Sugar Farming

1838-1860: The Fall of Sugar and the Rise of Immigration in Jamaica

Once freedom had been granted to Jamaica's former slaves, a whole new set of problems arose in island history. From the question of how to work the fields to political conflicts with the British government, the island's troubles were far from over.


The biggest fear among planters was the loss of their labor force, and this fear proved to be well-founded in the end. Planters tried to remedy the situation by encouraging immigration. The first immigrants were Germans from Bremen, though Scottish and Irish immigrants found their way to Jamaica as well.

Unfortunately, as had proved true before, Europeans were not well-suited to hard labor in Jamaica, and a majority of these immigrants died. Most of the other European immigrants left or found other work. Immigration from India and China became the most important, and largest, wave of new citizens to the island.

Indian immigration was the longest lasting - it began in 1838 and, though it stopped from 1839 to 1844, it continued after that until 1917. Approximately 33,000 Indians immigrated to Jamaica during this time. The Chinese immigrated between 1860 and 1893, with nearly 5,000 people arriving on the island. These Eastern immigrants changed the face of Jamaica throughout history.

Mass efforts to bring in African indentured laborers took place between 1840 and 1865. At this time about 7,500 Africans arrived, though many claimed free return passage to Africa after their term of service.

Prisons Act

Jamaica's Assembly was extremely unhappy with the British Parliament over the Emancipation Act, but the Prisons Act pleased the Assembly even less. The Prisons Act was designed to prohibit excessive imprisonment of ex-slaves in the colonies, and Parliament took the control of prisons from local magistrates and gave it to island governors.

The Assembly objected yet again, calling this an island affair. In fact, it refused to conduct any business unless this act was annulled, meaning annual laws providing for police forces and the collection of taxes would not be passed. Sir Lionel Smith, Jamaica's governor, tried his best to convince the Assembly to pass the act, but he had no luck.

Smith dissolved the Assembly, but the newly elected House was composed of most of the same members, and they too refused to pass the law. Parliament, however, was no longer willing to allow the Assembly to continue refusing its laws and decided to suspend Jamaica's constitution for five years, during which time only the governor and his council would have lawmaking power. Only political unrest in Britain stopped the suspension from taking place.

Instead of the suspension, it was determined that the governor and council would be given the power to pass revenue laws and revive annual laws that might expire if the Assembly continued in its refusal of action. Governor Smith had, by this time, become extremely unpopular, and he was replaced by Sir Charles Metcalfe. Metcalfe is said to be one of the best governors to lead Jamaica, and he was finally able to persuade the Assembly to pass the Prisons Act.

Representative Government

During this time, the representation of the Assembly became truly skewed. Few of the earliest white planters or their families lived on Jamaica any longer. Lawyers, instead, took their places as managers of the estates - but this included the power of a seat in the Assembly.

The House, meanwhile, had gained a few Jamaicans of color. Edward Jordon, the mulatto who led the group prior to the slaves' emancipation, became one of the most notable members of the House and served as Speaker of the House of Assembly for three years. He also served as Kingston's mayor for 14 years.

Free Blacks

Once blacks were free, they faced many problems. They needed money for food and rent, but they could not get the money without employment. Many former slaves did not wish to continue living on the estates to which they had been bound. However, some former owners also no longer wished to employ the labor they had once had for free, opting for immigrant labor instead.

With the help of Baptist missionaries, among others, a number of all-black villages sprung up. In fact, in just five years, some 200 villages came into being around the island. In 1840, there were 8,000 peasant freeholders, but five years later the number had more than doubled. These former slaves could grow crops on their own land to make the money they needed for other items.

Planters Without Labor

Costs for planters continued to rise, as they had been since the the importation of slaves had first been abolished. Planters now needed to to have money on hand to pay wage workers, an important change in history. New equipment was also purchased to limit the number of workers needed - where large groups of slaves with hoes had worked the fields before, now plows and harrows had to be used.

Most planters were deeply in debt, but the rising cost of sugar production meant they would soon have more troubles, though the tariffs in Britain ensured that their sugar could be sold. However, many planters were also absentee landlords, leaving their lands and workers to be mis-managed in their absence.

The Fall of Sugar

One of the final blows to the faltering sugar industry on Jamaica was the land. Over-cultivation of the plantations had exhausted the land's resources. The few crops that did thrive could not provide landowners with sufficient earnings. But even if the land had not been overworked, a British law equalizing the tariffs on West Indian imports, including sugar, rum, and coffee, in 1846 would have signaled the end. Jamaica simply could not compete with the slave-owning colonies in Cuba and Brazil.

Alternative forms of agriculture were being developed across the island. Grants were being offered for those who wanted to cultivate cocoa, cotton, divi-divi, indigo, silk, and tea. But even though silk and cotton production looked promising in the beginning, these crops failed, as did tobacco. East Indians also cultivated rice, which had been cultivated minimally on the island for several centuries.

Other ideas for Jamaica's economic growth included copper mining, but this proved to be a poor option financially. Livestock was another important commodity, and new breeds of cattle were introduced to the island during this time. Jamaica Railway Company also began construction of its first line.

Political Turmoil

Each step of the way, the Jamaican Assembly had fought against the British Parliament. However, the Sugar Equalisation Act was the final struggle for the Assembly. The Assembly decided on a bold plan, causing the Jamaican government to fall into crisis: They would cut expenditures, starting with the salaries of government officials.

Although the governor and his council would not approve this, the Assembly continued creating and passing bills that the council, in turn, rejected. Other cost-cutting measures included an end to East Indian immigration. This deadlock between the two branches of Jamaica's government continued until 1852.

When Parliament stepped in, the Assembly once again refused to do any business, and annual laws expired. The loss of duties on exports, such as rum, were not collected, and the calculated loss of revenue was approximately $130,000. Although Governor Sir Charles Grey attempted to bring the government together, there was nothing he could do, and his term ended; Sir Henry Barkly was appointed next.

Barkly managed to secure a loan from England to support his planned political changes, which included the creation of a new island constitution. Jamaica's Assembly would no longer have the right to propose expenditures, and a new Privy Council was formed. An Executive Committee was appointed as well, whose job it was to improve relations between the governor and the Assembly. On this Committee were Henry Westmoreland, Bryan Edwards, and Edward Jordon.

This new executive government would be the final responsibility of the governor. The governor himself would be responsible to the Crown directly. Unfortunately, these changes did little to improve the conditions on Jamaica.

More Problems

The Sugar Equalisation Act plunged most of the British West Indies into turmoil. Many plantations went bankrupt, as did whole banks. Roads decayed across the island of Jamaica.

Rumors also led to unrest among the island's black community. The rumor suggested that the United States was looking to take over Jamaica and reinstate slavery. Although this did not happen, the threat of rebellion was enough to distress the islanders.

Jamaica was also subject to a number of disasters. Natural disasters included droughts and earthquakes, though the island did remain hurricane-free. Asiatic cholera broke out in 1850, killing 32,000 people. Cholera would reappear three years later, but not until after Jamaica suffered an outbreak of smallpox as well.

Only a strong leader could save Jamaica during this period of collapse. After 1860, a number of changes took place in Jamaica, but political changes would take the place of the social and economic changes that had just occurred.

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