Poor roads: Tobago's weak link 1838-1980s

Dr Rita Pemberton  -
Dr Rita Pemberton -

Dr Rita Pemberton

During the period of enslavement, internal communication was tailored strictly to serve the needs of plantations and their owners.

The main roads led to the ports at Scarborough and Plymouth, where imports and exports entered and exited the island. They extended from Scarborough to Castara on the Leeward side and on the Windward coast along what used to be called the French Military Road up to Man o’ War Bay, most of which was unpaved.

Since all plantation owners owned horses, estates were connected by bridle paths, which were considered essential for security purposes against both insurrection and external aggression.

After Emancipation. absent any attempts to organise land allocation to accommodate the freed Africans, an ad-hoc land-settlement pattern developed. The location of settlements was determined by sales of marginal estate land to the freed people, the popularity of the church mission in a particular area and proximity to the main roads. Villages sprang up in the useless swamps at river mouths or on marginal lands along the main roads.

The absence of such roads was most noticeable in the Windward and Leeward flanks of the island, where there was a criss-cross of a number of crown traces suitable for small carts and animal transport and usually overgrown.

This state of affairs rendered any form of development impossible until the internal-communication impediment was addressed.

In 1900, the villages of Castara, Charlotteville, Bloody Bay and L’Anse Fourmi did not possess roads which could accommodate vehicular traffic. The problem was not simply a lack of roads; during the rainy season swollen rivers made the existing bad roads impassable and constituted a threat to human and animal safety. Some lost their lives trying to cross them.

After the two islands were unified, some attention was paid to road improvement, which resulted in a number of string bridges to convey horses and pedestrians over streams and rivers. In 1904 a suspension bridge was built over the West Blenheim River and in 1912 a steel bridge constructed over the Courland River near Plymouth.

These did not begin to address the problem, for every year, villages east of the Louis d’Or/ Delaford River were cut off when the river was in flood because there was no bridge. This plagued the community until 1930, when a steel bridge was built at Louis d’Or.

While three roads in the Windward district were upgraded in 1928, most of the secondary roads and traces remained unpaved and impassable during the wet season. All such areas depended on donkeys or cow carts to transport their produce.

In 1931, the road between Speyside and Charlotteville was made fit for vehicles, but the connecting road from Charlotteville to L’Anse Fourmi and Bloody Bay remained a bridle path normally overgrown with grasses and bush. Communication between these areas depended upon the small boats owned and operated by villagers, which transported both people and produce.

The first motorcar entered Castara from Moriah in 1922, but the growth of motor traffic was prevented by the frequent landslides to which the area is prone. Up to 1940, wheeled traffic could not use the Northside Road between Moriah and Charlotteville. Access through the existing bridle path was difficult for both pedestrians and animals because it traversed unbridged rivers and was frequently strewn with fallen trees.

Roadworks in the1940s made jeep transport possible from Castara to L’Anse Fourmi by 1948, but secondary roads and crown traces in these districts remained impassable during the rainy season.

A bridge which was constructed over the Hillsborough West River or Hope River and opened in 1971 collapsed in 1975. It was replaced by a Bailey bridge and the new Hope River Bridge was finally rebuilt in 1988.

While the lack of adequate roads stymied the island’s development and was the source of acrimonious discussions and contributions by the island’s representatives in the Legislative Council, it did not kill the spirit of survival on the island. First, a tradition of walking developed. No distance was considered too far to walk, regardless of the terrain, and no load too heavy to carry. In many cases vendors walked with their goods on their heads on the perilous journey to harvest or sell their produce.

A system of internal transport was devised. In Scarborough, there were two donkey carts which handled the movement of goods in and around the town. They were operated by Mr Bartholomew Andrews – Bartie Donkey Cart – and Mr Thomas James. Bartie’s cart moved goods from Morales’ lumber yard to building sites, to and from the port and packages around the town. These gentlemen provided the island’s first courier service.

In the villages, specially crafted box carts, fitted with brakes and some with pulley strings, were made to transport groceries to and from the village shops and food depots.

Bicycles were popular among those who could afford them. Bicycles were treasures which were washed and jazzed up as is done with present-day vehicles. Raleigh and Norman were the popular brands, which were gender-specific – male bikes had a crossbar and female bikes did not. The younger generation favoured three-speed bicycles, which had a backpedal facility to change gears for uphill riding.

Workmen rode to work; farmers carried grass on their bicycles; Bishop’s High School was constructed with a bicycle shed at the front of the building for the students. Bicycles were fitted with boxes at the front for fish and other items for sale.

Then came the bus service, first operated by the Trinidad Government Railway Company (TGR), followed by Charles McEnearney and Company and finally by the Public Transport Service Corporation (PTSC). In addition to transporting people, the bus also provided a courier service. People waited at the bus stop with lunches for husbands and children, food and other packages for the police station and other destinations along the routes, which the drivers happily delivered.

Long-distance communication which was used during the period of enslavement continued to be utilised – the special signals from the conch shell and drums – to overcome the physical difficulties and send messages of joy or distress across the island.

The people survived, but the piecemeal approach did not prove effective. The bad roads, along with the lack of a carefully crafted system of road improvement, impeded Tobago’s development and continued to haunt the island throughout the 20th century.


"Poor roads: Tobago’s weak link 1838-1980s"

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