A. Hyatt Verrill always saw business potential in the Caribbean and South America. At one time he owned and operated a sulphur mine on the island of Dominica. Here in the only article we have discovered in Pan-American Magazine, he explains these potential ventures.
Some Lands of Opportunity
By A. Hyatt Verrill
From Pan-American Magazine, January 1918, collected by Alan Schenker, digitized by Doug Frizzle August 2011.
We hear a great deal regarding the opportunities presented by Latin American trade, but there is another large field which has, until recently, been overlooked and neglected and which has many advantages over South America, and regarding which very little has been said. Stretching in a great crescent from Porto Rico to the tip of South America are the Lesser Antilles, an archipelago of small islands under the flags of Holland France, and the United States and which, with that three Guianas—British, Dutch and French—present a splendid opportunity for manufacturers, exporters, merchants and financiers.
The advantages of dealing with these European dependencies bordering the Caribbean Sea are numerous. They are within easy reach, their governments are as stable as their mother countries; there are ample and reliable banking facilities, their currency is that of Europe; there are no inland transportation difficulties requiring special packing and last, but by no means least, they are more prosperous today than for many years past. Moreover, they lie directly in the path to the Panama Canal and our own Gulf ports, and their trade is largely with the United States. If we wish to establish a lasting trade with any of our southern neighbors these countries bordering the Caribbean will prove worthy of our attention, for they are less exploited, less known and less developed than any of the larger republics of South America.
Another matter, which should be borne in mind, is that many of the great Latin American countries are capable of producing and manufacturing many goods and articles similar to our own and hence the exports which we can sell them are limited, and each year, will decrease in numbers while, at the same time, competition is very keen.
The Smaller Colonies
It is quite a different matter with the Lesser Antilles and the Guianas. In these places there is no possibility of producing the commodities which we can provide, while many of their resources and exports cannot be obtained elsewhere in the western hemisphere. Hence there is no reason why a lasting, remunerative trade should not be established which would endure for all time.
Many Americans have an idea that these European colonies are too small to bother with; that they are populated only by negroes; that there are no large towns and that they are half civilized, backward, unprogressive and buy little. Nothing could be more erroneous. Many of the islands are small—by comparison—it is true, and upon the maps they appear as mere specks, but a surprising amount of country can be crowded on to an island thirty miles long and a dozen miles wide, and many of them are densely inhabited. It is also true that the inhabitants are principally colored, but the American who judges these colored people by the colored race in the United States makes a grave mistake, and one must completely overcome race prejudice and must be prepared for an entirely new view of the negro if he is to deal with the Lesser Antilles and the neighboring Guianas. Many of the colored merchants, planters, and officials of these places are millionaires; the majority have beet highly educated in France and England; many are graduates of Oxford and Cambridge, and they are as keen business men, as alive to the world's doings and as progressive, courteous, intelligent and wide-awake as any of our own color and nationality.
That there are but a few large cities or towns is of no importance, for in countries which are wholly agricultural, large cities cannot be expected. Georgetown, the capital of British Guiana, is a thriving, up-to-date city of nearly 70,000 inhabitants; Port of Spain, Trinidad, is one of the most modern and well-built cities in the tropics and can boast a population of 75,000, and there are numerous other cities with over 25,000 inhabitants. But the majority of the people are scattered here and there in small villages or on their own lands, and the larger towns are merely trade centres or distributing points. Roughly, the total population of the Lesser Antilles and the Guianas is about 2,300,000, divided as follows: Virgin Islands of United States 50,000; Dutch 115,000; French 525,000; British 1,500,000. Surely enough to tempt our efforts to secure this market. Moreover, poverty, as we know it, does not exist, for a bountiful nature supplies all man's wants with little effort on his part, and no one need starve or suffer from cold and, while beggars are numerous and labor is woefully cheap, yet a vast amount of money is in circulation and the people spend freely what they have.
