Coffee Grows on the Island
Introduced to Puerto Rico in 1736, coffee production began to expand, rapidly and in large volume, in the mid-19th century. However, it was in the 1870s that it began an accelerated increase in its worldwide production and sale, with 843 registered coffee haciendas throughout approximately 69 out of Puerto Rico’s 78 municipalities since 1877.
Spanish Captain General Felipe Ramirez de Estenós, reported that he distributed coffee seeds to several farmers in the town of Coamo in south central Puerto Rico in June 1755 for experimental planting purposes. This started the transformation of the precarious economy. Since 1530, when the gold was exhausted and the empire focused on richer colonies, Puerto Rico had been focused on farming, woodwork for the military and contraband. Within the next few years, the experimental coffee seeds resulted in a drastic change in Puerto Rico’s economy and rapid population expansion as the island became a high-volume exporter of coffee.
Owing to the rapid appreciation of the product, La Real Compañia Barcelonesa started exporting coffee on its route between Puerto Rico and Barcelona. The demand for Puerto Rican coffee increased thanks to its quality and flavor, as Fray Iñigo Abad y Lassierra mentioned in 1788 “…coffee, which bears fruit slowly, requires little care and has assured markets abroad where it is craved because of its quality and the harvest.”
Many of the European farmers were slave traders and increased the importation of enslaved people for greater production, which leaves a very bitter taste in the local coffee history. Also in 1768, the Compañía del Asiento de Negros was founded, an official commercial entity that replaced the Barcelonesa, with the mission of bringing enslaved people to the islands and exporting the products. The company made contracts with farmers, bought all of their production and then sold it abroad as a distribuidor with higher prices. This is still happening in the international coffee industry.
In 1787, Irish Old San Juan resident James O’Daly brought in new machinery to make coffee “limpio” (clean or “pilado”): the bean without the layers of fruit. This production consisted of “limpiar” (cleaning) the “collor” coffee using gristmill machines made of wood, driven by animals.
By mid-1797, coffee was being planted in all the cities of the island. Most of the local farmers were poor. since coffee farming was the best way for them to obtain income. Most of it, though, was absorbed by the colonists who had capital or access to credit from the international market, so they could access better technology, labor and lands.