Jamaican Family Search Genealogy Research Library
JAMAICA IN 1850
by John Bigelow, 1851
Since the year 1833, when the British Slave Emancipation Act was passed, the real estate of the island has been rapidly depreciating in value, and its productiveness has been steadily diminishing to its present comparatively ruinous standard. Whatever diversity of views may exist respecting the influence which the abolition of slavery may have had in producing this state of things, there is no doubt, I believe, entertained by any, that the passage of the Emancipation Act of 1833, was followed by the disasters I have referred to, as promptly as it could have been if it had been their cause. I will start, therefore, at that, point to illustrate still further, and in another aspect, the present industrial condition of Jamaica.
Since 1832, out of the six hundred and fifty-three sugar estates then in cultivation, more than one hundred and fifty have been abandoned and the works broken up. This has thrown out of cultivation over 200,000 acres of rich land, which, in 1832, gave employment to about 30,000 laborers, and yielded over 15,000 hogsheads of sugar, and over 6,000 puncheons of rum.
During the same period, over 500 coffee plantations have been abandoned, and their works broken up. This threw out of cultivation over 200,000 acres more of land, which, in 1832, required the labor of over 30,000 men.
From an official return of the exports from the island now lying before me, I am enabled to compare the surplus production of its great staples in the three years previous to the Emancipation Act, with the exports for the three years preceding the month of October, 1848. They contrast, as follows :-
By this contrast it appears that during the last three years the island has exported less than half the sugar, rum, or ginger; less than one-third the coffee; less than one-tenth the molasses; and nearly two millions of pounds less of pimento, than during the three years which preceded the Emancipation Act.
If any one reflects a moment upon the probable effects which would result from cutting off, only half the exports of such a country as the United States or England, one has less difficulty in realizing the condition of the people of Jamaica, who are not exporting much more than a third of what they have exported in the days of their prosperity. (In 1797 they exported 3,621,260 lbs. of ginger, which is one-third more than the largest quantity exported during the years I have enumerated above. In 1805 they exported 160,352 hogsheads sugar, and in 1814 they exported 34,045,585 lbs. of coffee.)
The political economist need not be told that such a falling off from the income of the island, must have been attended with a corresponding depreciation in the value of real estate, but no one unacquainted with the fertility and beauty, and former productiveness of Jamaica, can realize the extent of that depreciation. I will give you a few illustrations which can be relied upon.
The Spring Valley estate in the parish of St. Mary's, embracing 1,244 acres, had been sold once for £18,000 sterling. In 1842, it was abandoned, and in 1845, the freehold, including works, machinery, plantation utensils, and a water power, was sold for £1,000.
The Tremoles estate, of 1,450 acres, once worth £68,265 sterling, has been since sold for £8,400, and would not now bring half that sum.
The Golden Valley sugar estate, containing about 1,200 acres, was sold in 1840 for £620, including machinery and works.
The Caen-wood sugar estate, which once cost £18,000, was offered by its present owners, but found no purchasers, at £1,500, and its cultivation has been abandoned.
The overseer of Friendship Valley estate used to receive a salary of £120 per annum for his services; he has been offered the whole estate within three years, for £120.
Fair Prospect estate, which used to yield five hundred hogsheads of sugar, and was valued at £40,000, was sold in 1841 for £4,000, and now would not bring anything like that sum.
Ginger Hall, which used to yield £1,200 sterling per annum, has since been sold for £1,400.
Bunker's Hill estate, which had been mortgaged for £30,000, was last sold for £2,500.
A sugar estate lying in the parish of St. Thomas, in the East, embracing 1,000 acres of land, with a good dwelling house, works, machinery, copper stills, and other appropriate fixtures, was put up at auction in 1847, in Kingston, and sold for £620.
Provision lands about the Rio Grande river, which had never been opened, and which were exceedingly productive, have been sold for one dollar per acre, and I was informed by the Governor, Sir Charles Grey, that he knew of ten thousand acres of land, lying all together, which could now be bought for £1,000, or for about fifty cents an acre.
The facilities for transportation in Jamaica are exceedingly limited. With the exception of the fifteen miles of railroad, there is not, to my knowledge, a stage coach or regular periodical conveyance to be found in Jamaica; nor does any steam or other boat ply at stated periods between any of her ports. Of course, therefore, the expense of getting about is very great, and the intercourse between the opposite extremities of the island, quite limited - more so than between the Atlantic shore of the United States and the Mississippi valley, and rather more expensive.
While man has done so little for the internal improvement of the island, Providence has benignantly indented its shore with sixteen secure harbors and some thirty bays, all affording good anchorage, as if it were designed to provide against the indolence and supineness of her inhabitants by inviting to her shores the enterprise and capital of other nations.
