Trinidad and Tobago gained independence from Britian on 31 August 1952. This module provides an overview of the key events on Trinidad and Tobago's road to independence.
Road to Independence
Trinidad and Tobago celebrates its 52nd anniversary of Independence on 31 August 2014. Prior to Independence, the country was a British colony with the Queen of England as the Head of State.
At midnight on 30 August 1962, the British flag (the Union Jack) was lowered and the red, white and black Trinidad and Tobago flag was raised for the first time.
Independence was marked by more than a week of festivities and events across the country. A number of international dignitaries were present for the auspicious occasion, including the Queen’s representative Her Royal Highness, the Princess Royal, who read a message from Queen Elizabeth II, relinquishing her rule.
Trinidad and Tobago’s history had been one of conquer and colonization with the superpowers of the day fighting at various times for possession of these the southernmost of the Caribbean chain of islands. The original settlers, the Amerindians, were no match for the invading marauders…Tobago changed hands among the British, French, and Dutch but eventually ended up in British hands.
The island of Trinidad was a Spanish colony from the arrival of Christopher Columbus in 1498 to the capitulation of the Spanish Governor, Don José Maria Chacón, on the arrival of a British fleet of 18 warships on 18 February 1797. During the same period, the island of Tobago changed hands among Spanish, British, French, Dutch and Courlander colonizers. In 1814, the British crown gained possession of Tobago, which it maintained for a century and a half. The British first ruled Tobago as a separate colony, but during much of the 19th century administered the island from the Windward Islands government. Tobago then became a crown colony in 1877 and in 1888 amalgamated with Trinidad under the colony name of Trinidad and Tobago.
The road to independence is linked to the granting of the rights to vote in 1924, the culmination of many cries for the franchise and a petition submitted to the Colonial Office calling for the inclusion of “local” representatives in the governance of the colony. The continued demands for increased participation in governance and the labour-based “Butler riots” of 1937 calling for internal self government, led to the British Parliament granting universal adult suffrage to Trinidad and Tobago in 1945. This was limited to persons aged 21 years and over. The evolution of the electoral and governing process was enhanced and refined since that time, due to the struggles of thinkers and labour leaders such as Tubal Uriah ‘Buzz’ Butler, George Weekes, Adrian Cola Rienzi, Arthur Cipriani, CLR James and the political and leadership skills of Dr Eric Williams, the country’s first chief minister from 1956 to 1959, its first premier from 1959 to 1962, and first prime minister from 1962 to 1981. Self-government was gradually increased between 1946 and 1961 with the elections of those years serving as dress rehearsals for independence.
Independence, was seen as the final stage in a long road to self-government. The governor’s executive power was now limited.
Political parties competed in an electoral process and a Chief Minister in which members of Cabinet and members of the Opposition were elected. A governor-general was appointed, who selected an Executive Council from the party with the winning majority. The governor then acted on the advice of the Executive Council.
The return of Dr. Eric Williams from abroad, heralded a vibrant era of party politics since he was encouraged to form a political party. On 24 September 1956, Dr. Williams party, the People’s National Movement (PNM), won 13 of the 24 seats on the Legislative Council.
In 1958, a Federation of the West Indies was formed; but when Jamaica withdrew in 1961, Trinidad and Tobago decided that it was time to receive full independence so that it could pursue its own governance. On Friday, Dec. 29, 1961 the House of Representatives and the Senate sat for the first time in the history of the Parliament of Trinidad and Tobago.
In 1962, independence talks took place between Trinidad and Tobago and Britain at Marlborough House in London, resulting in full independence on 31 Augusut 1962. Included in the talks was the leader of the opposition Democratic Labor Party, Dr. Rudranath Capildeo.
The PNM governed Trinidad and Tobago continuously from 1956 until the death of Dr. Williams in 1981.
Upon Independence on 31 August 1962, Sir Solomon Hochoy was installed as the first Governor-General and the premier, Dr. Eric Williams, automatically became the Prime Minister. The British Monarch remained as the head of state and the Privy Council, the highest court of appeal.
Dr. Williams in his Independence Day message to the nation 31 August 1962 called on citizens to protect democracy.
“Democracy means equality for all in education, in the public service and in private employment- I repeat, and in private employment.
“Democracy means the protection of the weak against the strong. Democracy means the obligation of the minority to recognize the right of the majority. Democracy means responsibility of the government to its citizens, the protection of the citizen from the exercise of arbitrary power and the violation of human and freedoms and individual rights of expression.
“Democracy means the freedom of worship for all and the subordination of the right of any race to the overriding right of the human race. Democracy means freedom of expression and assemble organization.”
In 1976, Trinidad and Tobago achieved its status as a republic, the president then assumed this role. Sir Ellis Clarke became the first president of the republic.
Meaning of Independence
Trinidad and Tobago becoming an Independent Nation, now meant that Britain, no longer controlled the affairs of the country. It was now the responsibility of the newly elected Prime Minister and the locally elected Cabinet.
Independence also meant that a Constitution, symbols, emblems, an army, Trinidad and Tobago currency and passports had to be developed for the country.
As an Independent Nation, Trinidad and Tobago assigns Ambassadors overseas who represent the country. They sign treaties on behalf of Trinidad and Tobago and become members of various international organisations. This is important, as it gives Trinidad and Tobago equal rights on various issues relating to international trade, policies and treaties.
Excerpts of 1962 Independence Messages
“My Government in the United Kingdom no longer has any responsibility for this country. We wish to maintain and strengthen those bonds of friendship which have existed for over one hundred and fifty years. ... I offer you and all the people of this country my warm personal congratulations on the achievement of your aspirations. I invoke the blessings of Almighty God to give you the strength and the wisdom to make a living reality for the inspiration of the world, of the stirring words of the National Anthem: ‘Here every creed and race, Find an equal place’.”
Excerpt from the message from Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II to the Parliament and people of Trinidad and Tobago, delivered by the Princess Royal, on the morning of 31 August 1962 at the Red House.
“What use will you make of your independence? What will you transmit to your children five years from today? Other countries ceased to exist in that period. Some, in much less time, have become totally disorganised, a prey to anarchy and civil war.
The first responsibility that devolves upon you is the protection and promotion of your democracy. Democracy means more, much more, than the right to vote and one vote for every man and every woman of the prescribed age. Democracy means recognition of the rights of others.
Democracy means equality of opportunity for all in education, in the public service, and in private employment—I repeat, and in private employment. Democracy means the protection of the weak against the strong. Democracy means the obligation of the minority to recognise the right of the majority. Democracy means responsibility of the Government to its citizens, the protection of the citizens from the exercise of arbitrary power and the violation of human freedoms and individual rights. Democracy means freedom of worship for all and the subordination of the right of any race to the overriding right of the human race. Democracy means freedom of expression and assemble of organization.”
Dr. Eric Williams’ speech to the nation over the radio on 31 August 1962 (download full speech)