Thu | Nov 14, 2019

Jamaican higglers' marketing system and the future of Kingston (Part I)

Published:Sunday | October 31, 2010 | 12:00 AM

Arnold Bertram, Contributor

THE HIGGLERS who vend in the Kingston market are once again the focus of national attention as they protest the degradation of the physical environment within the markets. They certainly have cause for complaint.

To their eternal credit, it is they who operate the island's internal agricultural marketing system established by their forebears three centuries ago and on which the economy of Kingston depends. Every week they provide a ready market for small farmers and bring hundreds of truckloads of agricultural commodities to feed the capital city. They also sustain urban commerce by reinvesting their cash in haberdasheries and manufactured goods.

However, like vendors the world over, they aggressively sell their goods everywhere including on the streets. As long as they consistently flout every law designed to maintain public order, the security forces have a duty to protect the rest of society by firmly enforcing the laws.

One positive outcome of the protest is that plans for the redevelopment of Kingston are being mooted. If it is one lesson that the history of Kingston since Independence has taught us, it is that such a plan can succeed as a subset of the political project which established the political garrison in Tivoli Gardens as the coercive authority of the market district.

Garrison politics has been a major contributor to the present dilapidated condition of Kingston, which probably is the only capital city that is closed for business before nightfall. The economy is too precariously poised for us to miss any opportunity to maintain jobs and expand economic opportunities.

Joblessness, the threat of anarchy

For the law-abiding, the dismantling of the "mother" of all political garrisons in May constitutes the most important step taken since Independence to enforce law and order. For the rest, it has predictably led to a major contraction of the underground economy built largely on the lucrative international trade in illicit drugs and made their 'hustling' less rewarding as for the first time in 35 years Jamaica has been forced to survive solely on the formal economy. Both the 'big fish and sprat' of crime have suddenly found themselves without the kind of income they had previously enjoyed. They were always armed and ruthless, but now they are desperate as well.

The collapse of the underground economy was not the first, but the last in a sequence of events which adversely affected the economic viability of the city. Before the events of May 2010, the illusion of disposable income created by the payment of monthly dividends from the now defunct foreign exchange trading schemes had evaporated. With it went the life savings of all social classes.

Then came the start of the layoffs in both the public and private sectors. Many who lost their jobs found that some of their relatives abroad, particularly those in the United States, Canada, and Britain, were among the thousands of workers who got the pink slip. This is already translating in a substantial reduction in remittances, and could lead to the return home of those who are just not able to face the cold without having the security of a job.

We have been here before. Before the Great Depression of 1929, 120,000 Jamaican workers migrated to seek employment. It was estimated that during this period "remittances by emigrants brought £100-150,000 into the island annually, and the Royal Bank of Canada in Kingston had to employ extra staff to handle those from Cuba alone." (Post, 'Arise Ye Starvelings') Once the depression set in, they started returning. Between 1930 and 1934 "some 12,700 emigrants were repatriated, and about 15,500 returned voluntarily bringing back with them about 3,000 children born abroad".

All indicators point to social unrest. Unfortunately, what is on the cards is not a rebellion along the lines of 1938, which thanks to Bustamante, N.W. Manley, and Ken Hill, achieved constructive outcomes and laid the foundations of modern Jamaica, but the threat of anarchy. At the present time, the society stands precariously poised between an administration that has lost too much of its moral authority, and an opposition that is yet to demonstrate the capacity required to deal with the challenges it will inherit should it become government.

A window of opportunity

It is against this background of contraction, joblessness, and the threat of anarchy that we must seize the window of opportunity which is emerging to expand the commerce of the city by optimising the role of the higglers - the most enterprising and resourceful group of entrepreneurs in the country.

This emerging window of opportunity has its genesis in the decision of the prime minister and MP for Western Kingston, Bruce Golding, to break with the tradition established by his predecessor, who too often appeared as the commander-in-chief of Tivoli Gardens whenever the security, attempted to impose law and order. The fact that the decision to support the security forces came after months of vacillation is not as important as the fact that as a result, the criminal networks which controlled the market district are now on the run, and that political tribalism appears to be waning. It is now possible for a major redevelopment of the market district to proceed without an alliance with either criminals or 'tribalists'. This is the critical difference between 1992 when "a Master plan for the Redevelopment of Downtown" was launched and 2010. We can now have a project in which the principal stakeholders have a well-defined economic, social, or regulatory function.

The second contributing factor is Digicel's grant of J$100 million for the refurbishment of Coronation Market, which hopefully, will set the stage for major private-sector participation in the creation of a new downtown Kingston. To the extent that the project requires international capital and expertise, Jamaica's ambassador to Washington, Audrey Marks, is now ideally placed to mobilise the international community for both.

