The best and worst of times: Agri- and literary cultures in Tobago, 1900-1950

Dr Rita Pemberton  -
Dr Rita Pemberton -

Dr Rita Pemberton

During the first half of the 20th century, Tobago was the scene of two contradictory developments. The demise of its sugar industry, which left its economy in the doldrums, posed a challenge to both the imperial and colonial administrations. With the island branded a failed economy, this issue consumed much regional and imperial administrative attention as to how best to dispose of the problem.

Their responses involved plans which saw the island considered a political football, bouncing from one unitary arrangement to another, until the decision thought most appropriate was implemented in 1889.

The entire 19th century was marked by the decline of the sugar industry, which accelerated as the century wore on. The planting community remained stubbornly committed to sugar cultivation and rather than seek alternative and possibly more remunerative cultivars, sought to do the impossible and wring reluctant profits from an unfavourable market by maximising the exploitation of a resisting labour force.

Not surprisingly, the outcome, in which the planters served as their own worst enemy, was the demise of the industry and ultimately of the power and privileges of the large planters and merchants.

For many researchers, the key area of focus has been the role of economic matters in the island’s history, particularly with regard to the ultimate determination of its political status and its consequent relationship with the island to which it was betrothed. As a consequence, discourses during this and subsequent periods emphasise its economic misfortunes, with less and sometimes no recognition of the parallel development which included very important, strong. positive, literary currents.

However, on the economic scene, it was not all doom: a very positive development was the redistribution of land resources, which resulted in the creation of a black landowning class whose properties ranged from five-ten-acre plots to large estates. While the full potential of this development was never maximised in a policy to recast and develop the economy, this new population, freed of the restrictions of the past, was able to engage in more empowering activities such as participation in literary developments.

The island’s foray into the literary world was initiated by clubs which were primarily established through the churches, especially the Anglican and Methodist churches. First, in 1901, came the formation of the Tobago Debating Club by the Rev G Taitt, priest of the St Andrew’s Anglican Church.

The club got off to a very promising start with 36 members, including prominent members of the society. Its programme embraced discussions on the main issues which faced the island, such as the pros and cons of emigration, or Trinidad and Tobago’s road system, and also included lectures by professionals on topics of concern to members. Thus it provided a blueprint for subsequent clubs and generated so much interest that its membership grew rapidly and it spawned other clubs.

This demonstrated that these clubs filled a void in the society and also provided those devotees to the cause of Tobago, such as James Biggart, with vehicles to respond to those needs by spreading the benefits of these clubs and facilitating similar ones. Several members of this initial club joined the new clubs, whose establishment exposed the need for libraries on the island

This was recognised by the Wesleyan Guild, which spearheaded the establishment of libraries at Mt. St George in 1903 and in Mason Hall, Goodwood, Roxborough and Scarborough in 1906. The Anglican Church established branches of the Church of England’s Men’s Society and Women’s Help Society with a library and reading Scarborough. The Moravian Church established a Society for Christian Endeavour for women and a Mutual Improvement Society for men, which included library reading and discussions, at Bethesda in 1914.

Next was the Roxborough Men’s Association, established in 1908. Then came the Scarborough Brotherhood, formed in the Methodist Church but with membership open to all, which became the largest society in Tobago. It began with 100 members and held debates on the state of Tobago and lectures on agriculture which attracted members of the agricultural community and expanded its activities to other villages.

Its discussions also took up other relevant issues, such as the provision of school for children in the yaws hospital – to which the authorities responded positively – the nature of the coastal service, the high infant mortality and the need for better health care. It also provided music classes.

A year later, in 1909, the Moriah Literary and Debating Club was formed, followed by the Scarborough Literary and Debating Club of 1910, which also conducted important debates and later sprouted the 1920 Scarborough Club for recreation and literary pursuits.

This literary movement also stimulated the establishment of newspapers such as the Mirror, in 1917, and the Labour Leader, which covered developments in Tobago rarely covered by the existing newspapers.

The only club for women was the Unity Club for Women, established in 1921 for education and recreation.

The second phase of literary and cultural expression was manifested in the formation of debating clubs in those areas that had not yet been touched and the establishment of community libraries.

The Mason Hall Literary and Debating Club was set up in 1922; the Tobago Literary and Debating Association in Scarborough in 1924; another literary club in Scarborough in 1926; and the Plymouth Literary Club in 1930. The Scarborough Ideal Literary and Debating Society, founded in 1931, had the best debaters among its members, many of whom later served the island in various important capacities.

Later the clubs became more focused on developing literary skills in the population. They taught poetry reading, impromptu speechmaking, speechwriting and debating skills, One was established at Roxborough in 1934 and in 1935 similar clubs were established in Charlotteville, Glamorgan, Pembroke, Delaford and Moriah.

In 1935 Canaan Literary and Debating Club was formed, followed by the Methodist Ex-pupils Debating Club in 1936. Bishop’s High School established a debating society for its students, as did many primary schools. Organisations such as the Trinidad Workingmen’s Association also got involved, and established literary sections at its Tobago branches.

These clubs provided much-needed training opportunities for residents, exposed them to informed discussions on matters of relevance to them, facilitated reading and the dissemination of information, helped to hone the skills associated with the use of information for various purposes and brought the island’s problems into the full glare of the authorities.

During, what was undoubtedly the worst of times economically, and when the administration failed to provide facilities for developing the island’s human resources, these clubs and societies filled the void, made a significant contribution to the intellectual development of Tobago and provided the best of times for literary pursuits


"The best and worst of times: Agri- and literary cultures in Tobago, 1900-1950"

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