After capturing Jamaica in 1655, the British turned the island into one vast sugar plantation and England’s rise to wealth in the colonial era was in no small part due to the in-flow of riches from the crown colony of Jamaica. A vital colony of the British Empire and once the world’s largest sugar producer, the term “as rich as a West Indian Planter” was soon used by the English to refer to the richest persons around. The tremendous profits made from sugar was one of the major driving forces behind the brutal trade of African slaves, who were captured, bought by merchants and sold to plantation owners in the West Indies. To this day, remnants of this fierce epoch in which sugar was considered gold remain scattered around the island.

Christopher Columbus, who stumbled upon the New World and Jamaica in 1494, is thought to be the first to have brought sugarcane to Jamaica. But while the Spaniards sought to cultivate the land using forced, native labour, they did not succeed in making sugarcane a significant industry. Hence, the foundation for Jamaica’s sugar industry was laid in 1655, when Lord Protector of England Oliver Cromwell despatched an expedition to the Caribbean with a mandate to take Camagüey, Cuba. The attack on Camagüey, which was led by Admiral Penn and General Venables, was driven off by the Spaniards, who held Cuba with considerable fortifications. Fearing the anger of Cromwell, Penn and Venables contrived a consolation prize by taking the nearby and much less stoutly defended island of Jamaica.

The arrival of the British, the world’s increased demand for sugar and the subsequent transformation of the island into a world producer, would turn Jamaica into an economic unit more valuable to the British Empire than all of North America put together. However, the biggest obstacle for the expanding British Empire was the lack of a work force. Since the regions’ indigenous peoples had perished from diseases brought over from Europe, and Europeans suffered with the climate and tropical diseases, Africans were soon found to be excellent workers. Often experienced with agriculture, they were accustomed to physical labour in a tropical climate and resistant to tropical diseases. As the demand for cheap labour on plantations in the “New World” grew, enslaved Africans soon became the most valuable commodity for European traders. Throughout the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, Jamaica remained the world’s largest sugar exporter. Both the United States and Continental Europe depended heavily on the British Colony, and therefore the Jamaican, export of sugar.

Thus, the profits made from the global trade of sugar became one of the major driving forces behind the “Triangular Trade”, which provided substantial quantities of venture capital for the industrial revolution and the development of the western European economy. Named from the three routes that formed a triangle; the “outward passage” carried manufactured goods from Europe to Africa; the “middle passage” carried African captives and commodities from Africa to the Americas or the Caribbean; and the “homeward passage” carried sugar, tobacco, rum, rice, cotton and other goods back to Europe.

By the 1730s, Britain had become the largest slave trading country in the world and it is estimated that 12 million Africans were enslaved in the course of the transatlantic slave trade, 3.4 million of them on ships of the British Empire. Wrenched from the Ashanti, Cormorante, Mandingo and Yoruba tribes of West Africa, they were bought from African slave traders and shipped across the Atlantic to Kingston, where the slaves who had survived the “middle passage” were fattened up and auctioned off for prices between £25 - £300.

In the midst of this human tragedy, Jamaica’s English planters grew immensely wealthy from sugar. Sugar was gold and the proliferation of sugar plantations, each with their own processing facilities, sprung up. Between 1792 and 1799 some 84 new sugar estates were established, more than half of them in St. Ann, Trelawny and St. James and at its peak, the British colony of Jamaica counted a total of 830 sugar estates. Other islands were similarly engaged, but none approaching the significance of Jamaica.

The cultivation of sugarcane and coffee by African slave labour made Jamaica one of the most valuable  possessions in the world for more than 150 years. During the 18th century, ownership of a Jamaican sugar plantation was an insignia of privilege and success, displayed by richly appointed carriages ostentatiously parading by during London’s social seasons. Indeed, the Monarchy, aristocracy and nobility of Britain, held proprietorship in Jamaica’s sugar industry as an indication of tremendous wealth and economic power. On account of the Empire’s extraordinary profits, the British Monarchy overlooked the appalling practices of privateering and legalised piracy, condoning the existence of a rogue society built on greed and savagery. In fact, the lure of this lucrative trade so corrupted the British justice system, that persons charged with petty offences, were often threatened with hanging and offered “transportation” to the colonies as alternative punishment, such was the zeal to keep the sweet mills turning.

