A brief account of the cultivation of the coffee plant in the Old World and its introduction into the New – a romantic coffee adventure.
By William H. Ukers
Early 20th-Century Historian
The history of the propagation of the coffee plant is closely interwoven with that of the early history of coffee drinking, but for the purposes of this chapter we shall consider only the story of the inception and growth of the cultivation of the coffee tree, or shrub, bearing the seeds, or berries, from which the drink, coffee, is made.
Careful research discloses that most authorities agree that the coffee plant is indigenous to Abyssinia, and probably Arabia, whence its cultivation spread throughout the tropics. The first reliable mention of the properties and uses of the plant is by an Arabian physician toward the close of the ninth century A.D., and it is reasonable to suppose that before that time the plant was found growing wild in Abyssinia and perhaps in Arabia. If it be true, as Ludolphus writes, that the Abyssinians came out of Arabia into Ethiopia in the early ages, it is possible that they may have brought the coffee tree with them; but the Arabians must still be given the credit for discovering and promoting the use of the beverage, and also for promoting the propagation of the plant, even if they found it in Abyssinia and brought it to Yemen.
Some authorities believe that the first cultivation of coffee in Yemen dates back to 575 A.D., when the Persian invasion put an end to the Ethiopian rule of Caleb, who conquered the country in 525.
Certainly the discovery of the beverage resulted in the cultivation of the plant in Abyssinia and in Arabia; but its progress was slow until the 15th and 16th centuries, when it appears as intensively carried on in the Yemen district of Arabia. The Arabians were jealous of their new found and lucrative industry, and for a time successfully prevented its spread to other countries by not permitting any of the precious berries to leave the country unless they had first been steeped in boiling water or parched, so as to destroy their powers of germination. It may be that many of the early failures successfully to introduce the cultivation of the coffee plant into other lands was also due to the fact, discovered later, that the seeds soon lose their germinating power.
However, it was not possible to watch every avenue of transport, with thousands of pilgrims journeying to and from Mecca every year; and so there would appear to be some reason to credit the Indian tradition concerning the introduction of coffee cultivation into southern India by Baba Budan, a Moslem pilgrim, as early as 1600, although a better authority gives the date as 1695. Indian tradition relates that Baba Budan planted his seeds near the hut he built for himself at Chickmaglur in the mountains of Mysore, where, only a few years since, the writer found the descendants of these first plants growing under the shade of the centuries-old original jungle trees. The greater part of the plants cultivated by the natives of Kurg and Mysore appear to have come from the Baba Budan importation. It was not until 1840 that the English began the cultivation of coffee in India. The plantations extend now from the extreme north of Mysore to Tuticorin.
Early Cultivation by the Dutch
In the latter part of the 16th century, German, Italian, and Dutch botanists and travelers brought back from the Levant considerable information regarding the new plant and the beverage. In 1614 enterprising Dutch traders began to examine into the possibilities of coffee cultivation and coffee trading. In 1616 a coffee plant was successfully transported from Mocha to Holland. In 1658 the Dutch started the cultivation of coffee in Ceylon, although the Arabs are said to have brought the plant to the island prior to 1505. In 1670 an attempt was made to cultivate coffee on European soil at Dijon, France, but the result was a failure.
In 1696, at the instigation of Nicolaas Witsen, then burgomaster of Amsterdam, Adrian Van Ommen, commander at Malabar, India, caused to be shipped from Kananur, Malabar, to Java, the first coffee plants introduced into that island. They were grown from seed of the Coffea arabica brought to Malabar from Arabia. They were planted by Governor-General Willem Van Outshoorn on the Kedawoeng estate near Batavia, but were subsequently lost by earthquake and flood. In 1699 Henricus Zwaardecroon imported some slips, or cuttings, of coffee trees from Malabar into Java. These were more successful, and became the progenitors of all the coffees of the Dutch East Indies. The Dutch were then taking the lead in the propagation of the coffee plant.
In 1706 the first samples of Java coffee, and a coffee plant grown in Java, were received at the Amsterdam botanical gardens. Many plants were afterward propagated from the seeds produced in the Amsterdam gardens, and these were distributed to some of the best known botanical gardens and private conservatories in Europe.
