Trinidad is an island bordering the Caribbean to the north and situated off the northern edge of the South American mainland, lying just 6.8 miles (11 kilometers) off the coast of northeastern Venezuela and 81 miles (130 km) south of Grenada. With an area of 1,768 square miles (4,768 km²), it is the sixth largest island in the West Indies. Discovered by Christopher Columbus on July 31, 1498, it was a Spanish colony until the arrival of a British fleet of 18 warships on February 18, 1797. During the same period, the nearby island of Tobago changed hands among Spanish, British, French, Dutch and Courlander colonizers more times than any other island in the Caribbean. Trinidad was ceded to Britain in 1802 under the Treaty of Amiens. In 1889, Trinidad was united with Tobago to form the colony of Trinidad & Tobago, although each continued to issue separate stamps until 1913. Tobago constituted a distinct political entity, but was fully integrated as an administrative district in 1899.
Many believe the original name for the island in the Arawaks’ language was Iëre which meant “Land of the Hummingbird”. Some believe that Iere was actually a mispronunciation or corruption by early colonists of the Arawak word kairi which simply means island. Christopher Columbus renamed it La Isla de la Trinidad (“The Island of the Trinity”), fulfilling a vow he had made before setting out on his third voyage. This has since been shortened to Trinidad.
Trinidad was first settled by pre-agricultural Archaic people at least 7,000 years ago, making it the earliest settled part of the Caribbean. Ceramic-using agriculturalists settled Trinidad around 250 BC, and then moved further up the Lesser Antillean chain. It was known as ‘Land of the Humming Bird’ by the indigenous peoples. 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.
Christopher Columbus encountered the island of Trinidad on July 31, 1498. In the 1530s, Antonio de Sedeño, a Spanish soldier intent on conquering the island of Trinidad, landed on its southwest coast with a small army of men. He intended to subdue the Orinoco and the Warao, the two major Amerindian peoples of the island, and rule over them in the name of the Spanish king. Sedeño and his men fought the native Carib Indians on many occasions, and subsequently built a fort. The next few decades were generally spent in warfare with the natives, until in 1592, the Cacique (native chief) Wannawanare granted the area later known as St. Josephs to Domingo de Vera e Ibargüen, and withdrew to another part of the island. The settlement of San José de Oruña (St. Joseph) was established by Antonio de Berrío on this land.
Sir Walter Raleigh arrived in Trinidad on March 22, 1595. He was in search of the long-rumored “City of Gold” supposedly located in South America. He soon attacked San José, captured and interrogated Antonio de Berrío, and obtained much information from him and from the Cacique Topiawari. Raleigh then went on his way, and the Spanish authority was restored.
The next century (the 1600s) passed without major incident but sustained attempts by the Spaniards to control and rule over the Amerindians, and especially the exertions of the missionaries, were preparing grounds for an outburst. In 1687, the Catholic Catalan Capuchin friars were given responsibility for the conversions of the indigenous people of Trinidad and the Guianas. After 1687, they founded several missions in Trinidad, supported and richly funded by the state, which also granted encomienda over the native people to them. One such mission was Santa Rosa de Arima, established in 1789, when Amerindians from the former encomiendas of Tacarigua and Arauca (Arouca) were relocated further west.
The missions aimed at conversion and cultural deracination, which were naturally unwelcome to the target population. Escalating tensions between the Spaniards and Amerindians culminated in the Arena Massacre which took place in 1699. Amerindians bound to the Church’s encomienda at the mission at Arena/Arima revolted, killing the priests and desecrating the church. They then ambushed the governor and his party, who were on their way to visit the church. The uprising resulted in the death of several hundred Amerindians, of the Roman Catholic priests connected with the mission of San Francisco de los Arenales, of the Spanish Governor José de León y Echales and of all but one member of his party. Among those killed in the governor’s party was Fr. Juan Mazien de Sotomayor, O.P., missionary priest to the Nepuyo villages of Cuara, Tacarigua and Arauca.
Order was eventually restored and the Spanish authority was re-established. Another century passed, and during the 1700s, Trinidad was an island province belonging to the Viceroyalty of New Spain, together with Central America, present-day Mexico and the 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. The population in 1777 was only 1,400 and Spanish colonization in Trinidad remained tenuous.
