Harper's Weekly 02/25/1899


Our New PossessionsPuerto Rico
By William Dinwiddie, Special Correspondent of “Harper's Weekly”

TOBACCO-CULTURE

MORE tobacco was exported from Puerto Rico
in 1828, by nearly two hundred thousand
pounds, than in 1896, and in 1846 there were
shipped abroad 6,693,900 pounds, or over
three times the amount exported in 1896.
For seventy years the amount of tobacco ex-
ported has been surprisingly uniform, usually between
the two and three million pound mark, with now and
then a year like 1846, which blossomed into promise of a
future for tobacco, when the crop has doubled or trebled
that of preceding years. These increases have been spo-
radic and far apart, being accounted for usually by short-
age of Cuban crops.


It is exceedingly difficult to find a solution for the non-
progressiveness of this commodity, which is grown so
well and so easily on the island. The explanation lies
possibly in several directions: First, the rapid increase
of tobacco-culture in Cuba, and the world-wide attention
called to a particularly fine leaf, grown, however, only in
a very restricted area. which soon made Havana tobacco
famous. It was not until the forties that Cuba rapidly
strode ahead of Puerto Rico in her annual exportations,
and since then the latter has been completely eclipsed, if
not almost forgotten, in tobacco-raising. Second, in the
early days, as well as to-day, the peasant almost exclu-
sively raised the entire crop on the island in meagre
patches of from a quarter of an acre to several acres,
mortgaging his crop beforehand to the shopkeepers and
petty dealers. The landed proprietors and capitalists,
with curious conservatism, preferred to risk their all in
sugar and coffee, preferably buying their manufactured
tobacco from the expert cigar-makers of Cuba and the
Peninsula, rather than fostering and promoting the poor
home industry. Hence, in all time, excepting possibly
the last few years, the manufactured products of tobacco
in Puerto Rico have been execrable, the work unskilled
and slovenly, while the leaf itself has been raised by care-
less hands, eaten by insects, badly cured, and improperly
packed.


The increasing demand for Havana tobacco has ex-
cluded Puerto Rico from the foreign tobacco marts, and
the premium set on Cuban-grown tobacco has been so
great that not only have her entire crops sold at high fig-
ures, but to meet the growing commercial preferment
she has for decades imported the bulk of the Puerto-Rican
raising, branding it with that magic word Havana. Spain
has been the second great buyer, the heaviest in quantity,
but not in quality; and, in fact, between them they ab-
sorb the tobacco crop, leaving a few hundred thousand
pounds in some years for Germany, and a few thousands
for Italy and France.


The United States smokes its Puerto-Rican tobacco
through Havana. It is more expensive, but the label in-
creases the flavor some fifty per cent. Only in exceptional
years, during Cuba's struggle for liberty, and the con-
comitant restriction and destruction of her tobacco, have
we imported any from Puerto Rico, and then only to the
amount of a few thousand pounds. We have returned to
the island in manufactured tobacco many times the valu-
ation of her exports to us.


Cuban tobacco-growers would probably insist that the
suggestions advanced are not vital in retarding the to-
bacco industry, and that the real explanation lies in the
poorer quality of the tobacco grown in Puerto Rico.
However, with a leaf as fine to-day as Havana's, Puerto
Rico could not compete until her reputation had been
much advanced and solidly built up.


They do not grow as good tobacco on the little island
as on the greater. That they can grow it, there can be
no doubt. The soil and the climate both favor this as-
sertion, but until such time as careful methods of culti-
vation, handling, curing, and manufacturing shall pre-
vail, and the growing be done on large estates in a
scientific manner, the quality of the tobacco will be lower,
and the surplus product necessarily be controlled and
sold at a low price set by the consumers.


The change of island ownership will perforce cause
the current of the crop—both raw and manufactured—to
set towards America's shores, and if our government
legislates for open markets a sharp impetus will be given
to the manufacture of cigars, cigarettes, and smoking-to-
bacco on the island, which will redound to the financial
benefit of its people. As an argument in favor of such a
course, it may be said that it is generally conceded that
finer cigars may be manufactured in the humid atmos-
phere of the tropics than in more northern, drier regions,
where much of the pristine flavor and aroma is lost.


The following table may be of interest, showing the
exportation of tobacco from 1828 to 1896, giving some
maximum and minimum years:



Amount.
Total Value.
Price per
Pound.


Pounds.


1828
2,396,500


1842
6,693,900


1847
2,270,600


1852
5,807,000


1853
2,099,500


1887
6,924,000
$1,125,770
15.7c.
1894
3,369,616
619,474
18c.
1896
2,219,907
408,110
18c.



EXPORTED TO FOREIGN COUNTRIES.

1894.

1895.


Pounds.
Value.
Pounds.
Value.
Spain
2,378,573
$437,280
1,375,751
$252,920
Cuba
580,256
106,675
2,160,347
397,161
Other countries
410,787
75,519
128,953
23,706
Total
3,369,616
$619,474
3,[text is unclear]
$673,787


Spain has, in the aggregate, been much the heaviest
purchaser of Puerto-Rican tobacco, but in years that the
Cuban crop has been small Cuba has purchased every-
thing in sight, and the Spanish sales have fallen off as il-
lustrated in the last table.


The apparent rise and fall in the size of the island to-
bacco crop, as illustrated in the preceding tables, does
not, in the writer's estimation, indicate any great excess or
decrease in the acreage planted; neither does it point to a
failure in certain years of the crop, as the average expor-
tation for many consecutive years is rather uniformly low.
The answer is found in the fact that in years when there
is exceptional demand for the tobacco almost the entire
crop is sold abroad, and in the years of small demand the
surplus is largely consumed at home.


