Botanical evidence indicates that Coffea Arabica originated on the plateaus of central Ethiopia, several thousand feet above sea level, where it still grows wild. By about 600 a.d., coffee found its way to the southern tip of the Arabian peninsula to what is now called Yemen.
In Arabia, coffee was first mentioned as a medicine, then as a beverage taken in connection with meditation and religious exercises by dervishes. From there it moved into the streets and virtually created a new institution, the coffee house.
The Odyssey of the Bean
Legend has it that the Arabs, protective of Coffea arabica, refused to allow fertile seed to leave their country. In about 1650 a.d. a Moslem pilgrim from India named Baba Budan was the first to sneak some seeds out of Arabia. He planted his stolen treasure in the hills near Chikmagalgur in south India where they flourished. Today, offspring of Baba's original trees are officially known as var.Old Chick, and still produce around a third of India's coffee.
The French became interested in the Indian coffee, but their attempt to propagate coffee in southern France, near Dijon, failed because the tree does not tolerate frost. The Dutch carried the descendants of the seeds of Baba Budan to Java, where, after some effort, coffee growing was established on a regular basis.
Now comes one of the most extraordinary stories in the spread of coffee: the saga of the noble tree. In 1715 Louis XIV of France, with his insatiable curiosity and love of luxury, was of course an ardent coffee drinker. The Dutch owed him a favor and managed, with great difficulty, to procure him a coffee tree. The tree had originally been obtained at the Arabian port of Mocha, then carried to Java, and finally back across the seas to Holland, from where it was brought overland to Paris. The first greenhouse in Europe was constructed to house the noble tree. It flowered, bore fruit, and became one of the most prolific parents in the history of plantdom.
From that single tree sprung billions of arabica trees, including most of those presently growing in Central and South America. But the final odyssey of the offspring of the noble tree was neither easy nor straightforward.
Due to efforts of Chevalier Gabriel Mathiew de Clieu, the first sprouts from the noble tree reached Martinique in the Caribbean in about 1720. When his spindly shoot of the noble tree reached Martinique, it flourished. Fifty years later there were 18,680 coffee trees in Martinique, and coffee cultivation was established in Haiti, Mexico, and most of the islands of the Caribbean.
The noble tree also sent shoots to the island of Reunion, in the Indian Ocean, then called the Isle of Bourbon. This plant was found to be a somewhat different variety of arabica, with smaller beans, and was named var.Bourbon. The famed Santos coffees of Brazil and the Oaxaca coffees of Mexico are said to be offspring of the Bourbon tree. For the final irony, we have to wait until 1893, when coffee seed from Brazil was introduced into Kenya and what is now Tanzania, only a few hundred miles south of its original home in Ethiopia, thus completing a six-century circumnavigation of the globe.
Finally, to round out our set of coffee notables, we add the Don Juan of coffee propagation, Francisco de Mello Palheta of Brazil. The emperor of Brazil was interested in cutting his country into the coffee market, and in about 1727 sent de Mello Palheta to French Guiana to obtain seeds.
Don Francisco, whom legend pictures as suave and deadly charming, had a hard time getting at those seeds. Fortunately for coffee drinkers, Don Francisco so successfully charmed the French governor's wife that she sent him, buried in a bouquet of flowers, all the seeds and shoots he needed to initiate the billion-dollar coffee industry of Brazil.