused a change in the old Scarborough coloured families. The island also lost skilled workers who sought greener pastures in the US, depriving the island of expert tailors, dressmakers, mechanics, carpenters and joiners.

Other movements of people involved the transfer of most of Tobago’s senior officials to Trinidad and all heads of department on the island were recruited from Trinidad, making Tobago the promotion path for teachers and public servants in Trinidad.

Returning Tobago migrants from Panama, Venezuela, Trinidad and the US bought land and established cocoa and coconut estates, which resulted in a rapid increase of land ownership and a growth in the number of black landowners on the island.

This was accompanied by an expansion of commerce due to the opening up of cocoa shops to trade in cocoa and coconuts, for which a number of small shopkeepers held produce licences, to provide increased employment opportunities on the island.

Migration changed the composition of the island’s population and the nature of its food culture. Indian and Chinese food items became available in shops in Tobago, and as a result there were additions to Tobago’s food-preparation practices.

The ability to own land was an empowering development, but the haemorrhage of some of its most talented sons and daughters was a severe blow.


"Migration in 20th-century Tobago"

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