A truck being loaded with bauxite. Davis, Contributor ALTHOUGH I have written about the Jamaican bauxite and aluminium industry in three books and numerous articles, I think it is appropriate to repeat some of what I have written to mark the 60th anniversary of the beginning of the commercial mining of the ore. The Daily Gleaner ‘jumped the gun’, so to speak, by announcing the impending shipment in the next day or two in its issue of May 28,with a front page headline: This first shipment was to mark the start of Jamaica’s largest non-service local industry for all but a few of these 60 years.
It was the culmination of a more-than-decade long process of: Although the famous geologist, Sir Thomas de la Beche noted the existence of the red marly soil inand, later, another geologist, C. Barrington Browne, wrote of the red ferruginous iron-containing earth, no connection was made between these two observations with the earlier discovery of a naturally-occurring aluminous material, near the village of Les Baux, hence the naming of the aluminous ore ‘bauxite’ Provence, France, by the French chemist, Pierre Berthier, in Two pertinent developments in the late part of the 19th century were to make these naturally occurring aluminous materials even if in Jamaica’s case they were more recognised for their iron content important.
The first was the almost simultaneous discovery in on the much grander scale, not dissimilar to the separate inventions of the calculus by the 17th century titans, Newton and Leibnitz, of the process of ‘winning’ aluminium from its oxide by electrolytic means.
These inventions were by an American, Charles Martin Hall who had some Jamaican connection, by virtue of his father serving as a congregational minister in the parish of St Mary for 10 years and returning to the United States just before his son was bornand the Frenchman, Paul Louis Heroult.
Two inventions The second was two inventions, one in and another inrespectively, of a process for extracting alumina from bauxite by the Austrian Chemist, Karl Josef Bayer. And so the technology was named the ‘Bayer’ process after him.
But it was not until about a-half-a-century after these two discoveries that there was an ‘awakening’ of the commercial possibilities of the Jamaican red, marly soil or ferruginous earth.
This awakening had its genesis in the difficulties experienced by a wealthy gentleman farmer and businessman, Sir Alfred D’Costa, who was having difficulty growing Wynne grass Melinis minutoflora for his cattle on his lands in St Ann. As the saying goes, one thing led to another with the determination by the Government of Jamaica’s Agricultural Chemistry Department, supported by chemical analysis overseas, that the soils, while devoid of essential nutrients for plant growth, had relatively high concentrations of aluminium.
As mentioned above, Sir Alfred was not only a gentleman farmer, but a businessman.
So, wearing the latter hat, he sought to interest first the British Empire’s companies, Alcan and British Aluminium in the commercial potential of the ore on his land, and when he found that neither company was interested in sprinting on this matter, he turned to the Dutch Company, Billiton, through whose government he had a connection by virtue of being its Honorary Consul in Jamaica.
In the event, the matter became not merely a case of ‘parson christening his pickney first’, but ‘parson christening only his pickney’ as the ‘Empire Company,’ Alcan, was given a monopoly over of the exploration of the ore. But, as we shall see later, the Second World War and its aftermath, were to usher in the era of Pax Americana and see the United States US emerge as the predominant power in world affairs.