The Return of St Helena Coffee

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

Roaster with coffeeAs a result of the Napoleonic connection, the island had achieved a measure of celebrity and its cottage coffee industry enjoyed a brief renaissance. The owner of the estate at Bamboo Hedge, G. W. Alexander, sent a sample to a coffee broker in London, William Burnie & Co., who pronounced it 'of a very superior quality and flavour' and suggested that it might fetch as much as £7 per hundredweight. Encouraged by the potential of 'a very valuable and secure source of income', Alexander increased the area under cultivation, and by 1845 was able to achieve the highest price of any coffee on the London market by a penny per pound. In 1851 a Mr Magnus entered his St Helena coffee into competition: at the Great Exhibition in the specially constructed Crystal Palace in Hyde Park. It was exhibited amidst exotic displays gathered from all around the world, including the Koh-i- noor diamond recently taken as war reparations from the Sikhs and presented to Queen Victoria.

The Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry Of All Nations was one of High Victorian Utilitarianism's crowning achievements, and its catalogue and accompanying Report of the Juries provide a compendium of the labyrinthine workings of the imperial mind. The chairmen could award the Council Medal to an exhibitor, the highest accolade. Individual juries could award Prize Medals or Honourable Mentions. Coffee came under the class 'Substances used in the Preparation of Drinks', which had six jury members. The Chairman of that class was Edward de Lode.

Amidst this glamorous competition appears 'ST HELENA - There is an excellent sample of coffee from this island, from a private Garden of Mr S. Magnus of which Honourable Mention is made.' As Honourable Mentions are made of a good quarter of the exhibits, this is not a spectacular coup for the island, but a solid endorsement nonetheless. The coffee fared better than its other entry: 'St Helena contributes Snuff-boxes made from the willow-tree under which the remains of the great Napoleon rested until their removal to France .. .'

With the Honourable Mention to encourage it, St Helena went through one of its periodic spurts of activity as landowners decided to plant coffee, although as the island's newspaper reported, 'the reason why coffee is not cultivated on a much larger scale by landowners is ... a want of means'. Nonetheless, it seems that some enterprising coffee farmer found a market for his produce in the salons of Paris, cashing in on the Napoleonic connection after Longwood became a French property. In France, St Helena coffee was considered 'to the equal if not superior to the best Mocha' and commanded a price of Is. 6d. a pound (slightly more than the Burnie valuation). This represented a small premium on the prevailing market price of coffee at that time, sufficient, it was hoped to encourage immigration to the island of planters with some capital. However, in 1871 the administration was found to be heavily in debt, and the island on the verge of bankruptcy. Expenditure was cut by pensioning off many government workers with a flat £1500, and they promptly used the money to emigrate. The loss of capital and labour was near catastrophic, and many settlers likewise left for home or the Cape of Good Hope. The development of coffee plantations was thereby stopped in its tracks, and by, 1883 the horticulturalist Dr Daniel Moriss, later to be knighted as Director of Kew Gardens, saw 'very fine patches of coffee', although 'somewhat neglected', growing at a number of locations on the island, including Plantation House. He thought the island was capable of producing 'a fair quantity of very fine coffee'. The observation was accurate, but on St Helena the problem had always been acting on potential. Eventually there

was one plant, flax, introduced in 1874, that became the island's staple crop. For the first time the government developed a lasting enthusiasm for, an agricultural project, and the income of sorts that it generated. Nearly all thoughts of coffee were set aside in the scramble for' flax planting. The coffee trees were neglected, seldom picked, and no one on the island drank such coffee as they produced.

In 1989, a London coffee broker heard of the coffee from the Agricultural Officer who was on leave in England and offered the whole crop of the island to me [Tony Wild]. I was the buying director of a coffee company at the time, which I bought sight unseen, as no samples were available. I was intrigued by the notion that I could have the entire production of an island, about which I then knew very little. The Government then leased the coffee-growing fields to David Henry, an Englishman whose father was a Saint (as the islanders are called) and thus was able to gain the necessary permission to move to the island. He had first spent time there when a brief visit had been elongated as a result of the South Atlantic War, and had noted the island's coffee. Back in London, he researched its origins and decided that, if it could be developed properly, it could be a world-class coffee. He applied to the International Coffee Organization to have the coffee registered as a British product, so that it could freely be marketed, but his plans were stymied by the Government's unilateral decision prematurely to sell the coffee to me before he had had a chance to address the issues of husbandry, processing quality and grading, all of which needed to be put on a proper footing.

In due course, the government leased the experimental plantations to David Henry. He developed these small estates and added several more, selling the coffee all over the world, either to roasters in Japan and the USA in green bean form, or over the Internet, sending individual parcels of, roasted coffee to Hollywood and Honolulu. He was described by one visitor as the ‘Heathcliff of the South Atlantic', but his saturnine looks were allied to a passionate commitment to quality. As a result, St Helena coffee is one of the most expensive in the world. However much the taste of St Helena coffee can be ascribed to idiosyncratic history, soil, and microclimate, a considerable amount of skill and experience is required in the processing to bring out the optimum flavour.

In 2009, David Henry left St Helena and the St Helena coffee plantations were taken over by Solomon & Company (St Helena) Plc.  Founded in 1790 by Saul Solomon, Solomon & Company (St Helena) Plc (or “Solomons” as it is known in Island households), has deep links to the history of St Helena, establishing it as an integral part of Island life. The Company was founded in 1790 as a sole trader later developing into a partnership, providing a general store, boarding house, a legal and insurance service and setting up the Island's first printing press, becoming a Limited Company in 1951. The Company was nationalised by the St Helena Government in 1974. By the early 1980's a change in Government policy moved the Company towards part privatisation.  In 1984, the Company was incorporated as a Public Limited Company.

As the largest enterprise on St Helena it is simply known as ‘the Company’. The 220-year-old company operates stores throughout the island, the bulk fuel operation, the petrol stations in Jamestown, Longwood and Half Tree Hollow, and a wholesale business. It is also the island’s shipping and insurance agency, and runs transport, farming, construction, electrical, IT, vehicle inspection and wharfage services.

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