Agriculture: Tobago’s lifeline in the 20th century

Dr Rita Pemberton  -
Dr Rita Pemberton -

Dr Rita Pemberton

At the start of the 20th century, the village was the primary social unit in Tobago. The island’s villages developed as a result of sales of crown land and abandoned estates after the demise of the sugar industry to the workers.

Government offered five-acre blocks of land in the northern areas to those who fought in World War I, most of which were sold to the public. The price of land in L’Anse Fourmi and Bloody Bay, which was the lowest on the island, attracted settlers from the leeward side of the island, as well as Grenadian settlers whose numbers boosted the size of the village communities in these areas.

The villages were agricultural communities through which residents obtained their main means of survival, but it is to be noted that the island remained largely underdeveloped, with both internal and external communication being severely deficient. Villagers were dependent on the round-the-island steamer service, small boats, donkeys and a few cow carts to transport their goods. While donkeys provided the main means of land transport, some traders traversed the countryside on foot with trays on goods on their heads.

Hence, because of the communication challenges, subsistence agriculture became one of the mainstays of the island’s population. Subsistence agriculture was practised by the occupants of every household because of their traditions, the need to have items readily available for their families and to supplement their incomes.

Food was cultivated around their homes, and on rented or their own plots of land, which were usually some distance away from their homes. On these would be planted ground provision, cassava, corn, pigeon peas, beans and vegetables.

Livestock farming was also practised. Cows were reared to provide the family’s milk needs and chicken for eggs and the family Sunday meal. Pigs, sheep and goats were reared for sale. These items were supplemented by fish, which was obtained from the coastal villages.

Food-crop production was bolstered by a system of cross-island trading in which each community sold or exchanged what it produced for items produced in other districts. This internal marketing system was hinged upon the varying resource base of these communities, which facilitated food exchanges and bartering. The coastal communities supplied fish, while the inland communities provided items such as ground provisions, for which their soil types were suited. The coconut-growing communities on the leeward side produced coconut oil, which was the main edible oil used in food preparation, and for hair and skin grooming on the island.

Plymouth was an important trading hub which served the northern and inland areas. Small boats with dasheen, yam and other produce came from Parlatuvier, Bloody Bay and L’Anse Fourmi, and fish from Toco. Donkeys and people on foot, bearing bread fruit from Moriah and ground provisions from Montgomery, Bethel, Prospect and Patience Hill were exchanged (or sold) for fish from Plymouth.

Traders in small boats sailed from Charlotteville to Culloden and Arnos Vale to exchange planks of wood and corned fish for wet sugar. Residents of Delaford and Roxborough traded fish for farine, while those from Pembroke and Goodwood bartered tannia and sweet potatoes, dry peas and farine for fish at Kendal Place.

Women from the north traded goods in Roxborough and Scarborough. The Scarborough market served as the central market and attracted vendors from across the island.

It was also the centre for traffickers who collected produce and animals and travelled on the steamer service to sell their goods in Trinidad. Some of them ran stores, groceries or parlours and would obtain stock for their businesses from Trinidad, while others sold goods from Trinidad to small business operators in Tobago.

Employment opportunities were very limited on the island, so for many people, estate labour remained the most available option. This was combined with their food production efforts. The island’s working estates diversified from sugar production to the cultivation of cocoa and coconuts, established using the contract system.

Contractors were allocated a portion of estate land on which to cultivate young plants. When the plants were sufficiently established, the contractor would be paid for each tree according to its size and state of health. The estate would then assume responsibility for the estate cultivation and hire labourers to maintain the plants and to pick and process the crop as required.

These included coconut pickers and choppers and women who extracted the kernel from the shells and made fibre from the husk, which was sold in Trinidad.

On cocoa estates labourers were employed to pick, crack, heap, sweat, dry and dance the cocoa in preparation for sale.

In order to supplement the very low wages paid to agricultural labourers, contractors were able to interplant food crops with the young cocoa and coconut plants.

Another significant development was that some landowners were able to produce export crops on their own account and enhanced their earnings as cocoa and coconut farmers. Some, in leeward Tobago, cultivated sugarcane and produced their own supply of wet sugar, which they were able to trade.

Other agricultural pursuits included tobacco faming in Patience Hill, which declined in 1925, but was subsequently revived by the West Indian Tobacco Company, and lime cultivation in the leeward areas. In and around Scarborough, women employed themselves by making and selling baked items and candies.

While food-crop production was an important activity which sustained the island’s population, it did not generate the returns required to meet the high cost of living on the island. It therefore became necessary for individuals to engage in other income-generating activities in order to improve the quality of life for their families.

The main obstacles which faced residents of Tobago required the formulation of an appropriate development plan, which was not given consideration by the authorities. As a result, during the second half of the century, while the island was able to feed itself, its festering problems presented challenges for the maintenance of its long-established food-production traditions.


"Agriculture: Tobago’s lifeline in the 20th century"

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