Arawak Indians inhabited what they knew as "Land of the Hummingbird" before the arrival on 31 July 1498 of Christopher Columbus, who called the island La Trinidad, or "The Trinity." The Spanish took little interest in the island and did not appoint a governor until 1532. Thereafter, Spanish colonists gradually came, but skirmishes with local Amerindians and raids by other Europeans, including Sir Walter Raleigh, made it difficult for the Spanish to obtain a foothold there. During the early European period, the island acted as a supply and transshipment center for Spanish traders and fortune seekers in South America. In time, colonists established plantations and imported slave labor from West Africa. The Europeans eventually wiped out the native Indians.
In 1797, a British expedition from Martinique captured Trinidad, which Spain ceded formally to Great Britain in 1802 by the Treaty of Amiens, and Trinidad became a crown colony. During the late Spanish period and through most of the 19th century, sugar dominated as the island's main agricultural product. The emancipation of slaves in 1834 brought severe labor shortages, and between 1845 and 1917, the colonial government brought in more than 150,000 contract workers, mostly Hindus and some Muslims from India, to the island as 'cheap labor' to replace the slaves. With added labor supplies and new techniques, the cocoa industry thrived, and by the late 19th century cocoa had joined sugar as a major export crop. The discovery of petroleum on south Trinidad in 1910 led to its addition as an important export, and since then it has assumed increasing economic importance.
Columbus also discovered Tobago in 1498 and it too received little attention from Europeans for many years. British from Barbados first colonized the island in 1616, but the local Carib Indians soon drove this group out. Other colonists followed shortly, however, and during the next 200 years the island changed hands many times among the Dutch, French, and British. Finally, in 1814, the British crown gained possession, which it maintained for a century and a half. The British first ruled Tobago as a separate colony, but during much of the 19th century administered the island from the Windward Islands government. It became a crown colony in 1877 and in 1888 amalgamated with Trinidad under the colony name of Trinidad and Tobago. In 1958, Jamaica, Barbados, and the British Windward and Leeward Islands formed the Federation of the West Indies. Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago withdrew in 1961, and the federation collapsed.
On 31 August 1962, Trinidad and Tobago became independent. The country retained membership in the Commonwealth as a British dominion. Eric Williams, the founder of the People's National Movement (PNM), became prime minister in 1961 and held the office till his death in 1981.
In 1976, Trinidad and Tobago declared itself a republic, and a president replaced the British monarch as chief of state. In 1980, Tobago attained a degree of self-government when it was granted its own House of Assembly. Williams's successor as majority party leader and prime minister was George Chambers, former deputy leader of the PNM. Following the victory of the National Alliance for Reconstruction (NAR) in the December 1986 elections, A.N.R. Robinson, leader of the NAR, became prime minister.
In July 1991, the government ratified a treaty with Venezuela on maritime boundaries that extended Trinidad and Tobago's nautical boundaries by 150 nautical miles. Also in 1991, the PNM returned to power under Prime Minister Patrick Augustus Mervyn Manning. However, at the end of 1995, a prime minister of Indian descent came to power for the first time when members of the Parliament elected Basdeo Panday. Panday's party, the UNC, formed a coalition with the PAR to overtake the PNM. There has been a long history of racial friction and discord. In July 1990, the Jamaat al-Muslimeen, a black fundamentalist group, made a failed coup attempt in July 1990 that killed 23 people and injured 250 more during a week-long siege of parliament. Beginning in 1992, the government has laid the foundations for a market-based economy, as opposed to a state-controlled economy. In 1993, the government began floating the Trinidad and Tobago dollar. The government has courted foreign investors, dismantled trade barriers, and started privatizing a large number of state-owned companies.
In an attempt to reduce tensions, Prime Minister Panday nominated multi-ethnic cabinets during his term. More symbolically, recent carnivals have seen the growth of Indian-influenced music such as 'chutney.' The 1995 election also saw an increase in the number of women elected to Parliament and the nomination of three women to Panday's first cabinet. In the most recent parliamentary election in 2002, the PNM won an overwhelming majority of seats and Patrick Manning returned as Prime Minister.