Posted in Kafevend Blog
Continuing on from our article on Cuban coffee last week , today we are going to have a look at coffee's role in the country of Costa Rica, which lies on the thin strip of land connecting North and South America.
Coffee was introduced to Costa Rica some time towards the end of the 18th century. Costa Rica had never been a particularly rich part of Spain's New World empire- its remoteness from the seat of New Spain in what is now Mexico and lack of valuable goods such as gold or silver meant it was mainly left to fend for itself. The widespread use of slaves common in this area of the world at the time never really caught on in Costa Rica, and the European colonists themselves were the ones who toiled in the fields. Nevertheless, the rich soil and perfect altitudes meant that coffee was soon the country's major cash crop and began earning the far flung region some respect.
In the early 19th century as Napoleon invaded Spain, parts of Central America under Spanish rule saw their chance to break free and declared independence in 1821. Costa Rica went along with the northern provinces and declared independence itself. Although you might have thought that Central America's independence from Spain would be a good thing, it soon made life tough for the coffee farmers of Costa Rica. Infighting and rivalry between the new countries meant that previous trade routes to Europe via the Atlantic coast were cut off from Costa Rica. The Atlantic side of the country was quite mountainous, with no route through them to access the coast. Therefore they were left with taking their goods to a port called Puntarenas on the Pacific coast. This meant ships would have to traverse the entirety of the South American coast in order to get from there to Europe where the main market was, leaving them at the mercy of hard haggling traders. Thankfully, the arrival of a more community spirited Guernsey merchant captain named William Le Lacheur in 1843 helped to turn Costa Rica's bleak fortunes around.
William helped to establish a permanent trade route between Costa Rica and England. The coffee was well received and folk asked for more. His small fleet was soon regularly taking coffee from Puntarenas to England and bringing back goods such as textiles, furniture and farm machinery that would improve the lives of Costa Rica's people. A devout Christian, he also began bringing Protestant bibles (written in Spanish) with him after viewing what he saw as unseemly superstitious beliefs, thus introducing Protestantism to the country. He even helped defend Costa Rica against the predations of a dastardly American freebooter named William Walker, a dangerous idealist who wanted to conquer Latin America and establish slave states. Obviously the people of Latin America weren't terribly keen on this, and three of Le Lacheur's ships transported the Costa Rican army northwards to defeat Walker's small force in the Battle of Santa Rosa in 1856. Walker's scheme never really took off, thankfully.
Costa Rica is still renowned for its coffee today, and has an easier time transporting it abroad thanks a couple of developments: a rail route to the Atlantic coast was built in the late 19th century, linking the central highlands to the Atlantic port of Limôn. The Panama Canal was also built in the early 20th century and gave shipping a brilliant shortcut from the Atlantic to the Pacific (and vice versa). Le Lacheur's role in transforming Costa Rica's fortunes over a few decades earnt him their gratitude. He became a national hero, and both himself and his ships appeared on bank notes and stamps throughout the 19th and 20th centuries- rather a glorious success for a coffee merchant!