Gabriel Mathieu de Clieu was a French naval officer in Martinique, and he played a big role in bringing coffee farming to the Caribbean island. He took a risky journey to transport coffee plants from Paris to Martinique, paving the way for a booming coffee industry.
This article will cover de Clieu’s life, his journey, his problems, and how he changed the coffee industry forever.
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Gabriel Mathieu de Clieu’s life is a thrilling tale full of adventure, courage, and dedication. Born in Dieppe, France1, he served as a French naval officer in Martinique.
de Clieu served as the governor of Guadeloupe from 1737 to 1752, and he achievement of the rank of commander of the Royal and Military Order of Saint Louis.
His mission was to introduce coffee plants to the island. Despite numerous challenges, de Clieu’s unwavering commitment to this valuable plant eventually led to a flourishing coffee industry, not only in Martinique but also in other parts of the world2.
The First Journey
Around 1720 or 1723, Gabriel Mathieu de Clieu procured some coffee plants in Paris, kicking off his mission to introduce coffee cultivation to Martinique. However, it’s said that King Louis XV wasn’t down to share any of his coffee plants.
Despite several failed attempts to persuade the court to give him some cuttings, de Clieu craftily obtained some seedlings, supposedly by bribing the royal physician3.
Unfortunately, this first set of coffee plants didn’t make it through the journey, likely due to harsh conditions. But this setback didn’t dampen de Clieu’s spirit – he remained determined to reach his goal.
A Meticulously Cared-For Coffee Plant
Even after losing the first shipment, Gabriel Mathieu de Clieu didn’t give up. He went on a second journey with just one coffee plant, which he carefully looked after.
Knowing how fragile the plant was, de Clieu went to great lengths to keep it safe during the trip.
He put the plant on the ship’s deck in a glass box to protect it from the sea spray and keep the temperature just right, making sure it stayed alive.
Perils at Sea: Pirates and Storms
De Clieu’s journey was filled with perils as he navigated through treacherous waters. Tunisian pirates attempted to seize the ship, adding a frightful edge to an already difficult journey.
There was even a Dutch spy tracking the ship, aiming to destroy the coffee plant because the Dutch wanted to keep their monopoly on coffee cultivation.
Despite these threats, de Clieu courageously defended his precious cargo. The voyage became even more dangerous when a powerful tropical storm hit, damaging the ship and forcing the crew to throw overboard much of their cargo, including drinking water.
Through it all, de Clieu ensured he saved just enough water to keep his coffee plant alive.
Sabotage and Selflessness
Apart from the external threats, Gabriel Mathieu de Clieu also had to deal with problems on the ship itself. Someone driven by envy tried to destroy the coffee plant, even going so far as to rip off a branch.
Despite this, de Clieu’s dedication and selflessness never wavered. He even shared his own drinking water with the plant to keep it alive.
Arrival in Martinique: Planting the Coffee Tree
After overcoming a myriad of obstacles, Gabriel Mathieu de Clieu finally reached Martinique. Filled with optimism, he planted the coffee tree at his estate in Prêcheur, ingeniously protecting it with a barrier of thorn bushes and around-the-clock surveillance.
While de Clieu is widely celebrated for introducing coffee to Martinique and the French colonies, it’s important to mention that coffee was already being cultivated in the Western Hemisphere, specifically in Saint-Domingue and Surinam.
Despite this, de Clieu’s single seedling led to millions of coffee plants thriving across the West Indies, Central America, and Brazil within just fifty years. Nowadays, countries like Brazil, El Salvador, and Guatemala are highly recognized for their coffee production.
The Fruits of De Clieu’s Labor
Thanks to Gabriel Mathieu de Clieu’s hard work, the coffee industry in Martinique became incredibly successful. The coffee plant grew well in the island’s rich soil, and by 1726, they had their first coffee harvest.
Coffee farming in Martinique saw fantastic growth, with more and more coffee plantations appearing. By 1777, the island was home to a staggering 18,791,680 coffee trees.
Coffee Spreads to Neighboring Regions
The influence of Gabriel Mathieu de Clieu’s journey went further than just Martinique. Coffee plants from the island were taken to nearby places like Haiti, Santo Domingo, and Guadeloupe. This helped coffee farming spread even more, making coffee a key crop in the Caribbean and elsewhere.
The Legacy of Gabriel Mathieu de Clieu
Gabriel Mathieu de Clieu passed away in Paris on November 30, 1724, before witnessing the full impact of his efforts. His legacy, however, continues to live on. There’s a memorial in his honor in the botanical garden of Fort de France in Martinique, erected in 1918, which pays tribute to his significant role in introducing coffee to the island.
Additionally, his descendants in Dieppe have plans to establish a museum4 commemorating his contributions to the coffee industry.
Gabriel Mathieu de Clieu’s bold journey and unshakeable dedication show how passion and determination can change history. His work to start coffee farming in Martinique led to a booming coffee industry that brought wealth to the area.
The single coffee plant he cared for became a massive coffee estate and a driving force for economic growth for many generations.
- Thorn, Jon. The Coffee Companion : The Connoisseur’s Guide to the World’s Best Brews. Sept. 1995. https://oa.mg/work/1480769824
- Stewart Lee Allen, The Devil’s Cup, New York: Ballantine, 1999, 158.