In the 18th and 19th Centuries When Most of the World’s Coffee Came from the West Indies
September 6, 2020
“The progress of the coffee industry in the West Indies placed those islands for a time at the head of coffee-producing countries, but from that position they are now strangely fallen.”
Francis B. Thurber, Coffee From Plantation to Cup, 1891
When French naval officer, Gabriel de Clieu, stepped onto the dock at Martinique island in 1720, cradling a coffee shoot he’d carried to the Caribbean all the way from France, he looked like hell.
I mean, he must have.
De Clieu, whose epic journey would be cast into verse following his death in 1774, had endured on-board thieves, pirates, a hurricane, doldrums, and sharing his water rationing with the plant while drifting in windless heat.
“De Clieu alone defies: While still that fatal thirst, fierce, stifling, day by day his noble strength devours, and still a heaven of brass inflames the burning hours.”
He planted the coffee in his garden, surrounded it with thorn bushes, and posted a guard. You may wonder if all that effort was worth it given the odds against you having ever had a cup of Martinique coffee, but the odds haven’t always been bad. In fact, 250 years ago, the odds that the coffee you were drinking came from the “West Indies,” if not Martinique itself, were very good.
Just 40 years after Gabriel de Clieu planted what I might be tempted to market as “Thorn Protected Coffee,” Martinique alone was exporting 11 million pounds of coffee and planting had moved to other islands.
Coffee was first planted on Hispaniola, what, today we call Haiti and by 1789 they were exporting 80 million pounds. By the late 1700’s coffee was being grown at significant volumes on the east side of the island, St. Domingo (Dominican Republic), on Guadalupe, Cuba, Puerto Rico, Barbados, and of course, on the Blue Mountains of Jamaica.
If considered as a single coffee growing region, the West Indies produced more coffee at the end of the 18th century than any other region in the world. All of the major powers of Europe had islands producing coffee. But the volumes of coffee being exported from the Caribbean were built on the false economy of slavery.
The West Indies were not unusual at the time in a reliance on slave labor, but the West Indies were unusual in the abolition of slavery. Throughout the late 18th and early 19th century, the end of slavery moved like falling dominoes around the Caribbean, 60 years before slavery ended in the United States and 90 years before slavery ended in Brazil, which, not coincidentally, had by then inherited the title as world’s largest coffee producer.
As slavery faded from the Caribbean, so did the European presence and coffee production dropped dramatically. From 80,000 bags* in 1759, coffee production on Martinique dropped to 4,000 bags by 1880 In 2013, Martinique produced less than 400 bags. In 1789, Haiti produced over 600,000 bags of coffee. By 1878 production in Haiti had dropped to 180,000 bags and at that time the output of all Caribbean islands combined was just 640,000 bags. Cuba was producing 200,000 bags in 1830 but just 50 years later was not growing enough coffee for domestic consumption and had become a coffee importer.
Simultaneously, commercial coffee production was established and expanded throughout Central and South America. The world hates a coffee vacuum. De Clieu’s brave little coffee shoot had swept across the Caribbean but was on its way to Central America.
The bright spot—if not exactly an exception—was Jamaica. By 1880, when growing coffee had been reduced to a rumor on most islands, coffee production was growing in Jamaica and was being sold at premium prices that attracted the attention of coffee producers around the world.
In 1807 Jamaica produced 170,000 bags of coffee and peaked at 230,000 bags in 1814. Then, as with its island neighbors, the production of Jamaican coffee dropped dramatically for decades. But unlike the other islands, Jamaica staged a coffee comeback. In 1864 the Jamaican coffee industry produced 31,000 bags. By 1880 production had increased to 75,000 bags.
Trying to explain to a newspaper in Ceylon (Sri Lanka)—where the coffee industry had yet to be destroyed by leaf rust and where producers were accustomed to being paid premium prices—why Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee was so popular, Mr. D. Morris wrote from the Jamaican Botanical Department in June 1880:
“I have been trying to find out why the Blue Mountain coffee of Jamaica is always so good, and how it is that it obtains such high prices as compared with the fine and highly cultivated coffee of Ceylon. Is the coffee grown here a peculiar variety of C. Arabica? Or is there something in the soil and climate that promotes the larger formation of the essential oils and secretions in the fragrant bean? Whatever it is, it cannot be the superior cultivation, the more rational treatment of the crop, or the greater care in the curing.”
Compared to all the time and attention given to the agronomics of coffee in Ceylon, Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee was viewed as almost wild grown. According to Morris, “The only cultivation which the estates here receive consists in a rough ‘hoe-weeding’ once or twice a year, with no pruning … no system of drainage, no terracing, and, as I mentioned before, no manuring!”
Reading all of Mr. D’s thoughts (which go on for several pages), it’s clear that European coffee folk had gotten their feelings hurt over the fact that coffee not grown using what they considered the best agronomic practices of the time would be high quality and receive high prices, and the kicker, be so relatively free from disease. He vacillates between saying “it seems a pity that so much valuable land and so much time should be lost” and conceding the obvious: “But still, as the planters say … they do produce some of the best coffee in the world.”
Even in those days, before the formal process of cup tasting had been fully explored and developed, what really mattered was the coffee in the cup.
Today, Clear Lake Coffee Roasters is committed to providing the very best coffee to our customers. We’re always committed to source quality, and we believe that by experimenting and innovating, we drive excellence, sustainability, and expertise. If you’re interested in not just learning the history of Jamaican Blue Mountain, but also want to try the perfect cup, shop our huge selection of the finest coffee from around the world.