History’s Forgotten Coffee Islands
By Chris Kornman
Islands are frequently associated with isolation, and for good reason. Many develop their own completely unique ecosystems and species of flora and fauna – look no further than Madagascar or Australia for confirmation of the wild, weird, and wonderful forms of life that can evolve independently in relative seclusion.
Throughout history, islands have also served as waypoints and convenient stopovers for trade routes and explorers. And while an individual island may lack the resources needed for sustained living, a group of islands with good mainland connections can support a vibrant lifestyle.
Here in the 21st century, there remain a few prominent island coffees that evoke the unique nature of their terroir and heritage. Sumatra and Java, Papua New Guinea, the Hawaiian archipelago (often sold as Kona), and Jamaica (with its famous Blue Mountain barrels) each have carved out a place in the modern coffee landscape. Immediately recognizable to even casual consumers, these island coffees can elicit divisive opinions on their flavors and demand incredible prices based on their rarity and marketability.
However, there are many more islands that played major roles in the historical dissemination and development of coffee throughout the world. I’d like to devote a little time to navigate their often forgotten contributions to the beverage we enjoy.
Island Heirloom Origins
Many coffee professionals are aware that Arabica’s two most commonly cultivated heirloom varieties were grown on islands. Coffee trees stolen from Yemen were brought to the island of Java and would become the source of the rest of the world’s genetic stock. Java’s early importance in global coffee can’t be overstated, illustrated by a simple fact of production: in 1721, the Dutch, Europe’s leading consumer at the time, bought 90% of their coffee from Yemen. Just five years later 90% of the coffee imported to Amsterdam was grown on their colonized Indonesian island.
After years of pleading, a tree of this Javanese variety of Arabica, known now as Typica, made its way as a diplomatic gift from the Netherlands to Paris — though not before the Dutch tried planting some trees in Dijon (spoiler: they didn’t make it).
It didn’t take long for French missionaries, known as Spiritans (also known to the verbose as Congregation of the Holy Ghost or by the patriarchal epithet Holy Ghost Fathers), to bring coffee to a little outpost far off the Eastern coast of the African continent in the early years of the 18th century. That island was known at the time as Île Bourbon, so named for the French Royal House that held the throne from 1589 until the French Revolution in the early 19th century.
Not the narrow-leafed, longberried Typica from Java, this new variety would grow broader leaves with rounder berries and replace Typica’s conical, pointed skirt in favor of a shrubbier appearance. These shrubs would take the name of the island, Bourbon (despite the fact that the island was renamed Île de la Réunion in 1848). However, it would remain relatively obscure outside of the island, and French royal consumption, for nearly a century while Typica flourished across the globe.
Arabica’s Original Island – Ceylon
There was an island whose cultivated coffee predates both Java and Réunion, however. The nation of Sri Lanka, so named in 1973, occupies an island, once known as Ceylon, off the southern coast of India. Ceylon, more commonly associated with tea in recent history, was once a global force in coffee production, predating Java’s plantations by at least half of a century.
While coffee’s first stopover after uprooting from Yemen would be the western coast of India, it was Ceylon where coffee was first cultivated in earnest by the Dutch as early as 1658. It’s even possible that Yemeni traders introduced the crop prior to the first Portuguese occupation in 1505, but surviving written allegations of this aren’t reliable enough for us to be certain.
While the Dutch occupied the island for more than a hundred years, and provided Amsterdam with the resulting harvest (which was valued higher than both Mocha and Java in the early years of the 18th century) it was the British who would first truly exploit, expand, and subsequently eviscerate the island’s production. The British seized an opportunity to stretch the reaches of their empire from mainland India, occupying Ceylon and evicting the Dutch colonists in 1796.
The boom and bust of Ceylon coffee under British rule is shocking both in its magnitude and brevity. In 1825, the first plantation was established, and within just 15 years coffee was the island’s primary export. In 1873 production peaked at over 111 million pounds, enough to place it third in global production at the time, trailing only Java and the newly emergent powerhouse of Brazil. Yet by the late 1890s, there would hardly be a tree left on the island.
The tailspin began in 1869, when the first spots of a newly described fungal infection were observed on Ceylon plantations. Hemileia vastatrix, also known as coffee leaf rust or roya, devastated production on the island. In less than a generation, harvest volume plummeted to barely 1% of its peak, and by the turn of the 20th century, coffee plantations had been almost completely replaced by tea.
Coffee leaf rust, however, would not be confined to Ceylon. The fungus jumped from island to mainland and back, utterly decimating coffee production throughout the Eastern Hemisphere. All across the Indian and Pacific Oceans, India and Indonesia, the Philippine islands (once fourth in global arabica volume behind Ceylon), the Hawaiian islands, and even Bourbon trees on Réunion were not spared. Ceylon’s coffee leaf rust outbreak would pull the linchpin in an unprecedented shift of arabica production to the Western hemisphere in the span of less than thirty years.
An interesting footnote to this story involves another important island in coffee history. After arabica faltered in the East, coffee growing colonists sought alternative measures. While botanists in India researched resistant varieties, plantation owners in Indonesia introduced liberica and canephora (robusta).
