• 09 MAR 2018

The History, Evolution and Current Status of Internal self-Government for Tobago

Statement by Prime Minister Dr the Honourable Keith Rowley at the 21st Sitting of the House of Representatives today (Friday 09 March, 2018).

The History, Evolution and Current Status of Internal self-Government for Tobago



The period up to the end of the 18th century was one of uncertainty in the history of Tobago. The island changed hands frequently between various European claimants.  After 1763 the main combatants were the British and French, but Tobago remained a British possession after 1803.

When Tobago became a British possession in 1763, it was administered under a British colonial constitution by the Government of Grenada which, in addition to Tobago, included the Grenadines, Dominica and St. Vincent.  Each island had an Assembly which was authorised to make laws for the good government of the people, together with the Governor and the Crown’s Privy Council.

Trinidad, by contrast, was still a Spanish colony in 1768; twenty-nine (29) more years would pass before it became British, and sixty-four (64) years before it was granted an unelected Council of Government (later called a Legislative Council) in 1832. Tobago’s position in the nineteenth (19th) century has been described as “superior” to that of Trinidad, because as one of the older British colonies, it enjoyed representative institutions.  Tobago had its own bicameral legislature with its own Governor and Commander-in-Chief; the island was self-governing, as opposed to being a Crown Colony.

As the nineteenth (19th) century closed, Tobago was still producing muscovado sugar, which was almost worthless for export by the later 1880’s.  Land values crashed, estates could be bought for a song. By 1894, sugar exports were a pathetic 599 tons, and the value of Tobago’s exports of sugar, rum and molasses was only £15.872.  Revenues fell steeply; public works employees went unpaid for months, the public services, such as they were, cut back.  Tobago’s export sugar industry, lacking capital and immigrant labour, faced with drastically falling prices for crude sugar was going under; the island was virtually bankrupt.


Post Colonisation

Political arrangements in Tobago changed with regularity and even suffered reversals, but by the late eighteenth (18th) century the island had been granted a separate government.  In 1874, Tobago’s bicameral system was abolished and replaced by a single chamber legislature.  The new Legislative Council comprised 14 members: 6 nominated by the Governor and 8 elected by voters.

According to Williams, once the planters felt that their privileges were threatened by an increased number of “Negro and coloured voters”, they “wanted no self-government at all and voted themselves for Crown Colony government.

In June 1876, Tobago became a Crown Colony, and like Trinidad, would have a solely nominated Legislative Council. Thus, Tobago remained a separate colony with its own Legislative Council and responsibility for its bureaucracy.

In 1886, the Secretary of State announced plans to unite the two islands of Trinidad and Tobago. Despite protestations over the proposed union, an 1888 Order-in-Council established the joint colony of Trinidad and Tobago and effective January 1, 1889, Tobago was united to Trinidad with one Governor, judiciary and code of laws.  Tobago retained its own financial board and separate Treasury, administered by a resident commissioner who was ex-officio a member of the Trinidad Legislative Council.

The Royal Commission of 1897 visited Tobago; its report included the following recommendation:

The complete amalgamation of Tobago and Trinidad, and the abolition of the separate account of revenue and expenditure.  Tobago would then become a Ward, or district of Trinidad, and the two islands would have a common exchequer.

But for the efforts of James Biggart, Tobago’s first elected member in the Trinidad and Tobago Legislative Council (1925-1932), and subsequently of legislator A.P.T. James (1946-1961), the development of Tobago in the first half of the twentieth (20th) century was almost completely neglected by the Port of Spain authorities. Although the voters of Tobago rejected the Peoples National Movement in the 1956 election, the party formed the Government and paid particular attention to Tobago.  Of the Chief Minister, Dr. Eric Williams, it is said that he:

Took personal responsibility for Tobago affairs, noting in 1957 that ‘Tobago had exchanged the neglect of U.K. Imperialism for the neglect of Trinidad Imperialism”.  In his view, “Tobago is a test case… its development is necessary to illustrate to the West Indies and the world outside our capacity for self-government and taking care of our own affairs.

There was an acceptance that Tobago is a distinct community with a history and life of its own and must not be regarded as a mere appendage of Trinidad.

The Evolution Post Independence

In 1977, Mr. Arthur Napoleon Raymond Robinson, then political leader of the Democratic Action Congress and Member of Parliament for Tobago East, presented a motion in Parliament which called for internal self-government for Tobago.  This motion was endorsed by the other Tobago Member of Parliament, Dr. Winston Murray, who emphasized that the motion called, not for secession, but for internal self-government. Mr. Robinson’s motion was eventually adopted, albeit with amendments.

