Both Trinidad and Tobago were originally settled by Amerindians of South American origin. Ceramic-using agriculturalists settled Trinidad around 250 BC, and then moved further up the Lesser Antillean chain. At the time of European contact, Trinidad was occupied by various Arawakan-speaking groups including the Nepoya and Suppoya, and Cariban-speaking groups such as the Yao, while Tobago was occupied by the Island Caribs and Galibi.
Christopher Columbus encountered the island of Trinidad on 31 July 1498. Antonio de Sedeno, a Spanish soldier intent on conquering the island of Trinidad, landed on its southwest coast with a small army of men in the 1530s as a means of controlling the Orinoco and subduing the Warao. Sedeno and his men fought the native Carib Indians on many occasions, and subsequently built a fort. Cacique Wannawanare (Guanaguanare) granted the St Joseph area to Domingo de Vera e Ibarguen in 1592, and then withdrew to another part of the island. San Jose de Oruna (St Joseph) was established by Antonio de Berrio on this land. Sir Walter Raleigh, searching for the long-rumored "City of Gold" in South America, arrived in Trinidad on 22 March 1595 and soon attacked San Jose and captured and interrogated de Berrio, obtaining much information from him and from the cacique Topiawari.
The Arena Massacre or Arena Uprising took place on 1 December 1699 in Trinidad. It resulted in the death of several hundred Amerindians, Roman Catholic priests connected with the mission of San Francisco de los Arenales and the Spanish Governor Jose de Leon y Echales and all but one member of his party.
In the 1700s, Trinidad belonged as an island province to the Viceroyalty of New Spain together with Central America, present-day Mexico and Southwestern United States. However, Trinidad in this period was still mostly forest, populated by a few Spaniards with their handful of slaves and a few thousand Amerindians. Spanish colonisation in Trinidad remained tenuous. Because Trinidad was considered underpopulated, Roume de St. Laurent, a Frenchman living in Grenada, was able to obtain a Cedula de Poblacion from the Spanish king Charles III on 4 November 1783.
This Cedula de Poblacion was more generous than the first of 1776, and granted free lands to Roman Catholic foreign settlers and their slaves in Trinidad willing to swear allegiance to the Spanish king. The land grant was 30 fanegas (13 hectares/32 acres) for each man, woman and child and half of that for each slave brought. As a result, Scots, Irish, German, Italian and English families arrived. Protestants benefited from Governor Don Jose Maria Chacon's generous interpretation of the law.
During the French Revolution French planters with their slaves, free coloreds and mulattos from neighboring islands of Martinique, Saint Lucia, Grenada, Guadeloupe andDominica migrated to Trinidad where they established an agriculture-based economy (sugar and cocoa). These new immigrants established local communities in Blanchisseuse, Champs Fleurs, Paramin, Cascade, Carenage and Laventille. Trinidad's population jumped to over 15,000 by the end of 1789, from just under 1,400 in 1777.
By 1797 the population of Port of Spain had increased from under 3,000 to 10,422 in five years, and consisted of people of mixed race, Spaniards, Africans, French republican soldiers, retired pirates and French nobility. The total population of Trinidad was 17,718, of which 2,151 were of European ancestry, 4,476 were "free blacks and people of colour", 10,009 were slaves and 1,082 Amerindians.
In 1797, General Sir Ralph Abercromby and his squadron sailed through the Bocas and anchored off the coast of Chaguaramas. The Spanish Governor Chacon decided to capitulate without fighting. Trinidad thus became a British crown colony, with a French-speaking population and Spanish laws. The conquest and formal ceding of Trinidad in 1802 led to an influx of settlers from England and the British colonies of the Eastern Caribbean. The sparse settlement and slow rate of population increase during Spanish rule and even after British rule made Trinidad one of the less-populated colonies of the West Indies with the least developed plantation infrastructure. Under British rule, new estates were created and slave importation increased to facilitate development of the land into highly profitable sugarcane estates, but mass importation of slaves was still limited and hindered, arguably by abolitionist efforts in Britain.
