to Mr. Evarts.
Monrovia, April 3, 1878. (Received June 3.)
Sir: The gradual but perceptible increase in the coffee crop of Liberia, and the wide and satisfactory attention it is now attracting, together with the superiority of the quality of Coffea Liberiea, has determined me to submit for the information of the Department the following facts relative thereto.
It has been ascertained that this plant is more vigorous, and nourishes best when planted upon the territories of this republic, that is to say, in the country comprehended between the Sherbro River, on the north, and the San Pedro River on the south. For example, I have been fortunate to glean, from sources somewhat authentic, information to the effect that this coffee is less healthful and prosperous in other West African settlements than in Liberia.
This knowledge appears to have been reached through the efforts which were made to propagate it in the territories of the Gold Coast, of Sierra Leone, and other settlements. Indeed, I have not met any one willing to brave or to attempt to controvert the opinion prevailing here that this coffee fails in other sections of the coast to attain to that high perfection which it reaches in Liberia. However, from all I have been able to gather, other localities on this coast appear each to produce and possess their own variety and quality of coffee. It may not be amiss to remark here that Liberians may well pride themselves upon the fact that their coffee possesses an aroma far superior to all other African coffee, and is, I believe, admitted to equal the best variety of any country.
It is a satisfaction that this coffee is attracting very wide attention and preference in all coffee-growing countries, and very large quantities of scions and seed-coffee are being continually sought for and sent out of the country. Experiments have shown that it will attain a perfection in Ceylon, little, if any, inferior to, and in many respects more healthful (and superior) than the coffee of that island. It is known, when in Liberia, not to be affected by the fungus (Hemileia vastatrix); and it is conceded by those experimenting that, when transplanted in Ceylon (New Commercial Plants. By Thomas Christy, F. L. S.), it is equally free from the attacks of that destructive plague.
I have had the happiness recently to entertain at this legation Mr. de Santos, an experienced Brazilian coffee-planter, from Rio Janeiro, owning in Ins country more than one million of coffee trees, among which are ten thousand of that species peculiar to Liberia, with which that gentleman had been experimenting successfully.
Such was Mr. de Santos’s satisfaction with the manner in which Coffea Liberica throve on his plantations in Brazil, that he came in person to Liberia to purchase many thousand coffee scions, with which to succor his extensive coffee farms in that country. The American bark Elverton, of Baltimore, arrived here in ballast under charter from Rio Janeiro, during the month of March, and has returned to that point with a cargo composed entirely of Liberian coffee seed and scions.
A considerable shipment was also recently made, via England, to Java. For this wide celebrity and knowledge of her coffee, Liberia is indebted [Page 700] in a considerable sense to the high standing it reached in the awards at the Centennial Exhibition. Under proper cultivation, such as attentive pruning and other necessary care, these trees, when planted at a distance apart of 8 or 9 feet, interlace with each other, hence Liberian planters have determined in future to plant them at a distance, at least, of 12 or 14 feet, thus preventing that falling off in production caused by closer planting. The average production of a coffee tree in Liberia is from 3 to 5 and sometimes 6 pounds.
Experience has developed the rare and singular fact that it grows equally well upon the tops or sides of the hills, in the clayey banks of the streams, along the borders of the swamps, or when situate upon the seashore, unprotected from the blasts of the Atlantic winds; indeed, it flourishes similarly in either of these localities and never exacts the benevolent shade of other trees as does the coffee tree of most, if not all, other countries. The Liberian plantation is usually formed in this manner:
The planter first husbands the berry carefully in a nursery. After one year the scions are thought to be sufficiently grown for transplantation, but are sometimes allowed to remain in the nursery as long as two years. The months of June and July are usually preferred for setting out these scions, at which time we usually enjoy an intermission of five or six weeks in the rain or wet season, known in Liberian parlance as the “middle dries.”
