A Bean That Traveled the World
The story of one man’s devotion to a sapling coffee tree has been described as “the most romantic chapter in the history of the propagation of the coffee plant,” says the book “All About Coffee.” That one small plant played a major role in seeding today’s $70-billion-a-year coffee industry, which is surpassed only by petroleum in terms of dollars traded globally, according to the journal “Scientific American.”
THE fascinating story of coffee begins in the highlands of Ethiopia, the home of the wild coffee plant. Its descendants, named Coffea arabica, account for two thirds of world production. Exactly when the properties of the roasted bean were discovered, however, is uncertain. Nevertheless, arabica coffee was being cultivated on the Arabian Peninsula by the 15th century C.E. Despite a prohibition on the export of the fertile bean, the Dutch acquired either trees or live seeds in the year 1616. They soon established plantations in Ceylon, now Sri Lanka, and Java, now part of Indonesia.
In 1706 the Dutch transported a young tree from their estates in Java to the botanical gardens in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. The tree flourished. Its descendants were then shipped to Dutch colonies in Suriname and the Caribbean. In 1714 the mayor of Amsterdam gave King Louis XIV of France one descendant. The king had it planted in a greenhouse at the Jardin des Plantes, the Royal Garden, in Paris.
The French were eager to enter the coffee trade. They purchased seeds and trees and shipped them to the island of Réunion. The seeds failed to grow, and according to some authorities, all but one of the trees eventually died. Nevertheless, 15,000 seeds from that one tree were planted in 1720, and a plantation was finally established. So valuable were these trees that anyone found destroying one was subject to the death penalty! The French also hoped to establish plantations in the Caribbean, but their first two attempts failed.
Gabriel Mathieu de Clieu, a French naval officer on leave in Paris, made it his personal mission to take a tree to his estate on Martinique on his return voyage from France. He sailed for the island in May 1723 with a descendant of the Paris tree.
For the trip, de Clieu placed his precious plant in a box made partly of glass so that the tree could absorb sunlight and remain warm on cloudy days, explains All About Coffee. A fellow passenger, who may have been envious of de Clieu and who did not want him to enjoy the glory of success, tried to wrest the plant from him but failed. The tree survived. It also survived the ship’s encounter with Tunisian pirates, a violent storm and, worst of all, a shortage of fresh water when the ship became becalmed in the Doldrums. “Water was lacking to such an extent,” wrote de Clieu, “that for more than a month I was obliged to share my scanty ration with the plant upon which my happiest hopes were founded and which was the source of my delight.”
De Clieu’s devotion was rewarded. His charge arrived in Martinique in good health, and it thrived and multiplied in the tropical environment. “From this single plant, Martinique supplied seed directly or indirectly to all the countries of the Americas except Brazil, French Guiana and Surinam[e],” states Gordon Wrigley in his book Coffee.
Meanwhile, Brazil and French Guiana also wanted coffee trees. In Suriname, the Dutch still possessed descendants of the Amsterdam tree but kept them closely guarded. In 1722, however, French Guiana obtained seeds from a felon who had escaped into Suriname and stole some seeds. In exchange for his seeds, the authorities in French Guiana agreed to give him freedom, and they repatriated him.
Initial, furtive attempts to get viable seeds or seedlings into Brazil failed. Then Suriname and French Guiana became involved in a border dispute and asked Brazil to provide an arbitrator. Brazil dispatched Francisco de Melo Palheta, an army officer, to French Guiana, instructing him to settle the dispute and to bring home some coffee plants.
The hearings were a success, and the governor gave Palheta a farewell banquet. As a gesture of appreciation for this guest of honor, the governor’s wife presented Palheta with a beautiful bouquet. Hidden among the flowers, however, were viable coffee seeds and seedlings. Hence, it could be said that in 1727, Brazil’s now billion-dollar coffee industry was born in a bouquet.
Thus, the young tree that went from Java to Amsterdam in 1706, together with its offspring in Paris, furnished all the planting material for Central and South America. Explains Wrigley: “Consequently the whole genetic base of the arabica coffee industry is very narrow.”
Today, over 25 million family farms in some 80 countries grow an estimated 15 billion coffee trees. Their product ends up in the 2.25 billion cups of coffee that are consumed each day.
Ironically, the problem nowadays is overproduction of coffee. The picture is complicated by politics, economics, and powerful cartels, all of which have left growers in many lands poor or even destitute. This situation is amazing, especially when we picture de Clieu sharing his precious ration of water with one little tree nearly 300 years ago.
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THE TWO MOST COMMON COFFEES
“Raw coffee beans are the seeds of plants belonging to the Rubiaceae family, which comprises at least 66 species of the genus Coffea,” says the journal Scientific American. “The two species that are commercially exploited are Coffea arabica, which accounts for two thirds of world production, and C[offea] canephora, often called robusta coffee, with one third of global output.”
Robusta coffee has a strong, earthy aroma and usually ends up in soluble form in instant coffees. The tree is high yielding and disease resistant. It grows to about 40 feet [12 m], double the height of the unpruned, more delicate, and lower-yielding arabica tree. By weight, the robusta bean has up to 2.8 percent caffeine, whereas arabica never exceeds 1.5 percent. Even though arabica has 44 chromosomes and robusta and all wild coffees have 22, some have been crossed to produce hybrids.
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“BAPTIZING” THE BREW
When coffee first arrived in Europe in the 17th century, some Catholic priests branded it a concoction of Satan. They saw it as a potential substitute for wine, which, in their view, had been sanctified by Christ. Pope Clement VIII, though, allegedly tasted the beverage and became an instant convert, notes the book Coffee. He resolved the religious dilemma by symbolically baptizing the brew, thereby making it acceptable for Catholics.
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HOW COFFEE SPREAD
1. 1400’s Arabica coffee is cultivated on the Arabian Peninsula
2. 1616 The Dutch acquire coffee trees or live seeds
3. 1699 The Dutch take trees to Java and other islands in the
4. 1700’s Coffee is cultivated in Central America and the
5. 1718 The French take coffee to Réunion
6. 1723 G. M. de Clieu takes a coffee tree from France to
7. 1800’s Coffee is cultivated in Hawaii
Source: From the book “Uncommon Grounds”
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En route to Martinique, Gabriel Mathieu de Clieu shares his drinking water with a coffee plant, 1723
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Map: © 1996 Visual Language; De Clieu: Tea & Coffee Trade Journal