18th,19th-century mail challenges


Dr Rita Pemberton  -
Dr Rita Pemberton –


Among the many problems encountered in late 18th-century Tobago was unsatisfactory communication with the outside world.

This assumed prominence owing to the progressive decline of the sugar industry, which underscored the need for greater contact with the outside to facilitate alternative intra- and extra-regional trading.

In this regard, frequent mention is made of the Royal Mail and Steam Packet Company, which became the island’s most important trading line.

While its services were highly valued by the commercial sector, the company played an equally important role through its mail services, the sole means of mail communication.

The relationship of this company with Tobago reveals the precarious position of the island when its primary export crop declined, causing deprivation of essential services making it vulnerable to external forces, all of which affected the development of postal services.

During Tobago’s short history as a profitable sugar-plantation enterprise, contact with the outside world was through trading ships which did business with the island.

The situation changed dramatically during the French occupation between 1781 and 1793, when traditional connections were severed. When the French were driven out and British rule re-established, an attempt was made to correct the damage with the inauguration of Tobago’s first postal service, with a postmaster appointed on April 15, 1793, and a post office established in Scarborough. It was acknowledged that the island suffered great inconvenience because of the irregularity of the arrival of mail.

This did not bring immediate relief, and the Tobago Council raised the matter with the Governor of Barbados, to which Tobago was administratively connected, which resulted in the allocation of three sailing ships to the Tobago Post Office, to ply between Barbados and Tobago.

There were problems from the very start of this service, which was irregular, and mail often delayed. The problem was compounded by the continuation of British/ French antagonism and persistent French efforts to retake the island. Right down to the end of the 18th century and the early years of the 19th, the island was plagued by French privateers who lurked in the region, continuously attacking and raiding ships, with those to and from Tobago specially targeted. They imposed blockades on shipping, obstructed inter-island trade and caused extended delays.

To circumvent this, another arrangement was made: packets came from New York twice per month. However, this service was severely disrupted by six-week delays during the hurricane season.

In an effort to establish an organised system of mail, in 1840, the Tobago House of Assembly passed a law to facilitate contact between Tobago and the United Kingdom. The intention was to piggyback on a contract between the British government and the Royal Mail Steam Packet Company to establish a West India service.

From this time, the company carried passengers, mail and freight. While the service was welcomed, there was controversy over the point of delivery on the island. Citing safety concerns at the Scarborough port, the company expressed a strong preference for Courland Bay and despite the opposition of the THA, went ahead. Mail was landed at Courland Bay and brought to Scarborough by courier.

Through protests and petitions, the dismayed planting community and the THA advocated without ceasing for the mail to be delivered in Scarborough. They argued against the Courland landing because the slow and costly courier system did not facilitate immediate responses to the mail. In most instances, the ship departed before the mail it brought had been delivered, causing responses to be delayed until its next arrival.

The Courland arrangement was considered inconvenient because of the distance from Scarborough and the poor state of roads between the two, and injurious to the mercantile community. Generally, the location was not conducive to the efficiency of the service the assembly sought. However, the officers of the Admiralty, convinced by the company’s safety concerns, instructed the company to deliver to Courland.

The determined assembly went ahead and planned for the landing in Scarborough, which included addressing the safety issues to negate the claims that the port was dangerous. The THA approved the erection of a lighthouse at Bacolet Point in 1842, at the cost of £828. The light would illuminate the entry to the port and ships would be further guided away from rocks and reefs by lanterns and buoys. But concerns continued to be raised about the safety of the Scarborough harbour.

The operations of the post office cost £200 a year for the salaries of officers, in addition to the cost of courier services from Courland to Scarborough. In 1860, as a part of its move to reduce the cost of colonial administration, responsibility for postal services was transferred from the imperial government to the local authorities. Since this was not an income-generating activity, it became a drain on the impoverished island’s treasury.

Under a new contract, the route was changed from Courland to Scarborough in 1872, but there was disappointment since the contract provided for only one visit per month. The company insisted the Tobago undertaking was not profitable.

The prominence of the discussion on the issue of the arrival of the mail stimulated attention to internal mail distribution. The onus was on those who lived outside Scarborough to make their way to the post office to collect their mail, which was both costly and inconvenient for those from more distant locations.

The next problem to be addressed was the lack of any satisfactory arrangement for the internal distribution of mail. A plan was formulated for four post offices in the Windward area and a courier system between Scarborough and Plymouth. This proved too expensive, and the plan was abandoned in 1879.

A new contract was made with the Royal Mail Steam Packet in 1885: after stops at St Vincent, Grenada, Trinidad and Barbados, ships were to call at Tobago once every four weeks and spend six days there. There were complaints that the ships made two visits to other islands and only one to Tobago. Since it was unable to afford the costs, requests for additional visits went unheeded.

The problem of mail distribution persisted across the 19th century. In 1807, Governor Sir William Young, in response to continued complaints about the safety of the Scarborough harbour, established the office of harbour master, whose responsibility was to pilot incoming ships, but complaints continued. The activities of French privateers around Tobago continued until 1815. The main issue remained the island’s declining economy and the reduced shipping presence in Tobago. It was the hope of some that this problem would be resolved by union with Trinidad.