Coffee Production In The British Empire

( Originally Published 1900 )

THE chief coffee-producing countries in the Empire are India, Jamaica, British Central Africa, and Ceylon. Small quantities of the product are grown also in Queensland, British Honduras, and Natal, whilst in almost every part of the tropical regions of the Empire one or other species of coffee is cultivated for local use.


As might be anticipated from the fact that this country is the chief source of " British-grown " coffee consumed in the United Kingdom, and of some twenty per cent. of our total supply, India is the principal seat of coffee production in the British Empire. The most recent returns estimate the area under coffee cultivation in India as close upon 213,000 acres, almost all in Southern India, and about one-half in Mysore. - Unfortunately, the general tendency appears to be to decrease the area under coffee in the country. It is not difficult to see the reason why. When coffee was first cultivated the land was obtainable at a comparatively trifling cost, and the crop was one of the most profitable that could be grown. After a time many of the estates changed hands at a considerably enhanced price and then troubles seem to have come in rapid succession. In most districts coffee is an expensive crop to cultivate, the trees need regular manuring, and much labour has to be expended in clearing the ground of weeds and with the heavy fall in value which has taken place the crop is said to be no longer profitable. The plantations have also suffered considerably of late years from the dreaded leaf disease which it appears almost, if not quite, impossible to overcome. It was hoped, by some, that the introduction of the Maragogipe species would be beneficial, but it has not proved a success, and no further planting has taken place for some years. In Southern India, Travancore in particular, very few coffee estates are left, it having been found much more profitable to cultivate tea. This is being done increasingly in other parts, and it is thought by many that tea will eventually completely drive out coffee, though in the Neilgherry and Mysore districts it will probably remain the longest. Its introduction into India dates back many centuries, having been brought by the natives who had direct commercial relations between the Malabar coast and Arabia. Tradition says that a certain convert to Islam, by name Baba Booden, went on 'pilgrimage to Mecca, and brought back with him seven berries which he planted on the hill range of Mysore, a range which now bears his name and on which most of the finest estates are still situated. The first estate owned here by an Englishman, was opened in 1840,. and since that date coffee has been regularly cultivated there. The total Indian crop is however steadily decreasing, fluctuating, of course, according to the seasons, but it has fallen from as much as 450,000 bags to as low as 50,000 bags to be exported, an average crop being about 100,000 bags. Practically the whole is shipped to the United Kingdom and to France.


In a work published- some years ago on the products of this most beautiful tropical island, it is said that when in 1836 the duty on coffee in England was reduced to sixpence per pound, a great impulse was given to coffee planting. If such was the case, and it certainly was, then how great ought the production be to-day when the duty is only three halfpence. Yet though only a quarter of a century ago coffee was the principal product of the colony, and the value of the annual crop exported exceeded 3,000,000, now it is only about £25,000, whilst tea occupies the premier position.

From very early times it is recorded that coffee grew wild in many parts of the island, but during the decade commencing with 1836 there was what can be only described as a rush for lands said to be only paralleled by the movement towards the gold mines in California and Australia. The mania so acted upon all classes that we are told even the governor, council, military, judges, civil servants, and clergy all swarmed to the hills to purchase the Crown lands which the authorities were only too ready to sell and did so to the extent of about 40,000 acres per annum. Officers of the East India Company sent their savings to invest in what was to be an El Dorado, then the crash came, hastened by two causes ; first, the financial panic through which England passed in 1845, and, secondly, the withdrawal of the protective duty—for this happened in the days of protection to which we are asked once more to return —a duty being charged on the product of Java, Brazil, and other coffee-growing countries in excess of that levied upon the British-grown product. Still the crisis had some compensations, for it led to a healthier condition of planting, economics were introduced into the management of the estates, and scientific principles were established instead of the many different schemes which individual planters without any real knowledge endeavoured to carry out. While there are still a few left in the trade who can remember when " Plantation " and " Native " Ceylon were the two principal kinds used by the grocers throughout the kingdom ; today Ceylon coffee is. hardly known as an article of commerce and certainly the greater number of grocers have never sold a pound of this once favourite description. The term native has always been, as applied to Ceylon, somewhat of a misnomer, for though coffee is reported to have grown wild there, it is more than likely that it had been brought by Arabian traders. In later years, the term was applied to that grown on more hardy trees, which were planted around a garden or plantation, and did not receive the same care and attention as the product of these plantations did, while the crops grown on them were looked upon and treated as part of the wages of the natives, or coolies, who were employed on the estate. The final blow to coffee culture in Ceylon came with the development of the leaf disease, which is here described, and though for a time Liberian coffee was introduced which it was hoped would resist the ravages of this pest, even that has had to give way to the more profitable tea and rubber, for both of which the island has become noted. Whether the' high prices obtained, for the small quantity grown, will induce further cultivation is open to question, for though the' quality of the product stands quite alone, and will always ensure a ready sale, yet with an increased production there would naturally be a corresponding reduction in price.

Coffee Leaf Disease. The Ceylon coffee industry was ruined owing to the attacks of a minute fungus, known as Hemileia vastatrix, very similar to the rust of wheat. The disease was first noticed in 1869, when it was already fairly well distributed throughout the island and had probably been in existence for some time. The characteristic outward sign of the disease is the formation of a number of yellow spots on the surface of the leaves. Owing to the fungus using up the plant's food, the coffee plant is weakened, its leaves fall long before they would if not attacked, only a small proportion of the. flowers develop sound fruits, and accordingly a very poor crop is the result, whilst the whole plant is weakened and may finally be killed. The disease was very carefully investigated by the late Professor H. Marshall Ward in 1880-81, but no curative measures could be discovered. The greatest assistance was rendered by the Botanic Garden, and the Ceylon planters displayed wonderful energy in meeting the disaster. Within a year or so after the disease was noticed in Ceylon it appeared in Southern India, and rapidly spread to other countries also, the spores probably having been introduced in various ways; practically all the coffee-growing regions of the Old World were affected. The disease is so dreaded that other countries took, and still take, every possible precaution to guard against its introduction.


The " Blue Mountain " coffee of Jamaica is famous and commands higher prices than any other kind of coffee. It is grown at elevations between 3,000 and 4,500 feet on estates situated in the beautiful mountain range whence it derives its name—in a region where the climate is cool, and rain, alternating with bright sun-shine, is obtainable all the year round. The output of the better grades is limited to rather less than 8,000 cwt. per annum. The total export of coffee varies, however, between 50,000 cwt. and 100,000 cwt., and it usually stands about third or fourth in order of value amongst the products of the colony.

Taken as a whole, coffee culture in the island has degenerated very seriously. Since the commercial depression which fell upon it, according to many, with the abolition of slavery, there has not been the care and attention given to its production that was given formerly. The result is seen in depreciation of quality, and with a corresponding lowering of prices it is quite conceivable that it is no longer the paying article which it was in early days. A large proportion of the total production of the island is grown by the natives in small patches, and they have neither the materials nor the inclination to improve the quality, leaving the trees to become worn-out and unproductive. There is, however, now some indication of a more systematic cultivation, and rather large quantities are being exported, much of it being shipped here in the parchment, with the result that more care is devoted to the cleaning, and better results are obtained.


Coffee was the principal export of British Central Africa, and the Protectorate stood alone in the British Empire in this respect. The introduction of coffee into the country is quite a recent event, comparatively speaking, having taken place in 1878. By 1896 coffee was by far the most important item in the list of exports.

The area under coffee reached its maximum in 1900, when it was 16,917 acres in Nyasaland alone ; it decreased more or less steadily, until in 1907 it was 6,134 acres. The diminution in coffee cultivation has been due to the general depression in the coffee market and locally to droughts to a considerable extent. The great fall since 1904 appears to be due to the increased attention given to cotton. The coffee estates are chiefly situated in the healthy Shiré Highlands, and Arabian coffee is almost entirely grown.

The figures of the weight and value of the exports indicate a decided falling off during the last ten years. In 1898 the weight exported was 7,688 cwt. valued at L22,412, while in 1908 it had fallen to 7,120 cwt. and £16,374 value. The total value of all exports in 1898 was only £26,146—almost all coffee—but in 1908 it was £214,631, showing how cotton cultivation has largely been introduced rather than fresh plantations of coffee. Part of the reduced export is, however, due to the fact that as the interior of Africa has been opened up by a largely increasing white population, so the demand from the country itself has increased, and in addition to the amount exported must be added the amount retained for consumption there, but these figures are not obtainable. The acreage under cultivation, however, as shown above, has greatly decreased, but it is probable that as other parts of Africa are opened up and European capital is attracted there—for instance in the outlying parts of the Uganda protectorate and in some parts of the Congo Free State as well as possibly in Northern Rhodesia—coffee will be introduced and British grown coffee may become a considerable item in our food supplies.


There is a part of Queensland which being situated within the tropics is capable of the cultivation of coffee and other tropical productions. Up to the present time the amount grown is hardly worth taking into consideration being only about 100,000 lbs. to 150,000 lbs. per annum, and this is practically all retained for home consumption. It is stated, however, that the venture has been a financial success and in time it is hoped will become an article for export as well as for the local home consumption.

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