Since Trinidad was considered underpopulated, Roume de St. Laurent, a Frenchman living in Grenada, was able to obtain a Cédula de Población from the Spanish King Charles III on November 4, 1783. A Cédula de Población had previously been granted in 1776 by the king, but had not shown results, and therefore the new Cédula was more generous. It granted free land and tax exemption for 10 years to Roman Catholic foreign settlers who were willing to swear allegiance to the King of Spain. The land grant was 30 fanegas (13 hectares/32 acres) for each free man, woman and child and half of that for each slave that they brought with them.
It was fortuitous that the Cédula was issued only a few years before the French Revolution. During that period of upheaval, French planters with their slaves, free coloreds and mulattos from the neighboring islands of Martinique, Saint Lucia, Grenada, Guadeloupe and Dominica 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. The sparse settlement and slow rate of population increase during Spanish rule (and even during British rule) made Trinidad one of the less populated colonies of the West Indies, with the least developed plantation infrastructure.
In 1797, a British force led by General Sir Ralph Abercromby launched the invasion of Trinidad. His squadron sailed through the Bocas and anchored off the coast of Chaguaramas. The Spanish Governor Don José María Chacón, decided to capitulate without fighting. Trinidad thus became a British crown colony, with a French-speaking population and Spanish laws. British rule was formalized under the Treaty of Amiens (1802).
A British post office was opened on Trinidad in 1801 but dealt only with overseas mail and no internal deliveries were made outside Port of Spain until 1816.
British rule led to an influx of settlers from the United Kingdom and the British colonies of the Eastern Caribbean. English, Scots, Irish, German and Italian families arrived. Under British rule, new estates were created and the import of slaves did increase, but this was the period of abolitionism in England and the slave trade was under attack. Slavery was abolished in 1833, after which former slaves served an “apprenticeship” period which ended on August 1, 1838, with full emancipation. An overview of the populations statistics in 1838, however, clearly reveals the contrast between Trinidad and its neighboring 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.
After slaves were emancipated, plantation owners were in severe need of labor. The British authorities filled this need by instituting a system of indentureship. Various nationalities were contracted under this system, including East Indians, Chinese and Portuguese. Of these, the East Indians were imported in the largest numbers, starting from May 1, 1845, when 225 Indians were brought in the first shipment to Trinidad on the Fatel Razack, a Muslim-owned vessel. Indentureship of the East 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 labor 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 as low as 25 cents in the early 20th century, and they were guaranteed return passage to India at the end of their contract period. However, coercive means were often used to retain laborers, and the indentureship contracts were soon extended to 10 years after the planters complained that they were losing their labor too early. In lieu of the return passage, the British authorities soon began offering portions of land to encourage settlement; however, the numbers of people who did receive land grants is unclear. East Indians entering the colony were also subject to particular crown laws which segregated them from the rest of Trinidad’s population, such as the requirement that they carry a pass with them once off the plantations, and that if freed, they carry their “Free Papers” or certificate indicating completion of the indenture period. The ex-Indentureds came to constitute a vital and significant section of the population, as did the ex-slaves.
The sugar and cacao plantations that dominated the economy of Trinidad in the nineteenth century caused the British colonial government to open land to settlers interested in establishing estates. The resulting population and economic growth inspired the people of Trinidad to campaign for a postal service between the towns of San Fernando and capital city, Port of Spain. However, as late as 1844, no such service had been authorized. The only mail and parcels carried between the two ports was by an old, expensive and unreliable steamer, the Paria.
In November 1845, a paddle steamer named the Lady McLeod began regular service between Port of Spain and San Fernando, on Trinidad island. Built by Robert Napier in Greenock on the Clyde in Scotland, she was a 67-ton, three-masted paddle steamer, 109 feet in length with a 40 horse-power engine. With David Bryce as the first captain, she set out for Trinidad on September 5, 1845, and arrived at Port of Spain after a 48-day voyage The steamer was first operated by Turnbull, Stewart & Co.
