COFFEE & COORG
THE LEGEND OF INDIAN COFFEECoffee is one of Nature’s most precious gifts to mankind. We do not know its origin for certain. The charming story surrounding its arrival in India is shrouded in the mists of the Chandagiri Hills of Chikmagalur district.
The legacy of Coffee begins with the story of a pilgrim to the holy places of Islam in the 17th century, having brought back with him seven seeds. Since the trade called the coffee ‘mocha’ by its origin, it is believed that Baba Budan, the pilgrim, brought the seeds from Yemen, the mountainous tract of the country lying along the Arabian Coast of the Red Sea. Coffee, when in blossom, fills the air with a compelling fragrance and when it ripens into fruit, a glorious blend of color to behold.
This botanical migrant from its distant native land, brought by the enterprise and loving care of the fakir, (whose name adorns the hills today), flourished where he planted them. Many believe that its arrival was at the beginning of the 17th century and other that it was towards its end. There was evidence of coffee being drunk by the Mughal aristocracy, but none to affirm whether it came from the Malnad farmers or its source lay elsewhere in Ethiopia or Yemen. Arab dhows were plying between the Red Sea and India’s western coast and they could have been the source of supply.
The earliest mention of coffee is said to have been made by Wellesley’s troops at the siege of Srirangapatnam towards the end of the 18th Century. What is undoubtedly true is that Coffee was a backyard crop of the Malnad homesteads for a long time, before J.H. Jolly arrived in India, in the service of the famed trading house of Perry and Company of Madras. Jolly does not figure much in the available writings of early European planters. He was on record, as the supplicant, before the Mysore durbar, for a lease of its coffee garden on the Chandagiri hills in 1823. If Baba Budan’s coffee seeds arrived in India, whether at the beginning of the 17th Century or at the end, its history as a Malnad crop lasted more than 125 years, before a mention of Jolly appeared.
THE LOST CENTURYIn the all absorbing story of human and plant exodus from one country to another and, one continent to another, the story of coffee must be as interesting as the smuggling of rubber seeds from Brazil or of tea seeds from Imperial China to India. In the same way, black pepper went to the Dutch East Indies from whence the pollen of oil palm was smuggled out to Malaya during the Second World War. The plantation industry everywhere has to be deeply indebted to smugglers!
THE LONG SILENCEThe progress of Coffee, after Baba Budan’s seven seeds arrived in the Chandagiri Hills, remains a matter for conjecture. There is something significant about the long silence for a century and a half between the arrival of Coffee in the country and the bursting energy, with which 19th Century planting progressed. Maybe, for 150 years or so, coffee was obviously grown by Malnad peasants as a homestead crop in their backyard for their own pleasure and enjoyment.
Since growing crops for subsistence was the tradition of peasant cultivators, the concept of producing a crop for distant markets eluded them. It was, therefor, not surprising that the early cultivators raised Coffee for their own enjoyment. Jolly’s appearance before the Mysore Durbar to lease 40 acres of Royal Coffee gardens was a momentous change of direction in the history of Indian Coffee. Those who followed on his heels were the real pioneering heroes of Indian Coffee development as we know today.
The second important phase in Indian Coffee development began with the planting of commercial production and export. A large amount of literature has been generated on Coffee from the 17th Century. Writings on Indian plantation affairs have been few; but we get a glimpse of 19th century planting life from well-known planting personalities like Arnold, Elliot, Francis Ford, Graham Anderson and others. To their work must be added the substantial contributions from official sources like those of Watts of the botanical survey, the directorate general of Commercial Intelligence and Statistics, the Agricultural Marketing Department of India, and of course, the records of the planting associations.
Without reliable records, we can only hazard a guess that during the long silent years, coffee multiplied, flourished and extended in interior Malnad. But, the contemporary world outside was changing dramatically. Coffee went from Arabia through Asia Minor into the heart of Western Europe. The earliest mention of the arrival of this precious product in Europe was in 1615. From its beginnings, Coffee faced prejudice, bigotry and persecution. Despite this early prejudice and at times the surges of fanatic opposition in some countries, from the time Rhazes wrote of its medicinal properties in the 8th Century and its spread to Western Europe in the 17th Century, the people made it their choice beverage. Its popularity spread when attacked by its opponents; it also had its powerful supporters. When coffee reached Rome, it was considered to be an invention of Satan and those who feared religious fanaticism, appealed to Pope Clemente VIII (1585- 1605) for help. He obliged, by baptizing coffee as a ‘truly Christian beverage’.
