Caribbean Islands Table of Contents

In the 1980s, Trinidad and Tobago was ethnically diverse and was experiencing a renewed period of relatively rapid population growth. According to the 1980 national census, Trinidad and Tobago's population was 1,079,791; of that total, 96 percent lived on the island of Trinidad, predominantly on the west coast. Interim estimates by the national government in 1985 and 1986 placed the population at 1,176,000 and 1,199,000, respectively. Average annual population growth in the 1980s, adjusted for migration, was 1.5 percent; it was 1.6 percent in 1985 and 2 percent in 1986. Population density in 1986 was estimated at 234 people per square kilometer.

Trinidad and Tobago's population in the 1980s illustrated the society's diverse cultural influences acquired during the colonial period and included descendants of emigrants from Europe, Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. Population growth in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was the result of colonial powers importing unskilled labor to work the plantations. This was initially accomplished with African slaves, who were later replaced by indentured servants from India (and to a lesser extent China) following emancipation.

Trinidad and Tobago was also a leading destination of intraregional migration. From 1870 until 1910, an estimated 65,000 workers migrated to Trinidad and Tobago from British possessions in the Windward Islands and in other regions, contributing to approximately one-third of total population growth. Immigration to Trinidad and Tobago decreased in the twentieth century because of the discontinuation of indentured servitude and the expansion of other regional economies; as a result, population growth slowed during the first third of the century.

After 1930 mortality rates were drastically reduced by improved health and sanitation facilities. This caused the annual population growth rate to surge to an average of nearly 3 percent until 1960, a level that was for the first time considered detrimental to social development. The first privately run health clinic was established in the late 1950s, and initial efforts to enact a comprehensive family planning program were enormously successful at reducing population growth. By 1967 a nationally funded family planning program had been organized under the Ministry of Health, and the National Population Council coordinated both private and public clinics. By the late 1970s, about 95 percent of the female population was aware of contraceptive alternatives, and average annual population growth was reduced to slightly above 1 percent. As contraception became commonly accepted, family size shrank from an average of six children in the 1950s to fewer than three in the early 1980s.

The dominant ethnic groups in the 1980s were those of African (referred to as blacks) and Indian (known as East Indians) descent; the 1980 census revealed that nearly 80 percent of the population was almost evenly split between the two groups. Only 1 percent of the population was classified as white, and the pure Chinese element represented no more than 0.5 percent of the population; the remainder comprised mixed racial and ethnic elements, including small numbers of Portuguese, Syrians, and Lebanese.

Blacks by and large have adopted the European way of life. Although East Indians considered themselves culturally superior, blacks maintained a slightly privileged position in society because of their earlier arrival. Status within this group was determined by the shade of one's skin. The lightest-toned blacks traditionally were associated with the elite members of the social hierarchy.

Although East Indians represented the largest nonblack element in contemporary society, they were still accorded an inferior status and maintained their own social and religious customs. In the 1980s, East Indians made some strides at becoming more influential members of society, including accession to ministerial positions in government. Nevertheless, complete interaction with blacks still had not occurred.

Ethnic and cultural characteristics remained complicated components of society in the 1980s. Although a stratified social structure was passed on from the British, the society was not defined strictly along class lines. Numerous studies have demonstrated that Trinidadians have consistently differentiated themselves and their place in society based on their ethnic affiliation. To the extent that well-defined economic class distinctions may be made, there was a distinct lack of cohesion within each class. Although the major ethnic groups were represented in all classes of society, an informal ranking was also common within each class. Generally, blacks attained a preferred position at all levels within the stratified class framework, which led to a disunity in class structure. For example, it was observed that the protests of 1970, which were designed to force change throughout society, were unable to unify black and East Indian elements. In fact, the failure of the Black Power movement, as it became known, to effect more sweeping reforms was attributed in part to an inability to mobilize other segments of the population (see Political Dynamics, this ch.). Although there has been little overt racial disharmony, social stratification remained as much a cultural phenomenon as a socioeconomic one.

Religious distinctions in society paralleled the diverse cultural influences. According to the 1980 census, 33 percent of the population considered themselves Roman Catholics, including a large portion of the black population. Early Spanish and French influences were the principal reasons for the preponderance of Catholic worship. The East Indian population contained both Hindus and Muslims, who represented 25 percent and 6 percent of the total population, respectively. The British influence was also noticeably present, with 15 percent of the population claiming membership in the Anglican Church. Other religious affiliations included the Baptist, Methodist, and Pentecostal churches and also non-Christian sects, such as Rada and Shango.

By the mid-1980s, the national government had identified three disturbing demographic trends: excessive population growth, regional migration imbalances, and a gradual shift in the population toward urban centers. High fertility rates, which were curtailed in the 1970s, appeared to be a problem again in the mid1980s . The increased number of births indicated that an annual population growth rate of between 1.5 and 2 percent was again a long-term possibility. Some researchers have theorized that fears that one of the two principal ethnic groups would attain numerical superiority over the other prodded both to procreate at higher levels. The detrimental effects of high birth rates motivated the government to redouble its birth control efforts through existing programs, primarily by increasing public awareness of the burden of excessively large families on both individuals and society.

Government concerns were also directed at mitigating the effects of regional migration imbalances. Immigration of unskilled workers had been a problem for decades. The 1980 census estimated that 17,000 foreign persons had entered Trinidad and Tobago since 1970, mostly from neighboring Caribbean countries. Furthermore, the United Nations suggested that this number might be as much as 50 percent short of the real total because of misleading reporting. Emigration of skilled workers has also been a problem. Although the government actively supported emigration of unskilled workers, it had not developed a policy to entice educated and trained personnel to remain on the island. The so-called "brain drain" was addressed through pleas to nationalism, particularly to those who completed training and education with government subsidies. This migration imbalance was considered a significant factor contributing to welfare and unemployment problems.

By the mid-1980s, Trinidad and Tobago had become an urbanized society with approximately one-half of the population living in or near cities; this number was expected to grow to 65 percent by the year 2000. Urban areas had expanded beyond the ability of local governments to provide essential services to all: in addition, overcrowding was already taxing the limits of existing physical infrastructure. The development of new, smaller urban groups centered on untapped oil fields was a popular policy alternative. The construction of so-called "petro-poles" was seen as a means of alleviating urban stress as well as a necessary condition for further development of the economy.

For more recent population estimates, see Facts about Trinidad.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress