Posted in Kafevend Blog
Following on from our recent delve into the Age of Discovery and European empire building and trade, today we are going to take a look at France's role on the world stage from the point of view of their role in the proliferation of coffee (obviously!) and sugar. France's first encounter with coffee is likely to have occurred when new fangled goods made their way throughout Europe from the maritime republics of Italy. Paris itself is believed to have first been introduced to coffee by a Frenchman named Jean de Thévenot. Following in the footsteps of travellers and explorers before him like Marco Polo, he spent many years travelling throughout the Orient during the middle of the 17th century. According to one writer who spoke to Louis XIV's interpreter, Thévenot had given the interpreter, amongst other friends, some coffee beans after returning from one of his journeys.
It took the arrival of a true coffee drinker to get the Parisians to sit up and take notice, however. The Ottoman ambassador Suleiman Aga arrived in 1669 after a quick stop at Versailles, where he had irritated Louis XIV by not conforming to the ridiculously formalised court life that had developed there. Banished to Paris, he established a coffee house of sorts using the stash of coffee beans he had brought with him and soon coffee drinking became rather fashionable in the capital.
With their new found love for coffee, it didn't take too long for a few Frenchmen to realise the potential for making money with the new drink. The most well known of these men - at least, in the coffee world - is the wonderfully named Gabriel-Mathieu Francios D'ceus de Clieu, thanks to the story that grew up around a voyage of his. During his voyage to Martinique in 1720, he had coffee seedlings on board with the intention of starting a plantation. With water rationed during the trip, he supposedly ended up sharing his ration with the plants! Alongside his plantation in Martinique, others were established in the Americas in French Saint-Domingue, as well as Dutch Surinam a few years earlier.
Before coffee had even made its way to France, the Portuguese had brought sugarcane to its colonies in Brazil in the early 16th century. By the middle of the century, thousands of sugar mills had sprung up along the north coast of South America and had also spread across the islands of the Antilles. When De Clieu arrived in 1720, sugar was the main cash crop on French islands such as Guadelope and the colonies in Saint Domingue in western Hispaniola. Sugar remained the most important of its crops, but coffee production grew quickly alongside it, and by the 1780s Saint Domingue was the dominant supplier of both sugar and coffee for all of Europe - quite a feat for half an island!
Of course, this success came at a price - slaves were imported by their millions into the Caribbean by European powers for centuries to work on their plantations, and the French were no exception. Saint Domingue's position at the top of the pile in the 1780s was soon to crumble as major slave revolts began to spread across the Caribbean. The revolt in Saint Domingue is of particular importance, as it remains the only one in existence to have resulted in the founding of a state - the Republic of Haiti.