The Banana Industry

The sugar industry in Jamaica reigned supreme during the 17th and 18th century, but by the latter part of the 19th century, the economy of Jamaica no longer depended exclusively on sugar exports as banana overtook it as the main agricultural export.

By the 1890's sugar was supplanted by banana as the principal agricultural export. In 1912 the acreage under different kinds of produce was as follows:

Bananas - 82,435 acres Coffee - 24,473 acres Sugarcane - 34,766 acres
Coconut - 16,691 acres Cocoa - 13,355 acres

Ground provisions, pimento and guinea-grass were also extensively grown, the total area under cultivation of all kinds was 941,708 acres.

A New Industry

The new industry took hold in the parish of Portland where the weather and soil is well-suited to banana cultivation. Banana, is a fast growing crop that can be grown throughout the year can be ready for harvesting within a year. Almost any size farmer could grow banana for profit.

The person most associated with establishing the banana industry is Lorenzo Dow Baker. He is credited with being the first person to procure and transport the fruit from Jamaica to the United States. Born in the Wellfleet village of Bound Brook, Cape Cod, Massachusetts, Baker went to sea as a cabin boy at the age of 10, was a captain by 20, and soon after owned his own ship. As the story goes, in 1870, Baker sailed his schooner called the "Telegraph" to deliver a cargo of mining equipment to Venezuela. On the return trip he made a stop in Jamaica to pickup a cargo of coconuts, coffee, pimento and bamboo. He was introduced to the banana, yet unknow in North America. He decided to add a few bunches to his cargo but they spoiled before reaching New York. The next year, he returned to Jamaica and this time loaded green bananas, which fared much better. By the time he arrived in New York, they were just ripe enough to be sold earning him a substantial profit.

By 1881, he moved to Jamaica with his family, and established himself as an independent banana businessman in Port Antonio. He formed the Boston Fruit Company and expanded his fruit exporting business by buying out smaller concerns. He purchased his own banana-cultivating properties and built wharves and other fruit processing facilities at Boundbrook in Portland and Bowden in Port Morant, St Thomas. With the rise in popularity of the fruit, small farmers began to buy and rent land all over the parish to plant bananas.

Bananas soon became a principal export crop for large and small farmers. Jamaica became one of, if not, the, world's leading banana exporter. For over fifty years, The favored variety for the export trade was the variety named Gros Michel. It was introduced to the island in the 1830s from Martinique, by Francois Pouyat, a Frenchman that lived in St. Andrew.

Throughout the 1870s many wholesale fruit dealers were established in towns along the north-east coastline. Wind-powered vessels dominated the trade eventually being replaced by steamers by 1882. During this time the trade accounted for two-thirds of exports from Jamaica. Early shippers had to secure a steady supply of bananas that would not ripen prior to reaching consumer markets. So being a perishable product, shipping agents alerted growers about when and where they could sell their fruit. This gave farmers no more than two or three days to harvest and transport their bananas to traders.

Quality was an important aspect. Bananas harvested prematurely or were damaged, were discounted or rejected. Gros Michel was preferred because of its relatively thick skin and compact bunches, which reduced bruising. It was also preferred because the variety tended to yield larger bunches than many other varieties. Exporter pricing was not based on weight but on the size of the bunch i.e. the number of hands.

Birth of the Banana Plantations

In 1879, only one estate near Port Antonio, was identified as a "banana plantation". By the early 1890s there were more than one hundred banana plantations owned by shippers, merchants, professionals, and some former sugar planters. Under Baker's leadership, the Boston Fruit Company became one of the most important property owners in Jamaica’s banana-growing parishes. By 1887 the company had acquired about 13,000 acres, some cultivated by the company and some leased to tenant farmers, making leasing another profitable income stream. In fact, in 1888 the company’s Boundbrook Estate generated considerably more income from rents than from banana production.

John Edward Kerr, one of Boston Fruit's principal competitors, also acquired properties during the 1890s, as did John Pringle, a retired physician who possessed 2,722 acres in St. Mary in 1897. By 1902, just two entities, the United Fruit Company (formed in 1899 following the merger of the Boston Fruit Company with twelve other firms) and John Pringle, cultivated nearly 8,000 acres of bananas — more than one fourth of the banana acreage in the four major exporting parishes. Smallholders cultivated approximately 3,500 acres. A large and poorly defined “middle sector” (farms ranging from twenty acres to several hundred acres) occupied some 16,700 acres.

Indentured laborers formed the core of the workers on estates. Large-scale banana growers benefited from this arrangement because the government provided health care for the indentured workers, something that upset Jamaican workers whose tax dollars paid for a benefit that they did not enjoy.

The 40-year period from 1910 to 1950 saw the spread of Panama Disease that had widespread impact on the crop and was a major contributor to the demise of the banana industry on the island. The Gros Michel was particularly susceptible to the disease so industry shifted to the Lacatan, a variery that was more immune to the disease.