Aware of the surging advance of coffee consumption in Europe, J.H. Jolly recognized its commercial potential. In the post-Napoleonic Europe, England was emerging as a commercial power. Jolly typified the colonial traders of his day in his eagerness to seize new opportunities in commodity trade, it held a promise of wealth, as did the trade in spice, silks, textiles and other eastern produce, centuries earlier, to Venice, a city state which grew rich and powerful on its trade. Profitable trade was also creating the condition for the wide dispersal of coffee planting in the tropical possession of European powers in the Caribbean, Brazil and other Latin countries and Spanish colonies further west and elsewhere.
Coffee having been lost in interior Malnad for want of contact with the outside world for a century or more, Jolly’s commercial vision was of historic importance. But for all that, he does not appear to have risen in the industry to any high stature. His role was to be a finger-post to a new era in Indian Coffee development. The hordes of pioneering planters who followed, took over the early propagation and promotion of coffee in all likely areas of south- western India. The dynamic phase of Indian coffee development beckoned men and investment from afar.
THE RE-BIRTH OF COFFEEThe rise of coffee production for the overseas market up to 1940 covers a period of over 100 years. Coffee being a variable berry crop by nature and its market highly volatile, those who ventured into coffee-growing were spectaculars of a sort and most of them did not measure their risks. The early plantings were relatively small. But as time went on, they began to recognize the advantages of economics of scale. Larger estates began to emerge. As in any field of endeavor, there were leaders and laggards, the lucky and the unlucky, the imaginative hard worker and the easy-going. Coffee had it all; the history of coffee growing in India was witness to it.
NEW COALITIONS & MERGERSBy 1860, there were a few leading coffee properties slowly coalescing into larger, more viable units. The more mundane reason for this evaluation was, more often than not, somebody going into debt and the property being taken over to settle it. There were money-lenders who engaged themselves in this business, ending up with a string of estates within their control. There were also others like Donald Stewart, an ex-Ceylon planter, who acquired large tracts of land to plant coffee. He later bought up the Hunsur Coffee Curing interests from W.N. Arbuthnot of Jardine Matheson, a company which was to figure prominently in early Coorg Coffee history.
Pollibetta Coffee Estates Company Limited and Coorg Coffee Estates Company Limited, both of London, were two prominent groups of estates in Coorg in the early years of this century. They were merged together to form Consolidated Coffee Estates Limited (CCE), registered in Edinburgh in 1922. Within the long span of 100 years in Coorg, the merger of the two companies was an event pointing to a new development, though a large part of its planted assets had its beginnings in the sixties of the previous century.
Many planters were to learn that Coffee growing was not a touch of Midas. For men of courage and character, it was a challenge. Despite all the travails of coffee growing, it was a remarkable fact that no grower, big or small, depended on the Government for a hand-out or a favorable price to be fixed at other people’s expense. They were robustly self-reliant and depended on their own labor, their farming skills and their volatile market. The producers never sought to cower behind the high walls of protection during the 115 years of its growth up to 1940. Coffee entered the country freely and India could also export freely, without erecting a maze of controls to protect the smaller grower against the large ones, the consumer against the trader, the Indian producers against the foreign producers.
The 100 years of the second phase was not a golden age for coffee. But, it provides a glimpse of the growth of coffee and the trading realities for 115 years since commercial planting began. It was an interesting contrast against the first 150 years and the Third Phase which entered in 1940. It was the commencement of a phase which saw the birth of the Consolidated Coffee Estates (1943) Limited (CCL)
OTHER DEVELOPMENTSAs the new century began, land planted with coffee in India was around 100,000 hectares. Planting of such a large area and the growth of export called for many new developments to support the industry. The conversion of a gun carriage factory located in Hunsur, about 50 kms., away from Pollibetta, was the beginning of the famed Hunsur Coffee Curing Works, owned by W.N. Arbuthnot of Jardine Matheson with its management under E.L. Mahon. Other curing works began to be opened up on the west coast as well as in the interior.
Simultaneously, managing/coastal agents to facilitate services leading up to the shipment of coffee began to appear on the west coast. Very soon, coffee curing works and managing agents began an extension of the producing industry. It did not stop with that. The transportation of coffee as a bulk commodity, its safety en route, the housing and welfare of labor, an agency to channelize and regularize labor recruitment and the prevention of poaching and for the recovery of debt became external supports for the secure development of coffee trade.
Probably, the most interesting innovation was the engagement of an analytical chemist by Mathesons in 1876. It was just a few years after the extensive coffee industry of Ceylon was exterminated by coffee rust or Hemelia Vestatrix. That traumatic experience in Coffee history confirmed the attitude of Coffee growers in India to growing coffee under natural shade. The UPASI records bear witness to the obsessive concern of its leading coffee members to secure a consignment of ladybirds from Australia as a means to check insect pests of Coffee. The two attempts made in that connection provide material for an exciting story of things can grow wrong despite the best of intentions. That episode points to the early recognition of biological control in plantation crops.