The proliferation of Scottish and Irish names in Jamaica is a direct consequence of the sugar industry, whose plantation management predominantly came from Irish and Scottish citizens harshly treated within the stratified English society.

However, the early 19th century saw a combination of adverse economic factors leading to a decline in sugar plantations, including costliness of slaves, changes of land use and alternative sugar sources, notably European beet. Sugar output reached 101,194 tonnes in 1805, but this position was unsustainable and production began to slide downwards, reaching a low of 4,969 tonnes in 1913. By 1834, the number of sugar plantations had dropped to 670. Twenty years later, the number had further decreased to 330 and by the turn of the century, only 125 plantations were still operational.

In 1937, British Tate & Lyle plc, which also owned Monymusk sugar estate, established the Frome Sugar Factory. A renewed industry reached its pinnacle in 1965, when it produced over 500,000 tons of sugar, but both production and productivity have since declined considerably. In its evolved state, the industry has developed into one providing housing, rehabilitation programmes, price stabilisation and welfare services for its workers, as well as repatriation of industry ownership. Career opportunities and employment in the sugar industry have also been vital to local communities and micro businesses, which depend on sugar cane and sugar production for their viability and livelihood.

Jamaica gained independence on August 6, 1962, remaining a member of the Commonwealth of Nations and long enjoyed preferential market access as a member of the British Commonwealth, including through the 1973 treaty of Rome which preserved preferential status for Jamaican sugar within the European Community. However, since the World Trade Organisation (WTO) rules on international trade laws which govern trade relationships between countries found such preferential arrangements illegal, Jamaica is now subject to the Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA) in a new mode of free trade.

Today, only seven sugar factories are in operation on the island. While Monymusk, Frome, Bernard Lodge, Long Pond and Duckenfield are all government controlled, Appleton and Worthy Park remain in private ownership. A factory that has been owned and operated uninterrupted by the same family since 1670, Worthy Park has a fabulous history. Acquired in 1975, Bernard Lodge was previously owned by United Brands, while Long Pond belonged to the Robertson Family of Scotland. Still active sugar producers, both are slated for privatisation. Appleton Estate is of course famous for its world class rum production and tourists can personally visit its 125 year old operation and taste its products first hand.

As a consequence of factory closures during the 1960’s and 1970’s, several old sugar estates have also been redeveloped to enhance Jamaica’s tourism product. Acquired in 1960 by former Lieutenant Governor of Delaware, the late John Rollins, the Rose Hall estate is home to various housing developments and luxury hotels, including Rose Hall Resort & Spa, a Hilton Resort, The Ritz-Carlton Rose Hall and the new Palmyra Resort & Spa luxury condo-hotel. A historical tribute to both the sugar and the tourist industry, the area of Rose Hall encompasses what was once the home to several sugar plantations, among them Rose Hall, Cinnamon Hill and The Palmyra. While the remains of the old Cinnamon Hill sugar factory and its aqueduct can be still viewed from its namesake golf course, the fabulous Palmyra Resort & Spa is named by the neighbouring sugar plantation called The Palmyra. And in the midst of this incredible history sits the refurbished Rose Hall Great House, a modern day tourist attraction that visitors claim remains haunted by the infamous Annie Palmer, the “White Witch” of Rose Hall, who ruled the plantation with a legendary iron hand. Additionally, the recently opened Grand Palladium in Hanover sits on sugar factory land, which was owned by five generations of the eminent Hall family between 1710 and 1830.

A number of significant changes have occurred in the industry during 490 years of sugar production in Jamaica. Although the industry’s contribution to the national income, employment and export earnings has declined, it remains the largest single employer of labour as well as the largest industry within the agricultural sector.

The production of sugar cane is now shared by some 12,000 independent cane farmers who produce just over 50 per cent of the cane processed. Primitive production methods have given way to a modem centralised system, and an average annual production of 213,775 tonnes during the last two decades. With the necessary injection of capital, increased efficiency, industrial harmony and a stable economic environment, the outlook is positive and the industry should progress steadily towards its production target of 300,000 tonnes per year. 
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