Decline of the Banana Industry

For nearly 100 years, Jamaica relied on income from the export of bananas, first to the USA and then, after 1932, to a guaranteed preferential market in the United Kingdom. Small farmers, particularly in the eastern parishes of Portland, St. Mary, and St. Thomas benefitted most as they were the largest producing parishes.

Between 1960-1971, Jamaica was exporting on average, about 150,000 metric tonnes (mt) of bananas to the UK valuing then J$12 million. The industry had a slump in the 1980s due to hurricane Gilbert and other weather conditions but exports continued. The 1990s, saw a pickup in exports with support of the European Union (EU). Some larger farms were established and the industry received an injection of investments from the Jamaica Producers Group to boost more efficient production in order to meet EU product standards. Jamaica, from 1995-2000, exported on average 66,000mt at a value of US$38 million, but never regained the figures of previous years. In fact, the 1993 EU quota of 105,000 mt was rarely met.

Developments within the World Trade Organization (WTO) and the EU, of which the UK was a part, resulted in more access to bananas from Latin American producers, resulting in increased competition in the UK market. Additionally, weather patterns are changing and the island has been hit by more hurricanes from 2004 onwards, decimating the crops. Exports are now mainly to Canada, UK and the Cayman Islands.

Memorialized in the Culture

At the height of its zenith, the banana industry was memorialized in a poem called "The Song of the Banana Man" written by Evan Jones. The industry was also the theme of the popular song Day-O (The Banana Boat) made famous by Harry Belafonte.

Song: Day-O (The Banana Boat Song)

Day-O, performed Live by Harry Belafonte


Poem: The Song of the Banana Man

The poem is set in the 1940s in Jamaica about a small but very proud farmer who makes a living farming the hillsides of the Blue Mountain range in Portland parish. Times are hard but he is proud and fearless about standing up for his means of living. The poem captures the spirit of most farmers in Jamaica; strong, unafraid of work, good values and proud of their culture and of what they do.

The Song of the Banana Man by Evan Jones

Touris, white man, wipin his face, Met me in Golden Grove market place. He looked at m'ol' clothes brown wid stain , AN soaked right through wid de Portlan rain, He cas his eye, turn up his nose, He says, 'You're a beggar man, I suppose?'He says, 'Boy, get some occupation, Be of some value to your nation.'I said, 'By God and dis big right han You mus recognize a banana man.

'Up in de hills, where de streams are cool, An mullet an janga swim in de pool, I have ten acres of mountain side, An a dainty-foot donkey dat I ride, Four Gros Michel, an four Lacatan, Some coconut trees, and some hills of yam, An I pasture on dat very same lan Five she-goats an a big black ram, Dat, by God an dis big right han Is de property of a banana man.

'I leave m'yard early-mornin time An set m'foot to de mountain climb, I ben m'back to de hot-sun toil, An m'cutlass rings on de stony soil, Ploughin an weedin, diggin an plantin Till Massa Sun drop back o John Crow mountain, Den home again in cool evenin time, Perhaps whistling dis likkle rhyme, (Sung)Praise God an m'big right hanI will live an die a banana man.

'Banana day is my special day,I cut my stems an I'm on m'way, Load up de donkey, leave de lan Head down de hill to banana stan, When de truck comes roun I take a ride All de way down to de harbour side-Dat is de night, when you, touris man, Would change your place wid a banana man. Yes, by God, an m'big right han I will live an die a banana man.

'De bay is calm, an de moon is bright De hills look black for de sky is light, Down at de dock is an English ship, Restin after her ocean trip, While on de pier is a monstrous hustle, Tallymen, carriers, all in a bustle, Wid stems on deir heads in a long black snake Some singin de sons dat banana men make, Like, (Sung) Praise God an m'big right han I will live an die a banana man.

'Den de payment comes, an we have some fun, Me, Zekiel, Breda and Duppy Son. Down at de bar near United Wharf We knock back a white rum, bus a laugh, Fill de empty bag for further toil Wid saltfish, breadfruit, coconut oil. Den head back home to m'yard to sleep, A proper sleep dat is long an deep. Yes, by God, an m'big right han I will live an die a banana man.

'So when you see dese ol clothes brown wid stain, An soaked right through wid de Portlan rain, Don't cas your eye nor turn your nose, Don't judge a man by his patchy clothes, I'm a strong man, a proud man, an I'm free, Free as dese mountains, free as dis sea, I know myself, an I know my ways, An will sing wid pride to de end o my days(Sung)Praise God an m'big right han I will live an die a banana man.'


    Cape Cod Life Publications
    Stories of Old Cape Cod and the Islands by Admont Gulick Clark, retired Captain United States Coast Guard
    National Economic Research Association
    Case study of Jamaican Banana Export Farmers- Threats, Opportunities and Survival
    Journal of Applied Business and Economics: Bananas Before Plantations. Smallholders, Shippers and Colonial Policy in Jamaica, 1870-1910
    The Jamaica Gleaner
    Caricom Today
    The pocket guide to the West Indies (1914 Publication) - Algernon E. Aspinall