The Arawak and Carib Indians, the original inhabitants of Trinidad and Tobago, led a relatively peaceful existence cultivating tobacco – from which the name Tobago derives – until the islands’ discovery by Christopher Columbus, who claimed them for Spain in 1498 with a Spanish colony being founded on Trinidad in 1532.
Over the ensuing centuries the islands became a battleground, fought over by the Spanish, Dutch, French and British, who left the fortifications to testify. Control switched hands some 30 times between the colonial powers as a lucrative sugar plantation industry run by slave labour developed. Abolition of slavery left a labour shortfall, which the British filled by encouraging Venezuelan farmers and forcing Indian labourers to settle.
Trinidad was formally ceded to the British Crown under the Treaty of Amiens in 1802; Tobago came under British control in 1814. In 1857 came the discovery that would shape the country thereafter: oil, which countered the near collapse of the sugar and cocoa industries. In 1888, Tobago was amalgamated with Trinidad and the islands have been administered as a single entity ever since.
By 1962, following various reforms, Trinidad and Tobago had achieved full independence. Eric Williams, for many still the father of the nation, took control of the country and served as prime minister from independence until his death in 1981. In 1976 the country became a republic within the Commonwealth and the economy boomed until a collapse in oil prices precipitated an attempt coup in 1990 when a 100-strong group of Islamic extremists occupied the Red House (the seat of Parliament) and the television station and held the country hostage for six days before surrendering.
The country remains a two-party system with a parliament based on the Westminster model and subject to elections every five years. Anthony Carmona, the fifth president, has been in office since 2013 and Prime Minister Keith Rowley took office in September 2015.
Did you know?
• The country can claim two Nobel Prize-winning authors in VS Naipaul and Derek Walcott, plus two Miss Universe titleholders with Janelle Commissiong in 1977 (the first black woman to take the title) and Wendy Fitzwilliam in 1998.
• The two national birds on the Trinidad and Tobago coat of arms are the scarlet ibis and the cocrico.
• The steelpan drum was first made in Trinidad and Tobago and is its national instrument.