Wealth, poverty and the environment in 17th-20th-century Tobago

Dr Rita Pemberton  -
Dr Rita Pemberton -

Dr Rita Pemberton

The European presence in Tobago has had a significant impact on the island’s environment. European rivalry for possession and control of Tobago resulted in a continuous conflict between the competing powers during the 17th and 18th centuries.

For the rivals, the best indication of possession was to plant a colony of settlers who would immediately begin cultivating crops for export. These colonising attempts were usually supported by financiers who hoped the venture would generate profits.

As a result, the first large-scale land-clearing was devoted to forming settlements with accommodation for the colonists, creating towns and establishing sites for fortifications, which were essential to protect the colony, and plantations, with the hope of generating profits.

All these activities required extraction of wood from the forests. The quest for power and wealth unleashed the first onslaught on the forest cover.

Between 1632 and 1667, the Dutch, who were in continuous possession of the island, established flourishing sugar estates and operated six well equipped sugar mills. In 1642, a party of Barbadians led by Capt Marshall established plantations of indigo and tobacco, but, faced with hostility from the First People, the settlement was abandoned and the settlers relocated to Suriname. Establishing estates initiated a process of extensive forest clearance, which was aggravated when the island was finally determined to be a British possession in 1763.

In 1765, the establishment of a forest reserve on Tobago’s Main Ridge to protect the supply of rains did not signal an interest in either conservation or forestry by the individuals who purchased land and established sugar plantations on the island.

Like the Dutch before, British colonisation involved the denudation of forest cover to provide wood and charcoal for processing sugar and timber for estate buildings and housing. As a result, a number of arboreal species that are listed in early accounts of the island have been depleted. These include purple heart, green heart and ebony, which are no longer visible on the island, and mahogany. Although Tobago possessed considerable quantities of cedar, in addition to its popularity for building, it was one of the main items exported to Barbados during the 18th century. This resource was overexploited and by 1843 the island was said to have been denuded of its cedar and needed to import timber. Both cedar and mahogany have since been replanted.

Europeans were also interested in the island’s maritime resources. French whalers who befriended the First People and were active on the island established small settlements there and engaged in uncontrolled whaling until they were chased away by the British.

During the period of European rivalry there were three main assaults on the island’s environment. First was the sudden rapid clearance of land, which affected the island’s biodiversity through the removal of an untold numbers of naturally occurring plants and trees and their related ecosystems. Clearing was accompanied by fires to burn the material, which removed the chance of regrowth of cleared species.

Secondly, during the wars among the Europeans and between the Europeans and the First People, both cultivated land and settlements were destroyed, often by fire, an important weapon in these conflicts.

Thirdly, British plantation owners engaged in hunting as a sport and their palate for wild meat reduced the island’s wildlife population. One of the favourite food items of the planting community was the green turtle, which abounded in the waters around the island. However, it suffered from overfishing and is now extinct. Thus, the European presence caused irreversible environmental damage.

At Emancipation, the freed Africans had little choice in their places of abode and the land they cultivated. They engaged in slash-and-burn agriculture, which was the pattern established by the plantation owners, and owing to their dire economic circumstances they were forced to supplement their meagre incomes in a number of ways, which included hunting wildlife.

One of the planters’ main objections to emancipation was their expressed concern about its environmental consequences. They argued that the carefully guarded environmental protection law would be disregarded and uncontrolled settlement would be the result. For environmental safety, land-holding by the freed Africans should be restricted.

The real reason was, of course, to force the maintenance of cheap labour to service the sugar industry. Their struggle to become landowners lasted until the end of the 19th century

Local and foreign visitors have expressed surprise about the cleanliness of the island. During the 20th century the majority of the working-class population of Tobago engaged in a number of survival practices which were environmentally friendly.

Firstly, out of necessity, there was an established practice of repurposing items which entered the island. The containers which brought imported goods were not discarded as garbage but became useful household items. This provided employment for a class of skilled craftsmen, tinsmiths, who converted oil and biscuit tins into graters for processing cassava, coconuts, corn and chocolate, and baking tins and cooking and food-preparation receptacles. Milk tins of varying sizes were made into drinking cups and measuring cups for the sale of cornmeal, farine and benna (sesame) seeds. Paint cans, Norwegian butter tins and powdered-milk tins were used as plant pots. Other cans were used as water containers.

Most people kept animals and chickens. Pigs and chickens were fed with cooked food skins and composting was commonly practised by the freed African population. Food peelings were placed in banana stools and in the gardens around their homes. With emphasis on obtaining maximum utility from the items they had, there was therefore little to be thrown away.

Of significance too, the first fishermen who discovered the reef and worked in the waters off Buccoo were environmental caretakers for the sea from which they made their living. They established a size code, and undersized fish were returned to the sea.

In addition, as the first group to take visitors to the reef, they served as its custodians, preventing damage to and the removal of coral. Without formal teaching, they recognised the importance of environmental protection, which was applied in the daily practice of their fishermen’s craft.

While those with resources were driven by the profit motive at the expense of the environment, those without saw value in the preservation of the environment on which they depended.


"Wealth, poverty and the environment in 17th-20th-century Tobago"

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