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Myths of union

By Bridget Brereton

The two major excitements of the last few weeks are over—Carnival and the THA election. But the constitutional and political relationship between Tobago and Trinidad is sure to occupy the centre stage for some time to come.

So it is a good time to notice a new book by Lennie Nimblett, Tobago: The Union with Trinidad 1889-1899 Myth and Reality (2012). The title hints at the book's purpose: to expose what the author considers to be "myths" about the union and to argue for a different view of what happened. Nimblett's book is an example of what historians call "revisionism"—when a writer tries to argue against the prevailing interpretation of an event and proposes a new narrative instead.

Nimblett believes that those historians who have written about the union have let their anti-colonial stance mislead them about the realities of what was happening. (Full disclosure: I am one of the historians criticised.) They "failed to confront the systemic issues that brought Tobago to the point of collapse", he writes. They didn't appreciate that the island was politically a "failed enterprise" by 1888, so that constitutional change was urgently needed and union with Trinidad was, in fact, the best feasible option for Tobago. As a result, the historians have contributed to the formation of "myths" which have entered the popular domain and shaped ideas about the Tobago-Trinidad relationship.

The first such myth, for Nimblett, is the idea that Tobago had "ancient and superior institutions" (compared to Trinidad's), which were "lost" with the union. Before 1874, Tobago had a bicameral (two houses) legislature and an elected assembly. But Nimblett has no difficulty in showing how this system was a mechanism for oppressing the mass of the people by the handful of planters and merchants who voted for and sat on the assembly. It was corrupt, exclusive and inefficient. In any case, it was swept away in 1874-76, and at the time of union, Tobago like Trinidad was a crown colony with no elected members in its single-chamber Legislative Council.

Another myth was that Tobago was strategically and economically important to Britain. While some such case might be made for the period between 1763 and 1815, by the time of union its strategic value was zero (the small British garrison there had been withdrawn as early as 1854), and economically, it was a liability rather than an asset.

Nimblett has more trouble in refuting the idea (he calls it a myth) that the union was imposed by the British government (the Colonial Office). He says the decision was made only "after consultation with the people of Trinidad and Tobago". It is true—and Nimblett helpfully quotes many relevant documents—that the legislative councils of both colonies debated the issue in 1887 and resolved in favour of union, Tobago's unanimously and Trinidad's by a vote of 12:1. But neither council could be seen as "representative" of the majority of the people, and a crown colony legislature was simply unable to say no to a proposal coming from the governor under orders from London. True, the suggestion for uniting the two islands first came from British officials in the West Indies rather than from the Colonial Office, but it was London which took up the idea and, in effect, instructed the authorities in each colony to make it happen.

Nimblett is on much stronger ground when he argues against the myth that the union was unpopular in Tobago. In fact, as Susan Craig-James also showed in her fine book on Tobago's history, the majority of Tobagonians wanted union and hoped it would make their lives better. There's no evidence that the majority of people in Trinidad had any view one way or another.

And he is, of course, spot on when he refutes the myth that Tobago was made a ward of Trinidad. This is derived from ambiguities and inconsistencies in the wording of some official correspondence and records, as well as the obvious disparity in size and resources between the two islands. But the key document—the 1898 Order in Council—is unambiguous: Tobago was made a ward of Trinidad and Tobago. This was the name of the united colony, as the earlier 1888 Order, which created the new colony, had made clear.

Finally, Nimblett argues that in the circumstances of 1888-98, union with Trinidad was the best option for Tobago's future, and, indeed, the only feasible way of improving her dire situation. Whether union worked well for Tobago in the 20th century is not relevant to Nimblett's argument, which deals with the actual decisions made in 1888 (create the united colony) and 1898 (ward status).

There are some factual errors in the book, which could also have done with some serious editing to reduce repetition and irrelevance, and Nimblett's grasp of Tobago's economic situation after Emancipation seems shaky. But the book has significant value, because he reproduces many of the key documents related to the union, and because it offers a fresh, revisionist view of events still resonating today. For in Nimblett's view, these "myths" about the union, widely accepted as historical truth, are "at the root of the constitutional matters that now exist over the Tobago issue".

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