The Empire and the century/The West Indies

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THE WEST INDIES

By SIR ALFRED LEWIS JONES, K.C.M.G.


The history of the West Indies has been written by various men at different times, and little now remains to be told of those wonderful islands around which the naval heroes of England, France, Spain, and Portugal had many fierce fights and exciting adventures. It was on these waters that the immortal Nelson got his training. But Britons have a peculiar interest in the earliest oversea possessions of their country, and it is doubtless because of the romantic associations of Jamaica and the other luxuriant islands of the Antillian group, riveting my attention as a boy, and engrossing my thoughts as a man, which when their bitter cry for help was sounded throughout the length and breadth of the United Kingdom, which inspired me with the desire to do what lay in my power to extricate these Colonies from the trouble that threatened to swamp them. Pestilence and hurricane had played havoc with what remained of a prosperity that was phenomenal, but which had dwindled down to a condition of hand-to-mouth existence owing to one cause and another. This was principally due to the unlimited opportunities given to beet-producing countries for supplying the home markets with their subsidized products, thus ruining the staple industry of the West Indies—sugar. The once successful sugar-cane planter, finding his market captured and unable to compete with the near-at-hand and cheaply-produced beet-sugar, struggled on until finally compelled to succumb, with little hope of recovering lost ground. It was at this stage of Jamaica's history that Mr. Chamberlain, the Colonial Secretary, cast about for means to prevent absolute collapse of the islands, and, if possible, to restore them to their former prosperous state. Specifications were drawn up by the Crown agents, and tenders invited for the establishment of various steamship services, the development of the fruit trade, and the encouragement of travel to the 'hundred isles.' The requirements were such as to deter shipowners, fruit-growers, or hotel proprietors offering to undertake the whole scheme as called for, and I was therefore appealed to. My firm, having had a unique experience in each of the branches referred to, occupied an advantageous position, and we were enabled to fulfil the Government's onerous requirements. We were therefore persuaded to carry out the programme, and what that means few can appreciate, for from the first the contract was one that offered little inducement, and little, if any, prospect of a return on the capital outlay, and on the time and labour expended. Besides, it had to be proved that fruit could be brought thousands of miles oversea from the West Indies and delivered in marketable condition in England. Experts maintained that it could not be done, but by costly installations in the steamships and persevering experiment we solved the problem satisfactorily, and have made this scheme a pronounced success. But this was not attained without considerable expenditure of money and many heavy losses.

Mr. Chamberlain, in his wisdom, demanded a service of first-class mail steamers, capable of carrying a large number of passengers and many thousands of bunches of bananas, and to-day we have brought Jamaica within ten days' sail of England, and passengers have the opportunity of travelling in a style and with such comfort as was not dreamt of a short time since. Jamaica being the largest and most important British Colony in the Caribbean Sea, it was selected for special attention, and, indeed, it needed looking [after, for the island was in a very poor way, and the people apparently in despair and listless. Instead of bestirring themselves, they were giving way to the ruin fast overcoming them. There is no doubt whatever that the lack of energy and enterprise was in a large degree responsible for the poor condition of the island five years ago. Had a strong effort been made to introduce other industries in lieu of the abandoned sugar trade, Jamaica would have been in a better position to-day. The dependence upon one industry has killed other places, even as it brought partial desolation to Jamaica; but the fillip given to the cultivation of bananas, pines, etc., owing to the evidences of activity shown by the establishment of the new steamship line, the opening of splendid hotels, and the greater amount of energy that had to be thrown into the banana industry, caused a general awakening which undoubtedly had a good effect, as it inspired hopes of better times in many breasts.

