Jamaica Blue Mountain Coffee
A Short History
Chapter Two – Coffee is Established in Jamaica
Almost every story of Blue Mountain coffee begins with Governor Lawes (or, as in the first chapter of this effort, with Mathieu de Clieu). Lawes, a man who was married five times, each time to a different, well-connected, widow, is well known for introducing coffee to Jamaica in 1728, but its cultivation did not take off immediately. In 1752 exports amounted to a mere 60,000 pounds.
It was in the late 1700’s that coffee boomed. There were well over 600 plantations at the turn of the century, but by 1850 there were only around 150 left. The story most often told is fast-forwarded to the 20th century and the creation of the Coffee Industry Board to address quality issues besetting the industry. What happened in between? Why did Jamaica produce so much coffee by the end of the 1700’s only to be decimated by the late 1800’s? There is no simple answer, but there appear to be several factors behind the decreased production, including the emancipation of slaves, the general difficulty in finding labor in Jamaica, price fluctuations, and the weather.
Early colonial Jamaica history consisted of constant struggle against the predations of pirates and privateers, and, perhaps more debilitating, a struggle against disease, including malaria, cholera and yellow fever. It was astounding how rampant disease was and the mortality rate, especially of British soldiers stationed in Jamaica, was high. In 1849 Asiatic cholera killed over 30,000 Jamaicans, more than 1 out of every 13 inhabitants of the island.
Against this backdrop agriculture fluctuated over the years. Coffee began to boom in the late 1700’s, as Britain eased tariffs on coffee and consumption in Britain rose significantly. In 1799 there were around six hundred and eight-six plantations with around 70,000 acres under cultivation. When Britain eased tariffs coffee consumption and cultivation boomed. By 1804 Jamaica exported 22,000,000, nearly a 1400% increase over 10 years prior. Production peaked at 80.5 million pounds in 1814 according to Gardner, or 34 million according to Ukers, and there after declined to an average of 22 million per year until 1838. After emancipation of the slaves, during a period of “apprenticeship” created to transition slaves into private laborers, production average only about 6 million pounds per year. The decline was already occurring prior to the abolition of slavery, and was been exacerbated by other factors including poor soil management, the loss of Britain’s favorable tariffs towards commodities its colonies produced, competition for labor with sugar plantations, and competition with countries that still used slave labor.
Interest in growing coffee in Jamaica increased after coffee production declined on the island of its largest producer, Saint Domingue, (now Haiti) pursuant to the successful slave rebellion led by Toussaint L’Ouverture. Prior to 1700 or so the Jamaican interior was sparsely populated, with its most notable inhabitants being the Maroons, escaped slaves that lived in the rugged “cockpit” country. The sugar plantations that were the basis of the economy were on the coasts. Planters from Saint Domingue assisted in getting Jamaica’s coffee business started, but it was always considered a less attractive business than the sugar business, and there were good reasons for that. With few roads and a difficult terrain, the Blue Mountains present a beautiful, but difficult place for agriculture. Cultivating coffee and just getting it to port was difficult.
There is evidence that the coffee plantations were less well capitalized than the sugar plantations. They represented a “second chance” for those who had not been able to make it rich in sugar. Many borrowed heavily to set up the plantations. This may have made some plantations much more susceptible to abandonment when hard times came, as the owner probably had few or no funds to manage years with shortfalls.
Price fluctuations of coffee were just a severe in the 19th century as they are today, but it is interesting to note that Jamaican coffee has fetched a premium on the world market over other coffees from the start of its cultivation. The premium may not have been enough to get the growers through a major transition when Britain dropped tariffs that favored colonial produce in 1846. Previously tariffs favored commodities produced with non-slave labor, but after tariffs were equalized Jamaican sugar and coffee had to compete with sugar and coffee produced by slave labor. The difficulties may have been exacerbated by the fact that the the protection these planters had did not force them to be as efficient as they could be.
The labor difficulties that came after emancipation were partly brought on by the plantation owners themselves, and the customs of slavery in Jamaica. Most slaves in Jamaica were provided a part of the estate where they could raise the food they needed. In addition they could sell surplus to the plantation and in local markets. In addition after emancipation there were many difficulties in setting wages and rents. The former slaves, who had grown up in the huts they occupied and cultivated the grounds, planted fruit trees, etc. were now in many cases subject to rent. Sometimes the rents were egregious, calculated on a per head basis, or simply unreasonable. So it is unsurprising that these workers strove to find a plot of land of their own where they could avoid rent, grow what they needed and some surplus to sell, and otherwise be free from working on the plantation. These plots were often far away from the plantations as the estate owners were generally not interested in selling parts of their holdings, and this meant that even when the former slaves could be induced to work on the plantation, they might be too far away to get to work.
The sugar plantations also had an advantage over coffee plantations in attracting labor. The cane field worker was allowed to consume as much sugar cane as he wanted during harvest, a tradition held over from slavery. But labor was short in any case as evidenced by the various schemes that the Jamaican government tried in order to increase the island’s population.
All the efforts made to attract labor were generally ineffective: The streets of Madras were swept for “volunteers” but the “coolies” were not “motivated workers” according to reports. Northern Europeans were recruited but died in large numbers in the tropical climate they encountered in Jamaica. The Jamaican government spent considerable sums trying to attract craftsmen and tradesmen, but they often did not survive long against the tropical diseases that afflicted the island.
There is also evidence that poor soil management, or, possibly, a lack of capital to replant as coffee trees only produce for 25 years or so. The first estates to produce coffee appeared to have peaked in production earlier than the later estates established later.
By the dawning of the 20th century Jamaica was producing only about 10 million pounds per year of coffee, not much different than what it is producing today, but was beginning to face serious quality issues.
Chapter Three will take us from the beginning of the 20th Century to the revival of Blue Mountain Coffee in Jamaica.
Bibliography of Chapter 2
“A History of Jamaica” W.J. Gardner, 1873
“A History of Coffee” by Ukers, 1922
“An Archeology of Social Space – Analyzying Coffee Plantations in Jamaica’s Blue Mountains” by James A. Delle, 1998