I happened upon this article in the New York Times a couple hours ago. The full text of the article is below. I invite you to read and share your thoughts on it. And please, bear in mind that it was written in 1859.
By the way, who was “W.G.S.”?
KINGSTON, Jamaica, December, 1859
As briefly as possible–for the theme is threadbare–I must endeavor to give your readers an approximate idea of the decline of Jamaica, ere I attempt to explain the causes of that decline or point out the political and social abuses and anomalies for which, it seems to me, a remedy must be found before the island can be restored to its ancient prosperity. I do not think it can be disputed — if history and statistics are to be believed — that, since the abolition of the Slave-trade fifty-two years ago, Jamaica has never for a moment paused in her downward career. I do not think it can be disputed — if actual observation is to be relied upon — that she has not, even yet, reached the lowest point of possible depression. Lower still she can sink — lower still she must sink, if her people are not imbued with a more pregnant patriotism — if the governing classes are not stimulated to more energetic action, and are not guided, by more unselfish counsels.
I know of no country in the world where prosperity, wealth, and a commanding position have been so strangely subverted and destroyed, as they have been in Jamaica, within the brief space of sixty years. I know of no country in the world where so little trouble has been taken to investigate the causes of this decline, or to remedy the evils that have depressed the colony. The partisans of Slavery, it is true — the sufferers, who have commanded the ear of the world and have enlisted its sympathies in their behalf — have represented, and with a large coloring of reason, that all this widespread ruin is to be attributed to Emancipation only. But thinking and intelligent men are no longer convinced by these state complaints. They cannot now be brought to believe that the liberation of 350,000 slaves, whatever may have been its first effect, is the origin, and only origin, of the poverty and distress that prevail in the island at the present day. British Emancipation may have been unwise; regarded as a great social revolution, the manner in which the scheme was executed must be utterly condemned; private rights were violated, and their sacredness was eclipsed by the splendor of an act which gave freedom to a people who never knew what freedom was; — but the ruin attributed to it is, in Jamaica, too broad and too deep to be set down any longer as the effect of that one solitary cause. No other English island has the natural advantages that Jamaica possesses; no other English island exhibits the same, or anything like the same, destitution; yet all have passed through the same experience — all have undergone the same trial.
Tempora mutantur should be the Jamaican motto. Tempora mutantur with a vengeance! Only sixty years ago, and the dream of Emancipation had not been dreamt even by a Wilberforce, and the then greatest slave-trading country in the world was but opening its national eyes to the iniquity of the accursed traffic. How vehemently the planters stood up for their right (who dare dispute it?) to steal Mandingoes and Eboes from the African coast! How forcibly, in those days, did they represent the unfriendliness of Slavery to population, and groan over an annual diminution of slave property which only the African trade could keep up to the scanty figure of a bare sufficiency! Their representations had, at least, the merit of being true; for though 600,000 slaves, at the lowest estimate, were brought to Jamaica during the Eighteenth Century, it is well known that, at the end of that period, the slave population of the whole Island was not much more than one half of that amount. It was computed by the political economists of the day that Jamaica required an annual supply of 10,000 slaves to provide against the wear and tear of life; and the statement will appear by no means incredible to those who have examined the statistics of Cuban Slavery at the present time. In spite of this immense traffic, ruthlessly and recklessly carried on, Jamaica was never adequately supplied with labor. The slaves were overworked to satify their masters’ lust for gain, and to this the great mortality has been mainly attributed. That great mortality ceased with the extinction of the Slave-trade, for the planters found it incumbent upon them to take more care of their property; nevertheless, in spite of all their precautions, the decrease of slaves each year by death, without reference to the decrease by manumission, was considerably larger than the increase by birth; and the deficit, now, could not be supplied.
