Boki’s Beans: A People’s History of Hawaiian Coffee
It’s one of Hawai‘i’s most famous crops. But the roots of Kona coffee stretch back nearly 200 years to a tragic trip across the Atlantic, an imaginative Hawaiian governor, a British grower and a café.
In 1866, a young correspondent for California’s Sacramento Daily Union visited the Kingdom of Hawai‘i and declared, “I think that Kona coffee has a richer flavor than any other, be it grown where it may and call it by what name you please.” The reporter’s name was Samuel Langhorne Clemens, better known to his readers as Mark Twain. The beverage that Twain so effusively praised was brewed from the fruit of an exotic species. Arabic coffee, known to botanists as Coffea arabica, had taken root in Hawai‘i’s volcanic soils just a few decades before Twain’s arrival.
Today’s many coffee connoisseurs agree with Twain’s appraisal. Coffee grown in the Kona district ranks among the world’s most desirable varieties. These beans—technically, they are the dried, roasted seeds of the cherries that grow on coffee bushes—retail for up to $100 per pound. Hawai‘i’s coffee industry earned nearly $44 million in revenues last year. Despite Kona coffee’s international renown, the details of its past are not as well known. The story of how coffee took root in Hawai‘i involves a Spanish expatriate, the death of the Hawaiian king and queen in England, and the entrepreneurial aspirations of the royal governor of O‘ahu.
A flamboyant émigré named Don Francisco de Paula Marín was the first person to plant coffee bushes in Hawai‘i. Marín was born in the Spanish city of Jerez de la Frontera, a lively hub of flamenco music and a birthplace of sherry wine. In 1789, at the age of 15, he joined a scientific expedition bound for the Pacific Ocean. The rigors of shipboard life were not to Marín’s liking. As soon as the Spanish vessels reached Monterey Bay on the California coast, the young sailor deserted. Shortly thereafter, he hitched a ride to the Kingdom of Hawai‘i aboard a U.S. fur-trading ship. Marín never looked back.
Don Francisco was a raffish jack-of-all-trades. Despite lacking any formal training, he became a trusted military adviser, bookkeeper, physician and interpreter for King Kamehameha I and his favorite wife, Ka‘ahumanu. Within a few years, Marín had acquired at least three intimate partners of his own, with whom he fathered no fewer than 23 children. His fertile tendencies also extended to the soil. Historians frequently credit Marín with introducing at least 40 plant species to Hawai‘i, although visitors were responsible for bringing most of the seeds and plant cuttings as gifts for the colorful Spaniard.
Marín’s estate near Pu‘uloa (Pearl Harbor) was home to an astounding array of crops, including pineapple, chili peppers, olives, tea, cotton and coffee. He’s credited with planting Hawai‘i’s first coffee in 1813 on O‘ahu. Marín was also Hawai‘i’s first vintner. Honolulu’s Vineyard Boulevard, which was originally a road leading to his orchard, offers an enduring reminder of his grape-growing legacy. Despite his green thumb, the Spanish émigré did not manage to produce coffee plants that outlived him. In 1857, 20 years after Marín’s death, a visitor toured the remains of the Spaniard’s gardens and found nothing more than a tangle of weeds and gnarled limbs.
It took a catastrophe to assure coffee’s place in Hawaiian history. On Nov. 27, 1823, King Kamehameha II (Liholiho), his beloved queen, Kamāmalu, and their retinue departed for Great Britain aboard L’Aigle (The Eagle), a rickety 114-foot whaling ship that reeked of rendered whale oil. As it prepared to set sail, the repurposed vessel was quite a sight to behold. According to one eyewitness as recorded in London’s Literary Gazette, “the decks were crowded with queens and chiefs, pigs and poultry. Of pigs there were about 300; goats, 36; sheep, six; and bullocks, four; with eight dozen of fowls, and four dozen of ducks—all adrift together.” At the helm of the 476-ton ship was Nantucket-born Valentine Starbuck, a cantankerous veteran of the Pacific whaling fleet. His surname would achieve immortality in Herman Melville’s 1851 novel Moby-Dick and later as the trademark for the world’s leading coffee house chain.
The ali‘i aboard Starbuck’s ship sought an audience with King George IV to discuss a diplomatic alliance to ward off the imperial ambitions of the United States and Russia. L’Aigle’s intrepid voyage across the world’s two largest oceans came at the highest possible price; tragically, Liholiho and Kamāmalu died of measles—a disease for which they lacked immunity—two months after arriving in England. Although they toured London, attending the theater, the opera and an extravagant gathering hosted by Countess Bathurst, their much-anticipated meeting with the British monarch never occurred.
