Academic journal article The Journal of Caribbean History

Thoroughly Tested and Carefully Tried: Cane Culture, Agricultural Technology and Environmental Change in Nineteenth-Century Guyana

Academic journal article The Journal of Caribbean History

Thoroughly Tested and Carefully Tried: Cane Culture, Agricultural Technology and Environmental Change in Nineteenth-Century Guyana

Article excerpt

The Plantation Environment Up to the Nineteenth Century

By the beginning of the nineteenth century, many plantation owners had established estates along the Atlantic coastline between the Essequibo and the Berbice Rivers (figure 1). Initially, cane was not the only crop grown; planters favoured a mixed cultivation tailored to their resources and the prevailing micro-climate.3 The plantations produced cotton, coffee, cacao, indigo and tobacco for export, and also cassava and plantains (subsistence crops), using enslaved labour. Invariably, new plots were first cropped with plantains and cotton because the excessive robustness of cane harvested from virgin soils made for a more profitable conversion to rum rather than sugar.4

Cotton was most lucrative for ten to twelve years after the initial opening up of a plantation and required few inputs, aside from enslaved labour.5 Cotton thrived initially on the Atlantic coast. At the start of the nineteenth century there were approximately 116 cotton plantations and only one sugar estate, named Kitty, along the coast between the Demerara and Berbice rivers. However, 111 cotton plantations were abandoned between 1809 and 1824 in Berbice alone, and cotton production was negligible after the 1820s. Over-cropping resulted in soil erosion and compacting, yield declined and plants were stunted. Cotton also suffered from "Couch grass" (T. repens) and "Sour grass" [Paspalum conjugatum) invasion, from "blast" disease which rotted the cotton seeds, and from attacks by butterfly larvae which destroyed young plants. In addition, the industry faced growing competition from cheaper cotton produced in the southern United States with improved technology and enslaved labour.6

Arabian ("Creole") and Liberian varieties of coffee were grown alongside plantains that shaded young coffee plants with their broad leaves. In 1810, Plantation Le Réduit (Redoubt) on East Coast Demerara counted 150,000 coffee shrubs as well as 70 acres (28 hectares) of cotton. Ruimveldt, Cornelia Ida and Good Hope were coffee plantations in 1816 but later converted to cane. Meten-Meer-Zorg, with approximately 130 acres (53 hectares) of canefields in 1817, also grew coffee.7 This crop matured slowly in Guyana and, though a high-value product which was traded as "Dutch coffee", was less profitable than cane. Competition from British-ruled India, Ceylon (Sri Lanka), the Straits Settlements (now part of Malaysia) and Jamaica hastened the demise of coffee cultivation in Guyana. Exports declined precipitously from the 1820s and, after a brief resurgence in 1831, continued to fall off and ceased altogether in the 1840s.8

Cacao was another early staple but an abrupt drop in prices after 1824 ended cultivation for export. During its heyday, planters grew it primarily on forested upriver land where dense tree cover provided shade and acted as windbreaks against strong breezes.9 For a time, the prerequisites of growing cacao, especially, forestalled denudation of the plantation zone as plants thrived under the cover of native trees. Loss of the protective canopy, concomitant with expanding canefields, hastened the demise of coffee, cacao and cotton and was also a hindrance to plantain, a critical food crop that also needed protection from seasonal cold air and high winds.10

Agriculture relied heavily on manual labour. Enslaved men, women and children empoldered the plantations; they also planted, tended, reaped and processed cane, cotton, coffee and cacao. Cane farming, though lucrative, was the most labour-intensive agricultural activity and demanded one worker for every acre cultivated. Cotton required one person per two acres, and coffee cultivation needed two for three acres.11 After emancipation many freed persons deserted the plantations, purchased land and established independent free villages and small farms.12 The exodus severely constricted the labour pool and forced planters who wanted to remain in business to import Madeiran Portuguese, Indians and Chinese indentured workers, as well as smaller numbers of Caribbean, European and African contract workers. …

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