While the Dutch were extending the cultivation of the plant to Sumatra, the Celebes, Timor, Bali, and other islands of the Netherlands Indies, the French were seeking to introduce coffee cultivation into their colonies. Several attempts were made to transfer young plants from the Amsterdam botanical gardens to the botanical gardens at Paris; but all were failures.
In 1714, however, as a result of negotiations entered into between the French government and the municipality of Amsterdam, a young and vigorous plant about five feet tall was sent to Louis XIV at the chateau of Marly by the burgomaster of Amsterdam. The day following, it was transferred to the Jardin des Plantes at Paris, where it was received with appropriate ceremonies by Antoine de Jussieu, professor of botany in charge. This tree was destined to be the progenitor of most of the coffees of the French colonies, as well as of those of South America, Central America, and Mexico.
The Romance of Captain Gabriel de Clieu
Two unsuccessful attempts were made to transport to the Antilles plants grown from the seed of the tree presented to Louis XIV; but the honor of eventual success was won by a young Norman gentleman, Gabriel Mathieu de Clieu, a naval officer, serving at the time as captain of infantry at Martinique. The story of de Clieu’s achievement is the most romantic chapter in the history of the propagation of the coffee plant.
His personal affairs calling him to France, de Clieu conceived the idea of utilizing the return voyage to introduce coffee cultivation into Martinique. His first difficulty lay in obtaining several of the plants then being cultivated in Paris, a difficulty at last overcome through the instrumentality of M. de Chirac, royal physician, or, according to a letter written by de Clieu himself, through the kindly offices of a lady of quality to whom de Chirac could give no refusal. The plants selected were kept at Rochefort by M. Bégon, commissary of the department, until the departure of de Clieu for Martinique. Concerning the exact date of de Clieu’s arrival at Martinique with the coffee plant, or plants, there is much conflict of opinion. Some authorities give the date as 1720, others 1723. Jardin suggests that the discrepancy in dates may arise from de Clieu, with praiseworthy perseverance, having made the voyage twice. The first time, according to Jardin, the plants perished; but the second time de Clieu had planted the seeds when leaving France and these survived, “due, they say, to his having given of his scanty ration of water to moisten them.” No reference to a preceding voyage, however, is made by de Clieu in his own account, given in a letter written to the Année Littéraire in 1774. There is also a difference of opinion as to whether de Clieu arrived with one or three plants. He himself says “one” in the letter referred to.
According to the most trustworthy data, de Clieu embarked at Nantes, 1723. He had installed his precious plant in a box covered with a glass frame in order to absorb the rays of the sun and thus better to retain the stored-up heat for cloudy days. Among the passengers one man, envious of the young officer, did all in his power to wrest from him the glory of success. Fortunately his dastardly attempt failed of its intended effect.
“It is useless,” writes de Clieu in his letter to the Année Littéraire, “to recount in detail the infinite care that I was obliged to bestow upon this delicate plant during a long voyage, and the difficulties I had in saving it from the hands of a man who, basely jealous of the joy I was about to taste through being of service to my country, and being unable to get this coffee plant away from me, tore off a branch.”
The vessel carrying de Clieu was a merchantman, and many were the trials that beset passengers and crew. Narrowly escaping capture by a corsair of Tunis, menaced by a violent tempest that threatened to annihilate them, they finally encountered a calm that proved more appalling than either. The supply of drinking water was well nigh exhausted, and what was left was rationed for the remainder of the voyage.
“Water was lacking to such an extent,” says de Clieu, “that for more than a month I was obliged to share the scanty ration of it assigned to me with this my coffee plant upon which my happiest hopes were founded and which was the source of my delight. It needed such succor the more in that it was extremely backward, being no larger than the slip of a pink.” Many stories have been written and verses sung recording and glorifying this generous sacrifice that has given luster to the name of de Clieu.
Arrived in Martinique, de Clieu planted his precious slip on his estate in Prêcheur, one of the cantons of the island; where, says Raynal, “it multiplied with extraordinary rapidity and success.” From the seedlings of this plant came most of the coffee trees of the Antilles. The first harvest was gathered in 1726.
