Frome Sugar Factory, Westmoreland, Jamaica
Image from the National Library of Jamaica Photograph Collection. Permission to reproduce this image must be obtained from the National Library of Jamaica
Further information - Sugar
Frome Sugar Estate
A large sugar estate and factory in Westmoreland parish, it was once the centre of the region’s economic life; processing cane grown on its own lands as well as that supplied by thousands of individual small growers from surrounding areas. As a result, ‘Frome’ and ‘Westmoreland’ were almost synonymous. To establish Frome, the British sugar manufacturers of Tate and Lyle through their subsidiary, the West Indies Sugar Company (WISCO), bought up 16 estates in Westmoreland and Hanover, with seven small and largely obsolete factories. When Frome Central Sugar Factory was opened in 1939, it was the most modern sugar factory in the Caribbean and the first central factory to be established in the island.
During the construction period, Frome became one of the flash points of the widespread labour disturbances of 1938. Construction of the factory and consolidation of the small farms began at a time of severe unemployment and social discontent, and thousands seeking work converged there from all over the island. Most could not gain employment but stayed on in the vicinity. Those taken on as construction workers were also dissatisfied with the living and other conditions, and with the fact that their wages fell short of the magical ‘dollar a day’ which they had expected. A dispute with wage clerks flared into a violent strike in April-May 1938. Canefields were set on fire and a riot broke out on May 3. The police fired into the crowd, killing four people and wounding thirteen. Over 100 persons were arrested.
Frome was only one of such clashes between workers and the authorities that were to take place all over the island during the ensuing weeks. (The first disturbances had occurred at Serge Island Sugar Estate in St. Thomas and the Kingston Waterfront.) Out of these disturbances were to come Jamaica’s first mass-based trade unions – The Bustamante Industrial Trade Union (BITU) and the National Workers Union (NWU) - and organized political parties – the People’s National Party (PNP) and the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP). (See also Hanover Parish - People - Alexander Bustamante)
SUGAR (Saccharum officinarum)
The major product of processed sucrose, sugar cane is a perennial giant grass that grows to 5 metres high and forms clumps as it grows. The round stalk is about 5 centimetres in diameter with a hard exterior rind covering a softer fibre that contains the sugar that is extracted by crushing. In harvesting, the ripe cane is cut down but the suckers or ‘stools’ at its base will send up fresh canes the following year, called ‘ratoons’. However, the yield per acre from ratoons diminishes each year, so in commercial operations the fields are dug up and replanted every five or six years. For planting, the cane is cut into short lengths with three buds or ‘eyes’, a new cane springing from each bud and taking root.
Sugar cane was, for centuries, Jamaica’s most important economic crop; the sugar islands of the Caribbean being at one time the most important possessions in the British Empire and Jamaica the ‘jewel in the crown’. So rapid were the returns from sugar that where in 1672, there were seventy plantations producing 772 tons per annum, by the 1770s there were well over 680 plantations. The industry entered a rapid decline by the third decade of the nineteenth century and was revived to a lesser extent in the twentieth century when the remaining small factories were consolidated into large central factories. Though of much less importance than formerly, sugar is still a significant employer of labour and the major agricultural source of foreign exchange earnings.
The institution of New World slavery grew in response to the demand for workers for the labour-intensive sugar plantations and the two trades – in sugar and slaves – were forever associated.
Senior, Olive. Encyclopedia of Jamaican Heritage. Kingston: Twin Guinep Publishers, 2003