Coffee: Celebrating the History of a Much-loved Commodity

Coffee: Celebrating the History of a Much-loved Commodity

In 2018, a pop-up exhibit is held in the 'Erasmus Huis,' the Dutch cultural center  in Kuningan, South Jakarta, Indonesia, in collaboration with the Hortus Botanicus, the botanical gardens in Amsterdam, The Netherlands, displayed a range of coffee plants and seeds that were once traded by the Dutch East India Company (Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie or VOC).

The exhibit told the story of coffee and the role of the VOC, the largest of the early modern European trading companies operating in Asia (1602 - 1796), in growing the popularity of our morning brew. 

A beautiful story

In essence, the story of coffee is a beautiful and turbulent story of how one small plant travels all over the world, creates thieves, causes country feuds, disrupts economic systems and becomes the most common good and much-loved commodity in the world.

Indonesia and the Netherlands

The unique story of coffee sees Indonesia and the Netherlands cross paths in 1616, when Pieter van den Broecke, a cloth merchant born in Antwerp and administrator of the VOC at the time, was among the first Dutchmen to taste coffees. Liking the extravagant drink, Van den Broecke stole coffee plants from plantations in the city Mocha, Yemen, and brought them to Amsterdam, the Netherlands.

During the first half of the 17th century, the Dutch merchants only traded coffee in the Arab world and Asia, because there was no real demand for coffee in Europe at that time.  This changed in the late 17th century when coffeehouses spread all over Europe and the Dutch, English and French started to trade coffee from different Arab ports. 

With the growing popularity of coffee, traders in this commodity wanted to preserve their monopoly. And, as a result, fertile seeds or living plants were not allowed to be exported out of the Arabian Peninsula.

Competition became intense and fierce due to the increased global popularity of coffee.

A suitable location

In the late 1600s Dutch traders, desirous to grow their trade, investigated the options to grow coffee. Small coffee plants and seeds were also grown at the Hortus, one of Europe’s oldest botanic gardens. But the climate in the Netherlands was not suitable for large-scale coffee cultivation. So, in 1696, the VOC successfully shipped its first coffee plants to Batavia (today called Jakarta).  

Almost all coffee was grown in West-Java, particularly in the Cirebon-Priangan region, which was well suited for the crop. In 1711 the VOC exported the first Java-grown coffee to Europe. This first coffee shipment was around 992 lbs (450 kg). Ten years later this export grew to 132,277 lbs (60.000 kg).

In the early 18th century, Amsterdam became the world’s coffee capital thanks to the coffee beans supplied from Java to Europe. The coffee trade was profitable and controlled by the VOC.  

Bankruptcy and beyond

Towards the end of the 18th century, mismanagement, corruption and fierce competition from the English East India Company resulted in a slow demise of the VOC.

Then, in 1795 the Netherlands was occupied by French troops, establishing a the country as a French protectorate. The new government abolished the VOC by allowing its charter to lapse.

In 1796 the VOC was placed under the direction of a national committee until the end of 1799, when the charter lapsed and it was liquidated, its debts and the territorial possessions nationalized by the Dutch crown and absorbed by the Napoleonic Dutch State in the guise of the Batavian Republic (later superseded by the Kingdom of Holland).

In 1808 Louis Bonaparte, who had been made king of the Netherlands by his brother Napoleon, appointed Herman Willem Daendels as Governor-General of the Dutch territorial possessions in Southeast Asia. Daendels, imbued with the ideas of the French Revolution. reorganized the central and regional colonial administration by dividing Java into districts (known as 'residencies'), each one headed by an European civil servant (known 'resident') who was directly subordinate (and had to report) - to the Governor-General in Batavia. These residents were responsible for a wide range of matters in their residencies, varying from legal matters to the organization of agriculture.

In 1811, during the British interregnum, Lieutenant Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, the British East Indian administrator and founder of Singapore (1819), became the Governor-General of Java. Raffles continued the reorganizations of his predecessor Herman Willem Daendels by reforming the judicial, police and administrative system of Java.

He introduced the land-tax which meant that Javanese peasants had to pay tax, approximately the value of two-fifths of their annual harvests, to the colonial authorities. 

Raffles land-tax system replaced the land-management tenure systems which required peasants to deliver agricultural produce in-kind, which, in-itself was based on earlier feudal systems of the Javanese nobility.

His administrative reorganizations meant an increasing intervention in Java's society and economy by a growing number of middle ranked European officials working in the residencies.


In the 1830s the Dutch colonial government then implemented a system of state control of peasant agriculture known as the cultuurstelsel (also as tanam paksa or enforced planting), which requiring a portion of agricultural production, like coffee, to be devoted to export crops.  The cultuurstelsel replaced Raffles land-tax.

The Dutch colonial government progressively gained a monopsony over many crops, notably, indigo, sugar, tobacco, and coffee.

Eduard Douwes Dekker, a Dutch writer who went by the pen name Multatuli, wrote a novel titled Max Havelaar in 1860 that criticized the cultuurstelsel and helped change the Dutch public opinion, in the Netherlands as well as in the colonies, about the system.

The cultuurstelsel was abolished in 1870.

A decline

For well over half a century after 1830, Java produced a substantial portion of the coffee exported to Europe. During this period coffee was planted in many parts of Java. By 1834, a little over two-third of coffee was newly planted. As a result of this expansion, Java’s production rose significantly.

On the eve of the outbreak of devastating orange rust (leaf blight or Hemileia vastatrix) in the early 1880s, which ravaged Java’s coffee groves, the island exported nearly 82%of all coffee leaving the Dutch East Indies, which amounted to 18% of world coffee exports.

After 1880 coffee cultivation in Java declined. This was largely the result of the spread of orange rust. And while the Dutch colonial government attempted to restore coffee cultivation, it failed to rise to its former glory.

It took many decades before the coffee cultivation on Java was restored.


Featured image: Map of the Netherlands Indies; 1893 (Kaart van Nederlands-Indië, 1893). Image courtesy: Public Domain.

The original version of this article was published in with the title "How coffee went from the hands of the Dutch to the world". Click to read the original article.


Back to blog