Public education in 20th-century Tobago

Dr Rita Pemberton  -
Dr Rita Pemberton -

Dr Rita Pemberton

The people of Tobago traditionally gave expression to their inner thoughts, fears, hopes and pains in their folk songs and the informal group discussions commonly held in their villages and communities.

However, from the last decade of the 19th century, the union of Trinidad and Tobago provided an important stimulant to more open, frequent and frank public discussion of the fate of Tobago and its welfare.

This movement was aligned with the anti-colonial sentiment which enveloped the Caribbean and gave birth to nationalist self-expression and literary movements in the region.

In Tobago, the movement was strengthened by individuals from Trinidad and other Caribbean territories who were domiciled there either as migrants or as officials who worked in various capacities on the island. This movement in Tobago, which also sought to stimulate intellectual thought and activity, was expressed in the establishment of several literary and debating clubs, the works of writers and poets whose contributions were sent to the newspapers and in public lectures and discussions which addressed topics pertaining to the island’s development.

The people involved were preachers of the churches, especially the Anglican and Methodists and Moravians, teachers, administrators and politically minded individuals whose aim was to raise public knowledge of matters which were important to Tobago and its development.

In the process, these organisations provided opportunities for scrutiny of the policies of the unitary administration and the performance of officials, and platforms for the people of Tobago to air their views and for those with political ambitions to hone their oratorial and debating skills, while they served as forums for public education.

One of the earliest of these organisations was the Tobago Debating Club which was formed by the Rev Taitt of the St Andrew’s Anglican Church in 1901. Its membership included the warden of the island, other curates from the Anglican and Methodist churches, a planter, a manager and the district medical officer. The discussions focused on topical issues such as migration and roads and communication in Tobago.

The literary movement spread from Scarborough to the larger communities with the 1908 Roxborough Men’s Association, followed by the Scarborough Brotherhood, which was established under the auspices of the Methodist Church in 1909.

This group, which organised debates on the benefits of union to Tobago and competitions, attracted members from across the island. The brotherhood advocated for an agricultural bank for the island, promoted agricultural development and became recognised as the voice of the island’s agricultural community.

But it also raised Tobago’s pressing development issues and issued petitions and protests to the government on the coastal service and education for children in long-term hospitalisation in the yaws hospital. In 1918, the brotherhood formed the Agricultural Credit Society in Scarborough, addressed matters of public health and infant mortality and became one of the largest organisations on the island.

The Moriah Literary and Debating Club, led by a Moravian teacher, was established in 1909, and in 1910 the Scarborough Literary and Debating Club, whose members were also members of the brotherhood, included prominent figures such as James Biggart and LA Peters.

Several other church-led organisations which promoted literary activities were also formed. The Wesley Guilds in the Methodist churches organised debating competitions and started libraries in Mt St George, Scarborough, Goodwood and Roxborough, while the Anglican Church established Church of England’s Men’s Society and Women’s Help groups which organised lectures and debates and provided a library and a reading room for members in Scarborough. The Moravians led a Christian Endeavour for Women and a Mutual Improvement Society for Men in Bethesda in 1914.

Some officials produced publications which provided descriptions of the island and information on its history, but it was access to Trinidad-based newspapers such as The Mirror, The Labour Leader and The Trinidad Guardian which provided an outlet for the strongly held sentiments of the population on matters that considered of critical importance.

George David Hatt wrote in the Trinidad Guardian about infant mortality and advocated for help for mothers, but it was discontent over the neglect of the island that was most powerfully expressed in the newspapers. There was strong condemnation of the underperforming and incompetent officials who were appointed; the disservice to the taxpayers of Tobago who were sequestered from institutions to which they contributed, such as the Assisted Secondary Schools and the government training institutions, by the poor inter-colonial steamer service; poor health care; and the lack of secondary schools.

The debating clubs which were established in Scarborough in 1922 became island-wide in the 1930s, and held weekly meetings which included poetry readings and debating competitions, musical evenings, mock trials, recitations, essay competitions, sports and cultural activities. These clubs provided the opportunities for gifted speakers, writers and poets to become known and spawned a number of other organisations which also included debates, discussions, musical evenings and the recognition of achievement by students, teachers and members of the public. These provided a much needed forum for adult education until centres for this purpose were established during the 1940s.

The formation of the Tobago Youth Council in 1944 was a significant development, for its members included individuals such as ANR Robinson, JD Elder and Victor Bruce, who were all to play important roles in public life.

The literary and debating movement, which took root in the 1920s and spread across the island during the 1930s and 40s, marked an important departure of the history of Tobago from that of Trinidad.

While the working-class population of the latter reeled under the pressure of escalating cost of living, low wages and unemployment which stimulated the food and hunger marches of the 1930s, the population of Tobago, though itself in economic straits, expressed its frustrations through the literary and debating societies which flowered during the 1920s and 1930s and continued to exist up to the 1950s: exposure of non-performing administrators in the press and calls for the devolution of authority from central government to Tobago. They saw their salvation in unity on the island and a Tobago-centred administration, the essential preparation for which was the development of debating skills and public education.


"Public education in 20th-century Tobago"

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