I’m interested in finding historical photographs of the main phases in coffee farming. There are countless historical photographs of the harvest, but far fewer photos of the other phases. So I was happy to find this photograph, which depicts the people preparing coffee seedlings to be transplanted from a nursery to a farm. This nursery was big, judging from the size of the field in the background — suggesting that it was a commercial nursery, or perhaps one that belonged to one of the larger farms. The nursery is mostly in full sun, although some forest is visible in the background.
The seedlings were carefully dug up with some soil around their roots, then wrapped in corn husks so that they could be transported from the nursery to the farm. This picture suggests that the labour was gendered — the men and boys are digging up the plants (or just standing around watching), while the women and girls are wrapping the plants. This labour involved people of all ages. In the background, the person standing, wearing a white hat and black coat, is better dressed than the rest, and may be the owner of the nursery or the farm.
The photograph was taken by Thomas Forsyth Hunt, a US agronomist who, at the time he took this photograph, had recently retired as dean of the University of California’s College of Agriculture (now UC-Davis). After he retired, he travelled through the West Indies and Central America, to study tropical agriculture. The UC-Davis Library has digitized many of these photographs, and made them available on their website.
Sorting coffee in West Sumatra, 1941. The woman in the turban seems unhappy; her gaze commands attention. This photograph captures the end of a difficult era — and the beginning of a turbulent decade. Life for the inhabitants of Sumatra under Dutch rule had been hard, and the coming years (and decades) would be particularly tumultuous.
A few months after this photo was taken, the Japanese occupied Sumatra. Coffee production fell by more than 90 percent during the Japanese occupation, as the Japanese uprooted many replanted many coffee farms in food crops, industrial crops, or tea. One author noted that, for coffee farming in the Dutch East Indies, the Japanese occupation was like a second invasion of Hemileia vastatrix, the crop disease that had dedicated the island’s arabica farms in the late nineteenth century (Di Fulvio 1947, 307). After the Japanese surrender in 1945, Indonesian nationalists fought a (successful) war of independence against the Dutch, who had attempted to regain control of their former colony.
In the following decades, the Indonesian coffee economy slowly recovered. The colonial coffee estates have disappeared. Now, most of Indonesia’s coffee is grown on small farms of two hectares or less; about 90 percent of this is robusta. As of 2018/19 Indonesia is the world’s fourth-largest coffee producer, after Brazil, Viet Nam, and Colombia.
A postcard depicting a coffee plantation in Jamaica. The photograph is undated, but the photographer, E. Wells Elliott, was active mainly between 1900 and 1920, so it is safe to assume that the photograph is from around this period. The photograph is taken from a high vantage point, and shows the mill and the drying patios at the bottom of the hill. But the most striking aspect of the card — and the reason I bought it — is the view across the valley.
It depicts landscape in decline, one badly degraded by soil erosion. The trees were planted in a grid, with (seemingly) no attempt to plant in a way that would conserve the soil and nutrients. Only a patchwork of trees, most near the bottom of the hill, survive. There is a stark contrast between the degraded coffee farm and the lush, rich vegetation immediately to the right. Many farms, apparently, were like this — “most plantations,” wrote Antonio di Fulvio in 1938, “are found on the sides of mountains and high plains, on steep landscapes exposed to erosion.”
In 1875, the pioneering photographer Eadweard Muybridge, better known for his experiments in photographing motion, traveled through Central America. His photographs offer an early photographic record of Gutaemala’s coffee industry, just as it entered its first boom period.
This photograph captures a critical time in the evolution of the global coffee industry — the development of the wet mill. Writing about a decade after this photograph was taken, the American coffee expert Francis Thurber described this as a ‘new method’ of processing coffee, which was sometimes known as the “West India preparation.” According to Thurber, this method was already in wide use (to a greater or lesser degree) in Ceylon, India, Java, Venezuela, and Brazil. Clearly, as Muybridge’s photograph shows, it had also arrived in Guatemala. Of Guatemalan coffee, Thurber wrote that the finer grades “are regarded as equal in flavour, and by some judges, superior to any other coffee grown.” The industrial revolution was quickly making its way to the coffeelands, although setting up this machinery must have required a considerable amount of capital and expertise. Presumably, the people who did this hoped that the improved quality (and therefore higher prices) would make the expense worthwhile. Thurber comments while the wet method “is rapidly growing in favor… there are many coffee-drinkers who maintain that coffee produced by the old [dry] method is superior in flavour,” a conversation that continues to the present day.
Many postcards that depict coffee harvesting, and the later stages of the commodity chain. Far fewer show the earlier phases of coffee production. This postcard is one of a handful of vintage images depicting someone planting coffee. It is also, as far as I know, one of the very few historic postcards that depict coffee growing in what is now Malaysia.
Beyond the depiction of coffee growing, the image captures the complex layers of globalization and integration in the Indian Ocean Basin in the late nineteenth century. The coffee farm was in one of the “Native States” of the Malay States, likely the state of Selangor, which was historically the peninsula’s largest coffee producer. The labourer depicted here is likely an indentured labourer from India; part of larger population of Indians who moved from India to the Malay States through British colonial networks — either as convicts, “free” migrants, or indentured labourers. And the coffee itself is likely Liberian coffee (Coffea liberica), which had been brought from West Africa to the UK in the early 1870s and then circulated across the world through scientific and commercial networks. In most places, Liberian coffee was a commercial failure; Malaya was one of the few exceptions.
Liberian coffee flourished in Malay States’ relatively low-altitude coffee farms from the 1870s through to the late 1890s. By the end of the century, booming coffee production in Brazil was driving global coffee prices downward, and the coffee leaf rust started attacking the states’ liberica farms. At the same time, booming prices for rubber encouraged farmers on the peninsula to switch from coffee to rubber, which became the colony’s dominant cash crop.
The postcard was published by the Singapore-based studio G.R. Lambert & Co, to feed the growing demand for postcards from western tourists visiting Singapore. With that market in mind, the studio focused on “picturesque” subjects, including urban and rural landscapes. Over time, the studio expanded its offices across much of Southeast Asia. According to an article on the studio by the National Library of Singapore, the studio was “credited for having the most comprehensive photographic documentation of the topography and peoples of Southeast Asia.”
My new book, Coffee is Not Forever: A Global History of the Coffee Leaf Rust, explores the history of one of coffee’s most serious diseases from the nineteenth century to the present.
From the cover: The global coffee industry, which fuels the livelihoods of farmers, entrepreneurs, and consumers around the world, rests on fragile ecological foundations. In Coffee Is Not Forever, Stuart McCook explores the transnational story of this essential crop through a history of one of its most devastating diseases, the coffee leaf rust. He deftly synthesizes agricultural, social, and economic histories with plant genetics and plant pathology to investigate the increasing interdependence of the world’s coffee-producing zones. In the process, he illuminates the progress and prognosis of the challenges—especially climate change—that pose an existential threat to a crop that global consumers often take for granted. And finally, in putting a tropical plant disease at the forefront, he has crafted the first truly global environmental history of coffee, pushing its study and the discipline in bold new directions.
You can find out more about the the book, and download a copy of the first chapter, at the book’s webpage here.