History Of Agriculture In Jamaica
The first settlers in the British West Indian islands established farms on which they grew tobacco, ginger, indigo and cotton for export, and maize, cassava and vegetables for themselves. This was the beginning of the history of agriculture in Jamaica. The emphasis was on export crops rather than foodstuffs, and from the outset the colonies imported such provisions as flour, salted meat and fish as well as manufactured goods. This pattern still exists, though the output of local foodstuffs and industrial products is growing, often with special government support.
In the early days of colonization field labor was supplied mainly by indentured workers brought from the British Isles. At first they came voluntarily, but later the supply dwindled, and prisoners and rebels were shipped out to maintain the labor force. At the end of their period of service most indentured laborers acquired land of their own and became their own masters. Then they formed what were the make shift beginnings of Jamaican government history.
For a time tobacco was the most profitable export, but it was not long before it was unable to compete with the better quality leaf produced in large quantities in Virginia in North America. A notable fact for the history of export agriculture Jamaica. So in the 1640s, the colonists were glad to learn from Dutch traders the methods by which the Portuguese in Brazil were extracting sugar from sugar cane. The crop was an immediate success. Sugar cane in Jamaica was very profitable because of the great demand for it in Europe and North America; a demand which continued to expand as these two markets grew into great commercial and industrial communities.
Sugar cane is very important to Jamaican agriculture history and was well suited to the temperature, the rainfall, and the rainy and dry seasons of the West Indies. It withstood droughts better than most crops, and reaping was usually completed before the onset of the history of hurricanes in Jamaica season. Moreover, because cane could not be grown far outside the tropics, there was little fear of competition from other areas. Sugar therefore replaced tobacco as the chief export and soon became the only product of importance in the Lesser Antilles.
The change of crop resulted in a change in the history of farming in Jamaica, for it was found that cane was more suited to larger land holdings than most of those in existence, and to planters with plenty of money to begin with rather than to those who started out with nothing. The main reason for this was that, as cane had to be manufactured into sugar as soon as it was cut, each farmer had to have manufacturing equipment of his own and the buildings to house it.
These things were costly and were only worthwhile if the property was large enough to supply a lot of cane and earn a lot of money. In addition, those farmers who could afford to pay several thousand pounds for an estate could find enough money or credit to tide them through bad years.
Small farmers could not, and after such disasters as a succession of droughts, hurricanes, losses at sea, or a fall in the price of sugar they were forced to sell out to their richer neighbors. Thus the land fell into the hands of a few rich planters who were then in a position to make enormous profits if they managed their properties well.
Many unskilled laborers were needed in the cane fields, but few were available. The supply from Britain soon dwindled, and many of the men who had served their indentures preferred to join those who had sold their properties and were emigrating, rather than stay and work in the fields. This crippled the sugar cane plantation history in Jamaica and within forty years of the first colonies being founded in the Lesser Antilles thousands of settlers had left again to look for a better life. Some went to Jamaica after its capture in 1655. Others went to America and elsewhere.
It was to supply the growing demand for field workers that slavery grew to such a volume. There developed a ‘triangle of trade’. Ships setting out from British ports carried cloth and other cheap manufactured goods to the coast of West Africa. This was the beginning of the history of slaves on a Jamaican plantation. There they were exchanged for slaves, who were transported to the West Indies where they were either sold on the spot or transferred to other ships for sale to the Spaniards. Some ports, notably Kingston, had a very large trade with the Spanish colonies. On the return voyage to Britain the ships carried sugar and other tropical produce. A secondary trade grew up between the West Indies and the North American colonies. Sugar and molasses were the chief exports, and flour, salt fish and some manufactures were bought in exchange.
It is not known how many African slaves were brought to the Caribbean and to North, Central and South America from the time the Spaniards began the traffic in the early sixteenth century to the time when it was stopped in the nineteenth century, but it must have been several million. There were about 700,000 slaves living in the British West Indies alone at the time of their emancipation in 1834. By then they outnumbered the whites by seven to one. Today their descendants form the majority of the people in nearly every Commonwealth Caribbean country.