On the Importance of introducing Agriculture on the Island—Erroneous Notions regarding Rats; not more numerous at the Farms than in England—successful Method of destroying them.

AN earnest wish to promote the interest of this island, has induced me to devote my leisure to various agricultural experiments, which have from time to time appeared in the St. Helena Register.

The results of those experiments very soon satisfied my mind of the practicability of a change of system, from which the greatest improvements might be expected. I was aware, however, of the difficulties I should have to encounter in overcoming strong prejudices in favour of customs that had existed from the earliest period of the establishment. The same sort of prejudice is, indeed, peculiar to farmers of all countries, and is, perhaps, equally strong in England as in any other part of the world. I could not, therefore, blame those who differed in opinion : but I was by no means discouraged. I was fully persuaded that perseverance and successful examples, would ultimately succeed in turning the minds of even the most obstinate, to a change, which, I can easily demonstrate, is obviously for their advantage. This change, indeed, appears to me the only possible means of ameliorating the condition of the landholders : and of extricating them from the difficulties they experience from the limited and narrow views they have long pursued ; by which they could hardly expect much more than a bare subsistence.

There is, at length, a prospect of the objects I have long had in view being fully accomplished. My experiments have attracted notice. Much more land is in cultivation ; and several instances of the new husbandry have already been manifested.

The laudable examples of Messrs. Brooke and Defountain, in substituting the plough and harrow for the spade and pickaxe, and the exertions of Mr. John Kay and Captain Sampson, deserve particularly to be noticed. Their success may prove even far more convincing to the landholders in general, than the soundest reasoning or the clearest deductions ; although they have been drawn from experiments, conducted with the greatest care and attention ; a mode, unquestionably the very best, and most certain of increasing, our knowledge in the agricultural, as well as in other arts.

Those gentlemen, therefore, have well established claims to commendation and to encouragement ; being the first who have led the way, and given their attention to the wise and judicious order of the Court of Directors, dated the 7th of March, 1794 ; “to render every acre of ground, capable of cultivation, as productive as the nature of the soil will admit.”

Not doubting that some others will soon imitate these beginnings, (since they will find it their interest to do so) and that they will adopt the plough and harrows, by which they may, without any addition to the manual labour they now possess , greatly extend cultivation, it would be superfluous to offer any further arguments with a view of enforcing what has been already stated in my several communications upon this most important subject : I shall, therefore, only recommend to all the landholders, that they direct their attention to the many acres of excellent land, at present in a state of nature, lying, in a manner, waste and unprofitable ; that they duly reflect on the deteriorated state of the pastures in seasons of drought, and their former losses in cattle ; and compare the immense difference in produce between even the best. pastures and a crop of green fodder of oats or barley, (Goat Papers, page 76. St. Helena Register for April, page 6) and then ask themselves this question—“Have not our lands, in many places where they have been tried upon a small scale, yielded abundant crops of corn and esculents twice a year?” The answer is too obvious not to confound the most sceptical, or I should rather say, the most obstinate, who may yet persist in declaring, that “agriculture here can never succeed.” Such assertions must appear most futile and unfounded, when contrasted with numerous facts that have been already so clearly and incontrovertibly established.

It is now four years that I have given my attention to this subject ; and after distinctly proving the capabilities of the soil and climate, I have not the smallest hesitation in declaring my opinion, that if 6 or 700 acres, of the two or three thousand, that are capable of being brought under the plough management, were allotted to corn crops, the present population might be supplied with bread corn in abundance, the stock of cattle and sheep augmented by means of straw and green fodder crops; a vast number of hog's reared ; the lands meliorated by manure ; and the breweries furnished with a sufficiency of barley for all their demands. I will now proceed to examine the effects that would be produced from so laudable an appropriation of even that small portion of the pasture lands.

According to an investigation detailed in my minute of the 31st August 1810 , (published in page 6 of the “Laws and Ordinances”) it will be found that the consumption of flour at St. Helena in the year 1808, was 878994 pounds. Doctor Adam Smith reckons 2000 pounds of wheat to be the produce of an acre : but I will take it at 1800 pounds of flour ; at which rate about 500 acres of wheat annually, would suffice for the island consumption.

The import of malt this year was 790 quarters (say 800) or 6400 bushels. This quantity might be produced from the barley wheat, which is undoubtedly the very best for malting. (Register for March, 1812, page 4.) Supposing 50 bushels to be the average produce from an acre, 130 acres would annually supply the breweries. It may therefore be inferred that 6 or 700 acres in the cultivation of corn, would render the import of wheat and malt almost unnecessary, and the landholders might not only by this means retain among them the sums that are annually sent to England for flour and malt—but they might also derive ample sustenance for their cattle. The fodder of straw from the 700 acres, may be rated at twelve hundred tons. This added to occasional green crops of fodder, which, (after two months from sowing the seed), would yield from 12 to 14½ tons an acre, (Register[1] for April 1812, page 4) would place the proprietors of cattle beyond all risk, when the grass lands are bare and parched by the sun's heat.