Besides the productiveness of its surface, this island unquestionably abounds in mineral wealth. As slavery never can beget or procure mechanical skill, the mineral regions have never been thoroughly explored or worked, nor their value understood.
In 1846, Parliament passed a law reducing the duties on sugar, by which slave grown sugars were admitted into the British market at a corresponding reduction of price. The planters complained that the necessity of using free labor compelled them to expend more in raising their crops, while the removal of the protective duties compelled them to accept less for them when gathered. This act is now their great grievance. They do not ask the mother country to change its general free trade policy, but they insist that the right of the planters to receive full compensation for their slaves was recognized by the government, that such compensation was not paid in money, but that a prohibitory duty on slave grown sugar was offered them as an important part of their indemnification. They farther state, that by opening the British markets to slave grown sugar, they are propagating and fostering an institution, the suppression of which was the avowed motive of the government for stripping the planters of their slave property by the Emancipation Act of 1834.*
I believe I have here given a full and perfectly fair statement of the causes to which the Jamaicans as a body, attribute their ruin. It is a fair reflexion of the sentiment of their journals, and corresponds with the view of Mr. Stanlej7, who has volunteered to be their champion and apologist. It is a view which leaves them nothing to do, and therefore is very naturally acceptable to a West Indian. They fold their arms under the conviction that no efforts of theirs can arrest the decay and dissolution going on about them, and that nothing but home legislation, nay, nothing but protection to their staples, can protect them from hopeless and utter ruin.
* The following is the material clause of this Act, certainly one of the very most momentous measures ever adopted by any legislative body. It directly set at liberty some 800,000 human beings, and destroyed a title to over three millions of property. The bill was submitted in 1833 by Lord Stanley, then Secretary for the Colonies.
"Be it enacted, that all and every, the persons who, on first day of August, one thousand eight hundred and thirty-four, shall be holden in slavery within any such British colony as aforesaid, shall, upon and from and after the said first day of August, one thousand eight hundred and thirty-four, become and be to all intents and purposes free, and discharged of and from all manner of slavery, and shall be absolutely and forever manumitted; and that the children thereafter born to any such persons, and the offspring of such children, shall in like manner be free from birth; and that from and after the first day of August, one thousand eight hundred and thirty-four, slavery shall be, and is hereby utterly and forever abolished and declared unlawful throughout the British colonies, plantations and possessions abroad."
This bill also provided for a system of apprenticeship which was to last twelve years, and then give place to unrestricted freedom. This system worked so badly that after a trial of four years it was abandoned, and on the 1st of August 1838, the freedmen of all the British colonies were made fully and unconditionally free.
[The author proposes that another one of the causes of the economic collapse in Jamaica was absenteeism.]
But the proportion of absentees has been made up since, by the purchase of depreciated estates upon the foreclosure of mortgages given to secure absent money-lenders, of whose operations I shall speak presently. There are, therefore, very few extensive proprietors of land among the resident population of the island.
The blighting influence of absenteeism, and its tendency to drive from a country its wealth, its intelligence, its ingenuity, and its patriotism, have been made familiar to the world by the unhappy experience of Ireland. I need not speak of them therefore in detail. There are some features of the system in its operation here, which are not quite so obvious. Most of the land is held by English proprietors, whose residence has usually been distant from it, at least one month's sail. This involves the necessity of employing a resident attorney, to take a proprietary supervision of the estate, whose duty it is to employ an overseer to conduct its tillage, and who is expected to advise the proprietor of everything connected with its management, and to transmit the proceeds of the crops whenever there are any to transmit.
The overseer occupies the mansion, usually a handsome house, where he is personally attended by from three to five, and not unfrequently twice that number of servants, and as many horses, with the aid of which he keeps an eye to the culture and harvesting of crops, the employment of operatives, and the devising of excuses for the short returns which are sure to follow the indifference, laziness, and dishonesty which in nine cases out of ten characterize his management.
But this hierarchy of agencies is not yet complete. Each overseer has one to three bookkeepers, as they are called, the number depending upon the size and productiveness of the estate. I do not know of an estate with less than two, and I presume they usually exceed than fall short of that number. It is their duty, primarily, to keep the accounts, and incidentally, to act as checks upon the overseer; and it is the duty of the attorney to act as a check upon both. These different agents have to be paid a compensation averaging for each estate throughout the island, over $3000 a year. This sum has to be earned, not to pay the interest on the land or the improvements; not to pay for the laborers to cultivate it; not to bring its produce to market, but mostly, if not exclusively, for services made necessary by the absence of the proprietor from the island.