In 1979 came the publication of a draft Bill prepared by the late Lionel Seemungal entitled “An Act to make provision for, and in connection with, the Internal Self-Government of Tobago, and all matters incidental thereto.”  The Bill inter alia proposed the establishment of a Tobago Island Council, which would have the power to formulate and implement policy in Tobago on economic planning, programming and development of Tobago resources; the provision of adequate infrastructure; and “finance in general, and in particular the raising and receipts of monies…”  The Tobago Island Council would therefore have the power to make laws and collect taxes within Tobago, and to borrow within Trinidad and Tobago.

The Cabinet rejected all of the proposals contained in the Seemungal Bill.  It did agree that borrowing could be done, but only with the prior approval of the Minister of Finance.  The reason given for the rejection of the proposals was that they derogated from the concept of a unitary state.

Following its veto of the Seemungal Bill, the Government opted instead to pass the Tobago House of Assembly Act, 1980 (“the 1980”).  This Act made provision for the Tobago House of Assembly (“the THA”) to formulate and implement policy on all matters referred to it by the Minister and to be responsible for implementing in Tobago Government policy relating to certain matters of national importance, including: economic planning, programming and development of Tobago resources; the provision of adequate infrastructure; and finance, in particular the raising and collection of revenue.  These were the exact types of matters that the Seemungal Bill had proposed should fall within the power of the Tobago Island Council, not the central government.

The 1980 Act also enabled the THA to make by-laws for the proper management of facilities operated by it and provided for a Finance and General Purposes Committee and other Committees of the THA.  A Tobago House of Assembly Fund was also established.  Overall, the 1980 Act was at complete variance with the internal self-government anticipated by Mr. Robinson and Dr. Murray in the 1977 parliamentary motion.

In 1996, the THA and the Tobago House of Assembly Fund was enshrined in the Constitution.  Chapter 11A of the Constitution (sections 141A to 141D.) treats with the THA.

In addition to the constitutional amendment, the 1980 Act was repealed and replaced by the Tobago House of Assembly Act, 1996 (“the 1996 Act”) The constitutional arrangements and those of the 1996 Act, which are currently in formulation and implementation of policy in relation to matters assigned to the THA in the Fifth Schedule of the 1996 Act remain, however, subject to the general direction and control of Cabinet by virtue of section 75(1) of the Constitution.  The 33 matters listed under the Fifth Schedule of the 1996 Act include inter alia: infrastructure (including air and sea transportation, wharves and airports and public utilities): the environment; customs and excise; health services; education, including curriculum; and such other matters as the President may assign the THA.

The THA is empowered to propose and adopt Bills which would then be transmitted to Cabinet with a request for them to be enacted by Parliament.  The Bills must not be inconsistent with any written law of Trinidad and Tobago.  When enacted the Bills would be known as “Assembly Laws”.  However no such laws have ever been made.  The current arrangements therefore fall short of internal self-government for Tobago, even as envisaged more than 30 years ago in the Seemungal Bill.

In April 2005 the THA adopted a resolution call on the government “to pursue as a matter of urgency legislative and/or constitution reform to accord to the people of Tobago democratic internal self-government inter alia”.  The THA then appointed a Select Committee to study the matter.  The committee reported in November 2005 with several recommendations, among them that the people of Tobago should be consulted in a structured way and that a Standing Committee should be established “with the responsibility to continue the review of the THA Act.”

In August 2006, then Prime Minister Patrick Manning laid before Parliament the draft, prepared by the late Sir Ellis Clarke, of a new Constitution for Trinidad and Tobago.

The sub-committee held two meetings in Tobago in November 2006 and participants in those meetings voiced two main concerns. The first was that there had been no prior consultation with the public (a similar view was also expressed in Trinidad)  Secondly, that the draft Constitution was totally silent on the constitutional relationship between the two islands;  Also missing from the draft Constitution was any mention of internal self-government for Tobago.

With the inadequacies of the 1996 Act and the failure of the Clarke draft Constitution to effectively address Tobago matters, private citizens on the island and the THA, mobilised and sought to ascertain the view of Tobagonians on constitutional reform, governance and other issues.

There was no general call for the break-up of the union but rather for a different structure of government and governance.  It was pointed out that the present Constitution does not define Trinidad and Tobago as a unitary state, i.e. a state with a strong central government and a measure of devolution (which can be revoked at any time) to local government bodies and the THA.  Section 1(1) of the Constitution simply says: “The Republic of Trinidad and Tobago shall be a sovereign democratic State.”

