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.