One significant deficit that remains is the prevailing ignorance about the historic contribution of the higglers to national development. For despite the critical importance of the internal market system, the subject has remained largely understudied. Except for the pioneering study The Jamaican Internal Marketing System, by Sydney Mintz and Douglas Hall, and Lorna Simmonds' informative essay Slave Higglering in Jamaica 1780-1834, there has been little specific focus by our historians on the subject.

This series of articles is intended to help correct this deficiency and hopefully provide policymakers with a historical perspective.

Emergence of African-Jamaican higglers

The higglers who developed Jamaica's internal marketing system in the 18th century emerged from the ranks of the enslaved Africans on both the sugar plantations and cattle pens. Between 1660 and 1807, when the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade to Jamaica was abolished, a total of 915,015 enslaved Africans disembarked at Jamaican ports. From this number some, 193,000 were re-exported mainly to North America, leaving a total of some 711,000 on the island. (Ahmed Reid)

Once plantation slavery was established, the slave owners faced the cost of feeding the enslaved in increasing numbers. The choice was either to import the food at significant cost, or to provide the incentives for the enslaved to feed themselves. They chose the latter and "in large measure food production by the slaves grew in the absence of compulsion, and under conditions which implicitly acknowledged their responsiveness to the same incentives which operated for the free Jamaican". Mintz & Hall)

The labour regime on a sugar estate was arduous, exacting and cruel in the extreme. It began at 4 o'clock in the morning, ending at about 7 o'clock in the evening, with a short break for breakfast and a longer one for lunch. However, during crop time, the workday could extend for up to 24 hours. The entire family was incorporated in the estate labour; the five-year olds took their place in the 'pickaninny' gang, and at 13 years of age, were graduated the 'second' gang, followed by the 'great' gang. By 30 years of age the enslaved were already 'old', worn out by toil and punishment, and sent to spend the rest of their days with the 13- to 18-year-olds in the 'second' gang.

It was in addition to this 'slave' labour that the enslaved still found time "to produce a variety of foods such as tree crops, vegetables, edible herbs and roots as well as craft materials. This produce was primarily intended for their own domestic use ... but eventually surpluses were created which were taken to local markets and exchanged for other commodities or sold for cash. The proceeds of these transactions accrued entirely to the slave." (Mintz & Hall)

The first 'Negro' Sunday markets

Market day was customarily held on Sunday so as not to interfere with estate cultivation, and the first markets developed in port towns such as Montego Bay, Lucea, Falmouth, Black River, Savanna-la-Mar, as well as inland towns like Brown's Town and Chapelton. A critical apprenticeship for the higglers was their experience in the inter-property trade which required them to travel extensively to other properties on foot to deliver fresh meat, coffee, and other commodities for their owners. Some of the enslaved women arrived in Jamaica with some preparation for their role as higglers since "the vast majority of Jamaican slaves came from West Africa where markets were highly developed, and where women were predominantly the marketers". (Mintz)

The economic importance of the higglers to the viability of the estates was not lost on the administration, which as early as 1711, gave legal rights for the enslaved to market specific commodities. Twenty-four years later, in 1735, their role had become virtually indispensable, and the law was appropriately amended to empower the enslaved to "carry about and sell all manner of provisions, fruits, fresh fish, milk, poultry and other small stock of all kinds".

The rapid growth of the internal marketing system created by enslaved African-Jamaicans was not the result of purely economic factors. Market day provided a welcome relief from estate life. The Negro markets "were cultural centres ... of the first order ... . They must have been centres at which new items of material culture were distributed and popularised. They must have also been centres of religious activity and dance and song ... Many a friendship and family tie traced itself back to the joys and vagaries of the marketplace". (Don Robotham)

Arnold Bertram is a historian and author. Comments may be sent to: redev.atb@gmail.com.




 

Jamaica, but the threat of anarchy. At the present time, the society stands precariously poised between an administration that has lost too much of its moral authority, and an opposition that is yet to demonstrate the capacity required to deal with the challenges it will inherit should it become government.

A window of opportunity

It is against this background of contraction, joblessness, and the threat of anarchy that we must seize the window of opportunity which is emerging to expand the commerce of the city by optimising the role of the higglers - the most enterprising and resourceful group of entrepreneurs in the country.