Following the untimely deaths, George IV invited the survivors of the Hawaiian company to his court. The group, now led by O‘ahu’s Royal Governor Boki and his wife, Liliha, received the king’s condolences, heard his assurances that the British would protect the sovereignty of the Hawaiian Kingdom, and accepted his offer to send the bodies of Hawai‘i’s king and queen back to their homeland. On Sept. 8, 1824, the 46-gun HMS Blonde departed English waters with the royal caskets and their Hawaiian caretakers. The frigate sailed under the command of Adm. George Anson Byron, cousin of the famous poet Lord Byron, George Gordon Byron. The voyage was as much a scientific exploring mission as it was a ceremonial obligation. Among the distinguished crew were botanist James Macrae and naturalist Andrew Bloxam.
SEE ALSO: A Timeline of Coffee in Hawai‘i
After an uneventful Atlantic crossing, the Blonde reached Rio de Janeiro on Nov. 27, 1824. Byron then steered the ship southward along Brazil’s coast to the verdant Santa Catarina Island where the vessel anchored on Christmas Eve to acquire provisions and fresh water. Boki and Macrae disembarked and obtained 30 coffee plants, which they brought aboard and deposited in soil-filled crates on deck. This seemingly trivial act would have a lasting impact on Hawai‘i history.
The Blonde’s acquisition of these Brazilian seedlings was Boki’s brainchild. He had first encountered coffee while exploring London’s vibrant café scene. The city’s caffeinated venues were colorfully known as “penny universities.” Upon entering, customers would place one or two pence on the counter, which bought them a cup of coffee and the opportunity to participate in lively debates about commerce and politics. By stoking the embers of public opinion among an emerging middle class, these cafés ignited an age of democratic revolutions. They also sparked the imagination of a perceptive Hawaiian diplomat who saw coffee’s economic potential for his Pacific homeland.
Before departing from England, Boki had convinced John Wilkinson, a British horticulturist and grower with experience managing Caribbean sugar cane and coffee plantations, to join the voyage. Coffee, which entered the Hawaiian vocabulary in the 1820s via the loanword kope, was generally unknown in the Islands at the time. Until European sailors introduced brandy and rum in the 1790s, the social beverage of choice in Hawai‘i had been ‘awa. Called kava elsewhere in the Pacific, the dried roots of this heart-leafed shrub (Piper methysticum) can be chewed or ground and mixed with water as a drink to relieve tensions, encourage camaraderie and consecrate ceremonies or used for other health benefits.
Boki had many obligations to fulfill before he could begin experimenting with his exotic plants. After a brief stop at Lahaina, the Blonde anchored at Honolulu Harbor on May 6, 1825. Thousands of Hawaiians, including the powerful queen regent, Ka‘ahumanu, her co-regent, Kalanimoku, and the 12-year-old Kamehameha III (born Kauikeaouli), greeted the ship with displays of kūmākena (mourning).
Once the funeral ceremonies ended, Wilkinson supervised the planting of Boki’s Brazilian coffee bushes in a lush valley near present-day UH Mānoa. Boki had hoped that Wilkinson would remain in Hawai‘i to supervise the first harvest. Unfortunately, on Sept. 17, 1826, just as the plants were bearing their first fruit, Wilkinson died of a mysterious ailment. Congregational missionary Elisha Loomis remarked in his journal: “Boki called after dinner for some medicine to take to Mr. Wilkinson the English planter lately established at Mānoa, he being near his end. … But the poor man was insensible when Boki reached his house, and expired shortly after.”
The “expired” English planter left behind a robust botanical legacy. In the late 1820s, the tender cuttings—known to horticulturists as “slips”—of Boki’s and Wilkinson’s Mānoa bushes served as stock for various attempts to grow coffee elsewhere in Hawai‘i. A Scot named Capt. Alexander Adams was the first to plant some of Boki’s cuttings elsewhere on O‘ahu. According to his contemporaries, Adams’ bushes in Kalihi and Niu valleys “produced excellent coffee.” In 1828, a 33-year-old missionary from Brookfield, Connecticut, named Samuel Ruggles cultivated several of these slips in the red earth up the mountain from Kailua-Kona. Ruggles could hardly have chosen a more suitable location for the plants. The western slopes of Kona’s volcanoes—Hualālai and Mauna Loa—provide some of the world’s most ideal environments for coffee cultivation. Kona’s Coffea arabica plants thrive at altitudes between 800 and 2,500 feet. The region’s sunny mornings, cloudy afternoons with mild precipitation, and mineral-rich volcanic soils have long fostered a 30-mile stretch of small farms. These favorable conditions have allowed the Kona district to achieve among the world’s highest yields of Coffea arabica coffee.