The day after her first trip out of the Port of Spain to San Fernando, November 3, 1845, an official notice was placed in the Port of Spain Gazette. J.A. Allen, Henry Scott and John Losh of Turnbull, Stewart and Co. stated that the ship would carry letters, public officers, magistrates and police free of charge.
On November 21, they placed another notice in the Port of Spain Gazette:
“Steamer the Lady McLeod: Letters, Money and Small Parcels will be carried from this date for subscribers only, at one dollar per month from each Subscriber or Estate, payable quarterly in advance; letters of non-subscribers will be charged 10 cents each. Letter box at Michael Maxwell’s San Fernando, and Turnbull, Stewart and Co. Port of Spain. N.B. The Commander can only be held responsible for parcels or letters containing money, for which a receipt is given and a commission of one-half per cent [paid].”
Mail transport could be paid for in cash either in port or on-board ship. The second option often caused problems as the ship’s captain ran out of loose change and had to refuse letters. In November 1846, the ship was sold to David Bryce and by April 16, 1847, he overcame the small change situation by printing his own stamps which were issued only at the dockside agent’s office. These were sold individually for 5 cents, or for 4 cents if bought by the hundred. The Lady McLeod only transported letters bearing stamps, or prepaid mail of the subscribers. The imperforated stamps portrayed a white ship on a blue background, with the initials “LMc L” printed underneath. Lithographically printed, the stamp was cancelled by a cross drawn by hand or by ripping up a corner.
No details are known about who designed or printed the stamp, though the thick yellowish paper (and the color of the ink) has led to the belief that the stamp could have been prepared locally, possibly by Charles Petit who was responsible for the 1852 lithographed stamps of Trinidad. The original die of the Lady McLeod stamp may have been engraved although it was printed by lithography. Although an unofficial issue, the Lady McLeod stamp was the first adhesive postage stamp ever issued relating to “post by sea.” On September 24, 2015, an example of the stamp led the auction of the Vestey collection by Spink Auctioneers in London. It sold for £34,000 (U.S. $51,775). Further details about the stamps, along with a census of existing copies both on and off cover can be found on the website of the British West Indies Study Circle.
In 1851, David Bryce sold the Lady McLeod to a consortium of five Trinidad merchants. She foundered in 1854 off Vistabella Point near San Fernando and was abandoned. The ship’s bell was salvaged, and after serving various purposes was, in 1948, lodged in the office of the Town Clerk, San Fernando. It is regularly displayed by the Trinidad Philatelic Society.
A postal system for Trinidad was proposed in 1847, but its introduction was delayed for four years because the British government anticipated it would run at a loss. In 1851, on the day of issue of stamps, post offices for internal mail were opened at San Fernando and Port of Spain.
The first general issue for Trinidad appeared on August 14, 1851, and is of the ‘Britannia’ type — a design also used briefly in Barbados and Mauritius. In Trinidad, the Britannia type would — in different designs — be the signature type used almost exclusively until 1922. The first stamps bore no denomination but were priced at 1 penny. The purple brown stamp was issued first (Scott #2) with a blue version released in December 1851 (Scott #3). These were engraved and issued imperforate on unwatermarked paper; the earliest on blued paper. Provisionals were made locally by Charles Petit from Perkins Bacon dies using lithography when shortages occurred beginning in September 1852. The first stamps of Trinidad to be inscribed with denominations were those of 4 pence, 6 pence and 1 shilling released in 1860 (Scott #15-17). The first perforated stamps followed a year later.
Stamps of different types were issued only in 1869 and in 1883-1884 — showing the portrait of Queen Victoria — and in 1898, a commemorative stamp issued at the occasion of the 400th anniversary of the discovery of Trinidad. Scott #91 was released on July 31, 1898, recess printed by Thomas de la Rue & Company Ltd. of London. The 2 pence stamp in gray violet and yellow brown is perforated 14 and bears a Crown CC watermark. It portrays a depiction of Columbus’ landing.
Trinidad and Tobago had separate postal administrations until 1913, but the stamps of Trinidad came to be used in Tobago from 1896. After the full integration of the postal administrations in 1913, the stamps of Trinidad and Tobago were used.