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From Ethiopia to Saint Lucia - A history of coffee

The plant Coffea arabica is native to Ethiopia, where the major genetic diversity of the species is still found. Historical records indicate that sometime in the late 13th century, coffee seeds were taken from the forests of southwestern Ethiopia to Yemen, in the Arabian Peninsula, where it was cultivated as a crop. By the late 1600s, coffee trees had left Yemen and were growing in India, on coffee plantations in the Mysore region, known as Malabar at the time.  From there, the Dutch would send seeds in 1696 and 1699 to Batavia, today called Jakarta, the capital of Indonesia, located on the populous island of Java.  Eventually, originating from such seeds, a single coffee plant was taken in 1706 from Java to Amsterdam and given a home in the botanical gardens. In 1714, after the Utrecht peace treaty between the Netherlands and France was signed, the mayor of Amsterdam, Gerrit HOOFT, presented a coffee plant to King Louis XIV of France.  The specimen was planted in the greenhouse of the Jardin des Plantes in Paris and quickly produced seeds. In 1723, a French Naval officer by the name of Gabriel Mathieu de CLIEU was commissioned to transport a young coffee plant from Paris to Martinique, in the West Indies.  Once planted, the seedling not only thrived, but is credited with the spread of millions of coffee trees on the island of Martinique over the next 50 years.  At the time, Saint Lucia was an administrative dependence of Martinique and commerce  ‒involving the transit of goods in both directions‒ was very active.  As part of such exchange, coffee plants were introduced to Saint Lucia by immigrant farmers from Martinique and by 1734 there were various coffee plantations already established on the island.  Several decades later, in part due to the efforts of Jean-Michel BERTRAND Le Verrier and his brother Modeste, both successful farmers established near modern-day Fond St. Jacques, coffee production in Saint Lucia had become a widespread and profitable activity.  In fact, coffee growing was to become so successful that by 1775 approximately 11,500 acres filled with coffee trees existed in Saint Lucia and ‒together with Martinique‒ they produced half of the arabica coffee consumed in Europe at the time.  Unfortunately, mainly due to socio-economic and political reasons, by 1834 this noble agricultural practice was all but permanently abandoned in Saint Lucia, as most of the island’s plantations switched to the more lucrative production of sugar cane.  Today, the cultivation of coffee is carried on by few individuals across the island, in very small quantities and often only for their own consumption.

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