Trinidadians and Tobagonians

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Trinidadians and Tobagonians

LOCATION: Trinidad and Tobago
POPULATION: 1,047,366 (July 2008 est.)
LANGUAGE: English; English-derived Creole with African and other elements; Hindi and Urdu; Spanish
RELIGION: Roman Catholicism; Church of England and Church of Scotland; Methodism, Seventh-Day Adventism, Pentecostalism, Baptist Church, and other churches; Hinduism; Islam; Christian-African sects


The nation of Trinidad and Tobago consists of two Caribbean islands that have been united politically since 1962. The people of both islands are generally referred to as Trinidadians. The islands were inhabited by the Arawaks, Caribs, and other Amerindian groups when sighted by Christopher Columbus in 1498. The explorer is said to have named Trinidad, where he landed, either for three hills visible in the distance or in honor of the Holy Trinity. The name Tobago is thought to derive from the Carib word for tobacco. It took nearly 100 years for the Spanish to establish their first permanent settlement on Trinidad, and they regularly had to defend the island from attacks by the Dutch, French, and British. Eventually sugar plantations were established and slaves brought in from West Africa to work on them. A British expedition captured Trinidad in 1797, and the island was ceded to the British in 1802. By 1814, Tobago, which had changed hands several times, was also a British possession.

During the 19th century, the ethnic diversity of Trinidad's population expanded as the British brought in indentured servants from India to work on the sugar plantations following the freeing of the island's West African slaves by the British in 1834. A variety of Europeans fleeing religious persecution or seeking employment also settled there, and Chinese laborers arrived toward the end of the century. In 1888 Tobago was joined with Trinidad as a colonial territory under the name Trinidad and Tobago.

Following World War I, the people of Trinidad and Tobago, like those of other colonial territories, sought greater political representation with a view toward eventual independence. Their nationalistic aspirations came to be embodied in one revered leader, Eric Williams, who in 1955 founded the People's National Movement (PNM), which gained legislative control of the territory the following year. After a brief membership in the Federation of the West Indies, Trinidad and Tobago became an independent member of the British Commonwealth in 1962 and a republic in 1976. Throughout these changes, Williams remained the head of the government until his death in 1981.

The worldwide oil crisis of the 1970s gave newfound value to Trinidad and Tobago's offshore oil reserves, which were first discovered in 1910, and the nation enjoyed a period of great prosperity and development that ended after the Middle Eastern nations began releasing their stockpiled oil at the end of the decade. World oil prices declined, and Trinidad and Tobago suffered an economic recession. In the 1990s, the nation faced the challenge of stabilizing its economy and reducing its dependence on world oil prices. In 1995, unemployment rates were at their lowest level in 10 years, inflation was down, and economic growth was predicted. In 2003, Trinidad and Tobago started a second oil boom, which the government used to begin turning the country's main export back to sugar and agriculture. Economic growth reached 12.6% in 2006 and 5.5% in 2007 as prices for oil, natural gas, and petrochemicals remained high.

Trinidad and Tobago has one of the highest growth rates and per capita incomes in Latin America (in 2007 its GDP per capita rose to $18,300). Part of this robust figure finds its explanation in the fact that huge flows of capital have been invested in energy and mining projects to liquefy natural gas and produce steel. Additional petrochemicals, aluminum, and plastics projects are in various stages of planning.

Even though the islands are the leading Caribbean producer of oil and gas, accounting for about 40% of GDP and 80% of exports respectively, the national administration has implemented a steady process of diversification resulting in many manufactured goods in the food and beverages industry being produced in the country. Moreover, the country is also a regional financial center, and tourism is a growing sector.


Trinidad and Tobago are the southernmost islands of the West Indies, with Trinidad located only 11 km (7 mi) from Venezuela on the South American continent. With an area of 4,828 sq km (1,864 sq mi), Trinidad is the largest island of the Lesser Antilles. Three mountain ranges stretch across the country from east to west: the Northern Range; the Montserrat Hills, which cut across the island's center; and the Southern Range, which runs along the southern coast. Tiny Tobago, located about 34 km (21 mi) northeast of Trinidad, is only about 42 km (26 mi) long and 11 km (7 mi) wide. It consists of lowlands dominated by a chain of volcanic hills that runs the length of the island.

