The commercial production of aluminium began only in the last decade of the nineteenth century, although the existence of the metal in certain kinds of ores was known by scientists from the beginning of that century. However, until World War II greatly increased the demand for aluminium, little attention was paid to the deposits of bauxite outside Europe and the United States of America, including Jamaica, where geologists had noted the “red ferruginous earth” as far back as 1869, without recognizing its significance.
During the 1940s exploration and development work was carried out in Jamaica, mainly by Alcan, Reynolds and Kaiser.
Jamaican bauxite was not used during the war, but these three North American companies (Alcan, Kaiser and Reynolds) came to the island to survey, acquire reserve lands, and set up operations. Reynolds began exporting bauxite from Ocho Rios in June 1952, and Kaiser followed a year later from Port Kaiser on the south coast. Alcan built the first alumina processing plant near its mines at Kirkvine, Manchester, and in early 1952 began shipping alumina from Port Esquivel. This was the beginning of the industry in Jamaica.
After the first shipment of bauxite from Jamaica in 1952, production increased rapidly, and by 1957 Jamaica had become the leading bauxite producer in the world, with a production capacity of nearly 5 million tonnes of bauxite per year, almost a quarter of all the bauxite mined in the world in that year. Alcan built a second refinery in Jamaica at Ewarton, St. Catherine, in 1959. In 1961, a fourth company, Alcoa, began mining bauxite in the island.
The production of alumina also increased, especially after the mid-1960s. By 1968, Alcan had brought the capacity of its two refineries to more than 1 million tonnes a year. In 1969 a new plant was commissioned at Nain, St. Elizabeth, by Alpart, then a consortium of Kaiser, Reynolds and Anaconda, another U.S. company. 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.
In 1971 Australia overtook Jamaica as the world’s leading producer of bauxite. At the end of the 1970s, Guinea in West Africa, which had the world’s highest- grade bauxite, also drew ahead of Jamaica, and was then followed by Brazil in the early 1980’s and China and India in the first decade of this century.
Australia remains the world’s largest bauxite producer with output of 75 million tonnes in 2018. In second place was China at 70 million tonnes followed by Guinea (50 million tonnes), Brazil (27 million tonnes) and India (24 million tonnes). Jamaica had by then fallen to sixth place in the world, producing 10 million tonnes of bauxite. Jamaica’s share of world bauxite output has therefore fallen from 18% in the 1970s to about 2% of total world production of 300 million tonnes in 2018.
Regarding alumina, in 2018, Jamaica was ranked sixth in the world with an output of 2.5 million tonnes. China, Australia and Brazil were the top three (3) producing countries with outputs of 72 million, 19 million and 7.9 million tonnes respectively.