Now supposing the wheat to be, at first, sold at 3d. per pound, or 15 shillings a bushel,[2] and that 900,000 pounds is the annual quantity required, the value would amount to £11,250 0 0

6400 bushels of barley wheat when malted, if sold at
     12s a bushel would be
3840 0 0
And, 1200 tons of straw, at £2.
2400 0 0
£17490 0 0

As the St. Helena beer is in high estimation at the Cape of Good Hope , it may be presumed the demands for it will yet increase. The farmers of St. Helena might therefore, by means of industrious habits, and a proper course of husbandry, obtain from these new sources, a return equivalent to 17,000 pounds sterling annually from one crop, exclusive of what they derive from their cattle, and potatoes, and other articles of farm produce. From this concise view of our home consumption, and the prospect of export, it must be obvious, that no farmers in the world can possibly have a stronger incitement to exertion, than those of St. Helena: for they are at all times, assured of a ready sale, and even more than a reasonable price, for all their products. If then they would only strive to be purveyors to the population, instead of allowing the whole to he buyers, of flour, malt, pork, &c., imported here, it requires no uncommon degree of penetration to discover that a vast improvement would soon take place in their condition.[3]

To these objects I would therefore recommend the capital and industry of the island being employed. Some persons here may possibly consider that the plans recommended are upon too grand a scale ; but I will ask them, What are 700 acres of cultivation in the hands of a few English farmers?—Lord Kames, in his “Gentleman Farmer,” has stated, (in page 292) “I will venture to say that in most soils, fifty acres of corn may be commanded by a single plough ; provided the crops be distributed through the year, to afford time for managing all of them with the same men and cattle.” According to this estimate, which I believe is generally admitted to be correct, in England and Scotland , the whole proposed extent of cultivation on the island of St. Helena, and from which so many advantages might be obtained, could easily be managed by fourteen ploughs or fourteen petty farmers; that is, if they confine themselves to one crop only in the year.

I would not however propose that any one should, at first, attempt the cultivation of 50 acres. I would have all to do a little—to feel their way—and to proceed gradually, according to the extent of their means. In this, there can be no hazardous speculation ; and as there are between 60 and 70 landholders, and above 200 blacks attached to the farms[4]—surely among these collectively, the 700 acres proposed would require no very extraordinary degree of exertion.

For carrying into effect the plans I have here recommended, there is a sufficient number of horses, and many cattle, that usually remain idle on the pastures. These might soon be trained, as well as the slaves, to the several purposes of husbandry. Those who have only small patches of land might use the spade, or hire a plough, as suggested by Sir John Sinclair in his paper on Cottages. Others who have a greater extent of land might begin with only 8 or 10 acres of their choicest land. In both cases the new lands should he inclosed with good fences, the process of paring and burning adopted, and after the soil has been well cleaned and pulverized, there should be two or three successive crops of potatoes taken ; and, at the time the new lands are under this management, f would recommend, that the present old potatoe grounds should be ploughed, and sown with barley wheat, or Cape barley or oats, in the proportion of two bushels per acre for the first crop—this would yield a weighty produce of green fodder, which would keep the working cattle in good Condition, and furnish some portion of manure for those lands, that have been exhausted by a long succession of incessant cropping.

The second barley wheat crop should be raised with a view to malt for the breweries : and finally, these old potatoe grounds might be brought into a condition fit for crops of wheat, provided attention be paid to making manure, by collecting all the cattle of the farms at night into an inclosure, and feeding then with the green-fodder crops.

By such means the landholders might put into their own pockets those large sums that are now expended for the purchase of flour and grain ; and, in the course of a few years, they would undoubtedly become more affluent than they can ever expect to be if they confine themselves to the comparatively limited demands of the shipping. They would also derive an inward satisfaction in thus being obedient to the Honourable Company, and in contributing to the general good of the island, and to the comfort of all other classes of the community : they would, moreover, prove themselves deserving of the favours and indulgence of the lords proprietors ; which they and their families have invariably received at their hands.

Although a due consideration of all those advantages (which I have no doubt are attainable from the extension of agriculture) will, I trust, excite a considerable degree of emulation and exertion, yet it is my intention to recommend that certain premiums, or prizes, should, be given to those who shall first distinguish themselves as able cultivators. And with a view of animating their exertions, I mean to propose that there be six classes of merit. The first prize to be given to him who shall have broken up the largest portion of uncultivated land, or delivered into the Company's granary, in James's Town, the greatest quantity of barley wheat.: because this is a corn that can be most easily raised. The other prizes to be allotted in gradation according to the respective proportions of newly cultivated land and of corn deli vered : bit no person should be entitled to any prize who shall not have broken up five acres of uncultivated land, and delivered not less than two hundred bushels of corn, the produce of his farm.

