Trinidad, once called ‘Kairi’ (or possibly ‘Iere’) was aboriginally inhabited by many groups of Amerindian peoples who populated the Caribbean and South American region. Among these peoples were the ‘Lokono’ (also sometimes called ‘Taíno’); the ‘Nepoyo’ (or ‘Nepoio’); the ‘Yao’; the ‘Shebao’; and the ‘Carinepagoto’ among others. There was maybe also ‘Kalifuna’ (possibly related to the ‘Garifuna‘ of Saint Vincent and the ‘Kalina’ of South America). In South Trinidad, there was also a people known as the ‘Warao’, who also inhabited parts of Venezuela. The population of Kairi at the time was believed to be at least 40,000.
In 1498, over five-hundred years before this writing, the island was spotted by Italian coloniser, Christopher Columbus, sailing his third voyage to the West on behalf of Spain (it is uncertain if Columbus himself actually set foot upon Kairi). Following his reconnaissance, between 1510-1595 the islands were conquered by Spanish invaders.
Despite what is often presently taught in Trinbagonian social studies lessons, there appears to be no peoples before European intervention who had titled themselves ‘Caribs’ nor ‘Arawaks’.
In East Trinidad, near the place presently called ‘Aruca’, there seemed to have lived some subset of Lokono who chose to trade food and slaves with the Spaniards in return for metal tools—as supported by 16th century historians who referred to the ‘Aruacs’ or ‘Aruacas’. They became known as being, “friends of the Christians.”
The term ‘Carib’ meanwhile, seems to have first begun as a rumour Columbus heard from a European-friendly subset of Lokono (or Taíno). “All the people I have met here,” he wrote, “have said that they are greatly afraid of the ‘Caniba’ or ‘Canima’.” Spanish historian, Ovideo y Valdez, seems to suggest the that word may actually have been an adjective meaning something like ‘brave’ rather than a proper noun. However, in order to win popular support for the colonisation effort, stories of ‘Cannib’ Indians may have been propagandised by the highly-religious and superstitious Spaniards, speaking of a warlike and man-eating people. They may have coined the term ‘cannibal’ to describe the practice.
This successfully caused these so-called ‘Cannib’ Indians to be thought of as a people themselves, viewed as inhuman or subhuman, and therefore worthy of genocide. Queen Isabella of Spain had, in 1503, prohibited any person to, “arrest or capture any Indians, or to do them any harm or evil to their persons or possessions.” But, seemingly deliberately misled by Juan de la Cosa in order to justify his 1504 plunder, she made an exception to, “a people called Cannibales, [who] waged war on the Indians who are my vassals, capturing them to eat them as is their custom.”
With this policy in place, it would have become advantageous for an ambitious Spanish coloniser to identify as many groups as possible as being ‘Carib’, thereby allowing them to be captured or slain legally. The legacy of this may be the cause of so much confusion today over the names of the groups.
Many of the captured Amerindians from Kairi were enslaved on the island of Margarita.
Between the years of 1687-1699, Spanish missionaries worked to convert the remaining Amerindian peoples on Kairi—now called ‘Trinidad’—to Catholicism. This activity was resented by the remaining Amerindian peoples, as described by Antonio de Herreira in 1547, “Many carib Indians were coming from the islands of Trinidad, Guadeloupe, Dominica, Santa Cruz, Matino, and other islands, causing great damage.” Among these was a Nepoyo man named ‘Hyarima’ (or ‘Hierreima’) who escaped Spanish slavery. During his self-liberation, he slew two Spaniards and devoted his Life to killing the rest.
In 1636, Hyarima arrived at Tobago with the intention of driving all Europeans and their allies off the island.
Later, on the 1st of December 1699, at the San Francisco de los Arenales Catholic mission of East Trinidad (site of present-day San Rafael), he might have lead the Arena Uprising, which resulted in the deaths of the Spanish governor, José de León y Echales; several hundred Amerindians; Roman Catholic priests; and all-but-one of the governor’s party.
In spite of many later skirmishes, however, history would see eventually see the Spaniards come out on top, likely aided by superior technology and methods of fighting unfamiliar to Amerindian culture.
A 1777 census showed 2,763 persons living on the island, including approximately 2,000 Lokono. A couple decades after, in 1783, the ‘Cedula of Population’ was begun, which would eventually cause that lingering Amerindian population to be overwhelmingly overrun by immigrants from other European countries; plantation owners from France (around the time of the French Revolution in 1789); slaves from West Africa (over the following decades); and eventually indentured workers from India (after the emancipation of African slavery in 1833).
After the 1814 Treaty of Paris, Trinidad came under British rule and was legally merged with its companion island of Tobago.
In 1844, a government administration building was constructed opposite the western edge of Brunswick Square (later called ‘Woodford Square‘). After being painted a red colour in 1897, the building began being called ‘The Red House’. (In 1903 the building was destroyed during the Water Riots and was rebuilt by 1907).
Trinidad and Tobago became independent and self-governing in 1962, then a republic in 1976.
In 2011, restorative works to the Red House were begun, and were scheduled for completion in 2014—three years prior to this writing. While digging three-metre deep preparatory pits on 1st April, 2013, the Urban Development Corporation of Trinidad and Tobago (UDeCOTT) uncovered what appeared to be bone fragments.
The late archaeologist, Peter O’Brien Harris, along with Neil Jaggessar, the Red House project liaison officer, visited the site on the following day to investigate. On the 5th April, 2013, UDeCOTT’s Roxanne Stapleton-Whyms said, “The Office of the Parliament advised the bone and artifacts date back to the Amerindian era.”
Work on the Red House restoration seemed to have halted then, eventually continuing in 2017.
As of October 2017, the possibly-Amerindian bones remain locked in glass cases at the TT Parliament’s current, temporary location on the Hyatt waterfront. This is seen as a concern by many modern-day, surviving ‘First Peoples’, who believe that the displacement of the bones may be discomforting the Ancestors, and therefore perhaps drawing their anger. The Santa Rosa First Peoples Community would like to see the remains turned over to themselves so they could be appropriately honoured and re-buried.
During the First Peoples Heritage Week of activities in October 2017, First Peoples from Santa Rosa, Trinidad; South Trinidad; Belize; Canada; Ecuador; Guyana; Suriname; Saint Vincent; Venezuela; and others (however Dominica was absent, as their island was severely damaged by Hurricane Maria a few weeks prior), visited the Red House to conduct a smoke ritual for the Ancestors.
Escourted by police, the group became a procession which walked to Independence Square, South Port of Spain, where speeches and displays took place.
A small sub-group of First Peoples present at the event in Port of Spain, possibly Warao, drew up placards calling for the removal of the statue of Christopher Columbus from the Independence Square. It is believed that Columbus, who himself was murderous and genocidal, ought to not be celebrated. Suggestions were made that the statue be moved to a museum, so as preserve the history while removing his recognition.
“They brought us parrots and balls of cotton and spears and many other things. They willingly traded everything they owned. They were well-built, with good bodies and handsome features. They do not bear arms, and do not know them, for I showed them a sword, they took it by the edge and cut themselves out of ignorance. They have no iron. Their spears are made of cane. They would make fine servants. With fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want.”—Christopher Columbus, 1493