On an island called Timor, arabica spontaneously cross-bred with robusta, a singularly unusual feat due to the fact that arabica has twice the chromosomes and, in theory, shouldn’t be compatible for hybridization. Regardless, the Timor Hybrid (also Hibrido de Timor or HdT) became a local favorite shortly after it was first observed in the early 20th century. It has provided the baseline genetic source for most disease resistant arabica cultivars to this day.
Coffee’s First Landings in the Americas
Coffee arrived remarkably early in the West, and much like Columbus, the coffee tree would find easy landings on the islands in the Caribbean sea. It would be the French, bringing Typica from the Dutch-Javanese stock in Europe, who would first grow coffee in the Americas.
A flavorful tale involving Captain Gabriel de Clieu, a French Naval Officer under Louis XIV, includes his journal of the delivery of a single plant from France. The ocean journey was a perilous one, involving pirates, storms, and long delays on the high seas; drinking water aboard the ship was rationed. De Clieu shared his allotment with his precious seedling and successfully delivered it to the island of Martinique in the Lesser Antilles in 1723. He believed he was bringing the New World’s first coffee.
Throughout the 18th century, Martinique, a French Windward island, would maintain a reputation as a leader in Caribbean coffee to the degree that much coffee grown on other islands would be sold dishonestly under its name. Many historians, even to this day, credit de Clieu’s plant as the ancestor of all American Typica.
There is a grain of truth in this. The plant took root and flourished in Martinique, and the island would prove a gateway for cultivation, directly supplying Puerto Rico, Guadalupe, and other islands in the Greater and Lesser Antilles as well as Venezuela.
Yet there was very likely coffee in the Caribbean prior to de Clieu. Records indicate that In 1715 (incidentally the same year they sent coffee to Réunion) the French began cultivation of the crop on the island of Hispaniola and the Dutch were growing coffee in Suriname (then Dutch Guiana) in 1718 – all Javanese Typica from European gardens.
An especially unique story played out on Haiti, coffee’s first island home in the Caribbean. The island, Columbus’ first landing site in 1492, was claimed by Spain, who established the first European colony there. The Spanish initially named the island La Española, but in 1511 renamed it Santo Domingo. La Española (or Hispaniola to the French) would stick as the name for the island, which was split after French buccaneers occupied and terrorized its western coast throughout the 17th century. The French, content simply to translate, would call their portion Saint Domingue. Nowadays, the independent countries of Haiti and the Dominican Republic occupy the western and eastern divides of the island, respectively.
After less than fifty years of occupation, the Spanish would all but annihilate the indigenous Taíno population on Hispaniola, either by disease, the cruelties of slavery, or outright murder. The dwindling unpaid labor force would be augmented by enslaved Africans, beginning in the first year of the 16th century. This is relevant to our coffee story because it would be freed slaves, both remnant Taínos and Africans, who would first sell coffee to the local European settlers, drinking in coffeehouses after the fashion in Paris.
After decades harvesting coffee to be consumed before it ever reached the port, European and American demand for the commodity eventually shifted the island’s production towards export. Under the French in the 18th century, the Haiti quietly emerged as a leader in arabica production, reaching its apex in the late 1780s at 88 million pounds annually, enough to briefly rank first in global volume, over a hundred years earlier than Ceylon’s bumper crops.
Coffee production on the Caribbean island would spiral rapidly into the void long before rival island coffees in the Eastern hemisphere were decimated by rust. Haitian plantations erupted in 1791, lit by the literal and figurative flames of revolution. With over 500,000 enslaved on the island nation, and just 40,000 Europeans, it was one of the largest and most successful revolutions in history, and the only such rebellion in modern times to form an independent nation. A little over a decade in the making, by 1804 the enslaved people on Hispaniola had gained their national independence and instigated a massive global coffee shortage.
Many of the islands on which coffee was once grown are no longer mentioned in conversations about the origin of your daily cup. Even the ones you recognize are frequently in short supply. Such is the nature of the island – their geography is more prone to both short-term weather anomalies and gradual changes in sea levels and global climate. Their arable land areas are relatively limited, their accessibility remote, and their populations prone, as are we all, to interdependence. These factors make island coffee unique both in flavor and history, a fact all too easily marooned in the sands of time.
Kushalappa, Ajjamada, C. & Albertus B. Eskes. Coffee Rust: Epidemiology, Resistance, and Management. CRC Press, Inc. (1989).
Sutherland, Claudia E. “Haitian Revolution (1791 – 1804)” BlackPast.org http://www.blackpast.org/gah/haitian-revolution-1791-1804
Topik, Steven. “The World Coffee Market in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries, from Colonial to National Regimes.” Department of History, University of California, Irvine (2004).
Ukers, William Harrison. All About Coffee. (New York, Tea and Coffee Trade Journal Company, 1922). https://books.google.com/books?id=Y5tXt7aoLNoC&printsec=frontcover&dq=ukers&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwjku4q2waTcAhUCMqwKHZ0HANYQ6AEIKzAA#v=onepage&q=ukers&f=false