Coffee History : From Europe to the Caribbean

The first sprouts from the noble tree reached Martinique in the Caribbean in about 1720, due to the truly heroic efforts of Chevalier Gabriel Mathieu de Clieu, who follows Baba Budan into the coffee hall of fame. De Clieu first had difficulties talking the authorities in Paris into giving him some trees (he finally stole them), but this was nothing compared with what he went through once at sea. First, a fellow traveler tried to rip up his trees, a man who, de Clieu writes, was "basely jealous of the joy I was about to taste through being of service to my country, and being unable to get this coffee plant away from me, tore off a branch." Other, more cynical commentators suggest the potential coffee thief was a Dutch spy bent on sabotaging the French coffee industry.

Later, the ship barely eluded pirates, nearly sunk in a storm, and was finally becalmed. Water grew scarce, and all but one of the precious little seedlings died. Now comes the most poignant episode of all: De Clieu, though suffering from thirst himself, was so desperately looking forward to coffee in the New World that he shared half of his daily water ration with his struggling charge, "upon which," he writes, "my happiest hopes were founded. It needed such succor the more in that it was extremely backward, being no larger than the slip of a pink."

Once this spindly shoot of the noble tree reached Martinique, however, it flourished. Fifty years later there were 18,680 coffee trees in Martinique, and coffee cultivation was established in Haiti, Mexico, and most of the islands of the Caribbean.

De Clieu became one of coffee’s greatest heroes, honored in song and story (songs and stories of white Europeans, that is; what the Africans and Indians working the new coffee plantations thought about coffee is not recorded). Pardon, in La Martinique, says de Clieu deserves a place in history next to Parmentier, who brought the potato to France.