Boom and Bust in Jamaica's Coffee Industry, 1790-1835

By Monteith, Kathleen E. A. | The Journal of Caribbean History, January 1, 2013 | Go to article overview

Boom and Bust in Jamaica's Coffee Industry, 1790-1835


Monteith, Kathleen E. A., The Journal of Caribbean History


Coffee was cultivated and processed for export from as early as 1728 in Jamaica. However, it was not until the 1790s when exceptional market conditions created by the dislocation of production in Saint Domingue caused by protracted warfare there, that the Jamaican industry underwent dramatic expansion. In 1774, the number of coffee plantations in Jamaica stood at 150; by 1792 the number had increased to 607, and in 1799 the number of properties reported was 686.2 Average production on properties identified in the Crop Accounts series increased from 1,585 tonnes between 1790 and 1795, to an average of 1,918 tonnes between 1800 and 1807. This data also indicated that peak production on individual properties in 1805 averaged 2,198 tonnes. This rapid expansion of the industry meant that by the early nineteenth century, coffee was Jamaica's second most important export crop after sugar and its derivatives.3

Coffee export figures suggest boom conditions between 1790 and 1815, with decline setting in thereafter. Between 1790 and 1795, exports from Jamaica increased from just less than 100 tonnes to over 2,000 tonnes. The years between 1795 and 1815 saw unprecedented export levels: in 1800, exports amounted to 5,133 tonnes and by 1805 to around 10,937 tonnes. In 1815, exports amounted to 12,500 tonnes, but peak exports occurred in 1814 when they reached 15,178 tonnes. Between 1820 and 1830, exports from Jamaica averaged 10,148 tonnes, but by 1835 exports were back to the 1800 level of 5,133 tonnes (see figure 1). A closer examination of the performance of the industry suggests a short-lived boom between 1800 and 1805, with decline setting in soon after 1810, much earlier than the export figures suggest.

The Profitability of the Industry 1790-1810

Some idea of the profitability of the Jamaican coffee industry can be ascertained from the Accounts Current series,4 though one is well aware of the limitations associated with these records. The Accounts Current, like the Crop Accounts, contain returns of production output, expenses and sales on individual properties made by plantation overseers and attorneys on behalf of their absentee owners and or minors. While the Accounts Current series list expenses on contingencies and sometimes the mortgage accounts of the properties, they rarely provide information on capital expenses such as that for the repair of machinery, buildings, and the expenses involved in the opening up of a new field and for the acquisition of labour. Also, information on expenses related to the marketing of colonial produce and the interest and principal on loans that might have been incurred is invariably absent. It should also be borne in mind that the Accounts Current, like the Crop Accounts, are reflective only of the conditions on the absentee-owned and minor-owned properties in the industry.5 But this does not mean that they cannot provide a barometer of some general trends in the performance of the Jamaican industry as a whole in this period.

Since the Accounts Current series begin in 1809 and therefore do not cover the period 1790 to 1808, the estimates of expenses and capital outlay given in Bryan Edwards' History are used to give an idea of the expected returns on investment in coffee production for export in the 1790s (see table 1). Edwards' estimates are for a fairly large property involved in coffee production in Jamaica in the 1790s. Edwards states this property was located "in the mountains 14 miles from the sea".6 Table 1 shows that with an initial capital outlay of £15,059 (£15,179) Jamaica currency (or £6,023 sterling), and with a field of 150 acres in coffee, producing 45,000 pounds of coffee in the fourth year when the fields would first come in, the planter stood to make a net profit of approximately 8 per cent on his capital invested. In the fifth year when yields improved, approximately 25 per cent return on his investment could be expected.

How representative and accurate these estimates were for the larger properties in the industry in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century is debatable. …

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