One would suppose that setting forth so young a scion in the very midst of such torrents of rain as we sometimes have, would be fatal to the life of the plant, but it appears that this tree being indigenous is sufficiently hardy as to thrive, notwithstanding the excessive rainfall.
It is proper to be mentioned just here that this tree is sometimes attacked by a species of worm termed by Liberian planters “the borer.” This worm, very singularly too, is said to ascend the outside of the coffee tree and, selecting a favorable spot near the top thereof, to bore downward through the center; it subsists upon the sap, and, if not extirpated, will destroy the plant. Its presence may in general be detected with tolerable accuracy and ease, as, whenever it attacks a tree, the upper limbs lose their usual green and healthy appearance. I have been unable, however, to glean an instance in which it is has measurably injured a plantation, or destroyed or even blighted the prospects of a crop.
The plan usually employed to rid the tree of this worm is to saw off the trunk at the point where the unhealthy appearance ceases. This is almost a certain cure, for observation has developed the fact that the tree withers and dies pari passu with the “borer’s” descent. But I am assured by careful planters that if full attention is bestowed upon the tree the “borer” declines to attack it, as, like all other vermin, it prefers only the neglected and filthy.
It is but recently that Liberians have devoted any considerable attention to this important and promising branch of their agriculture. That inattention was owing not so much to indifference or indolence, as to those unfortunate circumstances which have conspired so unhappily to leave Liberians without individual competence or wealth or that very exact knowledge of fruit-culture in a sense so essential to the successful cultivation of coffee. At its session held in the years 1874–’75, the Liberian legislature passed an act (which became a law) to encourage its culture. The executive department of the government expended a few thousand dollars in premiums to all those who planted a certain number of trees. It must be conceded that that law gave fresh impetus to the planting of coffee and increased the area of land devoted to that industry. [Page 701] Since that time the government has regretted its monetary inability to so give continued and direct encouragement to coffee-growers; albeit, it is worthy of observation that much of the tendency to construe the more restrictive and somewhat exclusive laws unfavorably to foreign capitalists, has been relaxed by the executive officers of this government, with regard to this particular industry. So marked has been this increased liberality in the construction of the law of real property, that a company of English capitalists founded in London are now engaged in opening plantations under leases of from fifty to ninety-nine years, on the St. Paul’s River, the constitution of Liberia forbidding title to real estate to rest in foreigners. It has been remarked above that coffee trees in a state of high cultivation yield from three to five or six pounds (extreme average capacity of the tree); but several things should, however, be borne in mind, as, for example, in all Liberia there are not more than 2,000 acres planted in coffee. Upon each acre may be found perhaps an average of 400 trees, making about 800,000, or less than 1,000,000 trees in the country; and these trees are owned perhaps by about 500 persons, styled here planters, but who are without sufficient realized capital to tide them over the first three or five years, during which it is essential to make outlays upon, without receiving income of any sort from, coffee farms. One result of this is that the large number of persons own the comparatively small number of trees planted. I have learned from the authorities that in other coffee-growing countries 100,000 trees are regarded as a small farm, but in Liberia these 400 or 500 so-called planters own all the way from 100 to 30,000 trees each. I have met with only one planter who claims to have the maximum quantity. A man is thought in this country to be a considerable planter when he owns 10,000 trees, one-half of which have reached maturity and are bearing.
It is an unfortunate circumstance that Liberians have not attained to that business experience and confidence which would enable them to form monetary combinations for the co-operative development of their rich coffee and other resources. In view of all the circumstances and bearings of this subject so pregnant with interesting practical thought, I would be inclined to venture the intimation to American capitalists desiring to invest in foreign countries, that coffee-growing in Liberia, with comparatively small investments of co-operative capital, native labor being so cheap, tractable, and available, can easily, with proper discretion, be made a source of certain remuneration, possessing elasticity sufficient to preserve itself uninfluenced by those fluctuations to which capital is so liable in other countries.
Be pleased to accept renewed assurances of the high esteem with which I have, &c.,