THE BEAN THAT TRAVEL THE WORLD

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