In early 2010 the Tobago Forum group presented to the public its report entitled Proposals for Constitutional Reform from a Tobago Perspective.   It was stressed that the Report made no demand for secession or for a break-up of the union of Trinidad and Tobago.

The dominant themes of these recommendations are (i) to promote a more democratic union between the islands; (ii) to introduce legislative oversight over executive action and spending; and (iii) to confer greater responsibilities on local communities and stimulate their participation in decision-making.

In breaking down the data, the Forum found inter alia that 75% of respondents to it questionnaire preferred a federal system/internal self-government/equality of status.  Only 3% had no difficulty with the existing arrangement.  Seventy-five per cent of the respondents also thought that Tobago should have full legislative control over matters affecting Tobago.

In October 2007, the THA appointed a 7-member Committee chaired by Dr. John Prince, which had, among its terms of reference, a review of both the 1996 Act and the Constitution of the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago “with special reference to a Tobago position on Constitutional Reform”.

The Prince Committee published a Status Report on the Working Committee detailing its progress up to September 30, 2008.

Towards Internal Self-Government for Tobago – A Green Paper, 2012

In February 2012, the then Government published a Green Paper for public consultation on the issue of internal self-government for Tobago. This was in keeping with the undertaking in the People’s Partnership Manifesto to pursue “the principle of autonomy” for Tobago, and against that background to “amend all existing laws to be consistent with and give legal and administrative effect to the new constitutional arrangement between Tobago and Trinidad”.

There was attached to the Green Paper the Constitution (Amendment) Bill, 2011. The Bill sought to repeal and replace Chapter 11A of the Constitution to enhance the legislative and executive powers of the THA with a view to promoting internal self-government for Tobago. The Bill provided for the establishment of a Legislature of Tobago, comprising the President and the Tobago House of Assembly. The Bill also provided for legislative authority and responsibility for designated matters under two lists, viz: “the Concurrent List” and “the Tobago List”.

Public Consultation on the Green Paper

In February 2012, the then Cabinet, agreed that the Green Paper should be published for public consultation and a report be submitted 4 months after, for the consideration of Cabinet. In June 2012, a team was appointed to conduct the consultation.

The Team submitted its Report, entitled “Report of a Committee Appointed to Hold Public Consultations on a Green Paper on Internal Self-Government for Tobago” to the Attorney General on 18 September 2012. The contents of the Report of the Team were noted by Cabinet in January 2013.

The THA Commission, 2012

In response to the Green Paper, the THA appointed a Commission in March 2012 comprising Mr. Allan Richards, Dr. Verne Alleyne, Mrs. Deborah Moore-Miggins, and Mr. Gilbert Peterson, SC. The Commission was established to examine the proposed constitutional amendments in relation to Tobago, for conformity with the wishes of the people of Tobago. The Commission held twenty- four meetings and conducted other related activities.

The Commission submitted an undated 90 page Report, which contained a number of recommendations, together with a Constitution (Amendment) Bill, 2012, a Tobago House of Assembly Bill, 2012, and a Federal Constitution.

Some of the recommendations made by the Commission included an amendment to section 1 of the Constitution to provide for equality of status between the two islands, a reformulation of section 75 of the Constitution that introduces a pragmatic approach to collaborative management of certain functions in Tobago, a federal structure of governance, power to the THA to impose tax, power to borrow unfettered by the Ministry of Finance, Tobago should have administrative jurisdiction over the resources that exist in the marine environment which it contributes to the national asset base, and members of the THA should hold office for 4 years.

The Constitution (Amendment) Bill, 2013

The Green Paper on Internal Self-Government for Tobago, February 2012 and the Ghany Report, September 2012 informed the preparation of the Constitution (Amendment) Bill, 2013.  During the THA elections of 2013, The Bill was laid in the House of Representatives on 7 January 2013, was abandoned and lapsed on 10 July 2013.

This Bill sought to amend the Constitution to enhance the legislative and executive powers of the Tobago with a view to promoting the internal self-government of Tobago. The Bill also sought to alter entrenched sections of the Constitution.

Subsequently, the process was restarted and attempts were made to do things differently.

Brief Review of the Establishment of the Forum of Political Leaders

In the aftermath of the 2013 Tobago House of Assembly election, the Honourable Orville London, Chief Secretary of the Tobago House of Assembly, accepted a proposal from Mr. Hochoy Charles, former Chief Secretary and present Political Leader of the Platform of Truth, to convene a meeting to discuss the issue of self-determination or greater autonomy for Tobago.

