Imperial graft and Barbados-Tobago relations

Dr Rita Pemberton  -
Dr Rita Pemberton -

Dr Rita Pemberton

Since the early colonial period, even before Tobago was declared a possession of the British monarchy, a relationship developed between Barbados and Tobago, in which, at that time, the occupants of Tobago had no voice.

While Tobago was under the control of the First Peoples and after the English settlement of Barbados in 1627, Barbadian whalers and fishermen freely exploited the marine resources of Tobago. They discounted the First Peoples, whom they befriended, and reported to their administrators that the island was unoccupied and open for settlement.

This practice of resource exploitation, which continued across the 17th century, intensified as a result of the rapid development of Barbados, which became dependent upon the forest resources of Tobago for timber, after that island’s forest cover was almost completely denuded to make way for sugar plantations.

Tobago was then used and perceived as an extension of Barbados by the administrators of Barbados. That it became a British possession and was placed under the administration of the Governor of Barbados in 1833 supported the assumption that Barbados had the right to exploit the resources of Tobago and the perception that Tobago was its possession.

Although marine resource exploitation continued, the relationship changed with the presence of Barbadian migrants in Tobago. During the second half of the 19th century, Barbadian immigrants, some of whom were involved in the Belmana War of 1876, were recruited to work on estates in Windward Tobago.

Later other immigrants came as adventurers seeking better opportunities, or under the auspices of the Anglican Church as clergy, teachers and church administrators, policemen and government officials.

The relationship changed further when Tobago faced serious economic challenges and saw increasing trade with Barbados as a means of assisting the ailing economy.

The number of Barbadian migrants to Tobago increased during the 20th century, particularly after World War II. But sentiments of ownership persisted and continued to emanate from Barbados, as reflected in an article entitled Tobago Once a Ward of Barbados, published in the Advocate Magazine on July 2, 1982.

In it Edward A Stoute was proud to reveal: “Few Barbadians realise that up to 93 years ago Tobago was a part of the Government of Barbados because the governor of Barbados was the governor of Tobago.” Tensions which developed between the governments of independent Barbados and TT over the question of Barbados fishing rights in Tobago waters led to arbitration as recently as 2006.

Long before the intensification of the rivalry between England and France for possession of Tobago during the 18th century, the English had carefully established an informal presence on the island. The policy of the imperial government, manifested through its representatives who administered the colony of Barbados, determined Barbados/Tobago relations. Right after the 1627 settlement of Barbados, the gaze of its administrators focused on Tobago.

The English tried to formally colonise Tobago after the Dutch efforts in 1628, and three attempts between 1637 and 1642 by the Courlanders. The English made three attempts, in 1642, 1647 and1649, when it was accepted that Tobago was under the protection of the British monarch. The settlements all failed because the settlers were massacred by the First Peoples of Tobago, but the British were very concerned about increasing European interest in Tobago.

The Duke of Courland’s attempt to establish a colony in Tobago in 1642 was based on a grant from Charles II to the duke and his heirs. When the island faced a shortage of essential items, help was sought from Barbados. On December 5, 1687, Courland’s deputy governor Marin came to Barbados seeking its assistance to relieve the settlers, whom he described as being in desperate straits for want of basic items. His plan was to raise money to purchase items from Barbados by selling Tobago’s timber to them.

Though he expressed sympathy, Governor Sir Edwin Stede said he was unable to grant such permission without the sanction of the imperial government. The Courland settlement fizzled out in 1688, when most of the remaining settlers left for New England; the remainder returned to Courland in 1690.

The Courlanders made another attempt at settlement, and in a petition to the King of England in 1699, Sir William Walter and Nicholas Deepin advised His Majesty that they had organised with the envoy of the Duke of Courland to settle Tobago, with a group which included some Englishmen, and promised the settlement would be advantageous to British commerce. They requested assistance in the form of two small ships with which to transport the governor, the duke’s agent and other members of the colonising team.

The Council of Trade and Plantations responded that, by decision of May 6, it was determined that the Duke of Courland had not observed the conditions given by Charles II, and declared the grant null and void. The settlement could not be allowed.

The council in Barbados went further, saying the settlement of Tobago would be injurious not only to the interests of Barbados but also to the better settlement of the other islands in the region and to the revenue to be obtained from both these activities. By order of May 8, 1699, the council said no settlement of Tobago by any entity should be allowed and forbade anyone to attempt to settle or carry goods or persons to Tobago.

Barbadian planters did not want Tobago to become a sugar producer, for fear it would compete with Barbados. The administrators in Barbados had become confident they could exercise authority over Tobago and determine its future.

On December 30, 1699, the agents of Barbados submitted a memorial to the Lords Commissioners of Trade and Plantations claiming Tobago for their government.

This claim was based on several grounds. First, that Tobago was included in the original grant of Charles I to the Earl of Carlisle, which gave him all lands lying between ten and 20 degrees north of the Equator; hence it was given to Barbados. Secondly, the Earl of Carlisle had sent a party of men to settle the island, but their mission was unsuccessful and they all died, so it was reasonable for another group from Barbados to take possession of Tobago.

Thirdly, the people of Barbados had used the timber and turtles of Tobago without interruption for more than seven decades. The men remained on the island for periods of up to three months at a time without having to apply to any nation for permission, and this activity was interrupted only in times of war.

Hence, it was concluded that Barbados was in possession of Tobago. More than anything else, this is what provided the strongest claim, and is a clear indication that the actions of the governor and his administration were directed by the imperial government. The British colonising strategy was to deceive its rivals by engaging in activities which appeared harmless under cover of its colonial administration.

By imperial graft, the informal presence established through the administration of Barbados provided the basis for the British claim to ownership of Tobago.


"Imperial graft and Barbados-Tobago relations"

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