De Clieu himself describes his arrival as follows:
Arriving at home, my first care was to set out my plant with great attention in the part of my garden most favorable to its growth. Although keeping it in view, I feared many times that it would be taken from me; and I was at last obliged to surround it with thorn bushes and to establish a guard about it until it arrived at maturity … this precious plant which had become still more dear to me for the dangers it had run and the cares it had cost me.
Thus the little stranger thrived in a distant land, guarded day and night by faithful slaves. So tiny a plant to produce in the end all the rich estates of the West India islands and the regions bordering on the Gulf of Mexico! What luxuries, what future comforts and delights, resulted from this one small talent confided to the care of a man of rare vision and fine intellectual sympathy, fired by the spirit of real love for his fellows! There is no instance in the history of the French people of a good deed done by stealth being of greater service to humanity.
De Clieu thus describes the events that followed fast upon the introduction of coffee into Martinique, with particular reference to the earthquake of 1727:
Success exceeded my hopes. I gathered about two pounds of seed which I distributed among all those whom I thought most capable of giving the plants the care necessary to their prosperity.
The first harvest was very abundant; with the second it was possible to extend the cultivation prodigiously, but what favored multiplication, most singularly, was the fact that two years afterward all the cocoa trees of the country, which were the resource and occupation of the people, were uprooted and totally destroyed by horrible tempests accompanied by an inundation which submerged all the land where these trees were planted, land which was at once made into coffee plantations by the natives. These did marvelously and enabled us to send plants to Santo Domingo, Guadeloupe, and other adjacent islands, where since that time they have been cultivated with the greatest success.
By 1777 there were 18,791,680 coffee trees in Martinique.
De Clieu was born in Angléqueville-sur-Saane, Seine-Inférieure (Normandy), in 1686 or 1688. In 1705 he was a ship’s ensign; in 1718 he became a chevalier of St. Louis; in 1720 he was made a captain of infantry; in 1726, a major of infantry; in 1733 he was a ship’s lieutenant; in 1737 he became governor of Guadeloupe; in 1746 he was a ship’s captain; in 1750 he was made honorary commander of the order of St. Louis; in 1752 he retired with a pension of 6000 francs; in 1753 he re-entered the naval service; in 1760 he again retired with a pension of 2000 francs.
In 1746 de Clieu, having returned to France, was presented to Louis XV by the minister of marine, Rouillé de Jour, as “a distinguished officer to whom the colonies, as well as France itself, and commerce generally, are indebted for the cultivation of coffee.”
Reports to the king in 1752 and 1759 recall his having carried the first coffee plant to Martinique, and that he had ever been distinguished for his zeal and disinterestedness. In the Mercure de France, December, 1774, was the following death notice:
Gabriel d’Erchigny de Clieu, former Ship’s Captain and Honorary Commander of the Royal and Military Order of Saint Louis, died in Paris on the 30th of November in the 88th year of his age.
A notice of his death appeared also in the Gazette de France for December 5, 1774, a rare honor in both cases; and it has been said that at this time his praise was again on every lip.
One French historian, Sidney Daney, records that de Clieu died in poverty at St. Pierre at the age of 97; but this must be an error, although it does not anywhere appear that at his death he was possessed of much, if any, means. Daney says:
This generous man received as his sole recompense for a noble deed the satisfaction of seeing this plant for whose preservation he had shown such devotion, prosper throughout the Antilles. The illustrious de Clieu is among those to whom Martinique owes a brilliant reparation.
Daney tells also that in 1804 there was a movement in Martinique to erect a monument upon the spot where de Clieu planted his first coffee plant, but that the undertaking came to naught.
Pardon, in his La Martinique says:
Honor to this brave man! He has deserved it from the people of two hemispheres. His name is worthy of a place beside that of Parmentier who carried to France the potato of Canada. These two men have rendered immense service to humanity, and their memory should never be forgotten—yet alas! Are they even remembered?
Tussac, in his Flora de las Antillas, writing of de Clieu, says, “Though no monument be erected to this beneficent traveler, yet his name should remain engraved in the heart of every colonist.”
In 1774 the Année Littéraire published a long poem in de Clieu’s honor. In the feuilleton of the Gazette de France, April 12, 1816, we read that M. Donns, a wealthy Hollander, and a coffee connoisseur, sought to honor de Clieu by having painted upon a porcelain service all the details of his voyage and its happy results. “I have seen the cups,” says the writer, who gives many details and the Latin inscription.
