The Origins of St Helena Coffee

Excerpts from an edited version of Antony Wild’s book, ‘Coffee:  A Dark History’:

Governor of St Helena HouseIn the coffee trade, the name 'Bourbon' has come to be associated with a variety of coffee plant originating in Yemen which spread into South America via the French Caribbean. Louis XV already had some flourishing in his greenhouse at Versailles. He was particularly passionate about them, tending to them personally, and harvesting, processing, roasting, and brewing them himself. He had Madame du Barry portrayed as a Sultana, coffee cup in hand.

The plants found on St Helena are 'Bourbon' and these, as we know, were directly imported from Yemen.

Given the early involvement of the English in the coffee trade in the Arabian Sea, it might seem surprising that the East India Company was relatively slow off the mark when it came to establishing its own colonial plantations. However, St Helena was, in effect, its only secure colony with the appropriate growing conditions for coffee, and, unlike the Dutch Java and the French Ile de Bourbon, its size dictated that there would be no possibility of large scale cultivation of coffee.

Employing subterfuge, as the Yemenis at the time had prohibited the export of seedlings, an English agent, following in the equally clandestine steps of the French, finally secured some coffee trees for St.Helena in 1733.

Shortly after his arrival, Hanys advised Dickinson that there might be a good opportunity to buy cheaply during the coming 'Hodge'  (Haj) feast, when there would be no competition from the Muslim merchants, and indeed he and 'the French Second' would have the field to themselves. Although they occasionally colluded, by and large the French merchants were seen as unwelcome competitors, and any fresh intelligence concerning the whereabouts of French ships bound for Mocha was covertly circulated.

It was during the enlightened rule of Governor Byfield that the idea of coffee cultivation was first mooted. He wrote to the Court of Directors in London: 'We believe that coffee would grow well here ... we remember that there was once a coffee tree which grew very well in the worst part of the country.'  This mystery coffee tree had never been previously recorded, and its mention may have been simply part of Hyfield's general strategy to get the support of the Company to encourage the island's agriculture; his possible white lie certainly had the desired effect, for the Directors responded to his report by ordering the procurement of seeds from Mocha.

It was his successor, Isaac Pyke (who had already served as Governor, and was heartily detested), who witnessed the arrival of the first coffee plants on the island. The Houghton, out of Mocha, arrived at St Helena on 10 February 1733. The Council Proceedings noted: 'The Super Cargoes told us that they could not get us any Coffee plants but brought us a good quantity of the berries for seed which we will plant as fast as the season will permit us.' Remarkably, after all the trouble that had been taken to procure the seeds, coffee disappears off the record until shortly before Napoleon's exile to the island. Despite Byfield's suggestion, there seems to have been no concerted effort to cultivate coffee as a cash crop. This may, have been because coffee can quite happily, if erratically, grow in the wild, which nicely coincided with the St Helenian farmer's natural temperament. In contrast to the success of the Dutch and the French in Java and Reunion, the East India Company's introduction of coffee to St Helena was a damp squib. It was not until 1814 that coffee plants were spotted at Bamboo Grove in Sandy Nay on the south side of the island by the distinguished botanist, William Roxburgh, formerly superintendent of the Company's Botanical Gardens in Calcutta: 'some of the finest coffee trees I ever saw ... in every stage from the blossom to the ripe berry'.

Coffee was not the only crop that had been brought to the island. Captain Bligh, late of the infamous Bounty, called by in 1792 with some Tahitian visitors on his way back from the South Seas, leaving ten breadfruit plants from the supplies that he was 'taking to Jamaica as well as seeds of mountain rice and sago.’ The Council wrote to him before he left, describing 'the inexpressible degree of wonder and delight to contemplate a floating garden transported in luxuriance from one extremity of the world to the other'. Bligh's visit took place at the start in earnest of the era of worldwide economic botany, promoted chiefly by Sir Joseph Banks, an adviser to the East India Company.

St Helena's own botanical garden was but one of many such spread strategically around the burgeoning British Empire. The aim was scientific to the extent that research into plants and the ability to adapt to strange environments was partly scientific; but the underlying raison d'etre was to encourage the growth of potentially valuable crops in British territories.  Coffee was amongst the earliest plants to be treated thus, and everything from cinchona (the plant from which quinine is derived) to tea was to be evaluated for its potential commercial benefits. The process of globalizing the regional produce of a particular area was an essential tool of the Company's, and later the Empire's  economic dominance.

To purchase Antony Wild’s book, ‘Coffee:  A Dark History’, please visit www.amazon.co.uk