Tue | Jul 14, 2020

Anthony Gambrill | How Cubans created a J’can tobacco industry

Published:Sunday | September 8, 2019 | 12:00 AM

Tobacco was brought to Jamaica by the Taino Indians from South America. It is said that two of Columbus’ sailors came across natives in Cuba rolling the leaves of maize or corn, burning and inhaling it. Not quite, it was tobacco leaves, and the Indians had different ways of inhaling it to induce a sensation of euphoria, even treating real or imagined illnesses.

Historian Edward Long, in his 1774 history, noted that several species of tobacco – generally known as cow tongue because of its broad leaf – were grown for consumption by the Jamaican populace. Its leaves were dried and twisted into a shape resembling rope. In fact, today, it is still referred to as jackass rope and chopped to lengths for sale.

In the 19th century, the wealthy bought and smoked Cuban cigars. Local tobacco was considered inferior although there was an increasing interest in cultivating it. An apparent indication of this is contained in a speech in 1846 by the governor, Lord Metcalfe. “(I understand) the cultivation of tobacco on a large scale is about to commence.” However, there was subsequently no evidence that tobacco was grown on any but a small scale for the local market.

It was with the introduction into the island of Cuban seed and growing technology that tobacco became a vital part of the Jamaican economy in the last quarter of the 19th century. Following the collapse of sugar after Emancipation and British legislation that removed colonial trade preference and the decline of the coffee industry, the country needed new agricultural inputs. The Cuban War of Independence from 1868-1878 provided some of that stimulus.

As in many Caribbean islands, sugar had long dominated the Cuban landscape. However, there were areas like Vuelta Abajo in Pinar del Rio that were unsuitable for growing sugar but ideal for tobacco, which could be grown on small-size, often family-owned plots. Out of this phenomenon, cigar-making evolved as a domestic enterprise.

Ultimately, tobacco farming and cigar production became major elements of the Cuban economy. By the mid-19th century, Cuba had become world-renowned for the craftsmanship and quality of its Havana cigars. In 1859 alone, 612 million cigars were sold. But tobacco growers and cigar-makers were becoming restive under arduous government restrictions and were increasingly sympathetic to the demand for independence from Spain.

The proximity of Santiago de Cuba at the eastern end of Cuba to Jamaica and the steady flow of social and commercial contacts that was generated as a result of regular shipping services between the two countries meant that Jamaica enjoyed a regular flow of information about events taking place across the Windward Passage.

On November 4, 1865, The Daily Gleaner first reported an “attempted insurrection in Cuba”, which was to be followed by many accounts of an insurgency. By December, a flood of refugees began that was to last for three decades.

The exodus generated by this revolutionary movement included many professionals such as doctors, manufacturers (tile and marble flooring) and even barbers better known as ‘tonsorial artists’. But most families were familiar with tobacco. Many began small farms primarily in St Andrew and Clarendon.

Finding suitable land

In 1868, Don Juan Miguel Palomino arrived with his wife and family of five. He was to spend several years experimenting to find the most suitable land for tobacco. It took 12 years to find the soil and climatic conditions similar to those of his homeland. Eventually, he was to concentrate his farming on the banks of the Rio Minho. By 1882, he had begun manufacturing cigars, cigarettes, and pipe tobacco in Spanish Town and later in the parish of St Andrew.

Benito and Juan Machado were wealthy landowners from the province of Santa Clara, but owing to their political support of the campaign to secede from Spain, had their property confiscated. Initially, they settled in New York, but in 1874, emigrated to Jamaica to put their traditional knowledge of tobacco to work.

Importing seeds from the Vuelta Abajo region in Cuba, they contracted farmers in Temple Hall, St Andrew, and Colbeck, St Catherine, employing Cuban refugees. Starting with 25 workers, they were soon to employ another 300 manufacturing cigars. According to the publication The Machado Story, the highly successful Machados registered the first Jamaican trademarks, including that of the popular La Tropical in 1884.

A curious twist of fate brought another man, not Cuban but Lebanese, to Jamaica, who was intending to emigrate to Australia with his brother (who unfortunately died when their vessel stopped in Havana) and was impressed by the wealth being enjoyed by tobacco in Cuba Simon Soutar changed his plans and decided to emigrate to Jamaica rather than Australia. He eventually acquired a former sugar estate on the Wag Water River in St Andrew. This Temple Hall property was farmed by 20 Cuban families. Soutar went on to manufacturing cigars, exporting them from his own wharf at the bottom of Orange Street in Kingston.

These three entrepreneurs weren’t the only ones to find Jamaica suitable for tobacco. Others farmed in districts as disparate as Morant River and Potosi in St Thomas; Morgans Valley, Retreat, Danks, and Sevens near Bath in Clarendon; and Pumpkin Ground and Spring Vale in St Catherine.

The tobacco acreage under production rose from 267 to as high as 448, with those lands largely in Clarendon, St Catherine, and St Andrew. However, sugar still occupied 40,000 acres and coffee, 20,000 acres. The Handbook of Jamaica nevertheless records that Jamaican cigars reached a value of more than £350,000 in 1884. But the Cuban tobacco industry lasted barely a hundred years.

There remains today little material evidence of the impact of those who contributed uniquely to Jamaica’s heritage in tobacco-growing and cigar-making. From a social perspective, however, their hard work and determination to overcome adversity inevitably won them respect and admiration during their difficult early years in Jamaica.

- Anthony Gambrill is a playwright and historian. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com.