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Tobago: The Union with Trinidad 1889–1899

This book tells the little known story about the decision for the Caribbean island of Tobago to form a unitary colony with the neighbouring island of Trinidad in 1889. It chronicles the path from its discovery by Columbus in 1498 through the European rivalry of the Spaniards, Dutch, French, Courlanders, (Latvians), Swedes, and British to its status as a British colony in 1814. It examines the effects of the emancipation of the slaves in 1834; the several changes to its constitution; the collapse of its economy dominated by the sugar industry and points to the confl ict between the legislative and executive branches of the government as the source of its failure as a political entity. Tracing for the fi rst time the growth of its relations with Trinidad, the book reproduces the principal records of the decisions in the legislatures of Tobago, of Trinidad and of the British parliament that created the union. The administrative issues of the period 1889-1899 and their resolution are discussed. The union is compared with the union of Scotland and England in 1707; the attitudes of modern historians to the decision examined; and the book ends with the author’s evaluation of the decision making process.

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Blueink Review

Tobago: The Union with Trinidad 1889-1899
Lennie M. Nimblett
AuthorHouse, 340 pages, (paperback) $24.34, 9781477234501
(Reviewed: January 2013)
The Caribbean islands, little more than dots in a huge expanse of ocean, begin east of Puerto Rico and arc southwest almost to the coast of South America. Trinidad sits at the end of the line, close to Venezuela, while only about 20 miles away lies tiny Tobago. In this book, Lennie Nimblett, a constitutional authority and an influential writer and commentator on the political, economic and financial affairs of these two islands, focuses on their nettlesome union at the end of the 19th century.

Relentlessly chasing down facts, Nimblett seeks to place the unification in an authentic historical, political and social context and explain how the formation of this British crown colony came about. Interestingly, his idea of context ranges back across four centuries of discovery, trade and settlement.

Using meticulous research, the author, now in his 70s, painstakingly dissects the events that propelled Trinidad and Tobago towards the altar. Tobago’s tottering, dysfunctional government and constitution, its near-bankrupt economy, the changing nature of British imperialism, plus a host of volatile social issues, including religion, ethnicity, voting rights, education, and the aftermath of slavery, all added to the pressure.

Nimblett packages his findings with almost 20 pages of prologue, acknowledgements and author’s notes; 30-plus pages of appendices; four pages listing treaties and statutes; five pages of bibliography  referencing more than 70 works; and 10 pages of indexing by name and subject. By any measure this is a scholarly work, bursting with research and attention to detail, though perhaps a little dry and dusty for those not already interested in or familiar with these colorful islands.

While tourists heading for Trinidad and Tobago are unlikely to pack this tome, anyone enthused after their vacation and wanting to learn more will find Nimblett’s book an impeccable source of background information.

Also available in hardcover and ebook.

 
 

Kirkus Review

TOBAGO: THE UNION WITH TRINIDAD 1889–1899
Myth and Reality
Nimblett, Lennie M.
AuthorHouse (374 pp.)
$41.19 hardcover, $24.34 paperback, $3.99 e-book
ISBN: 978-1477234495; November 9, 2012

In this intelligent history, Nimblett analyzes the troubled but ultimately successful union of two  Caribbean peoples.

The 1889 annexation of Tobago, a small island off the coast of Venezuela, to its much larger neighbor Trinidad is still a subject of controversy. The author, a journalist and native of Trinidad and Tobago, seeks to correct misconceptions by undertaking a careful reading of the historical record. On the surface, Nimblett tells a prosaic story of cost-cutting by the British Empire, which ruled both islands as colonies; Colonial Office functionaries advocating for the merger complained of the expense of maintaining a separate administration for Tobago’s 18,000 people. After the annexation, Tobago’s insistence on fiscal independence led to disaster when the island lost most of its customs revenue on items imported from Trinidad. Tobago petitioned the Colonial Office to rescind the union, but the British government instead
abolished Tobago’s separate tax, budget and treasury systems. Nimblett gets at deeper issues when he writes of how, in the 19th century, the island gradually lost its status as a self-governing colony. He details the class struggle behind Tobago’s constitutional wrangles, as Tobago’s legislature, representing a tiny, propertied minority, stymied reform initiatives to stop the exploitation of disenfranchised black workers. Nimblett’s lucid but sometimes repetitive narrative presents a wealth of documentary evidence and adds context with accounts of the West Indies’ legacy of slavery and racism and the economic effects of the collapse of Tobago’s sugar industry. In a challenge to other historians, Nimblett makes a compelling case that Tobago’s annexation helped alleviate many of its problems by sparking investment, land reform and agricultural diversification. His thought-provoking take will influence the ongoing debate over the island nation’s past—and its future.

A well-researched, illuminating interpretation of Trinidad and Tobago’s formative crisis.

 
 

Clarion Review

Tobago: The Union with Trinidad 1889-1899
Lennie M. Nimblett
AuthorHouse UK
978-1-4772-3450-1
Four Stars (out of Five)

The tiny West Indies island of Tobago is a “political football” that changed hands forty times in four centuries. According to one of its former governors, Tobago fell into a state of “squalor and depravity,” so much so that he recommended it be abandoned and its nineteen thousand inhabitants be relocated to the neighboring island of Trinidad. Historian and political commentator Lennie M. Nimblett explains that if not for a union with its neighbor as brokered near the end of Queen Victoria’s reign, Tobago might today be a deserted island.

Nimblett wrote Tobago: The Union with Trinidad 1889-1899 to correct “woolly ideas about the union” with Trinidad and myths the people of Tobago hold about how and why their country was formed. Drawing upon a wealth of obscure historical documents, many of them presented in whole or in part in the book, Nimblett tries to show how “a failed British slave colony” was saved from extinction through a merger with its more prosperous and better-run neighbor.

The author agrees with those in Tobago who claim that the agreement between the two islands was, and in many ways still is, an unequal union. Nimblett notes, however, that the inequality works both ways. He quotes a former governor who explains that while many in Tobago talk of seceding from Trinidad, it is the larger island that has more cause for such a division. Tobago, according to Nimblett and the sources he cites, has had the better part, especially economically, of this arrangement foisted upon Trinidad by the British.

However, educationally, economically, and politically, Tobago is not much better than the “colonial slum” it was dubbed by a visitor during the imperial era. Its inhabitants have long lived in a state of continuous turmoil, explains Nimblett. For four centuries, Tobago was a battlefield and bastion of Spanish, Dutch, English, French, Swedish, Courlander, and buccaneer masters. Today it suffers from economic hardship and the absence of any “political sense of selfawareness.”

More than ninety-six percent of the people on Tobago are descendants of African slaves. Their station is not much advanced from that of their forebears, argues Nimblett. They are still ruled by what he terms “mini-kings” and a tiny parliament whose members are appointed by an even smaller autocracy.

The research Nimblett undertakes is impressive. Two indices, three appendices, four maps, five pages of sources, and twenty-four illustrations support and enliven what could have been a very dry treatise on an obscure subject of almost exclusively local interest. While the book’s audience is limited, and many of Nimblett’s citations are repetitive, Tobago is a valuable work.

What Nimblett has artfully assembled is a colorful history of the two islands as well as a look into the politics, prejudices, and practices of the British Empire in its heyday—and the few pluses and many minuses of that legacy.

Mark McLaughlin