Coffee and soil erosion in Jamaica

A Coffee Plantation, Jamaica. ca. 1900-1920

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.”

Coffee planting in colonial Malaya

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.”

Coffee is Not Forever

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.