There are many who believe that great crimes against society, in nations as in individuals, are followed by certain punishment; and, to such, the impoverished condition of the Jamaica planters of the present day will seem but a natural consequence of a long reign of avarice and cruelty, of extravagance and oppression. I do not seek to take up this parable against them. But, it is not to be denied, that they are the chief if not the only sufferers. The large landed proprietors and merchant potentates of the island — these are the men who have fallen from their high estate. The slaves of other days, the poor, the peasantry — these are the men who have progressed, if not in morality, at least in material prosperity, as in subsequent letters I shall have ample opportunity to show. If the change could be traced solely to emancipation, I should be loth to justify emancipation, believing as I do that it would be wholly inconsistent with morality or the dictates of a sound policy, to degrade that portion of the population which controlled the elements of civilization, in order to enrich an ignorant and undisciplined people. But the decline of Jamaica has been so stupendous as of itself to create a doubt whether it can be laid, in whole or even in part, to the emancipation of the slaves. A witness can prove too much; and the advocates for a slave system for Jamaica have appealed to a testimony which places their case in this very category.
It will be found upon examination that the most prosperous epoch of Jamaican commerce was that embraced in the seven years immediately preceding the abolition of the Slave-trade. Yet even then it is a notorious fact, to be proved by Parliamentary Blue Books, that over 150 estates on the Island had been abandoned for debt. During the seven years indicated — that is from 1801 to 1807 — the sugar exports of Jamaica amounted annually to an average of 133,000 hhds. During the seven years succeeding the year in which the Slave-trade was abolished — from 1807 to 1814 — the annual exports fell off to an average of 118,000 hhds. During the next seven years — from 1814 to 1821 — the annual average was about 110,000 hhds.; from 1821 to 1828, it was 96,000 hhds., and from 1828 to 1835 it was 90,000 hhds. — thus showing a steady decline, not so alarming, it is true, as the decline of subsequent years (for the whole sugar exportation of Jamaica is now only 30,000 hhds.) but sufficiently serious to demonstrate that Jamaica had reached its maximum prosperity under Slavery, and had commenced to deteriorate nearly thirty years before the Emancipation act was passed, and many years before the design of such a measure was conceived, or Mr. CANNING’s note of warning was sounded in West Indian ears. A comparison of Jamaican exports in 1805, her year of greatest prosperity, with her exports in 1859, must appear odious to her inhabitants. In the former year the Island exported over 150,000 hhds. of sugar, and in the latter year she exported 28,000 hhds. The exports of rum and coffee exhibit the same proportionate decrease. The exportation of pimento only has increased — to be explained by the fact that a large number of small settlers cultivate this article for sale.
If the City of Kingston be taken as an illustration of the prosperity of Jamaica, the visiter will arrive at more deplorable conclusions than those pointed out by commercial statistics. It seems like a romance to read to-day, in the capital of Jamaica, the account of that capital’s former splendor. Its “magnificent churches” — now time worn and decayed — are scarcely superior to the stables of some Fifth-avenue magnate. There is not a house in the city in decent repair; not one that looks as though it could withstand a respectable breeze; not a wharf in good order; not a street that can exhibit a square yard of pavement; no sidewalks; no drainage; scanty water; no light. The same picture of neglect and apathy greets one everywhere. In the business part of the town you are oppressed with its inactivity. Clerks yawn over the, counters, or hail with greedy looks the solitary stranger who comes in to purchase. If a non-resident, he is made to pay for the dullness of the market, and leaves a hotel, a store or a livery-stable, tolerably well fleeced-Prices that in New-York would be deemed exorbitant, must be paid by strangers for the common necessities of life. The Kingstonians remind me much of the Bahama wreckers. Having little or nothing themselves, they look upon a steamer-load of California passengers, cast away in their harbor for a night or a day, as very Egyptians, whom it is not only their privilege but their duty to despoil.
There is nothing like work done in Kingston, except perhaps in the establishments of a few European or American merchants, or on the piers, now and then, at the loading or unloading of vessels. The city was originally well laid out, but it is not ornamented with a single tree, and the square, in a central location, is a barren desert of sand, white-hot with exposure to the blazing sun. The streets are filthy, the beach lots more so, and the commonest laws of health are totally disregarded; wreck and ruin, destitution and neglect. There is nothing new in Kingston. The people, like their horses, their houses, and all that belongs to them, look old and worn. There are no improvements to be noted, not a device, ornament, or conceit of any kind to indicate the presence of taste or refinement. The inhabitants, taken en masse, are steeped to the eyelids in immorality; promiscuous intercourse of the sexes is the rule; the population shows an unnatural decrease; illegitimacy exceeds legitimacy; abortion and infanticide are not unknown. Kingston looks what it is, a place where money has been made, but can be made no more. It is used up and cast aside as useless. Nothing is replaced that time destroys. If a brick tumbles from a house to the street, it remains there; if a spout is loosened by the wind, it hangs by a thread till it falls; if furniture is accidentally broken, the idea of having it mended is not entertained. The marks of a listless, helpless poverty are upon the faces of the people whom you meet, in their dress, in their very gait.
