The Legend of Captain Gabriel De Clieu and His Travelling Coffee Plant

French Captain Gabriel  De Clieu is credited for helping to start the coffee industry in Central and South America. Much of the original stock from the coffee plantations, in these areas, are thought to be descendants of the coffee plant which De Clieu had transported across the Atlantic, from France, to the island of Martinique in 1723.

The Dutch started growing coffee in Suriname, around 1714, and the French had two other projects in Haiti and Dominican Republic, circa 1715. However, where De Clieu stands out in history is that he was very successful in the reproduction of his plant. By 1777, there were already 18,791,680 coffee plants growing in Martinique. So, in a little over 50 years, one single plant had multiplied into nearly 19 million plants. Not only did this single plant populate Martinique, but its descendants were sent out to many of the nearby islands, such as Guadeloupe and Dominican Republic, replacing the less successful plants of 1715.

Why was Captain Gabriel de Clieu’s Plant so fruitful? (pun intended)

The distance between France and Martinique is roughly 4,000 miles. Because De Clieu was sailing across the Atlantic he would most likely have taken a less direct route to make use of trade winds. His journey therefore took him past Spain, and the Canary Islands, before crossing the Atlantic Ocean and into the Caribbean. This was a trip that took about 1 to 3 months.

Much of the success, of De Clieu’s plant, should be accredited to the care and attention that he gave to it throughout its journey. De Clieu chose to transport the plant in a glass cabinet, while aboard his ship, the ‘La Dromedaire’, to project it from extremes in weather and temperature.

So what makes De Clieu such a legend?

De Clieu’s trouble began right from the start. He had difficulty finding  a coffee plant for the voyage. The Mayor of Amsterdam, seeking to curry favor, presented King Louis XIV of France the gift of a coffee plant. Now at the time the Dutch controlled the coffee trade outside of Arabia by having smuggled seedlings out of the port of Mocha on the Red sea around 1615 and planting its progeny in the Dutch controlled islands of Sumatra, Bali, Timor, Java and Celebes (that’s where we get the term Mocha Java from). They had a grip on much of the lucrative and growing coffee business in Europe. It was in 1714 that the mayor of Amsterdam gave the French King a seedling.

King Louis was reportedly very fond of his plant and loved to personally harvest, roast and brew his own coffee from it. This great love, coupled with the fact that previous attempts had been made, and failed, to propagate coffee in France’s colonies, that the King rejected De Clieu’s request.

De Clieu finally managed to obtain a plant thanks to the intervention of the Royal Physician, Professor Pierre Chirac. It is thought that Chirac believed that the economic benefits, to France, of having their own coffee plantations were huge.  If France had access to their own coffee they’d keep French wealth in French hands and possibility acquire even more riches by trading with other nations. However, according to De Clieu, Chirac’s thoughts weren’t quite so patriotic. Rather than the greater good of France, Chirac had been persuaded by the pleasures of a lady who was hired by De Clieu.

Now, De Clieu had his plant and set sail for Martinique. A short time after leaving port his vessel was attacked by a group of Tunisian pirates who stuck in the middle of the night. Luckily, for De Clieu, his ship was no easy target, as it was equipped with enough firepower to fend off the pirates.

Pirates weren’t the only people trying to stop De Clieu. A fellow passenger tried to destroy the plant. When De Clieu became aware of his intensions he guarded his plant day and night. Some suggest that this passenger was in fact a Dutch Spy, stowed away on the ship to sabotage France’s attempt.

Another challenge De Clieu faced was weather. The ship was hit by a fierce tropical storm only a few hundred miles from Martinique. This storm was followed by dead calm. With no wind available, the shipped was stranded, drifting aimlessly for several weeks. What made matters worse was that during the storm the hull of the sailing vessel was gashed open. To prevent the ship from sinking most of the drinking water was jettisoned. The water now had to be severely rationed.

Apparently, the rations were so small that it wasn’t even enough for a human to survive on let alone a thirsty coffee plant as well.

De Clieu wrote:

“I would have died of thirst to keep alive the plant they had given me. But listen, you know what glory this precious little plant promised me! If I died, then so be it! But I knew coffee held a glorious destiny for me”.

While the attack by pirates and a spy didn’t really put De Clieu’s determination to protect his plant to the test. Although scary, when the pirates attacked there was little individually De Clieu could do. Clever tactics and an arsenal of weaponry won that encounter. But when water was short, De Clieu was on his own. It was his ration he shared, no one else’s. He had made a conscious decision to put the health of this plant above that of his own and for that reason he became a legend.

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