With the popularity of coffee steadily spreading throughout Arabia and Egypt in the late 15th century, a new trade capital would emerge out of a sleepy Yemeni port named Mocha.
Initially regarded as a centre for astronomy and architecture, Mocha would be better remembered as the heart of Yemen’s 200 year trade monopoly over the sale of coffee. It was here that Ethiopian coffee was first widely traded and also where western merchants had their first encounters with the bitter brew. It was also from this port that the west would eventually label this strange new product by its point of origin – “Mocha”. The events that followed this early trade in coffee would see an unknown pestilent North African plant evolve into the world’s second most valuable commodity exported by developing countries – after crude oil.
Today, Mocha isn’t even a shadow if its former self with many of its original buildings and docks fallen into disrepair after loosing their monopoly to the powers of the west. A detailed account of the state of Mocha towards the end of its coffee boom was well made by George Annesley while exploring the region in 1809;
“Its appearance from the sea is, tolerably handsome, as all the buildings are white-washed, and the minarets of the three mosques rise to a considerable height […] The moment, however, that the traveler passes the gates, these pleasing ideas are put to flight by the filth that abounds in every street […] by the gradual decay of the deserted habitations which once filled them”.
Since the Islamic Sufis of Yemen first began drinking coffee to help keep awake during late night prayer sessions circa 1450, love of the dark infusion spread throughout the Arabian Peninsula and Red Sea nations meeting with traders and merchants from as far as afield as China.
By 1520 a new Ottoman controlled Yemen would be nearing it’s first century in the coffee trade yet were still dependent on supply from the Kaffa & Harar Provinces of Ethiopia. Along with the influence of their new Ottoman masters came access to new trading partners across the Turkish empire. As such Yemen began searching for suitable onshore plantation sites in the 1540’s to help meet with this new demand.
Unfortunately the neighboring land surrounding Mocha consisted primarily of sand dunes and over salted soil from which only date palms could grow. By the time the West had made their first direct coffee trade with Yemen at the start of the 17th century, three quarters of all coffee produced in the country came from a fly blown market town 150km north of Mocha called Bayt Al-Faqih – or more commonly referred to by English merchants as “Bettlefuckee”. Today a town trading primarily in weaving and jewelry, the Bayt Al-Faqih of the 1600’s consisted of only a few stone built houses surrounded by straw huts on a key trade route through the dry semi-desert coastal Tihamah plains. An unlikely centre to what would evolve into one of the world’s most traded commodities. Despite the towns lack of vacation appeal, it had records of trading with merchants as far afield as Persia, Morocco, India, Turkey and even the some early Europeans.
For the emerging global powers of the west however, coffee didn’t hold much commercial interest until the beginning of the Spice Race at the start of the 17th century. Yet despite the emergence of merchant powerhouses such as the English East India Company (aka The Company) and their trans channel rival the Dutch East India Company (aka V.O.C. – Vereenigde Ooste-Indische Compagnie), coffee wouldn’t begin trading with mainland Europe in any earnest until the opening of the first western coffee house in 1651 [See – The Story of the Coffee House, Parts 1 & 2].
Prior to The Company making their first recorded visit to the port of Mocha in 1609, coffee had only been traded as a secondary commodity. Despite The Companies sights clearly set on trading spices such as cloves, pepper and nutmeg from the Moluccas – coffee was not far from their thoughts. While on route to the Indies on The Companies fourth voyage to the Spiceries, a detour was made towards the Arabian Peninsula and the port of Mocha. Tasked with building positive relations with the local Imam of Yemen (Al-Mansur Bi’llah Qasim bin Muhammad) in the hope of establishing a factory in the port for future trade, England’s first relations with the elite of Mocha would be anything but positive. Led by merchant hero Sir Henry Middleton, relations turned treasonous after the greedy Agha of Mocha betrayed the Company men, capturing Middleton while ashore and murdering a number of his crew in the process. After finally escaping their captors and successfully making it back to their ships at anchor (who had seen their own share of action) the merchants diligently continued on their voyage to the Indies with little more than a bitter taste in their mouths at the mere thought of coffee.
Despite England’s violent beginnings with the Mocha trade, The Company would only have to wait another four years before a mutual distaste of the Portuguese would bring them both back to the meeting table. With an agreement finally reached and permission given to establish a local factory in port, the East India Company became the first western nation to directly trade in coffee from Mocha to their partners in India and Persia in 1618. In a time when only an estimated 30% of English males were literate, the next decade would see Company merchants trading in coffee under a myriad of various names from coffe, coffa, cowha to covha, cahoo, cowhe or just simply mocha.
While the English East India Company were busy investing in relations direct with Mocha, their chief rival the V.O.C. were as always thinking one step ahead having acquired (somewhat suspectly) a live coffee plant as early as 1616. Despite the dedication needed to mother the plant for a number of decades before any seeds could be cultivated, the Dutch were the first to establish an independent plantation outside of Yemen planting seeds in their new colonies on Ceylon (old Sri Lanka) circa 1640. While a bold plan it required further patience and resilience as the Dutch Company wouldn’t receive their first harvest until 1658 and even then, not a particularly good one.
