The origins of Tobago’s African population

Dr Rita Pemberton  -
Dr Rita Pemberton -

Dr Rita Pemberton

One of the very interesting features of the history of Tobago is the route by which an African population was established.

While some may expect that the identification of this route would permit the determination of the roots of individuals and families of African descent, both the limitations of the existing records and the realities of the island’s early history make that a very challenging undertaking. The African population of Tobago came to the island in a variety of ways. It was composed of people who made up the small class of free blacks that was established during the 19th century; the larger body of enslaved Africans who were introduced by the varying European occupants of the island; and the group of liberated Africans who were brought there during the latter half of the 19th century.

The introduction of an African population resulted from the European desire for cheap labour to work on the plantations they established on the island.

The Africans were selected because the Europeans, who formulated a baseless and erroneous notion of white superiority and black inferiority, nurtured the idea that the inferior peoples were intended and best suited to serve the needs of their superiors. In fact, it was projected that it was their station in life to obey the bidding of their superiors, and that faithful compliance through their earthly labours would be justly rewarded with the benefits they would reap in the next life.

However, among the enslavers, there was a further prejudiced classification of the members of the different African nations which was based on their desire for the ideal workers. Their descriptors included: rebellious, lazy, weak, prone to depression, sulky, treacherous, unreliable dangerous, strong and hard-working. Those who could not work as hard as was expected would be brutalised into compliance.

Based on these prejudices, it was the ideal of many plantation owners to obtain captives from the more desired communities. This was not practical because of the nature of the organisation of the trade and the methods used to obtain captives in Africa. The point of departure from the coast of West Africa was not the homeland of most of the captives, who were brought to the coast from various parts of the interior. When the slavers were ready to set sail, their captains were concerned with packing the ship with those who were available and healthy, and starting the journey as fast as possible.

The second factor is that the island had multiple European occupiers. The Courlanders and the Dutch were the first Europeans to introduce captive Africans as enslaved labourers on the estates they established in Tobago during the 17th century. The Courlanders had trading posts in West Africa and brought their own supply of human cargo directly to Tobago. The Dutch, who were long established in the trade in captives, sought to establish a colony in Tobago after the Portuguese expelled them from Brazil. They brought their supply of labourers from Brazil.

Because of the intense rivalry among Europeans for colonies, the Courlanders and the Dutch were not allowed to remain in permanent possession of Tobago. The settlements were prone to very frequent clashes between the Courlanders, Dutch, French and British aspirants for the island; plantations were burnt and settlements were destroyed.

While some members of the enslaved population were killed during the fighting, some took the opportunity to try to escape, while others were captured by the rivals and taken to other locations. It is therefore an uphill task to try to identify the precise origin of the members of these groups from documentary sources.

When Tobago became a British possession in 1763, the first plantations were mainly populated with Africans who were brought directly from Africa. Included in the group were Yorubas, Iboes, Congo and Mandingoes. However, some plantation owners from Barbados acquired property in Tobago and brought some of their already seasoned enslaved workers to Tobago. Also, from 1763-1781 Tobago was administered by a governate in Grenada and was not in the line for direct trading; hence its supply of enslaved workers was provided via either Grenada or later Barbados. During the periods of French rule from 1781-1793 and 1801-1803, enslaved Africans were introduced from Martinique

There was a free black population on the island, which resulted from two developments. The first is shipwreck. In 1816, the British government sought to reward the Africans in America who contributed to its victory in the war of 1812. Five of these companies were dispatched to Trinidad for settlement in the Company villages in Moruga, but only four arrived.

The ship carrying the second company ran aground on a reef off Tobago and the ex-soldiers swam ashore and settled in Tobago.

The number of free blacks on the island was increased when, in 1837, some members of the disbanded West India Regiment were given plots of land in Tobago.

The final set of free Africans in Tobago came through the immigration scheme for liberated Africans. When the British terminated the trade in captive Africans in 1807, it established itself as Lord of the Seas to force other European countries to cease the human trade. The British Navy patrolled the African coast, captured ships and freed their captives, some of whom were taken to Sierra Leone or St Helena for repatriation to their homelands.

However, this proved impractical, and the captives were transported to the British Caribbean colonies as liberated Africans. Tobago planters, who had long desired immigrants, petitioned the British government and received two batches in 1852 and 1862. No further allocations were made to Tobago when the British government made it clear that the receiving colonies must pay the immigration costs, which Tobago could not afford.

Despite its complexities, it is easier to trace the routes that were used to bring Africans to Tobago. It is not so easy to identify the African roots of the population from written sources because, where they exist, they are either inaccurate or incomplete. Scientific ancestral tracing would provide more accurate information on the roots of Tobago’s African-descended population.


"The origins of Tobago’s African population"

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