Sunday, February 25, 2018

Of words, wards and Wards

There's a fairly new sign—in English and Spanish, if you please—at the left turn, off the Eastern Main Road up to St Joseph, just past WASA. It says "Welcome to St Joseph, first capital of Trinidad and Tobago".

I'm all for historical signs and wish we had more in the country. But please let them be accurate. St Joseph was never the capital of Trinidad and Tobago; it was, for nearly two centuries, the capital of Trinidad under Spanish rule.

So is this just a quibble, does this matter to anyone other than academic pedants like me? (There's an old saying: you're a pedant, I'm a scholar).

It matters because it reflects a definite national tendency to ignore or distort the history of Tobago and its historical relationship to Trinidad. The sign is wrong because it ignores the fact that Tobago was a separate colony during the time that St Joseph was the capital of Spanish Trinidad, and for long after.

The colony of Trinidad and Tobago didn't exist until 1889. On January 1 of that year, a law issued by Britain in 1888 came into effect, uniting the two previously separate colonies into one. This was over a century after St Joseph ceased to be the capital of Trinidad. (The capital was moved to Port of Spain in 1784, when the last Spanish Governor, Chacon, took the Cabildo, the main governing body, to that town—the governors themselves had moved there ever since 1757).

After a few years, the status of Tobago, within the newly united British colony, was changed. By another British law issued in 1898, and effective from January 1, 1899, it was made a Ward of the Colony of Trinidad and Tobago.

And that last provision has been endlessly misstated, in countless official documents, speeches, articles and books, as Tobago becoming a ward (small "w") of Trinidad. This despite the efforts of eminent persons like Mr ANR Robinson—after whom the former Crown Point Airport has been recently renamed—and scholars of Tobago history like Susan Craig-James and Learie Luke.

Does the error really matter? To say that Tobago became a "ward" of Trinidad could be taken as implying that the smaller island became a humble, child-like dependent under the charge of the larger one. (My dictionary defines "ward" as a minor under the care of a guardian).

But a "Ward" (capital "w") is something completely different. Ever since the 1840s, Trinidad had been divided into administrative districts called Wards. Older folk will remember the Wardens—the civil servants in charge of groups of Wards—and the Wardens' Offices all over the country. In January 1899, Tobago was made a Ward, along with the several Wards in the larger island, of the united colony.

And not a Ward of Trinidad, but a Ward of the Colony of Trinidad and Tobago, first created in 1889. Of course that is also the name of the present-day nation state. But how many people, other than Tobagonians, really remember that? How many people write "Citizen of Trinidad"—a country that doesn't exist—on the forms you get when arriving at Piarco Airport? In fact the forms don't even have room for the proper name of the nation! No wonder people have been informally using "Trinbago" for the longest time.

The union was like a shot-gun marriage: neither island wanted it, but the British Government, like a tyrant parent, imposed it through Imperial legislation despite the objections of both colonies' legislatures. But we must remember that in the 1880s, with Crown Colony Government in both colonies, those legislatures only spoke for the elites of the islands. There's no doubt that the small group of planters and merchants in Tobago feared that they would lose out economically, politically and perhaps socially.

But thanks to the research of Craig-James and Luke, we know that most ordinary Tobagonians, the labourers, share-croppers or metayers, and small farmers, had a different view. They hoped that union with the richer island would help lift Tobago out of the crippling poverty they suffered from in the 1880s and 1890s.

For decades they had been going to Trinidad to work and live, and exporting foodstuffs and animals to the larger island was the mainstay of their livelihoods by the 1890s. So ordinary Tobagonians were generally optimistic about the union. They had little to lose, unlike the merchants and planters, and much to hope for, in terms of free movement of people and goods between the islands, and perhaps better public services and infrastructure once Tobago became linked to the much more prosperous Trinidad.

Their hopes were not realised in the outcome. But it is an error to say that Tobagonians in general objected to the union when it was carried out between 1889 and 1899. And it is definitely wrong to say that Tobago became a ward of Trinidad, or that St Joseph was the first capital of Trinidad and Tobago.

• Bridget Brereton is Emerita

Professor of History at the

University of the West Indies,

St Augustine, and has studied and

written about the history of Trinidad

and Tobago, and the Caribbean,

for decades.