A Historical Overview Jamaica's Sugar Industry

From Spanish Influence to British Dominance

The Sugar industry is the oldest continuously operating industry in Jamaica. The cultivation of sugar cane in Jamaica dates back over 500 years to 1509 when it was introduced to island by Spanish settlers. It later became the leading exporter of sugar in the world in the 18th-19th century under English rule.

Before the "discovery of the New World" in the late 15th century, sugar was regarded as a precious commodity in Europe. Its relative scarcity made the refined sweetner extremely expensive. Sugar cane, the source of the sweetener, flourishes in hot and humid regions with steady rainfall and temperatures of 80degF or higher. Huge quantities of wood is needed for fuelling the boiling vats, used to extract the sugar. These climatic requirements excluded most of Europe, leaving the southern parts of the Mediterranean, including Italy, Spain and Portugal, with the closest viable climate but finding enough cheap timber in those regions was an ongoing challenge.

The first large scale cultivation of sugar cane for refinement in Europe, happened in Madeira, a province of Portugal, between 1455 – 1480 and by the end of the century, it was the world's largest producer of sugar. The popularity of Madeira attracted explorers like Christopher Columbus who visited the island in 1478. He married the daughter of a Madeira plantation owner. They had a son they named Diego, who was responsible for sending the first settlers to Jamaica. Sugar cane plants were first introduced to the Caribbean by Columbus who took some plants with him to Hispaniola on his 2nd voyage.

News brought back from his 2nd trip that Jamaica, an island the local Tainos described as land of wood and water (the translation of "Xaymaca", the name they gave the island), possessed ideal growing conditions for sugar cane and an abundant supply of wood would have been received as fantastic news back in Spain. The island had the right climatic conditions and an abundant supply of wood for sugar production.

Sugar Cane and Jamaica's Early Settlers

The first Spanish settlers arrived in Jamaica in 1508 Sent by Columbus' son Diego, who was now governor of the Indies. They settled along the north coast in a place they called Sevilla la Nueva. By 1513 they were growing fields of sugar cane, corn and other crops.

It has only been in recent times, that historians and archaeologists found evidence that these settlers processed sugar from the cane on a relatively large scale. The location of the original settelement was discovered in 1937, and excavations began in 1953, by Charles Cotter, but it was the work of Robyn Woodward, an archaeologist from Canada and a research team of Jamaicans and Canadians, in the 1980s that excavated the sugar mill. Woodward regards it as the earliest known sugar mill in the New World. The site is located to the west of St Anns Bay Seville Great House property; north of the Great house, between the A1 highway and the sea.

Columbus would have been very knowledgable about Jamaica and its indiginous inhabitants, having spent a year marooned there on his fourth voyage.[see Columbus Shipwrecked in Jamaica] His son Diego, who accompanied him, kept an historic account of the events describing the island as thickly populated with the Taino village of Maima located about a quarter league's distance from their beachhead. The men developed a tenuous relationship with the local Tainos as they relied on them for food.

Columbus was very knowledgable about the sugar industry in Madeira, having married the daughter of a wealthy Madeira sugar grower. He knew the value of the commodity in Europe and would have recognized Jamaica's potential for growing the crop and would have had no qualms about using the local indians as a source of forced labor as that was the custom at the time. He however, died before any of this knowledge could be put to action and it was his son Diego, now appointed Governor of the Indies, who dispatched about 80 Spanish colonists to the north coast of Jamaica in 1508, led by Juan de Esquivel, a former military office who he commissioned as Lieutenant in Jamaica.

These first colonists subjugated the Tainos, planted sugar cane, and founded Sevilla la Nueva, the island's first European settlement. In his reports to the king, Diego reported that Esquivel had established agricultural endeavors, introduced cattle, sheep and sugar cane to the island and distributed land and indigenous laborers to some of his men, under terms of encomienda (a grant by the Spanish Crown to a Colonist conferring the right to demand tribute and forced labor from the Indian inhabitants of an area).

The milling of sugar however, did not begin until the arrival of the second governor, Francesco de Garay, in 1515. It is said a gold strike near Santo Domingo in 1502 launched Garay on the road to wealth and power. He used part of this wealth to construct a mill in Sevilla la Nueva capable of churning out 150 tons of sugar a year for European markets and he was in the process of building another at the time of his departure for Mexico in 1523. As of this writing, it is unclear of how much, if any, of this processed sugar was exported to Europe.

English Domination and the Expansion of the Sugar Cane Industry

The arrival of the English in 1655 heralded a new era for the sugar cane cultivation and the sugar industry on the island. The English settlers embarked on an ambitious mission to expand its cultivation. Plantations multiplied in number and size, driven by the demand for sugar in Europe. The English settlers turned to enslaved Africans for labor, forcibly bringing thousands of individuals to work on the sugar estates. This labor-intensive industry enabled the slave trade, caused industry to flourish and transformed Jamaica into one of the largest sugar producers in the world.

Export Boom and Economic Significance

During its height, the sugar industry in Jamaica reached significant proportions, establishing the island as one of the largest producers and exporters of sugar in the world. By the 18th century, Jamaica was responsible for producing approximately 20% of the global sugar supply. In 1805, 29 years before the emancipation of slaves, the island's sugar output reached a high of 101,194 tonnes. The scale of the industry was immense, with numerous sugar cane plantations covering vast expanses of land.

The growth of the sugar industry in Jamaica brought immense wealth. Sugar quickly became the island's primary exports, contributing significantly to Jamaica's economic prosperity and by the 18th century, Jamaica was exporting vast quantities of sugar to Europe, primarily to Britain. The expansion of estates and the growth of the export market fueled the need for labor, leading to the expansion of the slave trade.

