Claimed by Columbus for Spain, Trinidad was a forgotten Spanish colony for three hundred years. Native Amerindians died upon contact with European diseases, were forcibly exported to the mainland to work in mines, and those who survived were subject to Spanish missions and labor schemes. The African slave population was small during Spanish rule. The Spanish Cedula de Población of 1783 was designed to convert Trinidad into a plantation colony. It attracted white and colored French planters who brought their African and African-descended slaves to cultivate sugar and cocoa. While controlled by Spain, Trinidad became French in orientation and dominant language use.
Captured by the British in 1797, the island was formally ceded to Britain in 1802. British administrators, British planters, and their slaves added to the island's ethnic, national, and linguistic diversity. Enslaved Africans arrived from varied ethnic, cultural, linguistic, and religious groups from along the West African coast, while Creole slaves spoke a French or English creole, depending on their islands of origin. Spanish-speaking laborers from Venezuela arrived in the nineteenth century to clear forests and work in cocoa cultivation. Even before the abolition of slavery in 1834 and the end of the apprenticeship system for ex-slaves in 1838, free Africans arrived.
Blacks from the United States also settled in Trinidad. From 1845 to 1917, about 144,000 indentured Indians were brought to the island. The majority were from the north of India and were drawn from a multiplicity of castes. The vast majority were Hindus, but there was a significant Muslim minority. Planters were encouraging Portuguese speakers from Madeira and Chinese from the Cantonese ports of Whampoa and Namoa to come as indentured laborers.
Tobago developed separately, with the Spanish, French, Dutch, English, and Courlanders all laying claim to the island at different times. Plantation agriculture based on enslaved labor existed alongside a significant peasant sector. The British colonies of Trinidad and Tobago were united administratively in 1889.
Under British colonialism there was a clear ethnic division of labor, with Whites as plantation owners, Chinese and Portuguese in trading occupations, Blacks and Coloreds moving into the professions and skilled manual occupations, and East Indians almost completely in agricultural pursuits. Blacks and East Indians were separated geographically, as many Blacks were urban-based and East Indians were more numerous in the agricultural central and south parts of the island. There was little if any intermarriage and little intermating between the two groups. These divisions dictated the course of national identity and nationalist politics.