Back in the Old Days, Agriculture Was King in Jamaica

It was just a brief item on the Jamaica Information Service web site but it sparked a lot of what-ifs in my mind and brought back a lot of memories. JIS reported that the Minister of Agriculture and Fisheries, Dr. Christopher Tufton, told a crowd of some 5,000 farmers recently that Jamaica’s agricultural sector has been filling the void left by a decline in other industries. If it were not for the growth in the agricultural sector, Jamaica would be in a perilous state today, the minister was quoted as saying.

I haven’t lived in Jamaica for decades, and I am sure I wouldn’t recognize my homeland today, but from what I’ve read and heard, Jamaicans have forsaken the land to pursue other promises, many of which turned out to be fool’s gold.

Before bauxite was discovered and mined, before Jamaica had a “financial sector,” before various governments sold the island’s birthright to attract screwdriver industries and garment-industry sweatshops, Jamaicans made their living mostly from the land. As I recall, it wasn’t easy.

According to legend, when Christopher Columbus was asked to describe the Caribbean island that the indigenous inhabitants called Xaymaica, he crumpled a piece of paper (probably parchment in those days) and threw it on the tabletop. “It looks like that,” he is supposed to have said. Of course, Columbus was thinking of the mountains that form a spine through the 145 miles, or so, of Jamaica’s length…. those towering mountains disappearing into the clouds, with slopes so steep you can peer over the edge of a winding road and see the silver river miles below… How I miss those mountains!

But the mountains were not just heartbreakingly beautiful; they formed the character and dictated the climate of the island. And the mountains dictated what you could grow where. On the highest slopes, you could grow coffee, said to be the best in the world, coffee so prized, I am told, that Japanese millionaires have been known to sweeten it with gold dust. The mountains facing the Northeast Trades got all the rain. The winds were forced upward into the cool sky and gave up their moisture. In the deep, mysterious valleys facing the rain-bearing winds, bananas and chocolate flourished. I can recall my grandfather stomping home from his banana walk, a nine-hand bunch heavy on his shoulder, his cow-skin boots clotted with clay.

The southern slopes and plains were entirely different. In my memory, I am standing on a verandah atop the Santa Cruz Mountain, watching the sun set over the sea beyond Pedro Plains. It was a spectacularly beautiful scene, but life on those plains was no Technicolor movie. As I recall in a book I wrote, “Jamaica Remembered”:

It would be a decade or more before the discovery of bauxite changed everything. The pervasive red dirt turned out to be red gold — or at least, aluminum ore — and Treasure Beach lived up to its name. Owners of barren scrubland made fortunes as the American aluminum companies vied for acreage. A heady prosperity overwhelmed the region, and trade union wages underwrote a whole new way of life. But that was in the future… impossible to foresee.

 Back then, Pedro Plains was parched and dusty. The only kinds of natural vegetation able to survive there were the maypole cactus with stalks like telephone poles, topped by broad, flat baskets of yellow blooms, and the ubiquitous thatch palms that rose majestically against the sky, their stark, straight trunks crowned by a cluster of heart-shaped fronds. Those palm fronds provided roofs for the homes in the area, and the red dirt provided the walls. Mixed with white lime and water, and cured in the sun, the red dirt thickened into concrete-hard mortar. White lime, mixed with water and red dirt or “Oxford” clothes blue, provided paint. That’s why so many houses were blue-and-pink. Here’s another passage from my book:

The inhabitants of those candy-colored homes included blue-eyed descendants of castaways from a long-ago shipwreck, Dutch colonists on their way to Suriname, somebody told me. But if they once spoke Dutch, they had long forgotten it. They spoke patois now, like their darker neighbors. The industrious Pedro Plains folk built cisterns (we called them tanks) to hoard the precious drops of rain, and mulched their crops with succulents to keep them from drying out. But in earlier times, before the introduction of irrigation and scientific farming methods, even their industry was not enough to keep them fed when a bad drought hit. They would subsist on bamboo roots as long as they could, and then finally “follow line” — walk across the island, begging for food.

