From Modern Farmer:
Coffee. Java. Joe. Whatever you call it, that ubiquitous brew that jump-starts your
morning was once at the center of international intrigue. It was spy versus spy with
all the big European powers attempting to get their hands on coffee beans.
The history of coffee extends back at least 1,200 years to Abyssinia (known today as Ethiopia) where it’s believed the shrub was first cultivated. Legend holds that Kaldi, a 9th century goat herder, discovered the shrub’s power after seeing his flock become energetic when they nibbled on its berries. The story is apocryphal and doesn’t appear to have been written down until close to 700 years later. Regardless, coffee’s cultivation spread northeast from ancient Ethiopia to the Arabian Peninsula.
By the 1600s, coffee consumption was wildly popular in Europe, with coffee houses springing up in London, Paris, Amsterdam and elsewhere and becoming important cultural, political and financial centers that helped transform the continent.
And where there’s a potential for making money, and one-upping your rivals, there will surely be an attempt at cornering the market. At the time, the Arabs had coffee cultivation tied up and the Europeans wanted a piece of the action. It was up to their spies to try and get the high-powered plant into their hands and into the ground in their various colonies.
The Dutch were the first of the superpowers whose spies successfully stole a viable plant in 1616 from Mocha, the bustling port city and center of coffee trading in Yemen. Unfortunately, these spies’ names have been seemingly lost to history — easy to understand, since we are talking about secret missions here.
Luckily there are two swashbuckling undercover coffee agents from that we do know of, thanks to good old fashioned self-promotion. Captain Mathieu Gabriel de Clieu of France and Lieutenant Colonel Francisco de Melo Palheta of Portugal helped their nations achieve a foothold in the fight to become coffee producers.
First up, the Frenchman Mathieu Gabriel de Clieu. In 1723, de Clieu was a naval officer serving as captain of infantry at Martinique. While on leave in Paris, he was struck by the idea that his island home would be the perfect place to cultivate coffee. The French king, Louis XIV, had recently received a coffee plant from the Burgemeester of Amsterdam, and it was ensconced in the royal garden, now known as the Jardin des Plantes, in Paris.Tangentially related:
There are two versions of how de Clieu gained possession of a coffee plant. The first involved a daring nighttime raid on the royal garden after de Clieu failed to receive the king’s permission to take a plant back to Martinique. The more reliable, but alas less romantic, version involves the intercession of a noblewoman who apparently had something on the royal physician, Pierre Chirac, and coerced him to swipe a cutting of the coveted plant for de Clieu.
Regardless of how the captain got his very valuable plant, the journey back to Martinique was an adventure in itself. According to de Clieu, in a letter to the Année Littéraire, a literary and scientific periodical, he was forced to share his “scanty ration” of water with the “coffee plant upon which my happiest hopes were founded and which was the source of my delight.”
He also had to fight off another passenger on the ship who, “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.”
On top of the lack of water and the jealous interloper, his ship was nearly captured by Tunisian pirates and was menaced by a violent storm. But de Clieu and his coffee plant eventually made it back to Martinique where he planted it on his estate....MORE
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