The year 1968 marked the centennial of Jamaica’s banana export industry. Because of an absence of a sense of history and of an appreciation of the struggles of our forefathers in laying the foundation for the limited independence we have achieved since Emancipation, the event – with one small exception – passed quite unnoticed. That exception was the Oracabessa Citizens’ Association which, in co-operation with the St. Mary Parish Library Association, held a meeting to mark the occasion. This address, given from notes on the 16th December 1968 to that meeting in the Oracabessa Primary School, is written up here in response to a request made at the end of that meeting.
The origins and development of the banana industry bear witness to resoluteness of the Jamaican people to break through the colonial legacy which still deprives us of a dignified existence and a way of life independent of foreign domination.
Modern Jamaican society has us roots in the slave sugar plantation society and economy of the nineteenth century. Ever since Emancipation in 1838, the primary concern of the ex- slaves and their descendants has been lo secure an independent existence. In order to break away from the inhumanities of the plantation. this meant that the rural population had first to acquire land of their own and second to engage in productive activity which had no direct links with the plantation. The planter class, on the other hand, made every effort to frustrate the development of an independent peasantry in order to secure for themselves a reliable source of cheap wage labour.
This antagonism laid the foundations for social unrest. Thus, for example, the Morant Bay “rebellion” of 1865 resulted directly from a dispute about the rights of peasants to lands adjoining an estate.
And on that occasion the peasantry paid a high price in loss of life in the brutal suppression of their demands.
It is in this context that the banana trade originated through the joint initiative of peasants and certain merchants acting as agents for American schooner captains. Captain George Busch was the first captain to take regular shipments of bananas from Oracabessa beginning in 1868 as he had secured the co-operation of two merchants, Peter Moodie and Edward Sutherland, to encourage peasants in St Mary and Portland to supply them with fruit. The response of the peasants was great since the trade provided them with cash earnings which made them less dependent on the sugar plantation. And as Hall points out in his Ideas and Illustrations in Economic History the sugar planters were so hostile to this development that they never even considered producing bananas themselves. Hall quotes a later Governor who wrote:
“The old planting regime would never have developed that cultivation. When I first knew Jamaica, banana growing was still despised as a backwoods ‘nigger business’, which any old-time sugar planter would have disdained to handle, or, if tempted by undeniable prospects of profit, would have thought an apology was required.”
For the planters, the independence of the peasantry resulting from the growth of the banana trade was undesirable since “it detracted from tile supply of wage labour for the sugar estates”. But it was “encouraged by the merchants whose exports were increased and whose imports found better markets among a wealthier peasantry” (Hall).
The traditional plantations refused for a long time to switch to bananas. More than a decade after the trade began, only one estate was listed as a “banana plantation”. Not until the 1890’s was there any significant plantation participation. And by then bananas represented about 25 per cent of the island’s export trade.
Thus we can attribute the initial steps toward diversification f the traditional sugar economy to the initiative and efforts of the ex-slaves and their descendants. It was our forefathers who laid the foundations of the banana industry and it is they whom we must honour today.