His estate has to make a profit of nearly three thousand dollars upon the investment before he can receive a farthing. If it fails to net that amount, it is insolvent, and if the proprietor have no other resources, he must mortgage or sell at once. To escape the necessity of choosing between such disheartening alternatives, he is compelled to draw everything from the estate and return nothing. He turns all its produce into money, and ships it home as fast as possible, not leaving it one unnecessary day to circulate in the commerce of the island. None of it is invested in improvements, in labor-saving machinery, in manuring, or in any other way, for the benefit of the estate, but all goes off to keep down a foreign interest account, to pay off mortgages or to be expended upon his support elsewhere.
Of course the estate gradually depreciates in productiveness and value under such a process of depletion, and the alternatives which the planter seeks to avoid, he has only postponed; he is finally compelled either to borrow or sell. He usually prefers the former course, and this leads me to notice another of the series of influences which have proved so fatal to the prosperity of Jamaica. . .
Another of the calamities which hang like plummets at the heels of enterprise in Jamaica, is the encumbered condition of the land. I was surprised to learn, that there is scarcely an estate upon the island which is not mortgaged, or which has not been sold under a mortgage sale. I should distrust the accuracy of my information, if I had not received it from the most authentic and reliable sources. I was assured by the Attorney General of the island, an Irish barrister of high standing, and the highest authority upon a matter of this sort, that an unencumbered estate of any size or value, was hardly to be found here. I verified his statements in numerous ways, and by inquiries addressed to those most likely to be informed upon such a subject, and found no difference of opinion about it. A gentleman who had been for many years a resident upon the island, admitted to me, after some reflection, that he could not call to mind an exception-a single large estate that was unencumbered.
What makes this evil the greater is, that, in most instances, the mortgages are for much larger amounts than the mortgaged property is worth. The reason is, that most of the mortgages were given before the abolition of slavery and the subsequent depreciation of property, to which I have referred, and when West Indian estates were a popular security in Mincing lane and Downing street. I say the mortgages were given before, because it has not been possible since then, to borrow money to any extent upon Jamaica property, so serious and even ruinous have been the losses sustained in consequence of the rapid depreciation of real estate since that event. (Not only cannot the individual landholders borrow money upon their real estate, but the government itself has failed to effect a loan within the past year, upon the security of the island, and an extra session of the Assembly has been called to meet the emergency.)
The way the property became so encumbered is worth tracing out, for it goes farther than anything else to explain the poverty I see about me.
Jamaica does not furnish a sufficiently extended market for all her staples. Of course, therefore, they have to go abroad or be wasted. The British Parliament had, for some thirty years previous to the year 1846, invited them to England, by protective duties, discriminating Colonial from foreign products, to the advantage of the former. For the reasons to which I have alluded, the landholders were compelled long before the abolition of slavery, to raise money by loans, or sell their lands. But selling was merely changing the person of the borrower, for to borrow became sooner or later an inevitable necessity, under the system of absenteeism by which the island was cursed. The lenders were naturally those who traded with the island, the consignees of produce, who would begin by making advances, and end by taking mortgages. They would lend the planters money, upon stipulating to send all their produce to the lender's in London, to be sold, and to buy from them whatever in their particular line of business the estate consumed. These arrangements were generally made, so that the London trader would get whatever commission he chose to take for selling the produce, and whatever price he chose to ask for his own merchandise. The planter's candle, therefore, would thus be burning at both ends, and I must say, in the middle also; for he produced, sold and bought at a disadvantage.
Of course, it would not take long, under such financiering, for the proprietor to get a larger load upon his back than he could carry alone. He would soon experience a necessity for more money than could be raised upon his consignments. His consignees, anxious to secure their control over his business, are happy to lend him what he requires, if he will secure the loan by a mortgage upon his estate. He has no other security to give, and consents. From that moment his thraldom is complete, and insolvency, sooner or later, is almost inevitable.
It was in this way, precisely, that nearly every considerable estate in Jamaica became encumbered, before the abolition of slavery, for nearly its full value at that time. Then came the Emancipation Act, and the consequent fall in the price of real estate, which has been steadily obeying a downward tendency, until it no longer possesses one-tenth of its former value.
The change wrought by this law in 1846, in the character of the labor, would necessarily have produced some confusion for a time, and perhaps serious pecuniary losses were inevitable, but both the confusion and the losses were aggravated to a ruinous extent by the large indebtedness of the island. The planters had nothing in their hands to defend themselves with when the blow came-neither money nor credit. Had they been out of debt, they could have sustained themselves upon the money they received from the government for their slaves, and what they could have borrowed upon their land. But as they were situated, all the money which was allowed them by government, as emancipation money, had to be applied at once to the reduction of the mortgage debts-for the extinction of which, however, they were altogether inadequate; so that the planter, after parting with all his slaves, was left under a heavy debt to contend against a new system of labor and a depreciating property.* These are facts which never, so far as I know, have been taken into account by those who have charged the ruin of Jamaica to the abolition of slavery. They point to her large exports previous to 1832, and insist that the island at that time was wealthy and prosperous. They then refer to the reduced exports since the abolition of slavery, and arguing post hoc propter hoc, deplore the poverty which that event has brought upon the country.