From the 1840s onward, Hawai‘i coffee growers benefited from extensive state support. In 1842, the Hawaiian government began accepting payment of land taxes in either coffee or pigs and imposed tariffs on imported coffee to protect Hawai‘i’s fledgling coffee industry. Skyrocketing demand from California’s gold rush boomtowns inspired a sevenfold increase in Hawai‘i coffee production between 1849 and 1850.
While such commercial windfalls were fleeting, they lasted long enough to give Hawai‘i’s coffee production a stable foundation. Among the early successes were the luxuriant bushes raised by English merchant Henry Nicholas Greenwell, whose descendents are still growing coffee there today. His Kona coffee, cultivated at an elevation of 1,500 feet, was considered among the best being grown in Hawai‘i at the time and even won several international accolades.
Attempts to produce coffee elsewhere in the archipelago were less effective, however. During the 1860s, droughts, labor shortages, tropical plant blights and competition from the sugar industry would shutter all of Hawai‘i’s coffee farms, with the notable exceptions of those in Kona and Hāmākua on Hawai‘i Island.
By the onset of the 20th century, the dominant variety of coffee on Kona’s farms was no longer descended from Boki’s bushes. In 1892, a German expatriate named Herman Weidemann introduced a Guatemalan coffee variety that attained increasing popularity with cultivators for its higher yields and reduced fertilizer needs. Weidemann’s variety was known as “Kona typica.” While descendants of Boki’s Brazilian bushes had jump-started the Hawaiian coffee industry and provided it with nearly 70 years of growth, they now only survive growing wild in gullies and isolated patches of forest.
From the 1830s to the 1940s, the Hawaiian-language press played a crucial role in promoting Kona coffee at home and abroad. Appeals to a sense of aloha ‘āina were common themes in leading publications. The Honolulu-based McChesney Coffee Co. asked its Hawaiian-language readers: “When it is your time to buy coffee do you ask for Kona coffee? Do you look at the outer seal so you can know if what you are getting is Hawaiian coffee or adulterated coffee? We ask you to do so the next time you go buy. Why take the coffee that was adulterated? Why not invest in the land by buying Hawaiian coffee? Help Kona’s fine people by buying their coffee.” Today’s “buy local” movements are descendants of such time-honored traditions.
The 20th-century saga of Hawai‘i coffee has featured change, continuity and ethnic diversity. By 1932, Kona was home to 1,077 coffee farms. Japanese managed 959 of these, Filipinos owned 58, and the rest were in the hands of Hawaiians, Portuguese, Puerto Ricans and Koreans. Small-scale coffee production is also one of the enduring qualities of the Kona district, and coffee operations remain in the hands of family farmers whose holdings rarely exceed 5 acres. Rocky, volcanic soils on steep slopes have limited the potential for industrial farming.
Today, Hawai‘i’s coffee traditions are thriving. Along almost any Downtown Honolulu street, baristas in boutique coffee shops can tell you exactly which slope of Moloka‘i or Ka‘ū their peaberry beans originate. Customers flock to these cafés for quality cups and spirited conversations with friends or colleagues in settings reminiscent of the London cafés that first inspired the transplantation of this invigorating brew to the Islands. Still, the contributions of Boki and the first team of coffee cultivators have yet to take the central place they deserve in this story. Such explorations will only enhance the “richer flavor” of Kona’s celebrated beverage.
Kona Living History Farm
At the Kona Living History Farm on Māmalahoa Highway in Captain Cook, visitors to the Big Island can take an interactive tour that demonstrates how coffee cultivation, harvesting, drying and roasting techniques have changed over the decades. The weeklong Kona Coffee Cultural Festival offers another window into the story of Hawai‘i coffee.
Each November since 1970, the region’s coffee farmers gather to celebrate the harvest of the bright red “cherries” that contain their prized beans. Festivities showcase cultural activities, ranging from traditional Hawaiian quilting to the stringing of flower lei. This year’s festival, Nov. 9 through 18, includes art exhibits, a latte art throwdown and a half marathon.