The development of agriculture has been a central theme in the historical evolution of Caribbean societies since the advent of the European presence in the region. Up to the present time, despite its recognised centrality, there exists no comprehensive history of agriculture in the British Caribbean. As a result, there are many features of regional history which can provide new trajectories for Caribbean historical analysis, but remain hidden from the purview of the wider public. Among these are the histories of organisations, other than those of the state or of the planting community, which were created in response to the issues facing regional agriculture. Since these organisations demonstrate regionalism in action, knowledge of them and their activities will advance both an understanding of the development of agriculture in the region and the development of regionalism through agriculture. The Caribbean Agro-Economic Society is one such organisation. Since its formation, this society has persevered in its attempt to make a difference and stimulate regional agriculture on to the path of development. Although its immediate origins were stimulated by an academic community, its activities involved agricultural practitioners and communities across the region as it sought to make a difference to Caribbean agriculture. It is thus necessary to view the interventions of this society in the context of existing knowledge in order to enhance our understanding of the Caribbean historical experience. This study attempts therefore, to trace the development of the Caribbean Agro-Economic Society from its precursor organisations, through its nascence in 1974 and its activities to date. It is intended to show the circumstances of its origin, its structure and organisation, its aims and achievements, its changes, challenges and future prospects.
Traditionally, agriculture in the Caribbean has operated as a private sphere with all decisions relative to production being taken by individual planters. This was the case until the end of the 19thcentury, when the sugar industry faced serious problems. It is to be noted that this individualistic approach to plantation administration was a practice that was rigidly adhered to only in the ‘good’ times. When faced with problems, plantation owners took a decidedly regional stance as they complained in unison to the imperial government and begged for assistance. This is well demonstrated in the developments which occurred at the end of the 19th century, when unfavourable market conditions swelled the chorus of planter complaints about distress in the region, which ultimately led the imperial government to appoint a Commission to investigate the state of the territories. In its response, the imperial government also took a regional approach to the issue. The resulting West Indies Royal Commission (The NORMAN Commission) was appointed in December 1897 under the chairmanship of Sir Henry Wylie Norman and included Sir Edward Grey and Sir David Barbour. The Commission was mandated to investigate the condition and prospects of the West Indian sugar colonies and to recommend measures for the maintenance of their prosperity. The Commissioners met in London and gathered evidence from select witnesses between 31st December 1897 and 7th January 1898. They then travelled to Guyana, Grenada, St. Vincent, Barbados, Trinidad, Tobago, St. Lucia, Dominica, Montserrat, Antigua, St. Kitts/Nevis, and Jamaica. On their return to England they interviewed some additional witnesses. Altogether information was obtained from three hundred and eighty (380) witnesses in forty-five (45) formal sessions. Thereafter the Commission recommended the establishment of a department of Economic Botany to handle the agricultural concerns of the West Indies and, for agricultural instruction to be given in all schools (P.145)1. The duties of the Agricultural Department were to report on and extend the work of the Botanic Stations and to start an industrial school where the training of boys in agriculture would take place. Generally, the recommendations included the teaching of scientific agriculture in the elementary and secondary schools through the Botanic Departments and Botanic Stations with financial support from the British government for ten (10) years. (P.66)2 Greater emphasis was placed on agricultural development which encompassed the production of a wider range of crops than previously cultivated and reduced the dependence on sugar alone. But even those engaged in the production of sugar needed to be versed in the desirable agricultural practices (p.19.)3. The Commission recognised that “a system of training in agricultural occupation is much needed” in the region (p.19)3 in order to teach the best means of cultivating tropical plants. It was convinced that
“Agriculture in one form or another, must always be the chief and the only great industry in the West Indies, but a system of training in other industrial occupations, on a limited scale, is desirable, and would be beneficial to the community” (P.19)3.
It also recommended the diversification of agriculture into fruit cultivation for export.
In his subsidiary report, Dr. Desmond Morris, Assistant Director of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, noted the almost entire dependence on one industry in the region which he deemed “dangerous agriculturally.” He identified the pressing need to increase production, and suggested that the strategy to achieve this was 1,2,3 The NORMAN Commission
“…to stimulate the intellectual activity of all classes by suitable education and training and by being led to believe that regard agricultural pursuits as offering at least equivalent advantage to those of other callings, improved means of communication are necessary not only between the colonies themselves but with outside markets, and judicious aid is needful to be given, where suitable conditions exist, for starting other industries. “(P.82)4.
He recommended that the people should be educated in the right methods of growing, pruning and manuring plants so that the best use could be made of the land and that this education should begin at the elementary schools. [Speaking about Jamaica. P.143]5. This provided the stimulant for a new approach to Caribbean Agriculture which was now moved out of the private domain of planters into the public sphere which was a characteristic of agriculture in the 20th century Caribbean.
In addition there was an increased involvement of professionals in the region’s agriculture as both plantation owners and state agencies sought to embrace more scientific agricultural practices in their operations.
Of greater importance was the increased presence of professional agriculturists who served as officers in the various imperial and colonial departments of agriculture. The Imperial Department of Agriculture (IDA) was established in Barbados in 1899. It was soon overwhelmed with the demand for various agricultural services and recommended to the imperial government that those territories, like Jamaica, Guyana and Trinidad which could afford it, be given Departments of Agriculture of their own. These Departments began to address the overall concerns of agriculture in their respective countries while the IDA concentrated on those in the remaining territories. Although they did focus on the plantation section, attention was given to food production and related matters. Most significant at the time was the increased presence of trained agriculturalists in the region and the attention they began to give to a wide range of agricultural problems. A burgeoning of specialists was evident in fields such as entomology, mycology, soil science, crop science and plant and animal disease. The IDA took a regional approach to agricultural problem-solving and this pattern became fully entrenched as the officials contributed articles to regional journals and lectures at various fora. A marked feature of this period was the institution of a regional agricultural conference to provide the forum for such discussions. The main ideas receiving support at these conferences included the need to increase agricultural production, produce more food in the region and stimulate greater profitability in agricultural enterprise.