The pre-Columbian population of Trinidad has been estimated at nearly 30,000 to 40,000. Almost a century passed after Columbus's landing on Trinidad before the Castilian Crown attempted, in 1592, to establish a permanent European settlement. By then, intermittent contact had probably reduced the indigenous population by one-half. For the next two centuries, the island remained an insignificant and sparsely colonized outpost of Castile's empire in the Americas. In 1725 Trinidad's settler population included only 162 adult males. In the last three decades of the eighteenth century, during a period of alliance between Paris and Madrid, the Castilian government sought to fortify and increase profits from its colonies. Catholic planters from elsewhere in the Caribbean—largely from French colonies rocked by the Haitian Revolution, other slave uprisings, and the French Revolution—were encouraged to settle with their slaves in Trinidad. By 1797, the population of the island had reached nearly 18,000 persons, of whom 10,000 were slaves and just over 1,000 were Amerindians. It was during this period of French settlement, specifically in 1787, that the first sugar mill was built on Trinidad. Ten years later, however, approximately 130 mills were in operation. British forces took control of the island in 1797, and Trinidad, along with nearby Tobago, was formally ceded to Britain in 1802. Tobago had been largely ignored by Europeans until the early seventeenth century; thereafter, it was regarded as a strategic military site and shifted hands some twenty-two times between 1626 and 1802.
The British slave trade was abolished in 1807, and Emancipation was initiated in 1834, with a planned six-year period of "apprenticeship." At the time of Emancipation, the colonial state recorded a population of some 20,000 slaves; 3,200 Whites; 16,300 Coloreds; and only 750 Amerindians. Apprenticeship ended in 1836, some two years before the date scheduled by the British state, owing to resistance by the enslaved population. During the 1840s, the colonial state acted both to anglicize Trinidad (establishing the Church of England, for instance) and to ensure a continued supply of abundant, exploitable labor for plantation agriculture. Beginning in 1845, indentured laborers were brought to Trinidad from India, and, when such immigration ended in 1917, just under 144,000 indentured laborers had entered the colony. Beginning in 1868, these primarily Hindu and Islamic settlers—together termed East Indians—were missionized by Canadian Presbyterians.
In 1889 Tobago and Trinidad were for the first time joined as a unit of colonial administration. Commercial production of oil began in Trinidad in 1902, and by 1911 Trinidad's first refinery was in operation. Following labor protests in 1925, Trinidad's Legislative Council was reformed to include a small number of elected members, although suffrage was limited to approximately 6 percent of the population. Beginning in 1935, laborers struck the sugar plantations, and in 1937, the oil fields. The primary leaders of this working-class uprising were Adrien Rienzi and Tubal Uriah Butler. By the time of these strikes, petroleum had become the colony's most valuable export: in 1932 oil accounted for 50 percent of Trinidad's export earnings, and by 1943, 80 percent. Trinidad's petroleum was, moreover, a significant fraction of the British Empire's total production as Britain fought World War II: 44 percent in 1938, rising to 65 percent by 1946. The petroleum industry was not, however, significant in terms of direct employment—only 8,000 persons were so engaged in 1939, whereas some 40,000 were involved in farming and refining sugarcane in 1930, even though Trinidad's sugar industry was increasingly unprofitable. In 1941 Britain ceded land for two military bases to the United States. Over the next four years, Trinidad's economy was driven by the construction of the U.S. bases. Following a wartime ban on Carnival, victory in Europe was celebrated in Port-of-Spain by a V-E Carnival, at which bands of tuned petroleum drums—steelbands—were first seen in public performance.
In 1946 universal adult suffrage was introduced, and in 1956 the People's National Movement (PNM) led by Eric Williams, formed Trinidad's first home-rule government. In 1957, in the midst of negotiations to establish the Federation of the West Indies, Williams and Norman Manley of Jamaica each announced that they would not stand for election to the federal parliament, thereby foreshadowing their states' withdrawals from the federation. A year later, a structurally weak federation was established, comprised of all the British West Indian colonies except Guyana and Belize. In 1960, after leading nationalist demonstrations against the U.S. military bases, Williams negotiated leases for the bases. Within a decade, however, the United States concluded that the bases were of little importance and returned them to Trinidad. Following Jamaica's withdrawal from the federation at the end of 1961, Williams and the British made plans for Trinidad and Tobago to be established as an independent state. In January 1962 the British Parliament passed the acts granting independence to both Jamaica and Trinidad, and, in the same month, it passed the new Commonwealth Immigration Bill, which restricted entry from independent former colonies. Trinidad and Tobago became independent on 31 August 1962. In 1970, following a period of rising unemployment, Black Power demonstrators focused attention on continued racial discrimination in employment and on Trinidad's economic dependence. As a result of price increases instituted by the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), state revenues increased by 1,100 percent between 1973 and 1978. In the 1980s, however, the decline in the world oil price produced a severe recession. There has yet to be a sustained economic recovery, primarily because the Trinidadian economy remains largely tied to world petroleum prices. After thirty years of continuous rule by the PNM (1956-1986), Trinidad has had two changes of government during this recession: the 1986 elections were won by the National Alliance for Reconstruction (NAR); in 1992, the electorate returned the PNM to power.
Counting persons by "ethnic origin," the 1990 census reported that 43 percent of the population was African, 40 percent East Indian, 14 percent mixed, 1 percent White, 1 percent Chinese, and 1 percent other. In Trinidad, however, race and color identities are, to a great extent, shifters, which vary with observer and context. Thus, counts of ethnic groups give them a false concreteness: distinctions between "mixed" persons and others are particularly ambiguous and contested. Historically, African, East Indian, and European cultures interacted and were re-shaped in colonial society. Today these labels of ethnic origin are used for lifeways, worldviews, and values that are decidedly West Indian. Trinidadian culture has also been shaped by the society's historic porosity vis-à-vis the North Atlantic metropolises.