The Dutch establishment in Tobago in the 17th century was a serious endeavour to maintain a presence in the Caribbean. As a base of operations for their ventures into the Guyanas and in pursuit of profit, the Dutch were not very distracted by gold. As Professor Phillip Sherlock put it:
“To get at the heart of West Indian history, we must strip away the romantic nonsense about buried treasure and pirates leading carefree lives in hidden harbours. The magic words are not gold and silver, but salt, sugar, tobacco, logwood.”
Gold and silver drew the Spaniards to Mexico, Peru and Colombia. They neglected Trinidad, because it possessed no gold or precious minerals for them. They paid little regard to Jamaica, because it was fit only for the rearing of horses and the breeding of cattle. There were, however, other commodities that proved as precious as gold, and these attracted other nations to the Caribbean. The Dutch, for example, during the 1600s shut off by Spain from her Portuguese sources of salt, turned to the Caribbean. Dutch prosperity and power rested on their herring trade, which required a steady supply of salt for curing the fish that was sold throughout Europe.
The Dutch knew that there were large deposits of salt near to Cumana in Venezuela, and from their foothold on Tobago they launched expeditions to the eight mile long lagoon that was separated from the sea by a narrow strip of land. The sun beat down mercilessly on this hot, desolate place, but in spite of the intolerable heat salt was taken from the rim of this salt pond, where over the millennia it had formed as a result of the sea water’s evaporation.
Tobago had been an important port of call for the Dutch from the early 17th century. Unlike so many other islands of the West Indies, it never became a Spanish possession. It had been visited by British seamen in 1580, and a Dutch captain, Joachim Gijsz, on his way back to Holland from Brazil in 1627, stopped there. One of the important commodities that brought the Dutch out to the Caribbean were dye wood trees, fustic and log wood. The log wood is a slow-growing tree, brownish red at the core. This core yielded a fast dye, dark blue or purple in colour. In the 1600s, clothmakers in Flanders and England used log wood to colour their wool. Much sought-after, it soon sold for £100 per ton.
Mahogany was introduced into Europe from the Caribbean. Great stands of mahogany once grew in Tobago, overlooking the calm bays as they did in most parts of these islands. The Spaniards learnt the use of mahogany very soon after they came to the New World. In fact, the oldest known sample of their work is a cross in the cathedral at Santo Domingo, dating back to 1514. The Spaniards built ships from mahogany. They found the wood of the islands harder, with a richer colouring and very finely grained. Philip II of Spain used mahogany in the building of his vast gloomy palace, the Escorial, outside Madrid.
Tobago was a Carib stronghold. Columbus had encountered the Caribs on various islands. He testified of their courage and determination. “they are a wild people, fit for any work, well proportioned and very intelligent.” The Caribs were also strong on other islands as well. They held St. Vincent in such strength that the island was one of the last of the lesser Antilles to be settled by Europeans. Complicated treaties were made, the last of which was in 1773 after the British had been in St. Vincent for more than 10 years. There was money to be made in these islands, and they were considered strategic. In Grenada and in St. Lucia, the French and English fought each other for possession. The sharpest conflicts took place in the 1790s. One of the most skillful of the French revolutionary leaders in the Caribbean was Victor Hugues, a man of extraordinary energy, who stirred up the slaves and the Caribs against the English.
In the years immediately before Hugues arrived in the Caribbean, the English expanded sugar production in St. Vincent in preference to cotton. Sugar rose from 3,200 tons in 1787 to over 14,000 tons in 1828. This meant larger quantities of slaves to be brought in. Hugues urged rebellion in the slave population. He also encouraged the black Caribs of St. Vincent to rise in revolt. The black Caribs of St. Vincent are part African and part Carib, and come about as the result of a slave ship going aground on the island. The slaves found refuge with the Caribs, and their descendants continue to live there to this day.
In the uprising, urged by Victor Hugues in the 18th century, the black Caribs though fierce and courageous, suffered for their rebellion and many were deported to British Honduras (now Belize). To learn more about the islands, read John MacPherson’s excellent geography book ‘Caribbean Islands’.