Although the trade of the islands has not increased by leaps and bounds, returns show a decided and continuous advance. But Jamaica has not yet risen to the occasion, for it will require far more than the growing of bananas to restore her fallen fortunes. The cultivation of cane, and the manufacture of sugar, the establishment of central factories, the making of preserves and condiments, and the undertaking of every branch of industry that can be carried on profitably, must be introduced to Jamaicans would prosper. In the new interest created by the British Cotton Growing Association in the cultivation of Empire-grown cotton there are undoubtedly rare possibilities, and, if followed up, not only in Jamaica, but in the other islands under British dominion in the Caribbean Sea, as it ought to be, the future can be looked forward to with every confidence. The suitability of the soil and climate have been clearly demonstrated, and it only requires enterprise and determination to make the issue certain. In fact, samples of cotton brought to this country have realized as much as 1s. 6d. per pound. In fact, the West Indies will receive something like £100,000 for the cotton grown there, and this encouragement must be the effect of turning attention to this means of making money. To help in this direction we undertook for some time to carry cotton freight free. Old-fashioned ways, like obsolete machinery, must be cast aside before satisfactory results can be secured, and indolence, which is named as one of the greatest curses of the beautiful and fruitful Antillian Islands, must be overcome before any real and lasting progress can be made.

On my visit to Jamaica I saw, in the few days I spent there, the enormous possibilities of the country: the soil seems to be capable of producing anything with very little attention, and if science and labour were but applied to the ground, no complaints such as we have heard in the past would be again made. I also witnessed the lethargic attitude of the people, much of that of the blacks being inborn laziness, and, in the case of the whites, it appears to be a quite natural effect of the climate. It is, of course, ridiculous to expect the same amount of energy in people subjected for long periods to the hot, enervating climate of the low-lying parts of Jamaica as is to be found in Britain; but I am convinced that far more is possible than is now attempted. There appears to be a too great dependence upon the Imperial Government, for, while I recognise the duty of the Government to take the initiative and display a practical interest in the wellbeing of the Colonies, giving such as need it financial help and sound, useful counsel, I nevertheless believe such assistance can be harmful, and not only check individual effort, but defeat its own purpose. Mr. Chamberlain, in his schemes for the advancement of the Colonies and the amelioration of conditions in those that might be considered below par, seemed to understand this fully, and exercised wonderful discretion in his dealings with Britain's dependencies and the solution of their problems.

The encouragement of the banana trade by the Colonial Secretary has been a splendid thing for Jamaica and for Great Britain. The regular shipment of something like 30,000 bunches a fortnight by the Imperial Direct Line steamers, in addition to others, constitutes a trade which is constantly increasing. This, to say nothing of the millions of bunches annually shipped to the United States, has caused the laying out of great tracts of land for banana cultivation, and promises to become a far more important source of labour and profit in the near future. But, as before stated, bananas are not sufficient to restore the past prosperous condition of the West Indies, and the necessity of returning to the production of sugar, and to the development of cocoa, coffee, and fruits that will preserve is obvious. It is in cotton, however, that we hope to see Jamaica come to the front. The trials that have been made, and the reports that have been drawn up by Sir Daniel Morris, Commissioner for Agriculture in the West Indies, are most encouraging. Honey is a valuable as well as an important product, and the steps that have been taken to insure the exportation only of qualities that will do the Jamaican apiarists credit cannot but have a beneficial effect. Some success has attended the establishment of the new preserves factory, and there is no doubt that, with a greater measure of success, the industry of fruit-preserving would play no small part in the restoration of the fallen fortunes of Jamaica. There is also a prospect for cattle and horse breeding, though not to the same extent as in other directions named.

With education, increased energy, cooperation, and intelligent enterprise, the West Indies will flourish, and there is no doubt that the crowds of tourists now invading Jamaica will influence the people there for good, besides inducing many of the visitors to invest capital in the islands for development purposes. Land values are improving, and even since the inauguration of Mr. Chamberlain's scheme there has been a great advance in the price demanded for old sugar estates and other untenanted properties, of which the island had numbers. When English people come to understand the nearness of the West Indies, the benefits of the ten days' sea voyage, the health-giving virtues of the climate, where, in the mountains, almost any temperature can be obtained, and which has been so confidently and emphatically declared by Sir J. Crichton Browne, the stream of tourists will flow towards Jamaica and the other islands in a way that does not now seem possible. Publicity should be given to all the advantages obtainable, and if every means available are employed, our own idea of prosperity will be attained.