Chroniclers of the coffee bean

SEEDS OF THE PAST

Chroniclers of the coffee bean

The history of cultivation of coffee in Karnataka can be traced back to the legendary account of ‘seven coffee beans from Arabia’, which were said to be first
planted in the scenic Baba Budan Hill Range.

In the second half of the 19th century, European plantation owners began
cultivating coffee on a large scale. The local people, too, had estates of coffee, but their production was limited. When the Europeans started showing more interest in cultivating coffee, slowly, the western parts of both Kadur and Hassan were cleared for coffee plantations. Initially, it began on the hill slopes and gradually spread to other parts of Malnad region. 

The beginners
An enterprising European, by name Thomas Cannon, started growing coffee near Chikkamagaluru. In 1843, Fredrick Green took to it in Manjarabad. Both
Cannon and Green are considered pioneers who paved the way for many
Europeans to take up coffee in the future decades. Dr HL Nagegowda, a renowned folklorist, administrator-turned-prolific-writer in his book, Bettadinda Battalige (Story of Coffee) makes references to people like Jolly and MH Stokes. The former represented M/s Parry and Company, which owned plantations.

A compelling story
Every plantation owner will probably be familiar with the name RH Elliot, both
for his enterprising act of becoming a successful coffee planter and for his
narratory skills. He was a planter, hunter, botanist and a writer. In 1855, when he was 18 years, he sailed to Bombay and later reached Mangalore on a salt-laden, native boat. He reached Manjarabad (present day Sakleshapura), thanks to palanquin carriers, with household establishment, limited resources, and lots of will power. RH Elliot raised his plantation at Bartchinhulla, south of Manjarabad. When he came to Manjarabad, the land was abundant and available at throw-away prices. Back then, no survey was made nor any estimate of the length and breadth of the acreage of the plantation. There was no land tax either, but a single rupee was imposed on specified weight of the coffee bean cultivated. With limited utensils and tents, he kickstarted his life as a planter. He cleared the forest, grew trees which provide shade to coffee plants, recorded all his valuable experiences and gradually went on to be a huge planter. As years passed, he became a role-model to several Europeans who took up coffee cultivation in the region.

Down to the last detail
His books are like ready-reckoners:
Starting from marking the land, levelling the ground, planting the crop and raising shade trees, to cutting, pruning, and manuring, and even packing of the beans for overseas market are described in detail in them. His first book, The Experiences Of A Planter In The Jungles Of Mysore, was published in 1871, in two volumes. Both of them contain illustrations, pencil sketches and maps, and go into details on growing coffee, cinchona and cardamom. These books are also an account of the hardship, physical fatigue, and loneliness that comes with a plantation life: Elliot weathered the adverse climatic conditions and the rich wildlife of the Malnad region, and succeeded against all odds. His second book Gold, Sport and Coffee Planting in Mysore, was published in London, in 1898. Elliot dedicated this book to Sir K
Sheshadri Iyer, then Dewan of Mysore, whom he considered “a great friend”. In 19 chapters, this book offers interesting suggestions (which he received from Dr Voelcker, who was consulting chemist to the Royal Agricultural Society of England) on growing different kinds of plants.

Noteworthy planters
RH Elliot also served as a nominated member in the Mysore Representative
Assembly; he represented the European Plantations.

In 1891, when the Viceroy came to Mysore, he led a delegation to him. The planters pushed a demand for a long unfulfilled demand of construction of a railway line connecting the nearby railway station with that of Mangalore port for the export
of coffee.

There was another planter, A Middleton, in Aldur near Kadur, who was also on the rolls of Mysore Representative Assembly. RD Foster, Brooke Mocket, RW Williams, CK Chester, Radcliff and many other Europeans were among the first ones to take up coffee cultivation.

The growth of coffee plantations
The Commissionerate under Marc Cubbon encouraged cultivation of coffee. As a result, new areas were brought under coffee culture. This brought in many
Europeans: People from England and Scotland came to princely Mysore and started westward penetration. By the time of LB Bowring and Richard Meade (during the 1860s), coffee plantations were aplenty; Bowring’s time, in particular,
witnessed increase in acreage, and there were more than 20,000 estates, 300 of which belonged to Europeans, with a total of 33,000 acres.

All for the bean
Towards the end of the century, with the outbreak of World War I, though, there was less production. However, there, still, was great demand. Diseases, too, began to spread among the plantations. In order to conduct experiments in the cultivation of coffee, the Government of Mysore established ‘Coffee Experimental Station’ at Balehonnur. It was inaugurated by none other than Krishnaraja Wodeyar IV, the then Maharaja of Mysore. 

It was well-equipped with a chemical and biological laboratory, and also a
complete set of meteorological instruments, to conduct botanical, chemical,
mycological, entomological and other miscellaneous experiments related to
coffee. To finance this, the Government enforced a levy of a cess of 2 annas per acre on all estates above 15 acres in extent, and the Government also put in its share. An Advisory Board consisting of five planters was constituted as well. CS
Crawford, a prominent European planter, donated 15 acres of coffee land to this
station.   

Generally, people tend to look for
“pioneers” or “fathers” of any breakthroughs. With coffee, however, there have been many men who have contributed to its status as one of the most popular flavours in India today. It is only fitting, that we survey this set of people as a whole, as bards behind that much loved coffee bean.

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