Consequently, the first meeting among the Tobago leaders of the three political parties which contested the 2013 THA Election, was summoned on 7 January, 2014 at the Mount Irvine Bay Hotel, Tobago. The Forum of Political Leaders comprised Mr. Neil Wilson, Chairman of the People’s National Movement (PNM), Mr. Ashworth Jack, Political Leader of the Tobago Organisation of the People (TOP), Mr. Hochoy Charles, Political Leader of The Tobago Platform of Truth (TPT), and Mr. Orville London, Chief Secretary of the THA.

The Chief Secretary of the THA chaired this and subsequent meetings.

The objective of these meetings was to engage in discussions geared towards adopting a common approach to addressing the matter of self-government for Tobago and the constitutional arrangements between Tobago and Trinidad. Mr. Ashworth Jack, Political Leader of the TOP and his team subsequently withdrew.

In an effort to assist the political exercise, a team of persons, independent of the partisan politics, a Secretariat, was engaged to assist in the forward movement of the entire process. Its mandate was to facilitate the hosting of a series of meetings, consultations and conferences meant to engage the populations of Tobago and Trinidad, the Caribbean, and the wider community, in discussions pertinent to self-government for Tobago so that a consensus can be reached on an effective process for the attainment of full autonomy to Tobago, leading to the resolution of what has been regarded as a long outstanding issue.

More than forty meetings were held with groups, individuals and sectors throughout Tobago and in Trinidad from January 2014 to October, 2016. After several public meetings, public consultations and public education programmes, a Convention was held on 14 September, 2014 at the  Signal Hill Secondary School.

A number of issues were identified as fundamental to an equitable relationship between the two islands in the sovereign democratic nation of Trinidad and Tobago. These were:

(a)       Equality of status between the two islands and a legislative framework reflecting such equality

(b)       A federal type system of governance

(c)        Definition and delineation of the boundaries of each island in accordance with the Constitution

(d)       The responsibility of the Tobago Administration to formulate and implement policy on all matters affecting the lives of people resident in Tobago.

Following the Convention, a comprehensive Report was submitted by the Secretariat which recorded the series of consultations conducted both in Tobago and Trinidad which captured the proposed legislative offerings for conformity with the wishes of the people of Tobago expressions of the people, including their recommendations and the mandate of the Convention “to examine.”

Recommendations from Working Document from the Tobago Forum of Political Parties, 2013

This document reflects the desires of the residents of Tobago. Legislative action would be required to facilitate the effort of all concerned by giving effect to their requests. The institutional framework for effective governance and a core set of conditions distilled from the extensive consultations that have been conducted in both Tobago and Trinidad by various civil society groups and organizations, form the basis of the document.


The mandate which was given at the Convention authorized the Chief Secretary to initiate discussions with then Prime Minister Kamla Persad Bissessar on the issue of self-government for Tobago. As a result, the period 11 December 2014 to April 2015 saw an exchange of correspondence between the Honourable Prime Minister Kamla Persad   Bissessar and the Honourable Chief Secretary Orville London as well as a series of meetings between  a Central Government Team and the Tobago Team.

The first meeting of the Joint Team was held at the Magdalena Grand Beach Resort on 4 March 2015. The Chief Secretary’s opening remarks noted that the discussions were not meant to threaten the unity of Trinidad and Tobago but rather they aimed to secure Tobago’s fundamental right to self-governance. Further discussion focused on the contextual framework for conduct of meetings, procedural matters for discussion and agreement and the exchange of relevant documents.

Following the period of the dissolution of Parliament in June, 2015, the Election of 7 September 2015 to the present, the Forum of Political Parties continued in its mission to fulfil the mandate given by the Tobago population by way of a Resolution at the Convention of September, 2014.

The Forum initiated a visit to Tobago by Madame Elisabeth Naucler, an international jurist and a former Member of the Finland Parliament, during the period 14-19 June   2015. Madame Naucler was the featured speaker at    a   series of meetings and a  number of radio and television interviews, including a public meeting at the Anne Mitchell-Gift Auditorium in Scarborough on Sub-National Jurisdictions: The Aland Island Experience. This public forum which was meant to discuss the relationship between the Aaland Islands and Finland and the various similarities with the Tobago situation, attracted a sizeable audience.

