American Coffee

Coffee is not originally from America, although the biggest coffee producers are on this continent. Coffee arrival in America is filled with stories, or perhaps romantic myths that give shine to the endeavor. It all began with the Dutch trading and cultivating coffee in their colonies in what is now Indonesia, around 1680. In those years Holland was a commercial power and it was common for its merchants and authorities to deliver gifts of goodwill to potential customers, or to keep potential enemies appeased. Thus in 1714, the authorities of Amsterdam gave the King Louis XIV of France a coffee tree, which went to the Royal Botanical Garden of Paris, or Jardin des Plantes as it has always been known.

 Coffee Plant Drawing

Botanical Illustration of a Coffea Arabica, from the Rubiaceae Family


Realizing the popularity of coffee, in 1720 Gabriel De Clieu, a French naval officer, and later governor of the island of Guadalupe, embarked to Martinique with at least one coffee plant obtained in the Jardin des Plantes. According to his account, he shared his ration of water with the plant during the hard journey to prevent it from dying, and from this heroic act resulted the first plantation of coffee in America, in this case on the island of Martinique. However, we always think that history is not so linear or has a single protagonist. It seems that already the Dutch, in 1718, cultivated coffee in Suriname, and in 1715 there were trees cultivated in the French colony of Santo Domingo (present-day Haiti). Therefore, the merit of being the first may be of a Dutchman or a Frenchman, more concerned about advancing his hacienda than to appear in books with a story of sacrifice and commercial wisdom. And apparently several had had the idea because in a period of 10 years coffee began to appear everywhere.


In 1727, another story, more romantic than De Clieu’s, tells that a Portuguese sailor, Francisco De Mello Palheta, wanted to participate in the cultivation of coffee, but there was no way to obtain seeds of French Guiana because the colony’s governor refused to export them. However, Palheta got to be sent on a diplomatic mission to settle a border dispute. During his stay in French Guiana, he managed to seduce the governor's wife, who secretly gave him a bouquet of flowers that were spiked in coffee seeds. Remember the date, 1727, hundreds of miles from everything, horse riding through the Amazonian jungle, and navigating rivers and sea in sailboats, in a foreign colony, solving the dispute, bringing back super valuable seeds and getting involved with the wife of a powerful governor. If Mello Palheta's story is true, James Bond looks like an amateur. Palheta did all that without technological support, super-fast cars or ultra-secret weapons. He would establish his coffee plantation in Pará, a state of northern Brazil bordering French Guiana and Surinam. From here the coffee would spread throughout Brazil that would become the world's largest producer.


Just 3 years later, in 1730, the Jesuit priest José Gumilla, in his book The Illustrated Orinoco, recorded the presence of coffee in the mission of Santa Teresa de Tabajé, in current Colombia, near the mouth of the Meta river in the Orinoco. It is assumed that the Jesuits or other travelers, brought the seeds to Colombia around that year, coming from the Guianas and crossing Venezuela. Therefore, it is very possible that between 1728 and 1730 its cultivation began in both countries.


Book The Illustrated Orinoco Engraved book illustration from a disbound copy of Illustrated Travels, c.1880 


One interesting fact: between Paramaribo, Surinam’s capital, and the mission mentioned by Father Gumilla, there are about 1000 miles, in a voyage by sea and then upstream the Orinoco river. In 1730 that was a pretty serious adventure. It is a pity that we do not know details of its protagonists, but with a good Frontino coffee, it will cost you nothing to activate your imagination.

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