When Europeans arrived in the 15th century, Trinidad and Tobago were occupied by the Arawak and Carib Indians. The Arawaks, who lived mainly on Trinidad, were forced into slavery by the Spanish and gradually became extinct. Most of the Caribs lived on Tobago and resisted European efforts to enslave them. Disease and constant warfare with European settlers, however, led to their near extinction by the 18th century.

Trinidad was claimed for Spain by Christopher Columbus in 1498, but the Spaniards made little attempt to develop Trinidad. During the 16th and 17th centuries, attacks were made on the island by French, Dutch, and English forces.

In order to encourage settlement and develop Trinidad's economy, Spain began offering land grants to farmers in the late 18th century. As a result, the island's population began to rise as French sugar planters, and their slaves, came from other islands of the West Indies to settle on Trinidad. In 1797, when Spain was allied with France against Britain in the Napoleonic Wars, a British expedition invaded and captured the island. In 1802 it was made a crown colony. After slavery was eliminated in 1834, large numbers of East Indians and Chinese were brought to work as indentured laborers.

Tobago, although sighted by Columbus in 1498, did not become a Spanish possession. It was settled by the Dutch in 1632. The island belonged, in turn, to the Dutch, British, French, and, from 1814, to the British again. In 1877 it was made a crown colony, and in 1889 it was combined with Trinidad to form one colony.

Trinidad and Tobago became a member of the British-sponsored Federation of the West Indies in 1958 and achieved full internal self-government the following year. Disagreements within the federation led to its dissolution in 1962. Later that year, Trinidad and Tobago became an independent nation within the British Commonwealth. A militant Muslim sect led an unsuccessful coup attempt in July, 1990.

After Trinidad and Tobago's independence in 1962, the country's first prime minister was Eric Williams, who was the founder and leader of the People's National Movement (PNM). The PNM retained control of the government until 1986, when the National Alliance for Reconstruction (NAR) came into power. The PNM again won control of the government in 1991.

In 2001, voters gave an equal number of seats in the House of Representatives to two political parties: the United National Congress (UNC) and the PNM. The PNM leader Patrick Manning became prime minister. The PNM won the 2002 election, and Manning continued in office.