I shall further recommend that the first six candidates for prizes within the first twelve months from this date, in addition to honorary prizes, should receive a remuneration equivalent to the original cost of one plough and a pair of harrows.

No expensive buildings would be required for the proposed improvements, because the corn could be received into the Company's granaries in James's Town, or deposited in a small building appropriated, or erected for the purpose at each farm, immediately after it has been thrashed and cleaned. These operations might be performed in the open fields, a practice which is usual in India and in Egypt , and even in the colder regions in the North of Europe.[5]

But the advantages which the landholders would derive from the appropriation of 700 acres to the culture of corn, would very far exceed what. has been stated. It must be recollected that the St. Helena lands produce two crops a year, consequently, the wheat and barley grounds might yield, annually, a second crop, either of potatoes, mangel wurzel, cabbages, beans, or turnips, and the like ; or of green fodder from corn, or from maize ; or even, in some instances, a second crop of barley and oats, for grain ; so that it seem s possible to supply the proposed quantities of flour and barley wheat by means or less than 700 acres—and, therefore, it may be reasonabl y supposed that between 4 and 300 acres of corn land, would be fo und sufficient and the other two hundred acres would yield a sufficiency of potatoes and other esculents. After a spirit for cultivation has been once excited, I have no doubt it would rapidly increase, and be carried far beyond the scale I have here suggested.

I must however remark that if two crops a year are taken from the proposed 700 acres of cultivation at St. Helena , they will require nearly double the number of ploughs and labour, that they would in England—that is 28 ploughs, instead of 14.

Hence it seems, that if 700 acres were constantly cultivated with corn, they might produce, annually, more wheat and barley than would be immediately wanted for the island consumption. Part of the second crops, or green crops, if given to cattle and sheep, would soon augment the island flocks ;[6] and the number of hogs that might be reared by means of those crops, for supplying the garrison occasionally with fresh pork, would be im mense, compared with what it now is. The Company have agreed to purchase it at the rate of one shilling per pound : so that for pork, there would be no want of a ready sale. Besides, by the rearing of these useful animals, together with stall-feeding of cattle, large quantities of excellent manure would soon be obtained, by which, even the poorer lands might be brought into a state of improvement, fit for the purpose of raising wheat. I have, indeed, already had some exceeding fine specimens of this corn, cultivated in good land, without manure. In short, proofs are not wanting to establish, in the clearest manner, the certainty of success : but, a total change of husbandry, and a proper application of our manual labour, and of the muscular strength of animals, are absolutely necessary. By such means, I am confident, that in the course of a few years, there would be effected a change in the value of this island, which would be highly beneficial to the interests of the Company as well as individuals. It might lead to the most important consequences; particularly if it should be deemed expedient to convert St. Helena into a depot, or mart, for Indian and China produce, a plan that has been more than once suggested.

20th August, 1812.

  1. The experiment referred to was with Cape oats.
  2. After the first three years of cultivation, the island price should keep pace with the London market.
  3. It is true that flour and malt can be conveniently imported from other countries: but surely it is an object of the first importance to promote the prosperity of the landholders. This can never be effected whilst all their scanty earnings are expended on foreign produce. Such has been, and is, the practice at St. Helena.
  4. In addition to these, the farmers can hire Chinese labourers from the Company's establishment, at two shillings per day.
  5. Vide, Section III.
  6. Several persons, in England, appear to have entertained doubts as to the propriety of breaking up much land on this island, from an apprehension it would interfere with the grand object of raising stock for the supply and refreshment of the shipping: but so fax from lessening the supplies, either of cattle or vegetables, I trust, I have distinctly proved that it would be the best possible means of increasing them.

    There is another erroneous notion regarding St. Helena : “rats,” it is said, “are so numerous and destructive that it would be wholly impossible to raise corn.” This mistake has evidently originated in the fate of a few square rods of corn; which had been the utmost extent of former trials. So small a quantity, growing near the abodes of these animals, would soon be devoured in any country : but where several acres of corn have been cultivated on this island, even the first crop did not suffer more than it would have done near the homestall of an English farmer. The succeeding crop sustained no injury whatever: for, at the time of reaping the first crop, care was taken to destroy every rat that had burrowed—the number was one hundred and twenty—and the consequence was, that when the second crop was cut down, only three rats were found in a field of six acres. In the same manner the Plantation-house garden, of seven acres, has been effectually cleared of rats. Four years ago they were extremely troublesome; but during the last two years they have been wholly extirpated.

 Section XX