My father was an agricultural instructor and later the agricultural supervisor for the Parish of St. Elizabeth, and his job was to help farmers find ways to combat the harsh conditions that prevailed. He would help them build terraces along the hillsides, for example, identifying the contours with his surveying instruments so that they could plant barriers of tall grass or build winding walls of limestone rocks. And he would come home late at night, sweat-stained and covered in red dust, but with that satisfied look a man has after a useful day’s work.

Fishermen took their boats out from Pedro and Alligator Pond and returned with snapper, king fish, mackerel, parrot fish, goat fish… Then they would race the 18 miles or more up the mountainside – on foot with baskets of fish on their heads, to peddle them door-to-door. As a child, I remember hearing that sometimes a fish peddler’s heart would give out on the steep climb, but I wonder now if that wasn’t just folklore.

Mercifully, there were parts of the parish where the living was easier. The Black River meandered across the plains toward the sea, and along its banks, in communities like Lacovia, shrimp abounded. There were also packets of roasted cashews for sale when we drove through. I think cashew trees grew wild in the region.

The mountainsides above the plains were blanketed with satin-trunked pimento trees. Also growing wild in those mountains was logwood. The port of Black River, I was taught at school, was the only place in the world that exported logwood, which was used for dye. And, from what I was told, Jamaica was the only country that produced pimento berries – known overseas as allspice.

Is Jamaica still covered with fruit trees? In St. Elizabeth, there were “robin” mangoes, as I remember, while hairy and black mangoes grew all over the northern hillsides and valleys. Better-off people, in the residential parts of Kingston especially, grew other varieties – Bombay, St. Julian and East Indian. But the hairy (or “common”) mango was the most abundant variety. Then there were rose-apples, hog plums, June plums, otaheite apples, star apples, jackfruit, citrus of every kind, breadfruit… much of it growing wild, and there for the taking.

The landed gentry owned herds of cattle, and you didn’t have to be rich to have a milk-cow or two. Nearly every rural family – and some urban families – kept chickens in the yard. I knew some families who had turkeys, ducks, and even guinea hens. And I recall lots of goats and pigs wandering about.

Sugar was king on the coastal plains around Kingston, and that brought real money into the island. The families who owned large plantations like Worthy Park and Caymanas Estates were like some sort of nobility back then.

I wonder what became of all that hard work? How did it change? And who let it happen? I suppose it’s useless to point fingers now. I can only cheer Dr. Tufton on and wish him luck in reviving Jamaica’s agricultural tradition.

Reader John Anthony had this comment on last month’s article on the false hopes inspired by Jamaica’s bauxite industry:


By wasting the bauxite levy and not investing in the stock of Alcoa over the past 50 years, Jamaica has lost an almost incalculable amount of money, well, conservatively a minimum one billion US dollars … over the past 50 years! I showed this calculation in an email sent to all and sundry years ago. But this is the price we pay for electing political partisans instead of educated Jamaican patriots to the Parliament. And now that the bauxite and aluminium markets are in trouble, PM Golding and his cohorts have not a single idea of how to position themselves to profit! How did we ever get to the place when advanced financial education was not a prerequisite for political office?

He added:


Douglas Orane and Erwin Burton get a pass on this one but their financial brains including Don Wehby do not. Senator Don Wehby, financial genius?? . Many international companies ramp up business revenues with direct stock and option trades and Grace Kennedy is leaving millions on the table by not doing the same. One of these option trade strategies is called selling cash secured put options. Simply put it is a bet that the price of a stock will not fall below a certain price; if it does then the stock has to be purchased at the said price and if it does not fall below the said price the investor keeps the profits. As a long-term partnership between Grace and Western Union seems likely, such a trade is virtually without risk! The purchaser gets paid for making this bet and in many cases these trades are so safe it is like taking candy from a child. How much depends on the price of the option and how large is the bet/trade.