Tobago's triple plague

Dr Rita Pemberton  -
Dr Rita Pemberton -

THE imperial response to the challenges posed by the decline of the Tobago sugar industry and the subsequent impoverishment of the treasury was to shift its responsibility, by creating the union with Trinidad without a clearly-worked-out system for its implementation.

There were distinct differences in the legal and administrative systems of the two, but in the absence of any prescribed mechanism for integration, the central administration in Trinidad was left in absolute control of Tobago.

In their bid to hold on to some semblance of power and to control the island’s finances, members of the Tobago elite argued for, and were granted, inclusion on the Financial Board.

Between 1889 and 1899 Tobago was administered by a Financial Board headed by a commissioner, an official member of the Legislative Council and spoke on behalf of the interests of Tobago. The board was made up of five members, two nominated by the governor and three elected.

Eligibility for election was open to British subjects who were resident on the island, over 21, had a yearly income of £200, paid annual taxes of £10 and were eligible to register on the voters’ list. Members elected to the board could not hold public office.

Of the 135 registered voters, 35 were disqualified. Members were elected for three-year periods, but could be disqualified at any time by the governor.

The qualifications for membership on the board, which was deliberately exclusive of the largest section of the population, indicate clearly that the labouring class remained unrepresented, and its concerns were not likely to be addressed at the level of the Financial Board.

It was the board’s duty to advise the governor on matters pertaining to internal taxation and expenditure. It was responsible for collecting local taxes and making policy decisions on how the money collected should be allocated. No local tax was to be adjusted without the board’s consent.

It was also empowered to enact local regulations, but these required approval from the central administration in Trinidad, which constituted a restriction on the board’s powers.

On May 20, 1889, Commissioner Lorraine Geddes Hay was appointed president of the Tobago Financial Board. The governor’s nominees were SJ Fraser, vice president, and Dr J Tulloch.

The three elected members were William Mc Call of Scarborough, Augustus Briggs of Lure Estate and rector of the St. Andrew’s Anglican Church, Canon EA Turpin. The governor was later authorised to name one more, and J McKillop, an engineer, was made a member. They were all members of the planting and mercantile community and their supporters.

This system did not provide solutions to the problems of the island, and in fact, there were continual conflicts over trade customs duties and taxation matters during its tenure.

It became obvious that despite the appearance of concessions by the ruling class, the Financial Board was under the control of the central authorities and Tobago’s elite class did not have an effective voice in the Legislative Council.

They found themselves deprived of the latitude they wanted (and expected) to enjoy on the Financial Board. The board was in collision with the central administration over matters of importance to their group. Finding themselves powerless, they were concerned about their lack of representation in the administration of the colony.

The question of representation of the people of Tobago loomed large at every level of the society. Where both the imperial and colonial administrations were concerned, the system did not provide any means to improve the financial state of the island which warranted another change.

In 1899, Tobago was brought under a new administrative arrangement and made a ward in the united colony. It was administered by a warden, who functioned in accordance with the recommendations of the Moyne Commission, which gave rise to the county councils established in 1945, six in Trinidad and one for Tobago.

Local government services in Tobago were provided through the Tobago County Council. The warden was made the CEO of the county and was responsible for its efficient administration. He made annual reports to the governor on developments in each area for which he had responsibility.

In 1946 the system of county councils was implemented. The members were elected locally to represent one of several electoral districts in each county, each of which was represented by two aldermen and one councillor. A chairman was appointed presiding officer.

Tobago was divided into 12 electoral districts, each with a representative on the council. The first Legislative Council election under universal adult suffrage was held on July 1, 1946, and the first county council election under universal adult suffrage was on October 28, 1946.

Mr APT James won a seat on the Legislative Council and Tobago recorded the highest voter turnout of all the counties in that election. James was also elected representative for the Signal Hill/Patience Hill district.

The county councils had specific responsibilities, mainly minor roads and bridges, in addition to drainage of minor water courses, sanitation, markets (construction and maintenance), cemeteries, government buildings, recreation grounds, sanitation hospitals and homes for senior citizens, social services and any other duties assigned to them by the warden and/or the government of the colony.

The county council had to carry out its responsibilities with an allocation from the central administration, even though its members, through their intimate relationship with their districts, could identify projects that could enhance the quality of life in the communities.

The administration paid attention to introducing cost-cutting measures. To reduce administrative costs, offices were combined. For example, the three posts of postmaster, sub-registrar and clerk to the commissioner were united into one position with an annual salary of £200, which was normally paid for one position.

Also, officials from Trinidad were brought to work in Tobago.

At union, the Trinidad High Court became the Supreme Court of the colony and judges were made to hold three sessions in Tobago annually, with only a part of their costs coming from the Tobago treasury.

The system was unpopular because Justice John Gorrie was a liberal who sought the welfare of the poor and his court decisions, which favoured workers in Tobago, caused planters to hound him out of office.

At a critical point in the island’s history, administrator Hay focused on the importance of administrative suitability of officials. Hay was alcoholic, incompetent and incapable of providing the required direction for the island’s development.

He was ultimately replaced by acting Auditor General DB Horsford, who compiled a report which revealed the extent to which past measures had failed to arrest the island’s decline and poverty.

The main problem was that Tobago’s basic issue was financial, which required a determination of the best type of administration suitable for its circumstances and adequate representation for the different interests.

Failing this, Tobago remained in the economic doldrums, as the single-focused colonial and imperial policies failed to address the triumvirate of administration, representation and finance, making them a plague on the island.


"Tobago's triple plague"

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