The classic sweet, medium-bodied coffee produced in Colombia takes its place among the most recognisable flavors in the world. Generations of hardworking growers, reaching back to the colonization of Latin America, point to this crop as their sole source of income. Without coffee, a huge portion of the nation would be unable to survive. That said, Colombia’s miracle tree did not catch on as quickly as you may think. Let’s take a look at how the Spanish forefathers of modern day Colombia began one of the biggest coffee exportation empires on the planet.


The Missionary Origins of Coffee in Colombia


Much like the origins of coffee in Ethiopia and Yemen, the arrival of coffee in Colombia is surrounded by legend and uncertainty. The land was inhabited by hundreds of agriculturally skilled tribes, such as the Muisca and Taironas, who numbered as many as 2 million people. When the first Spanish Conquistadors arrived in 1499, there began an era of transition with the first permanent European settlements being set up in the thirty years that followed. Jesuit priests had great influence at the time, and are often credited with introducing coffee seeds to the land after visiting Guyana and Venezuela. However, estimates of when that actually was range wildly from the mid-1500’s to the 1730’s.


The leaders of the fledgling state, then called New Granada, tried to encourage the farming communities in the east of the country to take on coffee as a staple crop. This was met with much consternation, when the growers learned that it could take up to five years before they would reap the benefits of their first harvest. As legend would have it, a village priest by the name of Francesco Romero saw an opportunity to use the church as a perfect coffee marketing tool. Through God’s word, Romero urged his congregation to plant 3 or 4 coffee plants each, instead of their usual penance of gold and silver. The scheme worked magnificently in the community of Salazar de la Palmas, and Romero shared the good news with the Archbishop of New Granada. The Archbishop saw a great opportunity and ordered all priests to make the same request of their local faithful. Soon, coffee was well on its way to becoming a crucial building block in the future Colombian society.


The first literary mention of coffee in Colombia, and the first time we can confirm the presence of coffee, was José Gumilla’s 1741 tome El Orinoco ilustrado, y defendido (known in the English speaking world as The Orinoco Illustrated). The Jesuit missionary from Valencia documented his journey along the Orinoco river and its many tributaries, describing the indigenous cultures, flora, and fauna that formed alongside the fourth largest river in the world. His study took much of the 1730’s to produce, and became a document of huge historical significance, thanks to his meticulous chronicle.


Always Bet On Black: Taking A Chance On Coffee


As the presence of coffee spread from the east to the northern lands of Santander, the inaugural exportation of Colombian coffee took place in 1835. Approximately 2,500 sacks of coffee were sent to the United States from the eastern port of Cúcuta, close to what are now the Venezuelan borderlands. As the international commodities market exploded, coffee production spread to the center and western departments, such as Cundinamarca and the north-westerly Antioquia region, home to the Finca Naya estate.


The world economy was entering the biggest boom to date in 1850-1857, and the wealthiest landowners of the Republic of New Granada knew they had to be quick to take advantage of the wide open market. In a rather speculative approach, many took a risk on which commodities would be the most lucrative. Tobacco & quinine were early favourites, bringing riches to those who believed in them, and soon fine leathers and livestock also enabled huge growth in the country. Everything was fine for a time, but the unconsolidated nature of investment led to an unstable agricultural industry, in hindsight, making the eventual collapse inevitable. International prices dropped, and production in these industry sectors slumped.


After its foundation in 1863, the Republic of Colombia’s coffee market grew in much the same way, with wild speculation fuelling growth in the last quarter of the 19th Century. Unlike the preceding fad crops of the 1850’s, coffee had become a reliable long crop, allowing for sustained rises in export revenue. The quicker turnaround in other crops made them ubiquitous on the international market, but coffee was still a sought after commodity, and the slower production rate meant less competition from other nations on the market. By the start of the 20th Century, the republic was exporting 600,000 bags of coffee per annum, charting a 900% increase in less than 25 years. This surge was initially fuelled by the emergence of large plantations, owned by wealthy individuals with connections to Bogotá, and subsequently, the lucrative international banking circuit. Coffee was now the most important resource in Colombia, and at the heart of geopolitical stability in the region.


This Means War


Colombia had been fraught with political troubles throughout the 1800’s, from achieving their independence from Spain in 1819 and culminating in the Thousand Days War. The 1899-1902 conflict claimed over 120,000 lives, overshadowing the dawn of a new era, with coffee playing a key role in the hostilities.


After accusations of corruption tarnished the ruling Conservative party, it became clear that the intended democratic processes had failed. The Liberal party was incensed after losing power and so began an angry confrontation. As the fourth civil war in 100 years broke out, the Colombian lands descended into crisis once again, leaving the large coffee estate owners in a perilous position. Before the conflict, these landowners had literally plowed their fortunes into coffee production, but during the war, they were unable to maintain the land to the same standards. They lost access to the foreign finance that gave them a monopoly, and with it, their longstanding advantage over impoverished smallholder farmers. As the large landowners could no longer afford to keep their plantations in good order, the Santander and North Santander regions fell into crisis, soon to be followed by Antioquia and Cundinamarca.


The growth of the smallholder coffee farmers had begun in the mid-1870’s, largely as part of a focus on self-sufficiency. Traditional farming methods had left much of the land unable to sustain crops year after year, due to the overuse of slash-and-burn farming. Coffee provided an attractive and intensive agricultural alternative. As the smallholders transferred to coffee, the effect of the burgeoning international market gave hope to a new age of prosperity. The composition of the rural social identity was about to change forever, as the economy received a colossal boost in trade, which then drove up the value of the land. Small businesses began to develop at an unprecedented rate, and with it, a newly acquired social status for independent farmers. Suddenly, the foreign-funded landowners found their influence dwindling, and by the time violence broke out in 1899, they were entombed in export taxes and the devaluation of their crop. Coffee prices dropped significantly, and would not recover entirely until 1910. This period had a limited effect on the smallholders, as they were experiencing a sudden step up from peasantry. Even these historically low coffee prices were a vast improvement on their previous average incomes.


While the old capitalists of the New Granada era fell, the agglomeration of smallholders allowed the coffee economy to spread into newly colonized mountainous lands in the western portion of Colombia. This gave small farmers the opportunity to unify as a profession and social class, building their futures on the perfect landscape for coffee cultivation. Marco Palacios, celebrated historian and author of El café en Colombia, 1850-1970: una historia económica, social y política, stated that this was not an “assault on the camp of the capitalists”, but instead a reorganisation of the social and economic structure of the entire state. This view is a respected one and has been reiterated by academics across the fields of history, agriculture, and more specifically, coffee production. Particularly, the “peaceful coexistence of multiple systems of appropriation and distribution” (Fernando Estrada, 2011, The Paths of Coffee: A brief economic history of coffee in Colombia) were finally made possible, after years of domination by those with strong links to Bogotá.


During a period of severe unrest, the country had been renamed seven times in 67 years, the agricultural gambles had destroyed much of the old wealth and the population had rocketed from 2 to 5 million people. Throughout these tumultuous times, coffee became a symbol of survival, a crop that would reward the devoted growers for years to come.


The evolution of the coffee trade in Colombia between 1730 and 1902 would influence huge transformations as the troubled country faced an uncertain 20th Century. While the future would be changeable, coffee was to establish itself as a crucial instigator in the economic development of the world’s second biggest coffee producer.


Read about the coffee history of 20th Century Colombia, in The History of Coffee in Colombia, Part 2.