The Abolitionist movement and the decreased economic viability of slavery as a means of procuring labour both resulted in the abolition of slavery in 1833 via the Slavery Abolition Act 1833 (citation 3 & 4 Will. IV c. 73), which was followed by the substitution of an "apprenticeship" period. This was also abolished in 1838, with full emancipation being granted on 1 August. An overview of the populations statistics in 1838, however, clearly reveals the contrast between Trinidad and its neighbouring islands: upon emancipation of the slaves in 1838, Trinidad had only 17,439 slaves, with 80% of slave owners having less than 10 slaves each.
In contrast, at twice the size of Trinidad, Jamaica had roughly 360,000 slaves. Upon emancipation, therefore, the plantation owners were in severe need of labour, and the British filled this need by instituting a system of indentureship. Various nationalities were contracted under this system, including Chinese, Portuguese and Indians. Of these, the Indians were imported in the largest numbers, starting from 1 May 1845, when 225 Indians were brought in the first shipment to Trinidad on the Fatel Rozack, a Muslim-owned vessel. Indentureship of the Indians lasted from 1845 to 1917, during which more than 147,000 Indians were brought to Trinidad to work on sugarcane plantations.
They added what was initially the second-largest population grouping to the young nation, and their labour developed previously underdeveloped plantation lands. The indentureship contract was exploitative, such that historians including Hugh Tinker were to call it "a new system of slavery". People were contracted for a period of five years with a daily wage (25 cents in the early twentieth century), after which they were guaranteed return passage to India. Coercive means were often used to obtain labourers, however, and the indentureship contracts were soon extended to 10 years after the planters complained they were losing their labour too early.
The cacao (cocoa) crop also contributed greatly to the economic earnings in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. After the collapse of the cacao crop (due to disease and the Great Depression), petroleum increasingly came to dominate the economy. Petroleum was discovered in 1857. The collapse of the sugarcane industry concomitant with the failure of the cocoa industry resulted in widespread depression among the rural and agricultural workers in Trinidad, and encouraged the rise of the Labour movement in the 1920-1930 period. This was led by Tubal Uriah "Buzz" Butler, who, in combination with his Indian partners (notably Adrian Cola Rienzi), aimed to unite the working class and agricultural labour class to achieve a better standard of living for all, as well as to hasten the departure of the British. This effort was severely undermined by the British Home Office and by the British-educated Trinidadian elite, many of whom were descended from the plantocracy themselves. They instigated a vicious race politicking in Trinidad aimed at dividing the class-based movement on race-based lines, and they succeeded, especially since Butler's support had collapsed from the top down. The Depression and the rise of the oil economy led to changes in the social structure. By the 1950s, petroleum had become a staple in Trinidad's export market, and was responsible for a growing middle class among all sections of the Trinidad population.
Trinidad and Tobago gained its independence from the United Kingdom on 31 August 1962. Eric Williams, a noted Caribbean historian, widely regarded as "The Father of The Nation," was the first Prime Minister; he served from 1956, before independence, until his death in 1981.
The presence of American military bases in Chaguaramas and Cumuto in Trinidad during World War II profoundly changed the character of society. In the post-war period, the wave of decolonisation that swept the British Empire led to the formation of the West Indies Federation in 1958 as a vehicle for independence. Chaguaramas was the proposed site for the federal capital. The Federation dissolved after the withdrawal of Jamaica, and the government chose to seek independence on its own.
Since 2003, the country has entered a second oil boom, a driving force which the government hopes to use to turn the country's main export back to sugar and agriculture. Great concern was raised in August 2007 when it was predicted that this boom would last only until 2018. Petroleum, petrochemicals and natural gas continue to be the backbone of the economy. Tourism and the public service are the mainstay of the economy of Tobago, though authorities have begun to diversify the island. The bulk of tourist arrivals on the islands are from Western Europe.