This emerging window of opportunity has its genesis in the decision of the prime minister and MP for Western Kingston, Bruce Golding, to break with the tradition established by his predecessor, who too often appeared as the commander-in-chief of Tivoli Gardens whenever the security, attempted to impose law and order. The fact that the decision to support the security forces came after months of vacillation is not as important as the fact that as a result, the criminal networks which controlled the market district are now on the run, and that political tribalism appears to be waning. It is now possible for a major redevelopment of the market district to proceed without an alliance with either criminals or 'tribalists'. This is the critical difference between 1992 when "a master plan for the redevelopment of downtown" was launched and 2010. We can now have a project in which the principal stakeholders have a well-defined economic, social, or regulatory function.

The second contributing factor is Digicel's grant of J$100 million for the refurbishment of Coronation Market, which hopefully, will set the stage for major private-sector participation in the creation of a new downtown Kingston. To the extent that the project requires international capital and expertise, Jamaica's ambassador to Washington, Audrey Marks, is now ideally placed to mobilise the international community for both.

One significant deficit that remains is the prevailing ignorance about the historic contribution of the higglers to national development. For despite the critical importance of the internal market system, the subject has remained largely understudied. Except for the pioneering study The Jamaican Internal Marketing System, by Sydney Mintz and Douglas Hall, and Lorna Simmonds' informative essay Slave Higglering in Jamaica 1780-1834, there has been little specific focus by our historians on the subject.

This series of articles is intended to help correct this deficiency and hopefully provide policymakers with a historical perspective.

Emergence of African-Jamaican higglers

The higglers who developed Jamaica's internal marketing system in the 18th century emerged from the ranks of the enslaved Africans on both the sugar plantations and cattle pens. Between 1660 and 1807, when the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade to Jamaica was abolished, a total of 915,015 enslaved Africans disembarked at Jamaican ports. From this number, some 193,000 were re-exported mainly to North America, leaving a total of some 711,000 on the island. (Ahmed Reid)

Once plantation slavery was established, the slave owners faced the cost of feeding the enslaved in increasing numbers. The choice was either to import the food at significant cost, or to provide the incentives for the enslaved to feed themselves. They chose the latter and "in large measure food production by the slaves grew in the absence of compulsion, and under conditions which implicitly acknowledged their responsiveness to the same incentives which operated for the free Jamaican". (Mintz & Hall)

The labour regime on a sugar estate was arduous, exacting, and cruel in the extreme. It began at 4 o'clock in the morning, ending at about 7 o'clock in the evening, with a short break for breakfast and a longer one for lunch. However, during crop time, the workday could extend for up to 24 hours. The entire family was incorporated in the estate labour; the five-year olds took their place in the 'pickaninny' gang, and at 13 years of age, were graduated the 'second' gang, followed by the 'great' gang. By 30 years of age the enslaved were already 'old', worn out by toil and punishment, and sent to spend the rest of their days with the 13- to 18-year-olds in the 'second' gang.

It was in addition to this 'slave' labour that the enslaved still found time "to produce a variety of foods such as tree crops, vegetables, edible herbs and roots as well as craft materials. This produce was primarily intended for their own domestic use ... but eventually surpluses were created which were taken to local markets and exchanged for other commodities or sold for cash. The proceeds of these transactions accrued entirely to the slave." (Mintz & Hall)

The first 'Negro' Sunday markets

Market day was customarily held on Sunday so as not to interfere with estate cultivation, and the first markets developed in port towns such as Montego Bay, Lucea, Falmouth, Black River, Savanna-la-Mar, as well as inland towns like Brown's Town and Chapelton. A critical apprenticeship for the higglers was their experience in the inter-property trade which required them to travel extensively to other properties on foot to deliver fresh meat, coffee, and other commodities for their owners. Some of the enslaved women arrived in Jamaica with some preparation for their role as higglers since "the vast majority of Jamaican slaves came from West Africa where markets were highly developed, and where women were predominantly the marketers". (Mintz)

The economic importance of the higglers to the viability of the estates was not lost on the administration, which as early as 1711, gave legal rights for the enslaved to market specific commodities. Twenty-four years later, in 1735, their role had become virtually indispensable, and the law was appropriately amended to empower the enslaved to "carry about and sell all manner of provisions, fruits, fresh fish, milk, poultry and other small stock of all kinds".

The rapid growth of the internal marketing system created by enslaved African-Jamaicans was not the result of purely economic factors. Market day provided a welcome relief from estate life. The Negro markets "were cultural centres ... of the first order ... . They must have been centres at which new items of material culture were distributed and popularised. They must have also been centres of religious activity and dance and song ... Many a friendship and family tie traced itself back to the joys and vagaries of the marketplace". (Don Robotham)

Arnold Bertram is a historian and author. Comments may be sent to: redev.atb@gmail.com.