Mar 29 2012

Throughout history, courageous explorers and adventurers have introduced rare and exotic foods that over time have become commonplace staples of our modern-day diet and culinary acumen. 

Famous men such as Marco Polo, Christopher Columbus, and Sir Francis Drake each returned from their adventures in Asia and the new world to their homes in Europe bringing plants and vegetables that would later transform western cuisine; their names are eternally secure, framed in our national conscience-synonymous with having changed the globe for better or for worse. Tangentially, Gabriel De Clieu is not well known; his name is not commonly found amongst the roster of monolithic characters that are recognized as great men, and yet De Clieu is the man who brought coffee to the new world.

Gabriel De Clieu's story is one of adventure, intrigue, and heroism: he single-handedly introduced the coffee plant to the Western Hemisphere. De Clieu was born in Dieppe, France, in the late 17th century. In the early part of the 18th century, he joined the French Navy and during his service in the Antilles, he learned of Michel Isambert's attempt to bring coffee agriculture to the West Indies. Isambert (botanist/correspondent) had been elected by the Paris Academy of Sciences to head a project that involved acclimating 'useful' plants in the West Indies. Isambert never completed his assignment, since he died upon his arrival in Guadeloupe in 1716.

De Clieu decided to take up the cause of the Academy, and busied himself with the task of collecting a coffee plant from the Jardin Des Plantes in Paris. Unfortunately, the King, Louis XV, was not willing to part with any of his coffee plants. However, after several unsuccessful attempts to convince the court to allow him access to some cuttings, he covertly acquired some seedlings from the royal physician whom he allegedly bribed.

Passage to the New World

Journeying to the new world during the 18th century must have been the ultimate test of a person's sanity. Passengers aboard packet boats bound for the West Indies almost certainly stocked up on hefty reserves of strength and courage before heading on their way, for the passage was treacherous and wholly unpleasant. The Dromedaire, Declieu's ship, seemed to attract its fair share of adventure and drama: A few weeks into the voyage, the French Corvette was attacked by pirates off the coast of Tunisia. De Clieu's journey might have been cut short, like so many others that ventured out onto the lawless high seas -- only to meet a sticky end, he may too have fallen victim to the sword of a merciless privateer. However the Dromedaire's 24 guns repelled any chance of them being boarded, and the ship and its precious cargo continued onward.

Dutch Spies and Thirsty Passengers

Gabriel's de Clieu's close call with Tunisian pirates was not the only excitement recorded during his passage to the new world. It appears the Dutch government had dispatched a spy to follow De Clieu and ultimately planned to destroy the coffee plant that he carried with him. The Dutch had spent several decades building their own monopoly of coffee cultivation and, like their predecessors (the Ottomans), they guarded their commercial interests most jealously. De Clieu's endeavor threatened their preeminence, and the future of their powerful cartel. In De Clieu's memoirs, he describes how he guarded his precious cargo-fending off the Dutch emissary: "It is useless to recount the difficulties I had in saving my delicate plant from the hands of a man who, basely jealous of the joy I was about to taste through being of service to my country, attempted to destroy the seedlings."  

Rough weather would also endanger the voyage, as the Dromedaire was badly damaged by a fierce tropical storm. Several hundred miles from Martinique, the ship began to take on water. The storm waters had breached the hull, and the crew was forced to ditch most of the cargo so as to remain afloat. Even drinking water was amongst the many things cast overboard, and yet De Clieu managed to save just enough to feed his precious plant.

Eventually, De Clieu arrived in Martinique and planted his coffee seedling firmly in the ground. Half a century later, the Latin American coffee plantation system was born, and millions of plants began to thrive throughout the West Indies, Central America, and Brazil. Gabriel de Clieu's vision and his determination to continue the Paris Academy's quest of introducing coffee agriculture to the New World had succeeded. The modern-day nations of Brazil, El Salvador, and Guatemala are synonymous with coffee production; in fact, Brazil is the world's largest producer of coffee. 

Each time I sample various coffees from Latin America, I'm reminded of the fantastic voyage of De Clieu; I'll never cease to marvel  at the fact that each cup of El Salvadoran or Costa Rican coffee that I occasionally  savor is somehow related to that one well-adventured seedling --incredible!

James E. McClellan III: Colonialism and Science, Saint Domingue in the old regime (University Press of Chicago, 1992)pp 149

Joel, David, and Karl Schapira: The Book of Coffee and Tea, (St Martin's Press, New York, 1975)pp13

Stewart Lee Allen: The Devil's Cup, a history of the world according to coffee(Ballantine Books, New York, 1999)pp170

About the author: Martyn is the McMenamins Roast Master
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