There are no statistics by which one may arrive at any
conclusion as to the annual quantity of tobacco raised,
but island tobacco-dealers estimate the crop at from eight
to twelve million pounds, and a few somewhat higher.
As the use of tobacco is almost universal, the local con-
sumption of the five to eight million pounds gross weight
which would remain after deducting the average export,
by a population of a million, is not excessively high.


On the crowning round-knobbed crests of the lesser
hills, and surrounded by the guava-trees or bananas which
screen them from the wind, little patches of close-growing
tobacco, sprouted from the seed, may be seen almost any-
where on the island during the months from July to No-
vember. It is here in these primitive hot-beds, which
catch the first and last rays of a summer sun, that the life
of the coming tobacco-plant first germinates.


Early in November the great green hills, which reach
far up toward the sky, overrun by creeping vines and the
general luxuriance of plant life run wild, slowly bare
themselves to sombre brown under the laborious attacks
of groups of ragged white-clad peasants, armed with
broad-edged hoes. It is a pretty sight for the traveller
who may pass across the land over the great military
highway, this agricultural panorama, stretched out per-
haps so far from him that the landscape becomes a map
with manikins in white, mere specks moving on the earth.
'Way over there, across a rare deep valley, is a charging
army in a thin and straggling line; behind them, down
the steep slope, is clean bare soil, sprinkled with little
rubbish bonfires, whose white smoke curls upward in the
lazy air, while in front of them is the barricade of green,
eaten away foot after foot by the heavy hoe and gleaming
machete. The sharp-edged height is their objective point.


On the opposite side of the hill another army of workers
creep up to the same objective, and when they meet on
the mañana possibly there will be a war of cigarettes, for
the cleaning of the field is done, and it is ready for the
planting of the baby tobacco.


The great tobacco-field is of rare occurrence, and found
nowhere except in the Cayey district, on the military
road, which holds the prestige for high-grade leaf of fine
color, softness, fragrance, and combustibility. The greater
part of the tobacco is still grown by the peasants in little
patches. At Cayey, however, in the last few years, a
number of energetic men have gone in for tobacco-culture
on a large scale, and the prompt return in richer tobacco,
handled yet too primitively, pays a tribute to the possi-
bilities of the soil, and promises an immense future for
the backers.


The land before planting is made soft and mellow, and
drawn into high ridges with gutters or drains between.
Each young plant is set two feet away from its neighbor,
and the youngsters which die under the galling sun are
replaced by vigorous ones, until the entire field is alive
with growing plants.


The best lands are considered by some to be those of
the low-lying foot-hills, near the narrow valley levels, and
beneath and protected by the more rugged mountain
ranges; but there is a very limited amount of such land
made by the disintegration of the massive limestones and
fertilized by the decaying vegetable matter of the upper
slopes; consequently the higher ridges are resorted to and
cultivated to their very tops. Where the growing tobacco
is fairly protected from constant winds and secures plenty
of warm sunshine, the matured plant returns a beautiful
leaf, and the differences which exist between the top and
bottom of ridges are marked in the varying quality of the
tobacco, that at the top being a rougher, darker leaf, while
that at the base is thin, and good for wrapper.


By March, or the middle of that month, the tobacco is
ready for its first cutting. Before this time arrives there
has been much work done on a tobacco-field. Weeds
must never be allowed to spring up; the leaves of the
growing plants must be examined for the eggs of cut-
worms, and the pests themselves, which must be killed
promptly; the budding flower-stalks must be cut off so
that the leaves will grow larger, and the small defective
leaves are often taken away for the benefit of the plant.
It is for the lack of this constant care that so much black,
spotted, thick-leaved tobacco appears in the markets of
Puerto Rico. The lower leaves of the ripening plant are
first taken when they begin to get their yellow color; fol-
lowing this are two other pickings, and sometimes a third,
until the plant is stripped bare. The first leaves are
usually the finest, thinnest, and of the best color, being
used for cigar-wrappers principally, while the last are
small, thick, and rough, and serve only for filler or ciga-
rettes.


The weakest side of tobacco-culture on the island mani-
fests itself in the methods pursued in drying. Long, low,
open sheds on the hill-sides and in the fields themselves
serve for this purpose, being built lengthwise down the
hill, in many instances, that the air may draw through
them like a chimney. These buildings are a very inade-
quate shelter from the weather, and much tobacco, which
might otherwise be good, is allowed to deteriorate by a
drying process through prolonged periods of time, de-
pendent upon the sequences of dry periods in a climate
of prevailing moisture. Artificial heat will probably be
found in the future to be the only safe and perfect meth-
od by which fine leaf may be dried in this constantly
humid atmosphere.


Forty days is considered the proper length of time to
cure the tobacco, and as many planters follow this rule,
without regard to what the weather may have been dur-
ing the interim, there is a marked difference from year to
year in the quality of the tobacco grown by the same
man. At the end of this time it is placed in huge piles.



ONE HUNDRED YEARS AGO—THE LAST BIRTHDAY OF GEORGE WASHINGTON, FEBRUARY 22, 1799.
Drawn by E. P. Upjohn.








Website design © 2000-2004 HarpWeek, LLC
All Content © 1998-2004 HarpWeek, LLC
Please submit questions to webmaster@harpweek.com