Another misconception regarding these European colonies is that they are financially in bad shape owing to the war. As a matter of fact, exactly the opposite is the case, for, paradoxical as it may seem, the colonies of the Allies have benefited marvellously by the struggle of their mother countries, whereas, the colonies of neutral Holland have been helped in some ways, but in many ways have suffered greatly. This peculiar condition of affairs is easily understood if we look into the matter and understand conditions as they exist in the Antilles. Before the war, the commerce of the French and British colonies was mainly with Europe and the market value of many of the West Indian products had dropped until crops were scarcely worth harvesting, and as a result, the colonies were in sad plight, while the Dutch colonies carried on an enormous trade with Germany as well as with the Netherlands.
With the cessation of German trade and the interning of the Hamburg-American ships, the Dutch were robbed of their most lucrative market. But 'tis an ill wind that blows nobody good, and the rise in rubber, sugar, cocoa, nutmegs, spices and other products did much to keep the Dutch colonies' heads above water, and at the same time, it raised the French and British colonies to a state of prosperity beyond their wildest dreams.
Before the war, limes were worth so little that they were left to rot by thousands on the ground and lime juice was considered highly profitable at £15 per hogshead. Today, limes are worth so much that a laborer can make more by stealing a pocketful of the fruit than by a day's labor while the juice has soared to £30 or even £45 per hogshead. It is the same with nearly everything else. Nutmegs, not worth harvesting before the war, are making fortunes for the lucky owners of nutmeg groves; sugar has transformed paupers to millionaires; timber, never before of enough value to cut, is bringing high prices for gun carriages and rifle stocks; mineral resources, hitherto unconsidered, are being eagerly taken up and developed; logwood, mangrove bark, anotto, gums and a thousand and one other products are being gathered and exported at immense profits, and up and down the islands, from St. Kitts to Demerara, prosperity reigns.
With the shutting off of German trade, and the larger part of the French, British and Dutch trade as well, has come an increasing demand for American goods and supplies and the colonials have been obliged to depend more and more upon the United States for both their imports and their exports. A few firms and individuals have reaped the benefit of the state of affairs, but like wise business men, they have said nothing and few outside the inner circle know that here, almost at our doors, is a field hitherto almost untouched but offering giant inducements to those who are alive to it.
Even with the American firms already established in these colonies there are countless opportunities still open and a vast number of articles, which the inhabitants would welcome and would purchase eagerly, have never yet been introduced to these markets. The salesman who would be successful here must not expect to find conditions as they are in the north, or as in the larger South American countries, and, above all, he must learn not to judge by appearances.
Often a prominent well-to-do merchant may be as black as ebony and his visible stock in trade may be packed in disorderly array on the shelves of a tiny, dingy, ramshackle, wooden shop, and yet he may do an enormous business, he may have hundreds of regular customers, and he may be worth enough to buy out the firm you represent. Don't make the mistake of one young salesman whom I met in the islands a short time ago. I advised him to stop at a certain British island and mentioned the name of a merchant of my acquaintance. But the quiet, sleepy, little antique town did not appeal to him, the merchant was a "nigger with a hole in the wall" as the salesman expressed it, and so my advice was ignored and the salesman sailed blithely on to South America with sublime confidence that he had not missed anything.
A few days later, I dropped in to see my black merchant friend and mentioned the salesman's goods, which were of a character never known on the island.
“I’m sorry he didn't call.” remarked the “hole in the wall" merchant; “I would gladly have placed a ten thousand dollar order with him.'' Three days later that same ''nigger" bought an estate for which he paid $375,000 in cold cash.
Here, in these undeveloped, little-known islands are innumerable opportunities in almost any line or industry. The majority of the people have been living in much the same way for centuries and they have had the same class of goods, and a limited assortment at that, for years and they really know very little of what the United States has to offer.
They are quick, however, to see the advantages and superiority of anything new or better and hence supply creates the demand in these colonies, and anything adapted to local needs,—and the peoples' pockets,— meets with a ready sale. This I know from personal experience for many articles, taken to the colonies for my personal use, appealed so strongly to the natives that the local merchants found it necessary to obtain a stock for their customers.