That singer of navigation, Esménard, has pictured de Clieu’s devotion in the following lines:
Forget not how de Clieu with his light vessel’s sail,
Brought distant Moka’s gift—that timid plant and frail.
The waves fell suddenly, young zephyrs breathed no more,
Beneath fierce Cancer’s fires behold the fountain store,
Exhausted, fails; while now inexorable need
Makes her unpitying law—with measured dole obeyed.
Now each soul fears to prove Tantalus torment first.
De Clieu alone defies: While still that fatal thirst,
Fierce, stifling, day by day his noble strength devours,
And still a heaven of brass inflames the burning hours.
With that refreshing draught his life he will not cheer;
But drop by drop revives the plant he holds more dear.
Already as in dreams, he sees great branches grow,
One look at his dear plant assuages all his woe.
The only memorial to de Clieu in Martinique is the botanical garden at Fort de France, which was opened in 1918 and dedicated to de Clieu, “whose memory has been too long left in oblivion.”
In 1715 coffee cultivation was first introduced into Haiti and Santo Domingo. Later came hardier plants from Martinique. In 1715–17 the French Company of the Indies introduced the cultivation of the plant into the Isle of Bourbon (now Réunion) by a ship captain named Dufougeret-Grenier from St. Malo. It did so well that nine years later the island began to export coffee.
The Dutch brought the cultivation of coffee to Surinam in 1718. The first coffee plantation in Brazil was started at Pará in 1723 with plants brought from French Guiana, but it was not a success. The English brought the plant to Jamaica in 1730. In 1740 Spanish missionaries introduced coffee cultivation into the Philippines from Java. In 1748 Don José Antonio Gelabert introduced coffee into Cuba, bringing the seed from Santo Domingo. In 1750 the Dutch extended the cultivation of the plant to the Celebes. Coffee was introduced into Guatemala about 1750–60. The intensive cultivation in Brazil dates from the efforts begun in the Portuguese colonies in Pará and Amazonas in 1752. Porto Rico began the cultivation of coffee about 1755. In 1760 João Alberto Castello Branco brought to Rio de Janeiro a coffee tree from Goa, Portuguese India. The news spread that the soil and climate of Brazil were particularly adapted to the cultivation of coffee. Molke, a Belgian monk, presented some seeds to the Capuchin monastery at Rio in 1774. Later, the bishop of Rio, Joachim Bruno, became a patron of the plant and encouraged its propagation in Rio, Minãs, Espirito Santo, and São Paulo. The Spanish voyager, Don Francisco Xavier Navarro, is credited with the introduction of coffee into Costa Rica from Cuba in 1779. In Venezuela the industry was started near Caracas by a priest, José Antonio Mohedano, with seed brought from Martinique in 1784.
Coffee cultivation in Mexico began in 1790, the seed being brought from the West Indies. In 1817 Don Juan Antonio Gomez instituted intensive cultivation in the State of Vera Cruz. In 1825 the cultivation of the plant was begun in the Hawaiian Islands with seeds from Rio de Janeiro. As previously noted, the English began to cultivate coffee in India in 1840. In 1852 coffee cultivation was begun in Salvador with plants brought from Cuba. In 1878 the English began the propagation of coffee in British Central Africa, but it was not until 1901 that coffee cultivation was introduced into British East Africa from Réunion. In 1887 the French introduced the plant into Tonkin, Indo-China. Coffee growing in Queensland, introduced in 1896, has been successful in a small way.
In recent years several attempts have been made to propagate the coffee plant in the southern United States, but without success. It is believed, however, that the topographic and climatic conditions in southern California are favorable for its cultivation.
- La Roque, Jean. Voyage de l’Arabie Heureuse. Paris, 1716.
- Jardin, Édelestan. Le Caféier et le Café. Paris, 1895. (p. 102).
- Année Littéraire. Paris, 1774 (vol. vi: p. 217).
- Franklin, Alfred. La Vie Privée d’Autrefois. Paris, 1893.
- Michaud, I.F. and L.G. Biographie Universelle. Paris.
- Daney, Sidney. Histoire de la Martinique. Fort Royal, 1846.