The original inhabitants of Trinidad migrated from the Orinoco River delta region of northeastern South America. The ethnic structure of Trinidad is defined by blacks and Indo-Trinidadians, or East Indians. Black population, as in the majority of the Caribbean, descends from African slaves brought in to work on cotton and sugar plantations. Regarding the East Indian population, it is an ethnic group whose ancestors were primarily workers who freely immigrated from the Indian subcontinent to work as plantation workers after the abolition of slavery in the mid-19th century. Other migrants from Spain, Europe, Africa, Asia, and the Middle East have also contributed to the multicultural composition of the population.

While the different ethnic groups on Trinidad and Tobago have succeeded in living peacefully together, each has retained its cultural identity, lending richness and diversity to the nation's character and daily life. According to the 2000 census, an estimated 37.5% of Trinidad and Tobago's one million people were Black, 40% were of East Indian descent, 20% were of mixed descent, and smaller numbers were Chinese and European. The island of Tobago is predominantly Black.


The languages of Trinidad and Tobago reflect its diverse ethnic heritage. English is the nation's official language, while the common language of the great majority of residents is an English-derived Creole that contains elements of African and other languages. Hindi and Urdu are spoken by segments of the Indian population, and Spanish, the language of the nation's first European conquerors, is spoken in some areas as well.

Creole is a type of hybrid language found throughout the Caribbean area, created by the blending of various European and African languages. The Trinidadian Creole blends English with the syntax and vocabulary of West African languages, including Twi and Yoruba. Plural pronouns differ from those of standard English: the plural form of "you" is allyu, and the French-English ah wee means "ours." French expressions, such as il fait chaud and il y a, are mirrored in the Trinidadian "it making hot" and "it have," which is used for "there is." French words also show up in the names for vegetation (pomme for apple) and mythological figures.

Crops grown by East Indian Trinidadians have come to be called by their Hindi names, such as beigun for eggplant. One of Trinidad and Tobago's most popular prepared foods, roti, also has a Hindi name, reflecting the culture from which it originates. Amerindian-derived words include the names of foods, including cassava, balata, and roocoo, as well as place names, including Tunapuna, Guayaguayare, and Carapichaima. The Creole that is spoken on Tobago, which differs slightly from that of Trinidad, has similarities to the Creole spoken in Jamaica, another country with a predominantly Black population.


Trinidadian folklore, which is often reflected in Carnival themes and costumes, includes devils in disguise, a wolf man named Lagahoo, and a variety of other sinister figures. Folk tales are told about Papa Bois, the ruler of the forest, and his son, Callaloo, whose legendary battle with Mancrab supplied a memorable theme for well-known Carnival designer Peter Minshall. Other folklore figures include Diablesse, a character comparable to Circe in Greek mythology that attracts men and then turns them into hogs, after which they fall down a precipice. The spirits of unbaptized children, called Douens, have their feet turned backwards and are said to raid people's gardens.


Religion in Trinidad and Tobago is a clear radiography of its history as well as its multicultural reality inherited after years of colonization and migrations. Under the Spanish, Roman Catholicism was the official religion, and it was strengthened by French immigration during the French and Haitian revolutions. Anglicanism and Protestantism gained a foothold in various forms with the advent of the British. People from the Indian subcontinent brought with them their languages and their Hindu and Muslim religions. Both Sunni and Shi'ite Muslim groups are present.

According to the 2000 census, about 26% of Trinidad and Tobago's population is Roman Catholic. Besides Catholicism, Trinidadians of African descent belong to the Church of England (Anglican) and the Church of Scotland, as well as the Methodist, Seventh-day Adventist (4%), Pentecostal (6.8%), and other churches. The Baptist religion is especially popular in Tobago, representing 7.2% of the national population while Anglicanism accounts for 7.8%. Other Christians account for about 5.8% of the population. Trinidad's Indian community embraces the Hindu and Muslim religions: Hindus account for 22.5% of Trinidad and Tobago's population and Muslims for 5.8%. Some Africans are also turning to Islam, but in their own organizations (through the "Black Muslim" movement) rather than those of their East Indian neighbors.

There are also religious sects that combine Christianity with African religious beliefs and practices. The best known of these is Shango, based on a religion practiced by the Yoruba tribe in Africa, which embraces Shango, the god of thunder and lightning, and Christian saints. Through dance and drumming, its priests, called mogbas, summon spirits known as orishas.


Because of the nation's religious diversity, Trinidad and Tobago has an abundance of public holidays. In addition to the major Christian holy days, recognition is accorded to the Hindu holidays of Divali (pronounced "Duwali") and Ramleema and the Muslim festival of Hosay, a religious rite that has grown into a four-day festival that includes a potpourri of Trinidadian cultural elements, such as tassa drumming, which is Hindu in origin. Other holidays, such as Emancipation Day (August 1) and Independence Day (August 31) commemorate important dates in the nation's history.

