Trinidad was visited by Christopher Columbus in 1498 but was not colonized because of the lack of precious metals. It was raided by the Dutch (1640) and the French (1677, 1690) and by British sailors. Britain captured it in 1797 and received formal title in 1802. Tobago had been settled by the English in 1616, but the settlers were driven out by the indigenous Caribs. The island was held by the Dutch and the French before being acquired by the British in 1803. The islands were joined politically in 1888.
Before becoming an independent nation in 1962, the islands were part of the short-lived West Indies Federation (1958–62). In 1976 Trinidad and Tobago became a republic. In 1986 the People's National Movement (PNM), which had held power for three decades, was soundly defeated by the National Alliance for Reconstruction (NAR); party leader A. N. R. Robinson became prime minister. He survived a 1990 coup attempt by Muslim extremists, but discontent with Robinson's economic austerity program helped return the PNM to power in 1991, under Prime Minister Patrick Manning. After the 1995 elections, Basdeo Panday, of the United National Congress (UNC), formed a coalition with the NAR and became Trinidad's first prime minister of Asian Indian descent. He and the UNC were returned to power in the 2000 elections, but corruption charges and a party split led to elections in 2001. When the UNC and PNM each won half the seats in the parliament, the president appointed Patrick Manning as prime minister, but the split control of parliament resulted in a deadlock that prevented that body from convening. New elections in 2002, however, resulted in a majority for the PNM.
In 2005, opposition leader Panday and his wife were arrested on corruption charges in connection with an airport development project; UNC officials denounced the charges as politically motivated. Panday was convicted in 2006, of failing to disclose a British bank account he held with his wife. The judge in the case subsequently accused the chief justice of attempting to influence his decision, but the charges against the chief justice were dropped (2007) when the judge refused to testify; impeachment proceedings were also brought against the chief justice, who was cleared later in the year. Panday's conviction was overturned (2007) on appeal on the grounds that the judge's actions were indicative of bias.
Manning and the PNM remained in power following the 2007 parliamentary elections. When Manning called snap elections for May, 2010, the PNM was defeated by the People's Partnership coalition, which benefited from corruption scandals invovling the PNM. Kamla Persad-Bissessar, who had succeeded Panday as UNC leader, became prime minister; she was the first woman to hold the post. Beginning in Aug., 2011, the government imposed several months of emergency rule in an attempt to halt a surge in violent crime connnected with the drug trade.