Columbus landed in Trinidad in 1498, and the island was settled by the Spanish a century later. The original inhabitants-Arawak and Carib Indians-were largely wiped out by the Spanish colonizers, and the survivors were gradually assimilated. Although it attracted French, free Black, and other non-Spanish settlers, Trinidad remained under Spanish rule until the British captured it in 1797. During the colonial period, Trinidad's economy relied on large sugar and cocoa plantations.
Tobago's development was similar to other plantation islands in the Lesser Antilles and quite different from Trinidad's. During the colonial period, French, Dutch, and British forces fought over possession of Tobago, and the island changed hands 22 times, more often than any other West Indian island. Tobago was finally ceded to Great Britain in 1814. Trinidad and Tobago were incorporated into a single colony in 1888.
In 1958, the United Kingdom tried to establish an independent Federation of the West Indies comprising most of the former British West Indies. However, disagreement over the structure of the federation and Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago's withdrawal soon led to its collapse. Trinidad and Tobago achieved full independence in 1962 and joined the British Commonwealth.
Trinidad and Tobago's people are mainly of African or East Indian descent. Virtually all speak English. Small percentages also speak Hindi, French patois, and several other dialects. Trinidad has two major folk traditions: Creole and East Indian. Creole is a mixture of African elements with Spanish, French, and English colonial culture. Trinidad's East Indian culture came to the island with indentured servants brought to fill a labor shortage created by the emancipation of the African slaves in 1833. Most remained on the land, and they still dominate the agricultural sector, but many have become prominent in business and the professions. East Indians have retained much of their own way of life, including Hindu and Muslim religious festivals and practices.