Trinidad and Tobago's most important festival, however, is its Carnival, recognized as one of the world's most extravagant and colorful pre-Lenten celebrations, equaling or topping New Orleans' Mardi Gras and Brazil's Carnival. The festivities are held annually in the final two days preceding Lent. The entire nation participates in this 200-year-old tradition, which is thought to have started with the first influx of French settlers to the islands in 1783. The main activities take place in Port of Spain, although festivities are also held in San Fernando, Scarborough, and other locations. Preparations for Carnival begin months in advance, as the participating groups, called "bands," plan their "mas" (short for "masquerade") costumes. Each band chooses a historical, cultural, fantastic, or folkloric theme. Past themes include Bright Africa, Ye Saga of Merrie England, and Callaloo (a folk character as well as the name for a popular Trinidadian food). Hundreds of coordinated costumes are painstakingly debated, designed, and assembled to be paraded and judged.

Aside from the costumed bands, calypso and steel drum groups provide the other major focus of Carnival, and a series of musical competitions is held in the period leading up to the Carnival itself. On the night of Dimanche Gras, the Sunday before Ash Wednesday, the King and Queen of Carnival are chosen based on their costumes. The Carnival festivities offi-cially begin at dawn on Monday morning, called Jour Ouvert, or Joovay, and include an "anything goes" parade, in which revelers wear a gamut of individually designed satirical and outrageous costumes. Next come massive parades by the organized bands, ranging from 500 to over 2,000 members, accompanied by flatbed trucks full of musicians and huge speakers. The climax of the celebration is the judging of the Carnival's best band, which takes place at the Queens Park Savannah, and awards are also given for the best calypso and steel drum groups.


Major life transitions, such as birth, marriage, and death, are marked by religious ceremonies appropriate to each Trinidadian's faith community.


The spirit of Trinidad and Tobago's famous Carnival carries over, in more modest forms, into everyday life on the islands: Trinidadians are known for their penchant for enjoying life, even in the face of adversity. When curfews were imposed during a period of civil unrest in 1970, they held "Curfew fêtes"; when the country's economy fell victim to plummeting oil prices in the 1980s, people threw "Recession fêtes." An important part of the Trinidadian calypso tradition is the refusal to take not only themselves but also others too seriously, and there is a special term, picong, for calypso's irreverent satirizing of people and institutions, both great and small.

Another aspect of this casual attitude can be seen in the practice called liming, which is the counterpart of "hanging out" in the United States. Trinidadian men have a long tradition of congregating at street corners, on front stoops, or near movie houses, chatting and whiling the time away as they take in the passing scene. Young limers are more apt to pick a single spot from which to survey the action, while for older men liming (or "taking a lime") may involve spending part of a day or evening at a series of places. Although it is frowned upon by some segments of society (signs proclaiming "No Limers" or "No Liming" signs can be seen in public places), this seemingly aimless activity can be an important way of maintaining social visibility while keeping up with what is going on in the community. Long before it was heard in the United States, the phrase "Yo! Wha' appenin" was a common working-class greeting in Port of Spain.


The traditional Trinidadian house, called an ajoupa, was built of thatch and mud. Today, most Trinidadians live in wooden houses with roofs of galvanized metal. There are generally three or four rooms; almost all houses have indoor plumbing, and most have electricity. Several houses often share one yard. There is a serious housing shortage in Trinidad and Tobago since the demand for housing in the urban areas is high, but construction has been hampered by population movement, high construction costs, shortage of land, and inadequate long-term financing. Even though the government has attempted to meet the needs of low-income families by erecting modern concrete dwellings throughout the country still many city dwellers live in slums and tenement buildings.

The state supplies social security consisting of noncontribu-tory old-age pensions and workers' compensation compulsorily paid by employers. Moreover, a national health insurance program has been established, as well as a spread network of public clinics and hospitals where treatments are free or at low-cost. Thanks to these governmental efforts to provide medical care, the incidence of traditional diseases, such as malaria, tuberculosis, typhoid, and syphilis, has been reduced. However, the average life expectancy in Trinidad and Tobago is estimated at just 67 years.

While roads are adequate in the nation's more densely settled areas, rural roads often consist of single-lane dirt paths, and some areas of Tobago have virtually no usable roads. In the cities, minibuses called maxi-taxis are a popular form of public transportation. In the mid-1980s, there was about one car for every four people in Trinidad and Tobago.