Must Know The People
But of course one must understand the people and their ways, must be familiar with conditions and climate, and must know the requirements, in order to be successful in this market. It is useless to try to introduce goods unsuited to the colonies or their people, or articles too costly to be within the reach of all. The laboring class earn but little and must confine their purchases to low-priced goods, and quantity must largely take the place of quality; it's the volume of trade, not the profits on a few sales, which count in these places. But this does not mean that the people will buy cheap, shoddy or inferior goods; they know values and demand full returns for their money.
Such a thing as a Five and Ten Cent Store is unknown and the man who first establishes a chain of such stores in the Lesser Antilles or in Guiana, will reap a fortune. It might not be possible to conduct a profitable business at five and ten cents, but it would be quite feasible to conduct stores where nothing would be over sixpence and a shilling. On one of my trips I met an educated, intelligent, colored minister who was returning to his island home after a brief visit to New York. When asked what had most impressed him in our metropolis, what do you suppose was his reply? Was it skyscrapers, the huge bridges, the elevator or the subway; the crowds or the big shops? No, of all the wonders he had seen the most marvellous to his eyes were the Five and Ten Cent Stores.
It is not alone as a market for such goods that these European colonies offer inducements. Transportation is still primitive and much of the freighting is done on human heads, or by dugout canoes and clumsy lighters propelled by sail or oars. Here then, is a splendid chance for the introduction of simple and reliable motor boats and motors for while outboard motors and a few motor boats are in use the field has never been thoroughly exploited. Automobiles and motor cycles are widely used in all these colonies and yet the motor industry, and especially the accessory and supply end of it, is still in its infancy in these places. For example, there are nearly one thousand motor-driven vehicles in and about Georgetown, British Guiana, and there are also a number of good sized garages and repair shops and yet, at the time this was written, there was not a single power-driven air pump, a carbon-burning outfit or an acetylene welding apparatus in the entire colony, while spark-plugs, tire pumps, non-glare lamp glasses and many of the commonest accessories had never been introduced.
So, too, there is a wonderful opportunity for the wide-awake American to establish a lucrative business in exploiting various products of these colonies which are practically unknown to our people. There are countless fruits and vegetables, medicinal plants, fibres, woods and timbers, gums and waxes, oils and perfumes, dye-woods and nuts which have never been grown, gathered, marketed or shipped systematically or intelligently and for which there should be a ready market in the United States. Many industries, now lacking in the colonies, could also be profitably established. There is a superabundance of water power and untold tons of paper stock lies rotting, and yet there is not a paper mill in operation, despite the fact that paper is high in price and is in great demand throughout the colonies.
So too, all the gunny sacks, used in packing cocoa, coconuts, sugar, rice and other products, are imported from overseas and are very expensive and yet there is abundant material and facilities for manufacturing bags and bagging locally.
Practically all lumber is imported although there are limitless forests abounding with trees which could supply the entire local demand for timber of all kinds and with enough valuable lumber for export to afford a paying business by itself. Another very large and important import is cement, for concrete is universally used in the colonies, but no one has yet attempted to start a cement plant, although all the necessary raw materials are available in many places.
The fisheries also have been woefully neglected. The Caribbean Sea, as well as the large Guiana rivers, abounds with fish,—I have seen a ton of Tuna thrown away for lack of local demands; lobsters are abundant and grow to enormous size, often weighing twenty pounds; gigantic crabs fairly swarm on land and in the sea and green turtles are a drag on the market, and there is no earthly reason why all this food should not be saved and preserved in local canneries. These are but a few suggestions, selected at random, and there are hundreds of other openings equally as promising or better, but space forbids an enumeration of them all.
Even in the smaller islands, the natural resources are scarcely known, for the people content themselves with raising and shipping the same products as did their ancestors, and agriculture is carried on in an old fashioned, slip-shod, haphazard manner, and not one-quarter as much is produced as is possible. But one must not expect to become a prince of agriculture in these colonies or to wrest a fortune from the ground by competing with the native planters on long established estates, even if these men do follow the methods of their great-grandfathers. It takes time to establish a paying estate, the best land near the coasts has been taken up and, as a rule, hand labor is cheaper than machinery. A far more promising future lies in developing new enterprises and in seizing long-neglected opportunities which have been overlooked or ignored by the natives who have not the means or knowledge to enter new fields of industry.