Have I described a God-forsaken place, in which no one seems to take an interest, without life and without energy, old and dilapidated, sickly and filthy, cast away from the anchorage of sound morality, of reason, or of common sense? Then, verily, have I described Kingston in 1859. Yet this wretched hulk is the capital of an island the most fertile in the world; it is blessed with a climate most glorious; it lies rotting in the shadow of mountains that can be cultivated from summit to base, with every product of temperate and tropical regions; it is mistress of a harbor where a thousand line-of-battle ships can safely ride at anchor.
The once brimming cup of Kingston’s prosperity has been indeed emptied to the dregs. It offers no encouragement that this splendid island inheritance, wasted through riotous living in times past, will ever be redeemed. You must look beyond Kingston for the grounds of such a hope. You must escape from its sickly atmosphere and the listless indifference of its people. You must learn, as you can learn from the most casual observation, that the Island, unlike others that can be mentioned, is in no exhausted condition; but is fresh and fair, and abundantly fertile as ever, with every variety of climate, and capable of yielding every variety of product. Up in these tremendous hills you may enjoy the luxury of a frosty night; down upon the plains you may bask in the warmth of a fiery sun. There you can raise potatoes, here you can raise sugar cane. There you will find interminable forests of wild pimento, here interminabls acres of abandoned properties — a mass of jungle and luxuriant vegetation choking up the deserted mansions of Jamaica’s ancient aristocracy. Scenes most wonderfully fair, moat picturesque, but most melancholy to look upon; scenes that a limner might love to paint, but from which an American planter would turn in disgust and contempt.
This magnificent country — wanting nothing but capital and labor for its complete restoration to a prosperity far greater than it ever yet attained — is now sparsely settled by small negro cultivators, who have been able to purchase their plots of land for £2 and £3 an acre. With a month’s work on their own properties, they can earn as much as a year’s labor on a sugar estate, would yield them. They are superior, pecuniarily speaking, to servitude; and by a law of nature, that cannot be gainsaid, they prefer independence to labor for hire. Why should they be blamed? But the fact remains that the island is nearly destitute of labor; that through want of labor it has been reduced; and by an adequate supply of labor can it only be restored. Covering an area of four millions of acres, Jamaica has a population of 378,000, white, black and mulatto. This makes about eleven acres to each person. In the flourishing island of Barbados the proportion is nearly one and a half persons to each acre. If Jamaica were as thickly populated as Barbados, it would contain over five millions of souls, and would export a million hogs, heads. Till its present population has been doubled and trebled, no material improvement can be looked for. But where is the money — where are the vigor and the energy necessary to obtain this population? Whose fault is it that these are wanting, and that Jamaica, with far greater advantages than Trinidad or Guiana, has failed to follow the footsteps of their success? Is this also the result of emancipation?
I propose to visit the interior of this Island, and to describe in subsequent letters, and within such compass as your space will permit, the civil and social condition of the people, who are generally supposed, by their indolence and improvidence, to have plunged themselves and their island into hopeless ruin. And while I do not expect to find that freedom has produced that millenium, even for the negro, that Abolitionists pretend — while I know that I shall find a people falling far short, very far short, of the European or American standard of morality, or education, yet I think I shall prove that other evils besides their emancipation have contributed to the decline of the Island; that other wrongs besides emancipation must be righted before a change for the better can take place; and that a restoration of Slavery, were that within the bounds of possibility, would not only fail to restore Jamaica’s prosperity, but would sink her in deeper destruction. W.G.S.