The Impact on Settlers and Jamaican Society

The success of the sugar industry had a profound impact on the the island's social fabric. Wealthy plantation owners, wielded tremendous influence in Jamaican society and held considerable political power both in Jamaica and back home in Britain. The plantation system shaped the hierarchical structure of Jamaican society, with a stark divide between the wealthy elite, the average worker and the enslaved population.

The sugar industry's wealth extended beyond the planters themselves. The demand for sugar created economic opportunities for merchants, shipowners, and bankers who were involved in the transportation and trade of sugar. It also stimulated the growth of supporting industries, such as distilleries for rum production, which further contributed to the economy.

Impact on New Technologies

The sugar industry was a major source of capital for the Industrial Revolution providing it the necessary oxygen to accelerate its growth. Planters continuously sought ways to increase productivity and efficiency, which led to the development of improved and new technologies to facilitate efficient production, higher yields and more profits. Two examples are:

Steam Engine: The steam engine was originally invented to pump water out of mines or power blast bellows. A modified version was invented to operate a piston that drove the turning of wheels designed to crush the sugarcane. Using this method, more juice could be extracted at a faster rate. Prior to its use, the extraction of sugarcane juice was accomplished by animals, humans or a water wheel.

Vacuum Pan: The vacuum pan revolutionized the manufacture of sugar. It lowered the boiling point of the cane juice in a closed kettle heated by steam, in a partial vacuum. This resulted in a higher quality of sugar, increased production, reduced labor. The process became less hazardous compared to prior methods such as the system known as the "Jamaica Train" where slaves were required to work over open boiling vats, ladling sugarcane juice from one container to another. It was a slow, dangerous and expensive task. Accidents were common using this technique.

Imroved transportation and infrastructure were required, leading to the construction of new and better ships, canals, trains, roads and bridges. These required financing and creative financial products resulting in a boom in the financial, insurance, legal industries. New banks and insurance companies were created and existing ones expanded. The wealth generated by the sugar industry began spreading beyond the plantation to industries and professions far beyond sugar. Cities such as Bristol, Liverpool, Glasgow and London saw unprecendented growth during this period.

Decline of the Industry

In 1805, sugar output on the island reached an all time high of 101,194 tonnes followed by a slow but steady decline in subsequent years reaching a low of 4,969 tonnes in 1913. After many failed attempts in Parliament, the slave trade between Africa and the West Indies was made illegal in 1807. Trading of slaves between the islands continued to be legal, but this too was declared illegal in 1811. These events impacted the supply of labor. Forced laborers could no longer be imported.

The industry suffered another blow in 1833 when Parliament passed the Slavery Abolition Act that finally abolished slavery in Jamaica and the other West Indian colonies in 1834. Enslaved persons became apprenticed to their former masters; field workers (praedials) for six years and non-praedials for four years -- after which, they were to be given their freedom.

Jamaica's Average Annual Sugar Production 1824-1896

Output (tons)68,46554,22533,43127,47425,16825,66621,57120,891

Recovery and Decline in the 20th Century

The sugar industry saw a recovery in the twentieth century attributable to several factors. The two most common varieties of sugar cane grown were the White Transparent and the Bourbon and derivatives of these. They were susceptible to the Mosaic sugar cane virus that causes the leaves to turn brown leading to premature death of the plant. The introduction of different varieties more resistant to the disease was an important development that helped the recovery.

A South African variety resistant to the Mosaic disease, the Uba cane, was first introduced in 1916, followed by several several high yielding varieties such as the BH 10/12 introduced in 1918 and several Javanese varieties that were introduced during the 1920s. The new varieties resulted in a significant increase of sugar cane per acre, replacing the older varieties over time.

Another contributing factor to the recovery was the arrival of additional labor to plug the labor shortage resulting from emancipation. Indentured laborers such as East Indians, Chinese, Irish and others arrived, seeking a better life.

Sugar Production 1911-1950

Production (tons)26,27750,79784,676183,187

Source: G.E. Cumper, Noël Deerr

Sugar since Jamaica's Independence in 1962

The recovery of the industry during the 20th century reached its zenith in 1965 when production reached an all-time high of 514,825 tonnes. Jamaica was considered amongst the leading sugar producers at that time, but since then the industry has been on a downward trend.

As of this writing, there are only two operating factories remaining in the country, both now only producing raw sugar due to a lack of capacity to process refined sugar. Since 2018, fifty percent of the sugar factories in Jamaica have permanently closed, including the Appleton factory owned and operated by the Campari Group that closed in 2020. The Appleton leadership attributed the closure to annual losses of US$12 million for over a decade on its sugar production operations, and the negative impact of the Coronavirus in 2020.

1995-2017: Sugar Industry Authority - 2017 Annual report / 2019-2021: USDA

Contributing factors to the decline are:

  1. inefficient and outdated machinery limiting factory performance
  2. onging increases in input costs such as fertilizer impacting the quantity and quality of sugar cane yield
  3. labor shortages of cane cutters
  4. large macro issues such as changes in land use for housing and agricultural diversification.

These issues have been persistent and have had a negative impact on production.

The History of Sugar, Noel Deerr
Encomienda in Jamaica: Evidence for Forced Indian Labor in Jamaica - 1509-1534 Robyn P. Woodward
About Garay -- https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/garay-francisco-de Changing Sugar Technology and the Labour Nexus in the British Caribbean, 1750-1900, Richard B. Sheridan
Labour Demand and Supply in the Jamaican Sugar Industry 1830-1950, by G. E. Cumper
The State of the Jamaican Sugar Industry - Sugar Industry Authority