We're off to Trinidad and Tobago. There may be no new posts for at least a couple of weeks.
The islands of T&T, by Caribbean standards, are a tourist backwater. This despite the fact that Trinidad has a unique natural history. It was once a part of the South American mainland, which has endowed it with the greatest biological diversity of any Caribbean island. Both islands harbor old growth rainforest and unspoiled beaches.
Centuries of colonialism saw the islands' indigenous populations almost entirely wiped out and then replaced first with Africans, brought as slaves, and later with indentured laborers brought mostly from India. Today, Trinidad has perhaps the most cosmopolitan population in the Caribbean, with about 40% claiming African heritage, 40% Indian heritage, and most of the remaining 20% claiming mixed ancestry, also including French, Spanish, British, Chinese, Syrian, and Amerindian. Tobago, on the other hand, had a separate history, which never included the importation of indentured labor, and the population of that island remains almost entirely of African descent, with strong French influences. This cultural diversity is evident in the islands' music, food, religions, festivals, languages, pop culture, and more.
Both islands were sugar plantation colonies, and the planters did what they could to maintain an abundant supply of cheap labor at their disposal. For this reason, even a century after manumission, in 1833, and for decades after the indentured labor system was dismantled in the 1920s, no systematic attempt was made to provide education for the laboring masses, leaving most of them stuck in poverty and illiteracy. Needless to say, the non-white majority of the population was never invited to participate in the governing of their colony.
All this changed when the country gained it's independence from Britain in 1962. Inheriting a largely impoverished, uneducated, and ethnically fractured population founded in bondage and maintained under centuries of oppression, Dr. Eric Williams—the country's first Prime MInister and a leader of the independence struggle—challenged his citizens to build themselves into a society and a nation:
On August 31, 1962, a country will be free, a miniature state will be established, but a society and a nation will not have been formed. After August 31, 1962, the people of Trinidad and Tobago will face the fiercest test in their history—whether they can invest with flesh and blood the bare skeleton of their National Anthem, "here ev'ry creed and race find an equal place." That is their challenge. They may fail. Others more important and better endowed than they have failed conspicuously. That would be no justification for their own failure. But merely to make the attempt, merely to determine to succeed, would be an enormous tribute to their capacity, a powerful inspiration to frustrated humanity, a wonderful opportunity for self-gratification. This will be their final emancipation from slavery, this will be their final demonstration that slavery is not by nature and that the Humblest antecedents are not inconsistent with the greatness of soul.
The discovery of oil in the mid-20th century has given T&T an economic lift. Prosperity has been filtering in, first into Port of Spain, San Fernando, and Mayaro, then through the rest of the country. About two-thirds of the country's 1.3 million people remain in villages, fishing, growing cacao, coffee, or vegetables, or running small, local businesses. It's not clear how much of the new prosperity has yet filtered out to them. In 2010, the country elected its first female Prime Minister, Kamla Persad-Bissessar.