Coffee History: The Journey to the New World

Coffee history is filled with stories of smuggling and seduction, espionage and armed conflict, religious edicts and trade monopolies, and kings and simple goatherders. Of course, with any such ancient and action-packed tales as this, some facts are likely to have been embellished or romanticized.

We do know some actual facts about coffee history; it originated in eastern Africa or the southern Arabian Peninsula, most likely in what is now Ethiopia. As to who discovered it as a beverage, however, that gives us the first great legends of coffee. The two most commonly heard tales are those of an Ethiopian goatherder named Kaldi or a banished Arab holy man, Omar the Dervish. No matter who was first, coffee drinking eventually spread to other parts of the world.

As it increased in popularity, many began to see the moneymaking potential of growing coffee. But the coffee plant won’t just thrive anywhere so suitable growing conditions were sought around the globe. The first to take coffee out of its native area (smuggled, of course) were the Dutch in the late 1600s. They experimented with cultivating it in their colonial possessions of Ceylon and Java and soon found success. Today, however, more coffee is grown in the countries South and Central America than anywhere else. How that came to happen is a story that involves two European military officers.

Coffee history mapIn 1714, the Dutch presented King Louis XIV of France with a coffee sapling from their plantations on Java. Supposedly, the king had little interest in coffee and he sent the small tree to his royal greenhouse in Paris, the Jardin des Plantes. A few years later, around 1720, a French naval officer named Gabriel Mathieu de Clieu learned of the King’s tree. From his travels, he was familiar with coffee and its potential. He also thought the island of Martinique in the West Indies, where he was stationed, offered promising growing conditions.

There are several versions of the story but one is that de Clieu became romantically involved with a woman in Paris. She was connected to a doctor who did medicinal research on the plants in the royal greenhouse. Somehow that doctor was coerced into secretly taking a clipping from the coffee tree. The clipping made its way to de Clieu, who rooted it and constructed a special growing container to protect the young plant during its long sea voyage to Martinique.

De Clieu, an important figue in coffee history

De Clieu caring for his coffee plant.

The voyage was filled with difficulties, including marauding pirates and damaging storms. Supposedly, according to de Clieu himself years later, water was in short supply on the ship and he shared his ration with his coffee plant. Eventually he made it to Martinique and the plant did succeed. Descendant of that coffee plant eventually spread to other Caribbean islands, as well as to Central and South America. France’s next king, Louis XV, did appreciate the value of coffee. Apparently forgiving de Clieu’s theft of that first tree, he rewarded the good captain’s industriousness with the governorship of Guadeloupe, where he served from 1737 to 1752.

The Portuguese government also foresaw a profitable future in the coffee industry around that same time. They hoped to establish the crop in their colony of Brazil but the French in neighboring Guiana closely guarded their seeds. To solve that problem, in 1727, they sent an army officer named Francisco de Mello Palheta on a diplomatic mission to help negotiate a resolution to a border dispute between the adjoining French and Dutch colonial territories. While in French Guiana, de Mello Palheta reportedly seduced the governor’s wife. Aware of his mission, she secretly gave him a bouquet filled with hidden coffee seeds upon his departure. Or so the story goes. Regardless, de Mello Palheta was successful and Brazil is today the number one producer of coffee in the world.

These are just two of the countless stories from coffee history surrounding the spread of the valuable plants. Who knows how many other unknown people and secret deeds were involved in making sure we get our daily brew. To try specialty coffee from both the Old World and the New, visit your nearest Dilworth store or call 800-835-5943 for more information.