From pain to pleasure: Tobago and tourism

Dr Rita Pemberton  -
Dr Rita Pemberton -


The century-long decline of Tobago’s sugar industry, despite its glaring signals, failed to convince the island’s sugar planters that the outlook for sugar was dim.

Stubbornly, they persisted in the conviction that its problems would be resolved if they maintained a firm hold on the labour force. They sought to wring out profits by their exactions on the resident labourers, which stimulated many unresolved planter/worker conflicts which impeded estate operations. Their unwavering conviction that their problem and its solution lay with labour led to several unsuccessful attempts to obtain imperial support for immigration schemes.

Even as the situation worsened, and the island’s revenues, which could not meet its administrative expenses, left it with a growing debt, they continued to hope for the elusive revival.

Their unwillingness to give up on sugar continued until the 1884 collapse of Gillespie and Company, the last company that would provide credit to Tobago planters, forced them to face the reality that they were whipping a dead horse, and Tobago’s days as a sugar producer were over.

The surviving large planters, ironically, followed the lead set by their work force, and were pressured into accepting the need for agricultural diversification. They flirted with a range of crops, including limes, cocoa and coconuts, which failed to generate the much-hoped-for profits in the long term.

During the second decade of the 20th century, the collapse of the cocoa industry stimulated discussions on new economic enterprise. Tourism, which provided an opportunity to expose and exploit the island’s natural beauty, found ready acceptance among the planter class.

The tourist industry evolved from the hospitality services offered by middle-class women who recognised the need for those services. During the late 19th century, they ran small guest houses offering lodging to visitors and officials who came to do business on the island and residents from the more distant rural areas who had matters to attend in Scarborough.

The number of visitor arrivals increased as the island was advertised as a desirable tourist destination by plantation owners and their associates, and later, by the film industry, which found it an ideal location.

The demand for accommodation grew in and around Scarborough for both holidaymakers and those with business transactions. The town, as the commercial and administrative centre, the location of the port, the point from which to traverse the island and later with easy access to the airport, was ideal for hotel location.

Secondly, plantation owners saw their estates as of prime value for tourism because they were either close to beaches and/or possessed views of striking land- and seascapes.

In addition, the available resident labour force could be easily converted to cheap labour at the hotels.

In 1924, Tobago’s first hotel, Speyside Inn, was established, run by Harry Hislop Tucker. This was followed by Fontainebleau in 1926 and in 1927 by Burleigh Guest House, owned by Capt RJ Link, which was close to Robinson Crusoe Hotel and a mile from Scarborough. Aberfoyle Hotel at Bacolet opened in 1929 and in 1930 Bacolet and Welbec Guest Houses.

The pace of hotel establishment increased from the 1940s with the Tobago Country Club and the Savoy and Samuel’s Guest House in 1945.

Robinson Crusoe Hotel, which overlooked Rockley Bay, was off the Milford Road, about a mile from Scarborough. It offered sporting activities which were not played by locals. Included were bridge and poker tables, a nine-hole golf course, which functioned until World War II broke out, a tennis court and a small library and a piano. With its well-stocked bar, electric lights and modern sanitary arrangements, the hotel became a meeting place for the island’s well-to-do population.

Bacolet Guest House, a mile from Scarborough, was also equipped with electricity and modern sanitary arrangements. It offered separate bungalows and private bathrooms and balconies. Guests could ride over the sprawling 120 acres and play table tennis, and cars were available for hire. The library contained American and English magazines and newspapers.

Castle Cove Beach Hotel, about half a mile from Scarborough, offered private cottages and bicycles were available for rent. Bluehaven Hotel, with its 27 rooms, both double and single, 22 of which faced the beach, was advertised as Tobago’s largest hotel. It offered tiled bathrooms, hot and cold running water, foam rubber mattresses and a bedside telephone. Extending from the lounge was a terrace for sunbathing by day and moon-watching by night. There were hammocks on the lower deck, a barbecue terrace that provided al fresco meals at night, the airconditioned Marine Bay and a wine cellar. The hotel provided services to Buccoo Reef in its open launch Reef, horses and “U drive” cars. The hotel-owned flagship cruiser the Blue Horizon was available for those who wanted to go deep-sea fishing or to sail to other beaches not accessible by road.

Arnos Vale Beach Hotel, six miles from Scarborough, and about a mile from Plymouth, offered its guests a sailing boat, horse-riding over the estate and self-drive or chauffeur-driven cars for hire. The hotel advertised views of the coast and ocean from the guest rooms and the private bathing beach, which was close to the hotel.

The ready growth of the hotel industry was facilitated by the ease with which the plantations, with their “Great Houses” could be converted into hotels.

It is striking that these hotels possessed electricity and pipe-borne water before the island was electrified and ordinary residents had piped water. Guests slept on spring or foam-filled mattresses when hotel workers and the rest of the population slept on grass or fibre mattresses.

The hotel offered some services which competed with those offered by locals who sought alternatives to low-paying estate labour, while paying very low wages themselves.

Very noticeable were the attempts of hotels to establish private bathing on some of the island’s beaches, to the exclusion of the wider population.

Ultimately, the hotels functioned, as did the estates, to restrict land access to the African population. It is particularly glaring that in their reincarnation the hotels covered their brutal past, as they moved from functioning as sites of the pain of plantation life to sites feeding pleasures to the tourist palate.


"From pain to pleasure: Tobago and tourism"

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