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Island at the heart of the debate on future of the Empire.

TRINIDAD is the most southerly of the Caribbean islands, lying just off the coast of Venezuela.

The island was claimed for Spain by Columbus in 1498 and it remained part of the Spanish empire until it was seized by the British in 1797.

Trinidad had remained an out-of-the-way, neglected place in the three centuries of Spanish rule, but once it fell under British control change came rapidly.

This was an age of upheaval in the West Indies, where a huge slave insurrection had brought down the French colonial regime in Saint-Domingue - modernday Haiti.

The implosion of Saint-Domingue, which had supplied nearly half the world's sugar before the slave rising in 1791, sent sugar prices soaring and planters off in search of available land.

Trinidad, where there was plenty of undisturbed soil, suddenly became the new frontier of the Caribbean sugar sector.

Investment surged into Trinidad and so, inevitably it seemed, did slaves.

Slaves had been present in the Spanish era, but they had seeped in, fewer than 100 annually.

In the first 10 years of British occupation nearly 23,000 were landed.

This was enough to make the future of Trinidad a political issue in Britain. Was the island to be transformed into a grid of slave-worked sugar plantations? The adventurers and eager investors who gravitated to the island in the wake of the British invasion hoped so.

Abolitionists in Britain were determined to prevent it. To open up Trinidad's uncultivated interior would mean a vast extension of the slave trade.

One abolitionist MP estimated the number of fresh Africans needed to bring Trinidad to the same level of development as Jamaica at one million.

The abolitionists proposed an alternative. Trinidad should be a laboratory in which forms of tropical agriculture that did not depend upon slave labour should be pioneered: "Let a portion of that rich and unopened soil, be sold at a low price, or granted freely, to all who will undertake, as the condition of the tenure... to settle and cultivate it by the labour of FREE NEGROES."

Trinidad under Picton's rule was no longer an out-of-the-way place. It was at the centre of debates over the future of the British empire.
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Publication:Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales)
Geographic Code:5TRIN
Date:Mar 31, 2011
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