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Tobago’s right to self-determination

Sunday, May 1, 2011

As the various draft proposals for the advancement of the self-government of Tobago in respect of its relationship with Trinidad begin to emerge, the debate about the next phase of the island’s post-Trinidad association will continue to rise. The Trinidad and Tobago Act 1887 that provided the legal foundation for the union of the British colonies of Trinidad and of Tobago to create a single colony of Trinidad and Tobago opened the door of disadvantage for Tobago. The island was required to take a backward step by surrendering its superior legislative arrangements when compared to Trinidad to become ultimately a ward of Trinidad and Tobago by 1899.

The Act of union of 1887 was followed by an Order in Council that was made in 1888 and came into effect in 1889. Further reform was to take place in 1898 that resulted in the ultimate downgrade for the island by 1899 when it became a ward. It is this act of historical disadvantage that has left a level of bitterness about the manner in which the island has been treated by officials based in Trinidad.

The final act of total unification took place during the period of the governorship of Sir Hubert Jerningham who became the Governor of Trinidad and Tobago in 1897. It was he who made the case to the Colonial Office for this final legislative act of union that would come into effect in 1899. It should be noted, however, that Tobago’s Commissioner at the time, William Low, had his reservations before he yielded to Governor Jerningham’s view about closer union.

Writing to Jerningham on December 10, 1897, Low had this to say:

“I must candidly confess that for the first 2 or 3 years of my residence here I was not an advocate for closer union with Trinidad; and even now the fact that an essentially English island, with such a brilliant page of history, will merge its identity on being amalgamated with an island largely permeated with Franco-Spanish ideas, although a mere matter of sentiment, causes a certain amount of regret.” (UK National Archives, CO 295/384)

Commissioner Low’s insight was indeed valid and can help us to understand the issue of the desire by many in Tobago for a greater of level of self-government. However, Commissioner Low’s comment also helps to make the case for self-determination for Tobago. That “brilliant page of history” that he spoke about included a Tobago Assembly which had to be surrendered as part of a politically convenient plan to unify the two islands. If ever there were two islands with such different historical, cultural and political backgrounds, it would be Trinidad and Tobago.

Perhaps the source of the disquiet on this issue can be further gleaned in the letter from Low to Chamberlain of December 10, 1897, when he goes on to say:

“The unsatisfactory nature of the present conditions of the union of Tobago is in some respects considered and treated as a separate Government yet, financially, she is hampered by the Customs and Excise Laws and Regulation of Trinidad, and administratively her requirements are dealt with on the advice of officials resident in Trinidad and necessarily unacquainted with her local needs.” (UK National Archives, CO 295/384) Commissioner Low could have written the second half of the excerpt from that letter one hundred years later and it would have still been relevant. The insensitivity to the needs of Tobago has created a situation whereby the desire for self-government is strong. However, such a desire should be accompanied by a right to self-determination.

The proposal for the creation of a Tobago Legislature to enact laws that shall have effect in Tobago is a natural progression along the continuum of self-government. What the nature of those laws will be is a separate matter and how the island will be further developed will be matters for the Island Administration to consider. The core issue is for the Parliament of Trinidad and Tobago to move expeditiously to lay draft legislation for the enhancement of the status of Tobago in respect of its legal standing within the State of Trinidad and Tobago. Such an evolutionary process is likely to take Trinidad and Tobago from a unitary state into a federal one.

The rectification of a colonial decision to remove Tobago from a union with Grenada and St Vincent and to relocate it into a different union with Trinidad should require the inclusion of a right to self-determination. Such a policy can reduce the level of angst that can arise if the next round of constitutional and statutory amendments do not bring a satisfactory resolution to the problems associated with the political and administrative arrangements between the two islands. After the reforms of 1980 and 1996, the problem of the dominance of Tobago by Trinidad still persists when one examines the constitutional and legislative provisions. Even if federalism is ultimately introduced, it ought to come with a provision to include the right to self-determination if only to validate the reforms that lie just over the horizon.


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