Women wield considerable authority within African families in Trinidad and Tobago, and many are heads of households. Common-law marriages are widespread within the African community. Among the Indian population, large extended-family households are common, and even members of smaller households have a strong sense of obligation toward their relatives outside the nuclear family. Arranged marriages are common, and the man is always considered the head of the household. Marriage is regarded as a lifetime commitment; divorce, and even the remarriage of widows, is frowned upon.


Most Trinidadians wear modern Western-style clothing. The Caribbean "shirt jac," a belted jacket worn with a scarf and no shirt, is popular among men in Port of Spain. Traditional clothing, including men's turbans and women's saris, is worn by some members of the country's Indian population. Every year special clubs spend months preparing extravagant "mas" (short for "masquerade") costumes for Trinidad and Tobago's famous Carnival celebration preceding Ash Wednesday. The brightly colored, eye-catching outfits, coordinated to be worn by hundreds or even thousands of people, may be made of either cotton or such dressy fabrics as velvet, satin, and lamé, as well as beads, feathers, sequins, shells, leaves, and straw. They are often accompanied by a profusion of body paint and glitter.


The rich and varied cuisine of Trinidad and Tobago combines African, East Indian, Amerindian, Chinese, Middle Eastern, and European influences. Breakfast is usually continental-style, consisting of coffee (or cocoa) and bread, while lunch and dinner (which is eaten at 8:00 or 9:00 PM) are both substantial meals, generally consisting of meat, rice, vegetables, and fruit. The most important meal of the week is Sunday dinner, and many women are at the market by dawn on Sunday morning to buy their provisions.

One of the country's most popular foods is roti. Sold at restaurants, bars, and outdoor stands throughout the country, it consists of Indian flat bread with a variety of fillings, including curried beef, chicken, lamb, and beef, and cooked vegetables, to which curried potatoes and chickpeas are added. The type of bread most commonly used for roti is dhalpourri, which consists of two thin layers of dough with ground split peas in between. Another favorite dish is sans coche, a stew containing pork, salted beef, pig's tails, onions, chives, and various other spices, served with dumplings. Other popular dishes include callaloo, a mixture of okra and puréed dasheen leaves (also called callaloo greens) with either crab or salted pork added for flavor, and coocoo, a cake similar to cornbread, made from corn flour and okra.

The national beverage of Trinidad and Tobago is rum, which is consumed liberally, especially during the country's national holidays and numerous festivals. Nonalcoholic drinks include sorrel, made from the petals of the sorrel flower; ginger beer, which is similar to ginger ale; and peanut punch, which is something like a peanut-butter milkshake.


Education is free at the primary and secondary levels and compulsory between the ages of six and 12. Formal education, which begins at age five, is highly valued in Trinidad and Tobago, and the country has a literacy rate of about 98.6%. In 1986 about 75% of high-school-age students were enrolled in school. The University of the West Indies has a campus on Trinidad offering courses in engineering, business administration, law, medicine, social science, natural science, education, agriculture, and humanities. Other facilities for higher education include government-supported technical colleges, five teachers' colleges, and John F. Kennedy College, a liberal arts college near Port of Spain. In 2004 the University of Trinidad and Tobago was created. In its campuses, spread throughout the islands, the population can opt for technical and professional training in the sciences, technology, education, and other fields.


Given the country's small size and the fact that it had no written literary tradition until the 20th century, Trinidad and Tobago has produced an impressive roster of eminent writers, including V. S. Naipaul, who emigrated as a young man but brought his homeland to life for readers around the world in such books as Miguel Street and A House for Mr. Biswas. Other well-known Trinidad-born writers include Michael Anthony, Samuel Selvon, and Paul Keens-Douglas. Derek Wolcott, the 1992 Nobel laureate in literature, was born in St. Lucia but has spent much of his time in Trinidad, where he founded the Trinidad Theatre workshop in Port of Spain in 1959.

Peter Minshall, a celebrated designer for Carnival masquerade bands and other art forms in Trinidad and Tobago, has also achieved renown in the international art world. Several active theater groups in Trinidad and Tobago mount stage productions regularly; some of the most interesting take place at the Little Carib Theater.


According to 2006 estimations, about 65.6% of the labor force in Trinidad and Tobago is employed in service-related jobs; 12.9% in mining and manufacturing; 4% in agriculture, forestry, and fishing; and the remainder in other occupations. Agriculture in Trinidad and Tobago is carried out on both large mechanized farms and on small tracts of land worked by peasant farmers without modern farm machinery. The oil industry, which brought great wealth to the country in the 1970s, employs only about 3% of the work force. The nation has had a high rate of unemployment—sometimes approaching 20%— for decades. Emigration has removed many skilled workers and professionals from the nation's labor force.