Despite this, their time was not spent idle and through buying up all coffee where possible from associated merchants, Holland were the first to supply the bean into Europe in 1640. As such the first European coffee shop – opening to the public in Oxford, England in 1651 – was supplied by beans from Amsterdam. It would take the English a further 6 years before they too would join in supply from the London docks in 1657. Regardless of the beginnings, by the next decade almost everyone in England had heard of a new bitter but racy brew called coffee and with more coffee houses opening up every year as a popular meeting place for the nation’s educated elite, coffee had finally found a new home in the west. With this new era opening what historians would refer to as “The Age of Enlightenment”, pressure would now be on the European supply to keep up with growing demand. Yet thanks to a few humble plantings in Ceylon decades prior, the Dutch were yet again ahead of the curve and ready to begin taking Yemen head on in the war for the coffee trade.
For the remainder if the 17th century however, Mocha would hold strong to their monopoly. The Dutch having initially failed to establish a strong yield on planted coffee plants in Ceylon, began again on the island of Java in 1699 where they were met with much more success. The British, while late to the concept, planted their own seedlings in India four years earlier but as with the Dutch 60 years before, would not see any major returns until decades later. By the beginning of the 18th century, Mocha was still coffee king with an estimate 20,000 tons of beans sold out of the port each year, but the port was fighting a losing battle.
With coffee showing signs of becoming the new nutmeg for merchants, all strong trader nations were attempting to establish their own plantations. The French East India Company (Compagnie des Indes) joined the game at the beginning of the 1700’s establishing their first plantings on Isle of Bourbon off the coast of Madagascar – later to be renamed Reunion Island after the French Revolution of 1792. From these same plants, French missionaries introduced this new “Bourbon” variety of coffee to Brazil in the 1800’s and Kenya in the early 1900’s, a market which today yields around 40,000 tons of coffee a year. A young United States of America also joined the game in 1790 establishing their own trade in coffee with the Javan ports of Batavia and Padang developing the Americanism “Cup of Java” still common today. It would be the English however who would grow some of the most highly sought after single origin beans on the market today – and entirely by chance.
The British controlled remote mid-Atlantic island of St Helena – described by one early visitor as “The devil shat this island as he flew from one world to another” – was a routine port of call for vessels returning to Europe via the Cape of Good Hope and the East Indies. In 1733 coffee seeds from Mocha were brought to the island by a routine Company vessel and planted throughout various locations on the island in expectation of future harvest. Despite the plants being completely neglected by the inhabitants on the island, they naturally flourished. An English botanist while visiting the island in 1814 rediscovered the plants reporting they were “some of the finest coffee trees I ever saw”, but it would take the final act of the defeated hero Napoleon Bonaparte to bring the wild crop back to the islands attention.
Living in exiled detention on the island at Longwood House after loosing at the penultimate battle of Waterloo in 1815, Napoleon was no stranger to coffee having said to indulge in an average of a cup a day since his early adulthood. Even while in captivity, Napoleon was granted a number of luxuries with coffee one of them receiving a personal supply from his ex wife’s (Joséphine de Beauharnais) family estate in Martinique which he drank from a porcelain coffee service decorated with golden scenes of Egypt. With his developed taste for coffee, it is said that Napoleon was so impressed by the local crop he attempted his own island plantation although failed due to the exposure of his residence in the west of the island.
With the close of the 18th century and so many developing colonies now harvesting and trading in coffee, Mocha was well and truly feeling the pressure. By 1820 the Dutch were producing almost half of the world’s coffee supply (100,000 tons), a supply which eleven years later – after successful replanting in Ceylon – they were able to yield enough coffee annually to cease trading with Mocha ever again.
The Dutch had finally achieved a 200 year vision since acquiring their first plant back in 1616, becoming the worlds new monopoly in the supply of coffee. As such Mocha became nothing more than a forgotten shadow of the city singly responsible for giving us the second most valuable commodity today exported by developing countries…oil being the first.
[For further reading, see: The history of coffee from crop to cup]
- Black Gold: A Dark History of Coffee – Anthony Wild. Harper Perennial, London. 2005
- Dimattina Coffee – Blog: Coffee second only to oil? Is coffee really the second largest commodity?
- Internet Archive: The journal of John Jourdain, 1608-1617, describing his experiences in Arabia, India, and the Malay archipelago
- IBM Analytics: Percentage of Literacy in the 1600’s-1700’s
- Bibliothèque Nationale de France: This Geographical Plan of the Island and forts of Saint Helena is dedicated to field Marshal his R. Highness. The Duke of Kent and Strathearn by lieutt R. P. Read, 1815