CBGC Prologue

CBGC 0.04 A History of Coffee in Colombia

Coffee arrived in Colombia in the early eighteenth century, brought to the then Viceroyalty of New Granada by Jesuit monks. The exact date that the first coffee trees were planted is uncertain, but the first written record of coffee in the region appears in The Orinoco Illustrated, a book written during the 1730s by the Jesuit priest José Gumilla (Vazquez 2021).

José Gumilla, a Jesuit priest, wrote the first record of coffee cultivation in Colombia.

The first coffee exports took place by 1835, and in the following decades the industry grew rapidly, encouraged by colonial authorities. Popular legend states that a Jesuit priest named Francisco Romero required his parishioners to plant coffee trees as part of their penance. Whatever the truth of that story, Romero was also a politician and entrepreneur who foresaw a lucrative coffee trade and played a major role in spreading coffee throughout Colombia and Venezuela (Gutierrez 2014).

Seeing the potential of the coffee trade to generate export revenues, the national government passed the Coffee Act in 1879 to promote coffee growing. Shortly thereafter, the price of Colombian coffee on the New York market increased from 10.6 cents per pound in 1887 to 18.8 cents per pound in 1893 (Bergquist 1978). As a result, production shot up from 110,866 bags in 1887 to 531,437 bags in 1898 (Bergquist 1978). By the end of the nineteenth century, coffee was Colombia’s main foreign export and tariffs on coffee exports provided the main source of government revenue (Hanratty and Meditz 1988).

As production rose, prices fell again, causing serious problems for the Colombian economy in the run-up to the Thousand Days’ War in 1899. Many specialist coffee farmers were forced out of business (Palacios 2009), and some haciendas were completely destroyed by militants on both sides of the conflict (Bergquist 1978).