*DISTRIBUTION OF SLAVE COMPENSATION.-The Commissioners for the apportionment of the sum of £20,000,000 granted by parliament as compensation to slave-owners, under the act 3 & 4 Will. 4, cap. 73, at the conclusion of their labors, issued the following table. It shows the average value of a slave in each colony; the number of slaves in each by the last registration; the total value of the slaves, supposing the annual value of each were realized; and the proportion of the £20,000,000 to which each colony is entitled.
[The full headings for the table below are:
Average value of a slave from 1822 to 1830
Number of slaves by last registration in this country
Relative value of the slaves
Proportion of the £20,000,000 to which each colony is entitled]
|Average value slave £
|Number slaves regd.
|Relative value £
|Proportion colony £
|Cape Good Hope
If the premises upon which this argument is based were sound, it would be conclusive evidence to many minds, of the impolicy of emancipating the slaves, but when it is considered that the island was utterly insolvent the day the emancipation bill passed, that nearly every estate was mortgaged for more than it was worth, and was liable for more interest than it could possibly pay, the question assumes a very different aspect. Yet such was the fact. It will not be disputed by any who are at all informed upon the subject, that the whole real estate under culture in Jamaica in 1832, would not have sold for enough to pay off its encumbrances. This fact must have been disclosed sooner or later, even though slavery had been permitted to continue. Bankruptcy was inevitable, and the rapid depreciation of real estate, would of course have been one of the first fruits of such a catastrophe.
Had the indemnification money paid for the slaves been sufficient to pay off the debts of the island, and emancipated the planters from the tyranny of usurers and mortgagees, it is possible that they might have kept out of debt, and thus have escaped some of their heaviest expenses. They could have bought in the cheapest, and sold in the dearest market, and they could have escaped many heavy commissions to which their obligations to the foreign commission merchant compelled them to submit. But as it was, they actually purchased their credit. They got their notes extended upon condition that they bought of their creditors all their supplies-for which they were sure to be charged always the highest market prices-and sent to them all their produce to sell, for which they were charged heavy commissions. These expenses might have been avoided if the islanders had been out of debt, but the indemnification money they received was far from affording the required relief. It reduced, but did not extinguish the mortgages, and in a very few years the money was gone, and no one could tell where, or for what. Meantime, the property depreciated in value to such an extent, that it could not be sold; the planters were compelled to draw every thing they could from their properties, exhausting them at every turn to meet their interest debts, and to prevent a forced and ruinous sale. In this way it is, that the downward tendencies of the island, which were derived from a degraded system of labor, and non-resident proprietorships, have been accelerated by the indebtedness of the planters.
That the connexion between the planter and the home merchant, as he is called, may be better understood by American readers, I may as well here add a brief statement of the usual mode in which their business with each other is transacted, which will illustrate what I have stated. I am indebted in part for my facts, to the authority of Mr. McCulloch (Com. Dict. Tit. Colonies). The sugar planter always forms a connexion with a mercantile house in London, Liverpool, Bristol or Glasgow. He usually stipulates for au advance on his crops, usually from £3,000 to £4,000 for every 100 hogsheads of sugar which the plantation can be relied on to produce. To secure these advances, the planter always gives a mortgage, which is renewed from year to year, and binds himself to send his crops to the commission house, allowing it full mercantile commissions. The regular commissions are 2 1/2 per cent, on the amount of sugar sold, and of plantation stores sent out, adding one-half per cent, on all insurance effected.
The sale of West India articles takes place through the medium of produce brokers, who, in London, reside chiefly in Mincing lane and Tower street. Samples of sugar and rum are on show in their respective sale rooms, four days of the week, from 11 to 1 o'clock; during which time the sugar refiners and dealers call, observe the market and make their purchases. The sales are usually made on short credit; one month usually for coffee and rum, and two months for sugar. Coffee is usually sold at auction; sugar and rum at private sale; and all by sample.
The shipment of stores is briefly as follows: The merchant in England receives from the planters, in the autumn of each year, a list of the articles required for the estate or estates upon which he holds his lieu; these lists they divide, arrange and distribute among different wholesale dealers in the course of September and October, with instructions to get them ready to ship in a few weeks. November and December are the chief months for the despatch of outward-bound West Indiamen, as the plantation stores are usually required by the end of December, or in all the month of January. The arrivals of West Indiamen in England with homeward crops, begin in April, and continue till October. Heavy vessels cannot well be loaded during the autumnal months.
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