Trinidad was ceded to Britain under the Treaty of Amiens with France in 1802. It was united with the small island of Tobago in 1889 and has since been known as Trinidad and Tobago. Next to Jamaica, Trinidad was the largest of the British colonies in the West Indies. In 1914, the population of Trinidad and Tobago was 350,000, with 60,000 in the capital Port of Spain.

Trinidad was rich in oil and provided the Admiralty with millions of gallons during the war. At the outbreak of war, the largest and most powerful wireless station in the West Indies was located in Port of Spain. As a result, the perceived threat to Trinidad and Tobago was very high, and defence resources were immediately strengthened.

Island defences

CO 1047/999/2

A Map of Trinidad, 1918. CO 1047/999/2

At the outbreak of war, the islands of Trinidad and Tobago were not well defended, especially considering the value of their natural resources and the presence of the most powerful wireless station in the Caribbean at Port of Spain.

In addition to the 100 men of the Light Horse, the 160 men of the Volunteer Force and the 742 men of the Constabulary Force, all of which were already in existence, a second battalion of infantry complete with cycles was raised. Alongside this, companies of Mounted Infantry and field artillery were also recruited to provide Home Front defence (CO 299/89).

Soldiers also volunteered from Trinidad and Tobago to join the forces from abroad and 458 men signed up from Trinidad and Tobago to enlist in Britain, Canada or France.

The state of alarm in Trinidad and Tobago did not subside until 1917 when a flotilla of motor launches arrived to patrol the Caribbean waters, based at Port of Spain. The Royal Garrison Artillery followed with supplies of modern guns. This was in response to increased concern about potential German submarine attacks. They were supplied by oil from Trinidad’s oilfields and their headquarters were the harbour police at Port of Spain.

War effort

ADM 344/2502

Port of Spain harbour, Trinidad, 1914 -1918. ADM 344/2502

As well as military support, Trinidad and Tobago also supplied goods towards the war effort. In October 1914, the Legislative Council of the colony voted to spend £40,820 on their key product, cocoa, to send to the services overseas. This could then be used in chocolate manufacturing in England.

Alongside an Emergency War Tax, a ‘Patriotic fund’ was set up at the beginning of the war to support various relief funds, raising over £10,000. Just under £30,000 was raised by a ladies’ committee.

An ‘Orange and Limes Committee’ collected local fruits and preserves to ship to hospitals in Britain and France, and a gift of 300 hardwood walking sticks was sent for disabled soldiers. A Red Cross sewing circle made and sent hospital dressings and clothing for children (CO 295/497/17).

In total, almost £480,000 was given in aid from Trinidad and Tobago, a country with an annual revenue of just over £970,000 in 1914.

West Indies Regiment

CO 299/89

Trinidad and Tobago Government Gazette, 1914. CO 299/89

The West Indies force was developed in 1915. Between September 1915 and December 1917, 40 officers and 1,438 men from Trinidad and Tobago volunteered and served in the regiment. Unlike Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago never introduced conscription, although according to official figures it was the second highest recruiting British Caribbean country behind Jamaica (CO 295/498/36).

For those who couldn’t afford to pay their own travel to enlist overseas, a committee was formed to raise funds. This paid for volunteers to travel to Britain if it was felt they could better serve the Empire outside of the West Indies regiment. These ‘Merchants’ Contingents’ sent a total of 270 men from Trinidad and Tobago to fight overseas in all branches of the military.

Key figures

Sir George Le Hunte GCMG

Governor of Trinidad and Tobago

Sir John Chancellor KCMG

Governor of Trinidad and Tobago

Commander Ronald E Chilcott

Commander of the Trinidad Navy Station and West Indian Motor Launch Patrol

Commander Morton Smart

Commander of the Trinidad Navy Station and West Indian Motor Launch Patrol

Key documents

  • Proclamation by the Governor for all troops to be called up on outbreak of war, Trinidad and Tobago Government Gazette, page 1673, 5 August 1914 CO 299/89
  • Forwards detailed account of the money raised by Trinidad and Tobago towards the war relief fund amounting to the sum of £18,000 from various organisations. Also reports a shipment of oranges and limes, number 29, folios 117-119, 23 January 1915 CO 295/497/17
  • Strikes amongst labourers at the Colony's labour fields: forwards Admiral Simpson's letter thanking the Motor Launch Flotilla for their services, number 259, folios 282-284 12 July 1917 CO 295/512/59
  • Confirming that Trinidad easily expects to raise a further 100 recruits for the British army. Suggests that they should form part of a West Indian Regiment that would assemble in Jamaica. Refers to 'coloured West Indian recruits' and to payment of passages, folios 281-288 30 May 1915 CO 295/498/36