Recreation, sport and society in 20th-century Tobago

Dr Rita Pemberton  -
Dr Rita Pemberton -

Dr Rita Pemberton

Recreation, which provided a highly valued diversion for the hard-working population, was an important feature of life in 20th-century Tobago. In addition to the various celebrations which were held to mark special days and events, sports constituted an important element of the island’s recreational agenda.

It is to be noted that organised sport reflected the existing social divisions of the island. This was a continuation of a trend which was established during the 19th century, when hunting was one of the main recreational activities of the white planter class.

After Emancipation, while hunting was commonly practised by the freed Africans, it was not a recreational activity but an economic necessity, a means to supplement the meagre incomes they earned from estate labour.

During the 20th century organised sport was established on the island. Among the first were those which were costly to play, and which therefore catered for the upper segments of the society. However, at the lowest rungs of the social ladder, members of the village communities devised their own methods to circumvent the social barriers in sport, which eventually led to their erosion.

Hence those sporting activities which were organised to reflect and maintain social divisions were used to facilitate social cohesion in the communities.

Recreational and sporting events therefore played an important role in cementing the bonds of the communities from which they were spawned. Members of the community planned their own sporting competitions and supported their teams. When games were held with other villages, each team was accompanied by a large group of vociferous supporters whose cheering, commentaries and coaching from the sidelines added to the excitement of the event.

Of the range of sporting activities, cricket first emerged as the most popular. Cricket, which was introduced by the British colonisers, assumed popularity despite requiring specialised equipment and facilities. Its popularity was due to the ease with which the required gear could be substituted, making cricket affordable to classes across the island.

There were cricket teams in every community with players who were skilled bowlers or batsmen. The Tobago Cricket Club, which was formed in 1906, catered to the well-to-do males of Tobago’s society. A female cricket club was also formed for the upper-class ladies. Sunbeam Club, which was formed later, had a middle-class membership.

However, the working class organised its own teams and competitions. The popularity of the sport was reflected in the extent to which cricket games were visible in communities on any given day, but especially on weekend. Beaches, roads and any open spaces were made into cricket pitches, while young boys could be seen playing with improvised equipment. Pieces of wood, sometimes shaved to the desire shape and size, or discarded household items, were used as wickets, while young coconuts or any firm round fruit were used as cricket balls.

Hence, among members of the lowest social level, the skills of the game were honed on the streets, with players using makeshift bats which were hewed from the base of coconut branches.

Inter-village cricket tournament were organised, usually on weekends and on public holidays. In some instances, teams of married men played against single men and schoolboys against school-leavers. Cricket equipment was purchased from suppliers in Trinidad for these competitions.

The next popular sport was horseracing. These races were first held on Petit Trou beach in Lambeau and later at Roxborough beach, until the Shirvan Park racetrack was established in 1930. Horseracing, which was organised by the Tobago Race Club, was another social marker, as the sport catered for the upper-class owners. While horses were kept by the wealthier planters to draw their carriages, they were expensive, and their maintenance and preparation for training were also costly and out of the reach of the working class.

Members of the lower classes used donkeys, some with carts, as their main means of transport and to carry their produce from distant gardens. Donkeys were commonly kept by those who cultivated cocoa, to carry the heavy cocoa baskets. A typical scene in rural Tobago was a donkey loaded with bags and master trudging along the narrow roads.

However, not to be left out, the more affordable donkey racing was the poor man’s equivalent of horseracing.

The sport that captivated members of the population across all classes was goat racing. This vernacular sport became popular in leeward Tobago and remains a major attraction of the Easter weekend at the centre of activities in Buccoo. The sport is well organised, with trophies for the winning goats and their trainers. Goats are specially reared and trained for the event by their “jockeys,” who run alongside them on the day of the races.

This sporting event has been maintained and expanded to include crab racing, which has added to the excitement the sport generates. Crab races are particularly entertaining to watch.

Other sporting activities on the island included boat racing and swimming, which were popular among the coastal communities.

By the 1930s cycling and football gained popularity, The cricket clubs formed football branches and many school teams were set up. A competition with a challenge cup was organised for schools on the island in 1931, which led to an increase in the popularity of the sport, which became even more popular after World War II ended, when a number of football clubs began to emerge.

Boxing was available at the cinema in Scarborough on Saturdays, and netball was introduced in the schools.

Lawn tennis was another sport that was restricted to the upper class. Not only were specialised equipment and dress required but also the few tennis courts on the island were on the premises of the larger hotels, to which the general public did not have access.

Despite the social barriers, sport served as a unifying agency in 20th-century Tobago. Although class distinctions remained, some erosion was evident. Social class was not a determinant for participation in particular sports and there was upper-class participation in the vernacular sport developed by the lower classes. As the century progressed, members of all classes participated in cricket, football and lawn tennis through the school teams. Girls played netball, and women’s cricket teams were organised.

The most important contribution of sports in the period was a strengthening of community social bonds on the island.


"Recreation, sport and society in 20th-century Tobago"

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