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Published:March 13th, 2006 06:24 EST
Gabriel Mathieu de Clieu- A major role in the history of coffee.

Gabriel Mathieu de Clieu- A major role in the history of coffee.

By Juliet Maruru

The book All about Coffee calls it ‘the most romantic chapter in the history of the coffee plant’. According to the journal Scientific American that man’s devotion to a sapling coffee tree played a major role in seeding today’s $70 billion a year coffee industry, which is surpassed only by petroleum in terms of dollars traded globally.

The story begins in the highlands of Ethiopia, home of the wild coffee plant. By the 15th century C.E, coffee was being cultivated on the Arabian Peninsula. This coffee named Coffee Arabica was a descendant of the Ethiopian wild coffee plant.

In 1616, the Dutch acquired either trees or live seeds and soon established plantations in Ceylon, now Sri Lanka, and Java, now part of Indonesia. In 1706, the Dutch transported a young tree from Java to the botanical gardens in Amsterdam, Netherlands. The tree flourished. Its descendants were shipped to Dutch colonies in Suriname and the Caribbean.
The French were eager to enter the coffee trade. They purchased seeds and trees and shipped them to the Island of Reunion. The seeds failed to grow and all but one tree eventually died. Fifteen thousand seeds from that one tree were planted in 1720 and a plantation was finally established. The French also hoped to establish plantations in the Caribbean but their first two attempts failed.

Captain Gabriel Mathieu de Clieu, a French Naval Officer on leave in Paris, managed to obtain a descendant of a coffee tree given to King Louis XIV of France by the Mayor of Amsterdam in 1714. De Clieu made it his personal mission to take the tree to his estate on Martinique. He placed his precious plant in a box partly made of glass so that the tree could absorb sunlight and remains warm on cloudy days, explains the All about Coffee.

The tree survived a jealous passenger’s attempt to wrest it from de Clieu, an encounter with Tunisian pirates, a violent storm, and even worse a shortage of fresh water. De Clieu wrote: ‘Water was lacking to such an extent that for more than a month, I was obliged to share my scanty ration with the plant upon which my happiest hopes were founded and which was the source of my delight.’
De Clieu’s charge arrived in Martinique in good health, and it thrived and multiplied in the tropical environment. Gordon Wrigley in his book Coffee states: ‘From this single plant, Martinique supplied seed directly and indirectly to all countries of the Americas except Brazil, French Guiana, and Suriname’.
Today over 25 million family farms in some 80 countries grow an estimated 15 billion coffee trees. Their product ends up in 2.25 billion cups of coffee that are consumed each day.