|Caribbean Islands Table of Contents
The first European settlers, the Spanish, were primarily interested in extracting precious metals and did not develop or otherwise transform Jamaica. In 1655 the English occupied the island and began a slow process of creating an agricultural economy based on slave labor in support of England's industrial revolution. During the seventeenth century, the basic patterns and social system of the sugar plantation economy were established in Jamaica. Large estates owned by absentee planters were managed by local agents. The slave population increased rapidly during the last quarter of the seventeenth century and, by the end of the century, slaves outnumbered white Europeans by at least five to one. Because conditions were extremely harsh under the slave regime and the mortality rate for slaves was high, the slave population expanded through the slave trade from West Africa rather than by natural increase.
During most of the eighteenth century, a monocrop economy based on sugar production for export flourished. In the last quarter of the century, however, the Jamaican sugar economy declined as famines, hurricanes, colonial wars, and wars of independence disrupted trade. By the 1820s, Jamaican sugar had become less competitive with that from high-volume producers such as Cuba and production subsequently declined. By 1882 sugar output was less than half the level achieved in 1828. A major reason for the decline was the British Parliament's 1807 abolition of the slave trade, under which the transportation of slaves to Jamaica after March 1, 1808 was forbidden; the abolition of the slave trade was followed by the abolition of slavery in 1834 and full emancipation within four years (see The Post-Emancipation Societies, ch. 1). Unable to convert the ex-slaves into a sharecropping tenant class similar to the one established in the post-Civil War South of the United States, planters became increasingly dependent on wage labor and began recruiting workers abroad, primarily from India, China, and Sierra Leone. Many of the former slaves settled in peasant or small farm communities in the interior of the island, the "yam belt," where they engaged in subsistence and some cash-crop farming.
The second half of the nineteenth century was a period of severe economic decline for Jamaica. Low crop prices, droughts, and disease led to serious social unrest, culminating in the Morant Bay rebellions of 1865 (see Political Traditions, ch. 1). However, renewed British administration after the 1865 rebellion, in the form of crown colony status, resulted in some social and economic progress as well as investment in the physical infrastructure. Agricultural development was the centerpiece of restored British rule in Jamaica. In 1868 the first large-scale irrigation project was launched. In 1895 the Jamaica Agricultural Society was founded to promote more scientific and profitable methods of farming. Also in the 1890s, the Crown Lands Settlement Scheme was introduced, a land reform program of sorts, which allowed small farmers to purchase two hectares or more of land on favorable terms.
Between 1865 and 1930, the character of landholding in Jamaica changed substantially, as sugar declined in importance. As many former plantations went bankrupt, some land was sold to Jamaican peasants under the Crown Lands Settlement whereas other cane fields were consolidated by dominant British producers, most notably by the British firm Tate and Lyle. Although the concentration of land and wealth in Jamaica was not as drastic as in the Spanish-speaking Caribbean, by the 1920s the typical sugar plantation on the island had increased to an average of 266 hectares. But, as noted, smallscale agriculture in Jamaica survived the consolidation of land by sugar powers. The number of small holdings in fact tripled between 1865 and 1930, thus retaining a large portion of the population as peasantry. Most of the expansion in small holdings took place before 1910, with farms averaging between two and twenty hectares.
The rise of the banana trade during the second half of the nineteenth century also changed production and trade patterns on the island. Bananas were first exported in 1867, and banana farming grew rapidly thereafter. By 1890, bananas had replaced sugar as Jamaica's principal export. Production rose from 5 million stems (32 percent of exports) in 1897 to an average of 20 million stems a year in the 1920s and 1930s, or over half of domestic exports. As with sugar, the presence of American companies, like the well-known United Fruit Company in Jamaica, was a driving force behind renewed agricultural exports. The British also became more interested in Jamaican bananas than in the country's sugar. Expansion of banana production, however, was hampered by serious labor shortages. The rise of the banana economy took place amidst a general exodus of up to 11,000 Jamaicans a year (see Population, this ch.).
The Great Depression caused sugar prices to slump in 1929 and led to the return of many Jamaicans. Economic stagnation, discontent with unemployment, low wages, high prices, and poor living conditions caused social unrest in the 1930s. Uprisings in Jamaica began on the Frome Sugar Estate in the western parish of Westmoreland and quickly spread east to Kingston. Jamaica, in particular, set the pace for the region in its demands for economic development from British colonial rule.
Because of disturbances in Jamaica and the rest of the region, the British in 1938 appointed the Moyne Commission. An immediate result of the Commission was the Colonial Development Welfare Act, which provided for the expenditure of approximately £1 million a year for twenty years on coordinated development in the British West Indies. Concrete actions, however, were not implemented to deal with Jamaica's massive structural problems.
The expanding relationship that Jamaica entered into with the United States during World War II produced a momentum for change that could not be turned back by the end of the war. Familiarity with the early economic progress achieved in Puerto Rico under Operation Bootstrap, renewed emigration to the United States, the lasting impressions of Marcus Garvey, and the publication of the Moyne Commission Report led to important modifications in the Jamaican political process and demands for economic development. As was the case throughout the Commonwealth Caribbean in the mid- to late 1930s, social upheaval in Jamaica paved the way for the emergence of strong trade unions and nascent political parties. These changes set the stage for early modernization in the 1940s and 1950s and for limited selfrule , introduced in 1944.
More about the Economy of Jamaica.
Source: U.S. Library of Congress