Moments from Coffee History: De Clieu’s Journey

Gabriel Mathieu de Clieu looked at the seeds in his hand. They were a rich shade of dark brown, with a light coat of shiny oil. He brought them to his nose and took a long, wistful whiff. The aroma promised of untold flavor locked inside, to be freed only to the adventurous soul that ground them to powder and unleashed their alchemy into hot water. His thoughts raced back to his post in the island of Martinique – the hills terraced with drifting soft mist. He knew what he had to do.

de Clieu was a young French naval officer on vacation in Paris when he took on a personal mission. He had found a coffee plant, and was determined to take a sapling back to the island of Martinique. He boarded the ship with a glass box containing the sapling. Protected against the elements and the ceaseless spray of seawater, the plant could survive its journey if all remained equal. That was not to be.

One day in their voyage, gales blew in across the sea. Soon a tropical storm was lashing down on the deck. de Clieu clutched the box to his bosom to prevent it from sliding away, protecting it from the storm. Eventually the storm passed, but jealousy took its place. He had a rival on the ship. Resentful of de Clieu’s dogged determination, he attacked, ripping a branch off in the struggle. de Clieu fended him off, and the plant survived.

Then the winds died down to nothing. The ship becalmed, water rations became scarce. de Clieu selflessly shared his meager water rations with the plant, managing to keep it alive.

The ship made it to Martinique just in time for the plant to be transferred to a garden. There it grew, protected round the clock by a phalanx of slaves. That sapling became the origin of hundreds of coffee trees. The French colonies in the western hemisphere won a name in the coffee trade by virtue of these trees. Impressed by his dedication, the French monarch bestowed upon de Clieu the governorship of Guadeloupe, and was awarded the rank of commander of the Royal and Military Order of Saint Louis.

Gabriel Mathieu de Clieu died a wealthy man in Paris in 1774. Although he was initially credited with bringing coffee plants to the western hemisphere, it was found later that coffee was growing already in the Dutch colony of Surinam.

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