Race, class and social change in 20th-century Tobago

Dr Rita Pemberton  -
Dr Rita Pemberton -


The decline of Tobago’s sugar industry across the 19th century and its final demise at the end of the century resulted in adjustments in the island’s class system and social relations. As a result, there were changes in the composition and sizes of the different segments of society. Like elsewhere in the Caribbean, the class system was race and colour based. The white planter and merchant class stood at the top of the social system and formed the ruling class. The planter class traditionally wielded political and economic power on the island because they possessed the required qualifications – white, male, Anglican and over the age of 21. From the very start the British imposed its racial stamp which generated hostility on the island.

Despite the decline of their economic base, the ruling class clung to political power as the means to restore economic ascendency. These efforts proved futile and their economic power was eroded by the decline and ultimate demise of the sugar industry at the end of the 19th century. Because of their colour they continued to enjoy the social privileges associated with their traditional political and economic position. But their political power was voluntarily terminated after the Belmanna War which they interpreted as an expression of the long feared black reprisal action. In response they showed their racist intent to force blacks to remain as underpaid estate labourers. In a desperate attempt to obtain imperial government support against the black workers, the ruling class surrendered its powers to the imperial government. However, the imperial agenda was set on removing political power from the planters, and having played into the imperial hand, the Tobago ruling class found itself eventually politically sidelined.

Some coloured families who had acquired plantations during the 19th century, formed a sub-set of the planter class. At the start of the 20th century they remained owners of Mary’s Hill, Orange Hill, Amity Hope, Indian Walk Estate, Crown Point, Milford, Buccoo, Smithfield, Adelphi, Castara and Craig Hall estates. A small number of black estate owners emerged at the end of the 19th century. They owned Golden Lane, Providence, Dunveygan, Hampden and Parrot Hall estates. It was clear that the colour composition of the island’s planter class had undergone visible change by the end of the 19th century. But this was by no means a unified group.

The fate of the sugar industry led to a reduced presence of the old planter class on the island at the start of the 20th century because estates changed hands or were abandoned. Five estates remained in the possession of the old white ruling class, four of which were operational – Franklyns, Green Hill, Blenheim and Grafton estates. Lucy Vale was uncultivated. A new class of planters emerged on the island by the second decade of the 20th century. Low land prices in Tobago attracted migrants and a new set of planters, both black and white mainly from Grenada, emerged in the 1920s. The island ‘s large planter class was then composed of three tiers – white, coloured and black planters – among whom colour distinctions prevailed and they moved in different circles. White planters joined the ruling class along with officials and professionals who were recruited from Trinidad.

The traditional symbiotic relationship between merchants and planters in the ruling class changed because the old merchant class was also eliminated with the demise of the sugar industry. A new merchant class emerged, made up of the managers of the business companies that operated on the island, migrants and individuals such as Isaac Hope, George Hatt and Captain William Hovell.

During the 20th century, particularly after 1915, migration from Tobago was on the increase and this trend impacted on the middle segment of the population. This group underwent significant change as the younger generation migrated in search of opportunities abroad and never returned. There were also instances where whole families migrated. This movement was most visible in Scarborough which became home to a number of new residents from Tobago’s rural and urban drift, and migrants from Trinidad who bought the properties of migrating Tobago families.

But the growth of the middle segment was assisted by an increase in the number of independent landowners. Returning migrants from Panama and Venezuela purchased plots of ten acres and they became employers of labour. The sale of estate and Crown lands to labourers and metayers led to the formation of a group of small farmers. And small shopkeepers who obtained licences to buy cocoa, sea captains of sloops and small trading vessels who plied between the islands, small business men who operated restaurants and snackettes, and women who operated guest houses added to the numbers of the middle segment.

Rapid change also occurred in the labouring class. The numbers of this group was traditionally made up of freed Africans with a smattering of Indians from Grenada. The numbers increased during the 20th century when Indians from Trinidad, Grenada and St Vincent were imported to work on estates in east Tobago. The labouring class was subject to white planter/employer exploitation, and the long-standing simmering opposition to racism gave way to open expressions of hostility which emanated from members of this group against white employers. Black workers refused to enlist for service in the “white man’s war” of1914-1918. One of the most hated individuals on the island was George De Nobriga, owner of Cove and Lowlands estates, manager of several companies on the island and the island’s representative in the Legislative Council in 1938. He charged his workers two or three days’ unpaid labour per week in order to be employed for the rest of the week. Labourers complained bitterly and when the practice was publicised, he claimed he did not know it was an illegal act. Some members of the white community objected to being attended to by black doctors and requested that the authorities provide white doctors, while blacks faced difficulty securing appointments to government positions. The island exploded when sub-inspector of the constabulary, Swan, in a newspaper column written by retired teacher LAP Peters, was exposed for using prisoners as unpaid domestic workers at his home and as crab catchers. Swan assaulted Peters, resulting in a court case on September 7, 1937 which brought large angry crowds to the courthouse in Scarborough. The crowd was very dissatisfied with the light sentence of $48.00 or three months hard labour and $24.00 compensation for Peters. They loudly expressed their dissatisfaction with the unequal treatment of blacks and whites in the courts. Swan was dismissed later in September 1937.

The changes which occurred in Tobago during the 20th century resulted in a changed racial mixture in the composition of the upper and middle segments of the society. The increased black presence in these segments reflected an increase in black upward social mobility, but it did not facilitate improved racial relations among and between the social segments. While the workers remained unified in their communities, they vented their opposition to exploitation and expressed opposition to racial inequality more forcefully.


"Race, class and social change in 20th-century Tobago"

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