Though the technological advances of Britain’s Industrial Revolution toward the end of the 18th century were generally slow in reaching colonial outposts in the West Indies, the printing press established itself as a significant exception.
Peter Boomgaard and Gert J. Oostindie challenge traditional views on this in their provocative study ‘Changing Sugar Technology and the Labour Nexus: the Caribbean, 1750-1900’, but it is clear that the advent of the printing press rode on the tide of social and economic change in the colonies in the years prior to the freeing of African slaves.
So important was this new technology, that by the end of the 1800s, there were well over 100 modern newspapers being printed and published in the English-speaking Caribbean. The Jamaica Gleaner, which began publication in 1834, is the oldest survivor of that era, followed by newspapers such as the Catholic News (Trinidad) in 1892 and the Barbados Advocate in 1895.
The first indigenously-printed Caribbean newspaper on the records of the American Antiquarian Society was the Weekly Jamaica Courant in 1718, followed in 1755 by the Antigua Gazette.
By contrast, in Trinidad, there appears to have been little evidence that any printing was taking place on the island at the time of the changing of hands between the Spanish and English in 1797.
Gertrude Carmichael’s History of the West Indian Islands of Trinidad and Tobago 1498-1900 suggests that printing was actually not introduced into the island until the late stage of Spanish occupation.
The history of newspapers in the colony therefore usually begins with the launch of The Trinidad Weekly Courant in 1799.
Carmichael however notes that British officials exercised “strict control over the press” and that then Governor Sir Ralph James Woodford was in the habit of sending polite notes to editors asking to borrow the handles for their printing presses – without which printing would have been impossible.
However prolific their publishers and active their printing presses, it was not an easy time for newspapers in the colonies back then. Public opinion expressed through such publications, and the official backlash they generated, had played important roles in the turbulence leading to the Declaration of Independence by 13 American colonies announcing the United States of America in 1776. Official censorship was par for the course in overseas holdings and most, not all, publishers chose to play it safe.
Early-year newspapers and periodicals in the Caribbean were also important organs for information on developments in the UK, Europe and other colonies in the region and contained important information currently used by researchers interested in trade and commercial activity, and insights into life on the colonies at that time.
For example, passenger lists of arriving vessels were regularly published, along with obituaries, court cases and the outcomes of public, political events, sometimes with the preferred perspectives of early publishers.
In T&T, the launch of the Courant was followed by the establishment of the Port-of-Spain Gazette in 1825 and there appeared to have been no turning back for what was becoming a very active industry, to the extent that the authorities moved to register all newspapers in 1834.
In the years that immediately followed, there emerged more than 10 important newspapers in Trinidad. In Tobago, seven years prior to establishment of the unitary twin-island state, a Tobago News had already been in existence since 1892.
That was the same year the Catholic News was launched. By then, a number of significant publications such as the Trinidad Standard and West India Journal in 1872 and publications such as the French-language Critique and Tobago Chronicle and Public Gazette had emerged.
Other major newspapers at the turn of the 19th century included The Trinidad Chronicle which opened in 1864 and The Mirror, launched in 1898.
By the time the Trinidad Guardian came along in 1917, there appeared to have already been a wholesome appetite for privately-published news and information. The Trinidad Chronicle was already in its ascendancy and a number of activist publications had increased in popularity and influence.
Among these were the left-leaning Argos newspaper, launched after the First World War by Sino-Trinidadian Aldwin Lee Lum as a voice of labour and as an important organ of early social justice activism. The East Indian Weekly followed in 1928 as a significant platform for Indian issues. And, there were also several important periodicals including Beacon magazine, launched by the Trinidad Labour Party, and The Nation, published by the People’s National Movement (PNM) and edited by CLR James.
There were also special interest publications including The Independence Chinese News, launched in the 1940s, Cheng Chi Chinese Weekly published in the 1960s, Tapia first published in 1969, The Vanguard by the OWTU and the Labour Leader, an offshoot of the British socialist newspaper.
The Evening News was launched as the country’s first daily evening newspaper in 1935, followed by The Sun which was launched by the Trinidad Express.
Early, locally-generated radio broadcasting came with the launch of the US armed forces radio station, WVDI in 1943. It actually pre-dates the establishment of Radio Trinidad, usually cited as the country’s earliest radio station which went on the air on August 31, 1947 as a part of the Trinidad Broadcasting Company (TBC), owned and run by Rediffusion (Trinidad) Ltd.
The TBC network, which at the time operated one AM and three FM frequencies was acquired by Trinidad Publishing in 1998 and the media group later launched CNC3 television in 2005, expanding in 2008 to operate free-to-air broadcasts.
Fifteen years, to the day, after the launch of TBC, Rediffusion was holding a 30% stake in the inauguration of the country’s first television station, Trinidad & Tobago Television (TTT) which began operations a week before the hoisting of the flag of independent T&T.
The main shareholder in the station was the International Thomson Organisation of the UK (50%) with smaller holdings by Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) of the US with 10% and the Government of T&T 10%.
The Daily Mirror newspaper, which had previously competed vigorously with the Trinidad Guardian, was acquired in 1966 by the Thomson Organisation and, folded that very year. This led to the introduction of the Trinidad Express in 1967. Weekly newspapers such as the Bomb newspaper, launched in 1970, the Sunday Punch in 1972 and the TnT Mirror in 1982 were also significant publications that helped change the face of newspapering in the country under late journalist, Patrick Chookolingo. Trinidad Newsday was launched as the country’s third and newest daily newspaper in 1993.
As was the case at the changing of colonial hands in the late 1700s, new technologies - in this era the digital revolution industry - are challenging important connections between key sectors of the economy and the growth and stability of a mass media industry.
There are currently six free-to-air television broadcasters, 10 television broadcasting services via cable and 14 registered subscription television broadcasters.
Additionally, there are 37 FM broadcasting services and one AM service still on the books of the Telecommunications Authority. A number of online news and entertainment platforms have also been launched in recent years and traditional media enterprises make use of social media and digital formats delivered online.
It is 100 years since the launch of the Trinidad Guardian and more than 200 years of the English-language newspaper in T&T. Industry leaders would do well to consider a future unlike any other period in the country’s history.
* First published in the 100th Anniversary edition of the T&T Guardian on September 2, 2017