Owing to the rugged character, the immense mountains, the deep gorges and the limited area of' level land on the smaller islands there is little chance of their agricultural development beyond its present stage and while there are tremendous chances for increased trade, for commerce, for industrial development and for exploiting natural resources, yet the possibilities will always be limited by the size and physical characteristics of the islands and if ambitious, energetic people really desire unbounded opportunities they should look to the Guianas.
Here, on the northeastern corner of South America, is a country vast, untouched and largely unknown; a land of incredible richness, of untold resources, of immeasurable possibilities and withal under the dominion of Great Britain, Holland and France.
To the majority of those few Americans who have ever heard of Guiana, the name is synonymous with sweltering heat, poisonous snakes, pestilence and dangerous criminals. In reality, nothing could be farther from the truth. French Guiana, it is true, is hot, unhealthy and has been the dumping ground for the worst type of French convicts, many of whom have escaped and have taken to the "bush" and are worse than savages; the evil reputation of French Guiana has given a bad name to its neighbors.
British and Dutch Guiana, however, are very different from French Guiana. They are not unhealthy, they possess an excellent climate, there are no convicts at large; poisonous snakes are less common than in New York State; yellow fever has not been known for over thirty years; there are few dangerous diseases and one can live as comfortably and safely in Georgetown or Paramaribo as in any North American city of the same size.
Notwithstanding that these countries have been under Dutch and British rule for centuries, they are scarcely more developed today than two hundred years ago. A mere strip along the coast is under cultivation—less than one three-hundredth of British Guiana's area is cultivated—a few short railways connect the principal towns, the great rivers are navigated by steamers for a few score-miles and, here and there, a timber grant, a gold placer, a rubber plantation or similar industries are in operation a hundred miles or so from the coast. But the great bulk of the country—thousands of square miles in fact, is absolutely untouched while a very large area is unexplored and unknown.
Here, indeed, are opportunities for the progressive American with capital and energy who seeks new fields to conquer. There are vast agricultural possibilities; rubber and balata abound in the forest; there are inexhaustible supplies of such valuable timbers as greenheart, cedar, crab-wood, purple-heart, lignum-vita.; and nearly two hundred other woods. There are gums, medicinal plants, fibres, dyewoods, nuts, oils and many other wild products of great value but almost unknown to the outside world, and gold, diamonds, cinnabar, graphite, copper, iron, manganese, bauxite, platinum, antimony, kaolin, clays, mica and ochres are among the mineral riches while in addition there are vast areas of natural pasturage for cattle raising.
To many people this may sound amazing, for the popular idea of the interior of northern South America is of an impenetrable jungle and endless forests. While this is perfectly true of a large part of the Guianas, yet, back of the forest belt and about 200 miles from the sea, are enormous stretches of open grassy savannas; those in British Guiana alone cover an area of over 15,000 square miles.
Today, this enormous natural grazing ground is of little value and the few thousands of semi-wild cattle which roam over it are practically worthless, owing to the difficulties of transportation. When a railway is constructed from the coast to the hinterland all this will be changed and to build such a road, to tap the wealth of the forests, the savannas and the unknown districts of Guiana, would bring returns immeasurable in their magnitude.
Sooner or later this will be done; some day steel rails will stretch from the Atlantic to the upper waters of the Amazon and the Orinoco and the solitudes will echo to the scream of locomotive whistles while, from the mighty forests, the great tablelands and the far-reaching savannas of Guiana, wealth will pour forth to enrich the world.
I know this country intimately; I have travelled over its great rivers, have run its rapids, have tramped its forests, have roamed its savannas and have seen its wealth, and it is no exaggeration to state that here, in Guiana, is an opportunity for empire building, a source of latent riches and a field for development such as the world has seldom seen.