Archaeologists tell us that there is evidence of mankind on the islands of Trinidad and Tobago as far back as 7,000 years ago. At 4,000 B.C. settlers from north-eastern South America known as the Ortoiroid arrived. As with so many early histories the islands then went through a succession of waves of new settlers up to modern times.
The most significant modern settlers were the Europeans in the form of Christopher Columbus on his third voyage in 1498. The peaceful dwellers of the islands found their lives were shattered by the Spanish in the early 1500s as they were enslaved to work in the pearl fisheries. The locals ended up being less than friendly towards the Spanish and several settlement attempts by the Europeans failed.
The Dutch were the next to arrive in the early 1600s and after beating back the Spanish they established a number of colonies by the mid-1600s.
British Jamaican pirates were to upset the new colonies and it wasn’t until 1674 and the Treaty of Westminster that the British and Dutch settled their differences only to find the French intervening in the islands.
By the late 1600s and early 1700s the Spanish were back in the form of missionaries who converted the indigenous population to Christianity. The Spanish settlements grew once more but the British were back in 1797 when a British fleet of 18 warships forced the surrender of the Spanish Royal Governor Don José Maria Chacón.
Soon after, in 1807, the slave trade, which had served the sugar cane plantations, was abolished. By 1838 so was the ‘apprenticeship’ system which had sought to get around the abolition of slavery. The solution came in the influx of foreign workers from places as far apart as China, India, West Africa and Portugal.
In 1857 the first oil was found in Trinidad and Tobago but it took another 50 years before it was commercially exploited properly; it has been a mainstay of the economy ever since.
Prior to 1925 Trinidad and Tobago were separate islands with Trinidad being a crown colony. In 1925 the two islands were united and the first elections for a legislative council were held.
By 1936 T.U.B. Butler had established the British Empire Citizens’ and Workers’ Home Rule Party and in 1950 the party won the general election. But the authorities feared Butler because of his links with the Labour Riots of 1937 and instead Albert Gomes was made First Minister.
In 1956 Trinidad and Tobago saw the emergence of the People’s National Movement (PNM) led by Eric Williams. The party won the 1956 general election and Eric Williams was Prime Minister from 1956 until 1981 when he died. The party continued to rule until 1986.
After a failed attempt by the British to establish a West Indies Federation, Trinidad and Tobago achieved full independence in August 1962. On 1st August 1976 the country became a republic and the last Governor-General, Sir Ellis Clarke, became the first president.
Throughout the PNM rule the country was not without its problems; it saw the rise of the Black Power Revolution and economic difficulties due to fluctuating oil prices. In 1986 the PNMs 30 year rule ended with a landslide victory for the National Alliance for Reconstruction (NAR) who won 33 of the 36 seats in the House of Representatives.
A coup attempt by a Muslim group called the Jamaat al Muslimeem in1990 saw the demise of the NAR and in 1991 the PNM were back under the leadership of Patrick Manning. By 1995 the election was a knife edge finish with the PNM and United National Congress (UNC) on seventeen seats each. The NAR won the remaining two seats and allied to the UNC leading to Basdeo Panday becoming prime minister.
The UNC won again in 2000 but with a narrow majority and after the defection of three of their MPs the government fell and fresh elections were held in October 2001.
The 2001 elections created another cliff-hanger with the PNM and UNC evenly split on 18 seats each. Eventually President Arthur Robinson asked Patrick Manning to form a government. The PNM government managed to sputter on until 2002 when fresh elections gave them 20 of the 36 seats in the parliament and a majority with which to rule.
The PNM did better still in the 2007 elections taking 26 of the 41 seats in the House of Representatives. It became clear that the PNM could only be beaten if the opposition worked together to create a multi-ethnic bloc and therefore in 2010 the United National Congress, the Congress of the People, the Tobago Organization of the People and the National Joint Action Committee formed a coalition called the People’s Partnership to fight the election.
The result was a stunning success for the People’s Partnership who picked up 29 of the 41 seats in the House of Representatives and their leader, Kamla Persad-Bissessar, became the first woman prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago.
The President is elected by an electoral college which consists of the members of the Senate and House of Representatives, for a five-year term and may serve a second consecutive term.
The bicameral parliament has a Senate with 31 seats of which 16 members are appointed by the ruling party, 9 by the President and 6 by the opposition party to serve a maximum term of five years. The House of Representatives has 41 members elected by popular vote to serve five year terms.
The Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) 2016 places Trinidad and Tobago at joint 101st out of 176 countries with a CPI 2016 score of 35 (where 100 is least corrupt).