Posted by: Rob Viens | April 13, 2012

Brazil’s Magic Beans

April 13th was a day of rest and recovery for Darwin at the home of Signor Figuireda.  Today he spent some time exploring and describing the house and the surrounding land – in particular, the crops grown on the estate. He starts with:

“Felt much better & able throughly to enjoy our days rest here. — In this case the Fazenda consists of a piece of cleared ground cut out of the almost boundless forest. ” (Apr 13)

Fazenda is a Portuguese word for farm or plantation, however, in the 1800’s it typically referred to a coffee plantation.  And as it turns out, coffee was the primary crop of Signor Figuireda:

“On this [land] are cultivated the various products of the country: Coffee is the most profitable: the brother of our host has 100,000 trees, producing on an average 2 lb per tree, many however singly will bear 8 lb. or even more.” (Apr 13)

That being said, I thought I’d say a few things about coffee and Brazil. There are some excellent books written about the history of coffee.  If you want the down and dirty (and somewhat lengthy) version, I’d highly recommend Mark Predergrast’s 1999 book Uncommon Grounds. It has been a couple of years since I read it, so I’m a little rusty on all the details, but the history of coffee is truly fascinating.

First off, it is worth noting that coffee is the 2nd most valuable (legal) commodity shipped around the word.  Seriously, the only thing that surpassing the trade in coffee is oil.  And when all is said and done, that coffee industry has Brazil to thank for its global market.

The history of coffee starts in Ethiopia and the Middle East, where coffee seeds were literally kept a state secret for many years.  But eventually the secret got out. In 1723, French naval officer  Gabriel Mathieu de Clieu carefully carried a coffee plant to Martinique in the new world.  He coddled the plant all the way across the Atlantic – through storms, pirates and doldrums – even sharing his own water supply to ensure its survival.  According to Predergrast, it is likely that plant is the ancestor of much of the New World coffee today.  As they were in earlier centuries, seeds from these coffee plants were heavily guarded. The French did not want to give up their monopoly on New World coffee. But in 1727, a Brazilian, Francisco de Melho Palheta, cleverly smuggled coffee seeds out of French Guinea and into Para, Brazil – and the great expansion of coffee began.

Engraving of Gabriel Mathieu de Clieu (from Wikipedia Commons) and Francisco de Melho Palheta:
Gabriel Mathieu de Clieu

Coffee historian Steven Topik once wrote, ” Brazil did not simply respond to world demand, but helped create it by producing enough coffee cheaply enough to make it affordable for members of North America’s and Europe’s working classes.” (Topik wrote The Global Coffee Economy in Africa, Asia and Latin America, 1500-1989 – which I have not read.)

On it’s darker side, coffee is also responsible for tremendous growth in slavery in Brazil – a subject that Darwin abhorred (see Darwin the Abolition). Cheap coffee was only possible with cheap (or virtually free) labor, so slavery intensified as coffee plantations expanded. Something on the order of 50,000 African slaves were entering Brazil each year during the time Darwin was in Brazil– the philosophy being that it was cheaper to import new labor than take care of the slaves you had. Since coffee dominated Brazil, it probably was the reason that Brazil was the last country in the western hemisphere to abolish slavery (in 1888). More on this in the next few days.

Coffee also played a role in the decline of the great Atlantic Coastal Rainforests in Brazil.  This was  due to the fact that coffee plants were typically planted in fields created by cutting down rainforest. Coffee farmers would pump out as much coffee from the plants (grow in the intense sunlight) as they could, then move to a new location once the soil nutrients were all used up. In many ways the legacy of coffee has not been a very good one.

Coffee Plantation in São João do Manhuaçu City (from Wikipedia Commons):
Coffee Plantation

Darwin was visiting Brazil right on the cusp of the explosion of the coffee industry.  By 1850, more than half of the world’s coffee came from Brazil. And coffee financed Brazil, providing resources for national infrastructure.  On a small scale, Darwin notes this impact on Signor Figuireda’s Fazenda:

“Signor Manoel Joaquem da Figuireda is a man of an intelligent & enterprising character. — Some of the roads through his estate were cut in a European fashion; in a years time he believes he shall [be] able so to shorten the road to Campos (a large city) that instead of two days ride it will be only one: He has likewise fixed a saw-mill, which answers admirably in sawing the rose-wood. — This cut into thick planks is floated down to Macaè. — If many were to imitate the example of this man, what a difference a few years would produce in the Brazils.” (Apr 13)

Of course, when the world got used to cheap coffee, there is an expectation that it would stay cheap (or that the price will continue to drop).  So when the “free” labor source ended in the late 1800’s, the Brazilian coffee industry went through hard times.  And this crash (and the coffee tycoons) is what was responsible for the dark, nasty, coffee-like substance (and cans of instant “coffee”) that were sold in the US throughout the middle of the 20th century. You can’t expect much to come from plantations that were getting a few cents a pound for their product.  But I guess that is another story.

Darwin also commented on other crops on the farm, including cassava, beans, sugar cane and rice.

“Mandeika (or Cassada) is likewise cultivated in great quantity: every part is useful. — the leaves & stalks are eat by the horses; the roots, ground into pulp, pressed dry, & then baken makes the Farinha; by far the most import[ant] article of subsistence in the Brazils. From this is prepared the Tapioka of commerce. — It may be mentioned as a curious though well known fact that the expressed juice is a most deadly poison; a few years ago at this Fazenda a Cow died from drinking some of it. — Feijôa or beans are much cultivated & form a most excellent vegetable: one bag bringing sometimes 80. — Sugar Cane is also grown. And rice in the swampy parts.” (Apr 13)

But that, too, will have to be another story. It’s time to have some socially responsible, fair trade, shade grown coffee! (RJV)

PS – A couple other books on the history of coffee (as a travel log) and the rise of modern specialty coffee are Stewart Lee Allen’s The Devil’s Cup and Michaele Weissman’s God in a Cup. I recommend both.


  1. […] with being the world’s top producer of coffee (see Brazil’s Magic Beans), Brazil is also #1 in the production and exportation of sugarcane – the source of 80% of all the […]

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