General Election-September, 2015

In the 2015 Manifesto of the People’s National Movement which was circulated nationally prior to the 2015 General Elections, it is stated on page 71 as follows:

The PNM believes that Tobagonians must be primarily responsible for the growth and development of the island of Tobago and its people… Under the PNM, PNM Members of Parliament are mandated by the Tobago Council to pursue the following objectives:

  • Engage the national government to facilitate efforts to achieve Democratic Self Government for Tobago, in keeping with the aspirations of the people of Tobago;
  • Collaborate with the Tobago House of Assembly in the achievement of its objectives;
  • Preserve, protect and defend the autonomy and territorial integrity of Tobago;
  • Safeguard and advance the freedom, rights, dignity and wellbeing of Tobagonians;
  • Serve their constituents faithfully and fearlessly and be accessible and available to the public at all times;
  • Promote sustainable development, economic growth and development, best environmental practices, and social and cultural fulfilment in Tobago, and
  • Create the best opportunities for all Tobagonians to achieve their optimum potential.


Shortly after the General Elections held in September, 2015, as the newly elected Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago I made an announcement on the 23 October 2015 during a visit to my alma mater, Bishop’s High School, in Mt Marie, Scarborough, that the Government will begin considering proposals from the Tobago House of Assembly for self–government on the island.

This commitment from the new Prime Minister in October, 2015 led to an agreement that the people of Tobago will produce a Bill on their own and that Bill would be the basis for discussions going forward. The journey towards autonomy and self-government in Tobago has since continued.

A briefing document entitled “Tobago’s Position on Its Right to Self Determination” was dispatched to me as the new Prime Minister in January 2016.

The services of Mr Gilbert Peterson, SC and Ingrid Melville, Attorney at law, as well as Deborah Moore-Miggins were enlisted and after further extensive consultations with the Law Association, the Trade Unions, the Political Leaders and many others, a document representing a consensus of what the people of Tobago want was presented at a Convention held in the Lambeau Multipurpose Complex in 2016.

The Forum proceeded to draft legislation to accomplish the deliverables outlined in the Resolution at the Convention of September, 2014. This exercise involved the holding of twenty-seven (27) meetings among members of the Forum, including three all day sessions from January 2015 to October, 2016.

These discussions resulted in the creation of a draft Constitutional (Amendment) Tobago Self-Government Bill, 2016, a document crafted to reflect the wishes of the people..  During these talks, a number of other issues were presented which were given life in another document. Consequently, two (2) draft Bills, named Bill A and Bill B, were prepared for presentation and discussion with the public.

After such extensive consultations and the achievement of consensus, the Chief Secretary of the Tobago House of Assembly, the Honourable Orville London, piloted a Bill entitled “An Act to amend the Constitution of the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago to accord Self Government to Tobago and for matters incidental thereto” at the 48th Sitting of the Tobago House of Assembly in the 2013-2017 Session held on the 27 October 2017.

This Bill was unanimously passed in the Tobago House of Assembly and became Bill No.1of 2016. By letter dated 1 November 2016, the Chief Secretary forwarded this Bill to the Secretary to Cabinet in accordance with section 29 of the Tobago House of Assembly Act.

By letter dated the 30 November 2016, the Chief Secretary also wrote to the Prime Minister enclosing a copy of the Bill which was submitted to the Cabinet Secretariat in accordance with section 29(2) of the Tobago House of Assembly Act, 1996.

The Bill was reviewed by the Chief Parliamentary Counsel and having done so, a list of issues arising from the Bill was submitted to the Tobago team for clarification. These matters were addressed.

Current Status

The Constitution (Amendment) (Tobago Self Government) Bill, 2018

The Constitution (Amendment) (Tobago Self Government) Bill, 2018 has been developed after a very long and transparent process of research, extensive public consultations and a genuine desire to advance and improve the process of  granting further autonomy to the Island of Tobago within the context of the Sovereign Democratic State of Trinidad and Tobago.

The Bill was submitted to Cabinet and is hereby presented to the Parliament of the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago, this Honourable House as the aspiration of the people of Tobago.


One hundred and twenty (120) years after the union of Trinidad and Tobago it is opportune that the basis for advancement of the sovereign democratic State is reformatted. The amendment of the Republican Constitution which establishes the present foundation is necessary to provide the autonomy which Tobago requires. This will allow Tobago to play a meaningful role in the fulfillment of the Sustainable Development Goals as well as to advance and align Tobago’s development towards the attainment of Vision 2030. Accordingly, this document has been developed as a Policy Document for the enactment of legislation to advance the process of self-government and autonomy for Tobago.

The Government humbly submits this bill for the fullest participation through a Joint Select Committee of this Honourable House and trust that it will be received and advanced to the satisfaction of all the people of our beloved Republic of Trinidad and Tobago, particularly our brothers and sisters in Tobago.