The Making of an Industry

 

At the beginning of the 18th century Sir Humphrey Davy anticipated the existence of the metal aluminium. The metal was positively identified later that century.  However, its commercial production did not begin until the 1890s, after two inventors - Charles Martin Hall (whose father served as a Congregational minister for ten years in the parish of St. Mary) in the USA and Paul Heroult in France - simultaneously invented in 1886 the process of extracting the metal from its oxide.

 

It was not until World War II, however, when demand for the metal increased, that attention was paid to bauxite deposits outside Europe, the United States of America, the South African colonies of the Dutch, and British Guiana. In Jamaica, geologists had noticed the "red ferruginous earth" as far back as 1869, but did not understand its significance.

Between 1938 and 1942, Sir Alfred Da'Costa, a Jamaican businessman, was having soil fertility tests done on his farm at Lydford, St. Ann, when he discovered that the land was highly aluminous.

 

Through Da'Costa's efforts,  the existence of the aluminous soils was brought to the attention of (a) the authorities in the United Kingdom, from whom it was passed on to the Canadians through their sole company, Alcan; and (b) the Dutch firm, Billiton, through his connection as Dutch Honorary Consul in Jamaica. In any event, the Dutch firm did not have a long stay here and so, for a while, Alcan was the sole explorer of the reserves in the island.

 

Two other North American companies - Reynolds and Kaiser - were later to join in. In 1952, Reynolds began exporting bauxite from Ocho Rios, and a year later Kaiser launched its export activities from Post Kaiser on the south coast. Alcan built an alumina plant near its mines at Kirkvine, Manchester, and in early 1952 began shipping the product.

 

Development of the Industry

 

After the first shipments, production increased rapidly, and within five years Jamaica had become the leading producer of bauxite in the world. In 1957, nearly 5 million tons of bauxite were produced, the equivalent of almost a quarter of all the bauxite mined in the world.

 

In 1959, Alcan built a second refinery at Ewarton, St. Catherine. By 1961, a fourth company, ALCOA, had begun operating in Jamaica. By 1968, Alcan had brought the capacity of its two refineries to more than 1 million tons per year. In 1969 a new plant was commissioned by ALPART at Nain, St. Elizabeth. In 1971 Revere Copper and Brass opened the island's fourth alumina plant at Maggotty, St. Elizabeth. Two years later, ALCOA (which had been shipping unprocessed bauxite since 1963) built the country's fifth refinery at Halse Hall, Clarendon.

 

The 1970s brought changes to Jamaica's position in the world aluminium industry. In 1971, Australia overtook the island as the world's leading producer of bauxite. Australia now produces about 41 million tons a year, compared to Jamaica's 11 million tons. In 1978, Jamaica was overtaken by the West African republic of Guinea as the second largest producer of bauxite, and slipped into third place, a position it has held since. It has been for several years the second largest exporter of alumina.

 

Notwithstanding the island's volume of production, because of energy constraints, no smelters were built in Jamaica, and it is unlikely that any will be.

 

Since 1988, the local industry has recovered in line with the world aluminium industry, and output has returned to the levels which prevailed in 1980.