Plantation History

In the shaping of the modern social and economic structure of tropical America, writes Barry Higman, no forces were more influential than slavery and the plantation.

 

Within tropical America, the dominance of the large slave plantation was nowhere greater than in Jamaica.

 

Around 1830, for example, 36 % of Jamaican slaves lived in units of more than 200, compared to 5 % in the sugar producing regions of Louisiana US and a mere 1 % in Bahia.

 

Roughly 60 % of slaves in Louisiana and Bahia belonged to holdings of less than 50, whereas only 25% of Jamaican slaves were in such units.

 

Within the British Caribbean only Tobago, St. Vincent and Antigua matched the concentration of slaves in very large plantations found in Jamaica.

 

The French and Spanish colonies always possessed a relatively substantial smallholder class.

 

In spite of the much larger slave population of the United States there were only 312 plantations of 200 or more slaves in 1860, compared to 393 in Jamaica in 1832.

 

Although the large plantation typified the relations of production in the slave societies of Brazil and the United States, the plantation itself remained something of a myth, most slaves living outside its physical context. IN Jamaica myth and reality converged.

 

After the abolition of slavery in 1838 Jamaica experienced a transformation which created a dual economy, peasant farming springing up alongside the plantation and occupying lands in the previously neglected interior.

 

By the end of the 19th century a great deal of plantation land had been abandoned to the Jamaican Small holder, while the surviving plantations consolidated property and power in the lowlands.

 

Throughout the 18th and nineteenth century the plantation provided the spatial context within which a large proportion of the Jamaica population lived and worked.

 

During slavery this existence went together with literal physical confinement, slaves being forced to spend the greater part of their lives within the close community defined by a single plantationís boundaries.

 

The nature of life for the plantation community both before and after emancipation was determined very largely by the decision of the planter and his supervisory representatives.

 

The political power of the plantocracy meant that it controlled land tenure and settlement patterns as well as the internal organisation of their private domains.

 

Very light settlement by the Spanish, who had caused the indigenous population of Arawaks to disappear within a decade.

 

For the English Jamaica was quickly regarded as a potential producer of sugar and other tropical staples, an extension of the plantation system which was already establishing itself in the Eastern Caribbean.

 

During the 17th century Jamaica remained primarily a base for the privateering and buccaneering activities mostly against the Spanish.

 

By 1661 with the establishment of civil government Planters were encouraged to come to Jamaica from Barbados, the Leeward islands and from Surinam (conquered by the Dutch in 1667) bringing slaves to cut plantations from the forest.

 

By 1670 when the British began to circumscribe the activities of the Buccaneers, a diversified economy based on Cacao, sugar, indigo, pimento and cattle had emerged. Production was organised around smallholdings as well as plantations.

 

Assisted by generous crown grants, corrupt lawyers and the scarcity of competent and honest surveyors, the growth of large land holdings started in this period.

 

The white population of Jamaica actually declined in 1700 falling from 9,000 to 7,000, while the population of African slaves increased from 10,000 to 45,000 between 1673 and 1703.

 

The development of that plantation system was set back by the Earthquake of 1692 and the threat of French invasion. but by 1700 Jamaica was set on course towards a pattern of settlement centred on export orientated, large scale plantation agriculture.

 

Sugar emerged as the most profitable crop and there appeared a tendency to monoculture.

 

In 1712 Jamaicaís output of sugar first exceeded that of Barbados.

 

But it was not until 1730 that the country was firmly established as the Major producer of sugar within the British holdings.

 

In 1805 Jamaica produced 100,000 tons of sugar and became the leading individual sugar exporter in the world for that year.

 

The last years of slavery were marked by gradual decline, while emancipation in 1838 was followed by rapid economic contraction.

 

Coffee did not emerge as an important crop until the 1790ís, when it was granted British Tariff protection and French planters fled to Jamaica from St. Domingue

 

The other crops were of no more than minor significance during the period of slavery

 

Alongside the dominance of sugar, Jamaica always maintained a relatively significant internal market and in consequence an economy which was more diversified than say the monoculture of the Eastern Caribbean.

 

Livestock for motive powerand meat were produced on lands unsuitable for sugar or coffee in pens which often rivalled the plantation in area and scale. At the time of emancipation these pens accounted for 10 % of the total value of Jamaican output. and after emancipation many plantations were converted to pens.

 

Foodcrops were produced by the slaves and later my peasants and wage labourers, utilising lands too rugged for sugar cultivation.

 

Land settlement concentrated on the south coast until 1740 when plantations quickly spread along the north coast.

 

Buoyancy of Sugar price and easy availability of slaves: bad management.

 

The number of sugar mills operating in the island increased from 57 in 1670 to 419 in 1739 to 1061 in 1786.

 

Between 1792 and 1799 some 84 new sugar estates were established

 

Robertsonís map of 1804 showed a total of 830 sugar estates. By 1834 there were 670 in 1854 330, 200 in 1880 and 125 in 1900