Sports in Trinidad and Tobago reflect the historical influence of the British. Cricket is so popular that champion player Brian Lara is hailed as a national hero and has even received government recognition for his achievements. Another Trinidadian favorite is the quintessentially British sport of soccer (called football in Trinidad and Tobago, as it is in Britain). Most cities, towns, and even villages have their own soccer teams. Horse-racing is very popular as well.

Hasely Crawford won the first Olympic gold medal for Trinidad and Tobago in the men's 100 m race dash in the 1976 Summer Olympics. Nine different athletes from Trinidad and Tobago have won twelve medals at the Olympics, beginning with a silver medal in weightlifting, won by Rodney Wilkes in 1948 and most recently, a silver medal by Richard Th ompson in the men's 100 m race in 2008.


Music plays an important role in everyday life in Trinidad and Tobago, and much Trinidadian entertainment includes or revolves around it. The latest calypso songs, with their witty commentaries on public figures and controversial issues, can be heard on radios and sound systems throughout the country. SoCa—primarily recorded music that combines soul ("So-") and calypso ("-Ca") as well as other styles—has been universally popular since the 1980s. Trinidadians also enjoy watching movies and television, and American soap operas are especially popular. Trinidadians of Indian descent enjoy seeing movies from India, a country noted for its film industry.

One Caribbean leisure-time tradition that is fast disappearing in Trinidad and Tobago is the rum shop, where working-class men have traditionally met after work to drink and socialize. The country's remaining rum shops are few in number but retain their spirit of informality and camaraderie.


Two forms of native Trinidadian music, calypso and steel drum music, have become famous throughout the world. Calypso was originally developed by plantation workers as a covert way to poke fun at their owners and overseers and at rival work gangs. This subversive tradition continues today in calypso music that mocks politicians and other local figures and comments satirically on current affairs.

Steel drum music originated when members of traditional African percussion bands began using discarded oil drums. With their bottoms cut off and their tops hammered into a convex shape marked by a pattern of dents that produce different pitches, these objects turn into musical instruments capable of a surprising range of musical nuance and expression in the hands of expert players. The drums (called "pans") are tuned to four musical ranges: bass (also called "boom"), cello pan, guitar pan, and ping-pong.

In addition to steel drums, which are a prime example of Trinidadian crafts, the nation's artisans also produce hand-crafted copper jewelry, woven straw goods, pottery, woodcarvings, boldly printed fabrics, and other handmade goods.


As Trinidad and Tobago becomes an increasingly urbanized society, its cities face housing shortages and difficulty in providing essential public services. Immigration of unskilled workers has contributed to the overcrowding of urban areas, while emigration of skilled workers has raised concern about a so-called "brain drain" depriving the country of needed talent. High unemployment has led to social unrest, particularly among the country's youth (43% of persons aged 15 to 19 were unemployed in 1994), and there has been an increase in serious crime, much of it drug- and gang-related.


Trinidad and Tobago has encountered several constraints in the promotion of gender equality. These include deeply entrenched patriarchal attitudes and practices, the impact of globalization, structural and institutional obstacles, and lack of adequate financial and human resources. Poverty is more widespread among female-headed households, and Trinidadian women occupy the lowest paying, traditionally female-dominated, fields of work.

To strengthen women's economic rights and remove discrimination against women, in 1998 the Maternity Protection Act guaranteed maternity leave with pay for a period of 13 weeks to all employed women. In order to help single mothers to have easier access to the world of work, some state and nongovernmental agencies have established homework centers and afterschool clubs. In addition, Trinidad and Tobago's government has pursued different strategies to diminish gender inequality in the country. To stimulate the micro- and small- enterprise sector among women, 43% of loan guarantees are awarded to women and 90% of training recipients are women.

Even though women have advanced in education, excelling beyond their male counterparts in some institutions, they continue to be grossly underrepresented in positions of power and decision-making. In order to begin to change this, Trinidad and Tobago supports the target of 30% of women in political decision-making posts. Participation of women in the media has also been largely at the lower strata of employment, for example, reporters, writers, and presenters. Management and decision-making is predominantly the domain of men. However, as of 2008, one woman had been appointed chief executive officer out of three major daily newspapers, and there was one female head of news.


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—revised by C. Vergara

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