Bathed in the warm waters of the southern Caribbean, the paired island country of Trinidad and Tobago is the newest exciting addition to the BCA family of Study Centers. Trinidad and Tobago has a rich cultural heritage, mixing a variety of different cultural and ethnic heritages into a thriving, vibrant, and active society and making it a natural choice for our next program location.
At BCA Study Abroad, we constantly strive to provide students with interesting, challenging environments in which to explore central themes of the modern world, most importantly themes involved with values of peace and social justice. Trinidad and Tobago offers a unique setting for exploring many of those issues. With its important African and South Asian roots, the country and the University of the West Indies are an excellent location for delving into themes of African Studies, South Asian Studies, the African and Asian Diasporas, and even Caribbean Studies. Culturally the Afro-trini and Indo-trini populations have strived to maintain their own identities on the island, but there is great respect and cooperation between these groups. Therefore, Trinidad and Tobago is an excellent case study for learning about creating and maintaining peaceful and prosperous multi-ethnic societies.
The Caribbean is perhaps the first of the great cultural crossroads of the Americas, where groups from different parts of the world came together to create new societies. Trinidad is an excellent example of this phenomenon, and is remarkable for its high degree of inter-ethnic peace and cooperation.
Originally settled by hunter and gatherer, and agricultural societies coming up from South America, the islands were only slowly populated by Spanish settlers after the arrival of Europeans to the area around 1500 A.D. Indigenous societies survived intact much longer here than they did on most of the other Caribbean islands, and the islands remained a backwater in Spanish colonial America for centuries. Only toward the end of the 1700’s did the islands’ economy and population begin to grow, as French plantation owners came to the islands with their enslaved African workers to plant sugar cane on the rich tropical soils.
This rapid increase in wealth attracted the attention of the British, who took the island of Trinidad militarily in 1797, thus beginning almost two centuries of British rule. Plantation owners continued planting and harvesting sugar cane, coffee, and cacao, based on the labor of the large enslaved African population. With the end of slavery in all British possessions in the 1830’s, the freed Afro-trinidadians spread across the island, taking advantage of widely available land to establish their own small farms. In the face of a labor shortage for their plantations, wealthy landowners looked abroad to find a new labor pool, finally setting their eyes on the Asian subcontinent. The first of what would be many boatloads of indentured Indian laborers arrived on May 30th, 1845. The day is now celebrated as a national holiday every year, as Indian Arrival Day!
The result of all of this is that Trinidad and Tobago is perhaps the most culturally diverse and dynamic nation of the Caribbean region, or indeed of the Americas! Today approximately 40% of the population is of African heritage, and another 40% of South Asian heritage. The other 20% is made up of people with roots in Europe, East Asia, the Levant area of the Middle East, as well as people from other areas of the Caribbean and Latin America. It is also a quite religious society, with Christian, Hindu, and Muslim religions all well represented.
Equally fascinating is the high degree of inter-ethnic peace and cooperation on the islands. There has been very little inter-ethnic conflict, and the national project is one of inclusiveness and mutual respect. For example, national holidays celebrate each major group, and the whole nation joins in on the celebrations!
Talking about celebrations, Trinidad and Tobago is home to one of the most famous Carnival celebrations in the world! Every spring during the week before Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent, the island, and especially the capital city of Port of Spain, erupts into calypso and steel drum music (both of which originated on the island), parades, song, and dance. The celebration is so important that the University of the West Indies has its own academic program of Carnival Studies!
The University of the West Indies (UWI)
The University of the West Indies is THE premier university in the English-speaking Caribbean. The St. Augustine campus in Trinidad is the largest campus of the system, with a wide variety of areas of study to choose from. This is an excellent location for focusing on African and African Diaspora Studies, as well as Asian Studies (focused primarily on South Asia) and Caribbean Studies. We have already mentioned their program in Carnival and Festival Studies, and there are programs in many other disciplines such as History, Literature, Sociology, Anthropology, etc. In addition, the UWI excels in the STEM fields as well: Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math! The campus is large and busy, with many green areas and commons areas for students to congregate and interact. The university also has many clubs as well as social and academic activities. Student dorms are just off the main campus area, and will be another great area for integration into the local community.
A Caribbean Setting
Trinidad and Tobago’s position at the southern edge of the Lesser Antilles, close to the South American coastline, means that the islands are outside of the hurricane belt. The climate is hot and humid, though there are marked dry and rainy seasons. Most of Trinidad consists of wide flat plains, though there are several low mountain chains, the most important of which runs east-west along the island’s northern coast.
Despite its natural charms, Trinidad is not a normal tourist destination, so BCA students won’t be lost in a crowd of foreigners. Though the north coast has some lovely beaches snuggled against a tropical rainforest backdrop, they are charmingly under-developed. There are also hiking trails through the mountains to scenic overlooks and beautiful hidden waterfalls. The country’s capital, Port of Spain, is less than a half-hour ride from the university campus and is a bustling, active city with everything from stores selling products from Africa, to Indian-style Roti restaurants and Chinese supermarkets.
All in all, BCA’s new program with the University of the West Indies in St. Augustine, Trinidad and Tobago, offers many great opportunities for the experience of a lifetime. We’ll see you in the Caribbean!