The Hawaii's First Homegrown Coffee Buzz

The first reference to an attempt to cultivate coffee in Hawai’i was made by the Spaniard, Don Francisco de Paula y Marin, who recorded in his journal dated January 21, 1813, that he had planted coffee seedlings on the island of O’ahu. Evidently his planting was not successful. When H.M.S. Blonde was bringing the bodies of Liholiho and Kamāmalu, they stopped in Rio de Janeiro Brazil and brought 30 live coffee plants in May, 1825, this introduction was referred to as the first successful introduction of coffee plants into Hawai’i, with an additional remark that ‘if the plant had been introduced before, it had become extinct.’ These live coffee seedlings were brought by John Wilkinson, an Englishman who was commissioned by Governor Boki of O‘ahu to develop and supervise a plantation type of farming in Hawai’i. (Goto) In 1842, to encourage the production of coffee, the government enacted a law to allow payment of land taxes in coffee as well as in pigs, which had been the common tax payment up to that time. The Act also imposed a three percent duty on all foreign coffee imported into the Kingdom. (This tax was increased to five percent in 1845.) Response to the government’s policy of encouraging coffee growing was good. Small areas of coffee were planted wherever possible, even in remote and neglected ravines and valleys on O‘ahu, Maui and Hawai‘i. But it was on Kauai where the most impressive development took place. Godfrey Rhodes, an Englishman, and John Bernard, a Frenchman, started the first large-scale coffee plantations in the beautiful valley of Hanalei. Eventually, when Titcomb also moved to Hanalei, the plantations in the valley became a continuous planting of a thousand acres of coffee trees. (Goto) “This was a new industry for Kauai, although coffee berries had been brought to Honolulu from Brazil in 1825 on the British frigate Blonde, and a few plants had then been started in Mānoa Valley on Oahu.” “Four or five years later the missionaries at Hilo and other planters in Kona on the island of Hawaii had begun to grow coffee around their houses, but it was from the original source in Manoa Valley that the seed and young were obtained for Hanalei.” In October of 1845, Godfrey Rhodes and John von Pfister formed a partnership. By 1846, the Rhodes and Company Coffee Plantation covered seven hundred and fifty acres, so that the two plantations counted over one hundred thousand trees and “a great part of the valley, at least to the extent of a thousand acres, was under cultivation in coffee at this time.” (Damon) But after a promising start a series of misfortunes in the next decade doomed the Hanalei coffee enterprises. The first major set-back came in 1846 when, through lack of planning, a shortage of coffee pickers to harvest that year’s huge crop caused a disastrous financial loss. “In May, 1847, just as the trees were in good condition of full bearing, they had “severe rains for two weeks which did much damage to the valley, flooding the coffee plantations.” “Masses of rock, trees and earth were loosened and carried by force of water, crushing several hundred trees and doing much other damage.” “Recovering from this pullback another difficulty was met with the following year by the California gold fever, rendering labor scarcer and dearer.” (Thrum) Left behind were the aged and crippled, who took advantage of the labor shortage and demanded wages as high as five dollars a day. The year 1852 was the beginning of the end of the coffee plantations at Hanalei. The drought-weakened coffee trees were attacked by the white scale and its companion, the black fungus smut, which lives on the secretion of the scale. At that time, there were no control measures for the infestation and the damage continued unabated, spreading throughout the Hawaiian Islands. In 1856, Rhodes and his associates finally sold their interest in the coffee plantations to RC Wyllie, Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Kingdom. He abandoned the entire coffee planting of Hanalei and planted the land in sugar cane. Ultimately, others shifted their interest from coffee to the more secure sugar industry. By 1860, coffee literally disappeared from Kauai and the decline continued in the other islands in the Kingdom. Sugar took its place. (Goto) 

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