Coffee history: When did coffee first arrive to Hawai‘i?

Knowledge is great, even if any given piece of information has no apparent use or benefit.  After all, what we know helps define who we are and how we think about the world.  Understanding ourselves tends to lead to richer, more meaningful interactions with the world and those in it.  Thus, when it comes to information about my past and the past of my community (in this case, the Hawai‘i coffee community), I’m keen to know and understand every piece of information as accurately as possible.  This includes just exactly when coffee first arrived to Hawai‘i.

If you look into the history of coffee’s arrival to Hawai‘i, you’ll discover that most sources report that it was first brought by the Spaniard Don Francisco de Paula Marin, but that his plantings weren’t successful.  In the next sentence, you’ll probably read that it was successfully introduced in 1825 when it arrived from Brazil on the HMS Blonde- with no assistance from Marin.  One of two dates will be written for its initial introduction by Marin: January 21, 1813 or December 30, 1817.  My own book quotes the 1817 date.  After some research with the assistance of Skip Bittenbender (agriculture extension specialist and professor at the University of Hawai‘i) and Gerald Kinro (environmental consultant and author of A Cup of Aloha: The Kona Coffee Epic), I am now inclined to think that neither of these dates are correct.  In fact, I now believe that coffee first arrived to Hawai‘i in 1825.

This lengthy post is going to discuss where those two dates associated with Marin come from.  Then, it will attempt to disprove them.  Finally, it will explore why 1825 may be the correct date.  At the end of the post, I’ll include a complete bibliography of all the sources used to support my thesis.  

Whence these two initial dates?  The usage of the 1813 date can be traced to two published sources, although, both actually rely upon information from the same individual, Baron Goto (agronomist, University of Hawai‘i professor, and Vice Chancellor of the East-West Center).  The first source is Hawaii’s Crop Parade, written by David Crawford (1937).  In his discussion of coffee, he includes a footnote that reads, “The first planting of coffee in Hawaii was on January 21, 1813 by Don Marin, according to an entry in his journal. (Information furnished by Mr. Y. B. Goto who is compiling a history of the coffee industry in Hawaii.).”  Forty-five years later, Goto published that same history in an article titled “Ethnic groups and the coffee industry in Hawai‘i” (1982).  To support the 1813 arrival date, he includes the following footnote, “Don Francisco de Paula Marin, Journal translated by Robert C. Wyllie, photostatic copy, AH. The published version of the journal (Ross H. Gast and Agnes C. Conrad, Don Francisco de Paula Marin [Honolulu: University Press of Hawaii for the Hawaiian Society, 1973) gives the dates of these first coffee plantings incorrectly as 1817."

As you might imagine, the source of the 1817 date is the biography of Marin that Goto mentions.  In 1973 (reprinted in 2002), Ross Gast (agricultural extension office at the University of Hawai‘i), with the assistance of Agnes Conrad (head archivist at the Hawai‘i State Archives from 1955-1983), wrote the most detailed and comprehensive biography of Marin that exists.  In the biography, Gast does not mention that Marin brought coffee to Hawai‘i.  In the appendix, Gast prints the entirety of what is available of Marin’s journal (more on that in a minute).  No journal entry mentions coffee.  However, beneath the entry for December 30, 1817, there is a paragraph of commentary (added by Wyllie; more on him soon) that reads:

Marin’s Occupation

Commanding the Brig Craymocu – acting the part of public accuser – planting coffee, cotton, making lime, cutting stones – weighing sandal wood, planting roses – making shirts, salting pork, giving medicine, making pickles, planting pineapples – turnips, peppers chiles, making castor oil – painting [torn] ts – sowing wheat – making soap, [torn] planting saffron – making molasses [torn] planting peaches, cherries – making poe [poi].

It is important to share what is included in Marin’s entry for the January 21, 1813 date, as stated in Gast’s appendix.  

21 Jany.  This day I planted pineapples and an orange tree (It appears from Journal No. 1 and 2 that Marin had before planted beans, parsley, onions, cabbages, potatoes, peaches, horse-radish, vines, melons, tobacco, made cigars, planting taro, acted as butcher, mason, ship carpenter, making hay, tiles, planting maiz, fig trees, lemons, lettuce, making coacoa nut oil.

As you can see, it makes no mention of coffee.  The material after the parentheses was added by Wyllie (be patient, we’re almost to him).

Goto’s footnote clearly states that he believes Gast made a mistake.  If both men read the same journal, how could they have interpreted it so differently?  To understand this, you must first understand a bit about the journal.

Unfortunately, the original journal of Marin no longer exists.  At least, if it does, nobody has admitted to having it since 1847.  In 1847, Robert Crichton Wyllie (Minister of Foreign Affairs) translated Marin’s journal from Spanish to English.  Sadly, Wyllie didn’t have the entire journal-it seems most of it never made it to his possession.  What he did have, he translated.  That original translation (and a public-accessible photocopy) currently resides in the Hawai‘i State Archives.  This translation is what Goto, Gast, and I have read.  

While translating the text of the journal, Wyllie added comments in the margins and other empty spaces of the paper.  I don’t know where he found the information he added as his commentary; he offers no source and I’ve not researched it, yet.  As Marin died in 1837, it is plausible that Wyllie had access to people and papers that were contemporary with Marin that we’ll never know about.  

It is Wyllie’s commentary, I believe, which is the source of all the historical confusion.  Next to the January 21, 1813 entry (which occurs on page 9), Wyllie inserted a comment into the margin, directly next to and now associated with the entry.  His comment begins, “Marin's occupations”.  The comment does not mention coffee.  The comment is incomplete and it continues on separate pages (I found no evidence to suggest why the specific subsequent pages were chosen for the continuation).  The end of the comment reads “see page 22”.  On page 22, the comment continues beneath the December 30, 1817 entry (see text above from Gast’s appendix).  To me, it seems like the commentary was separate and unrelated to the text of the December 30 entry (as if it was merely filling a blank space that occurred at the end of a calendar year).  The commentary further continues on page 79, before the September 1823 entry.  There is no mention of coffee on this page.

From this, I conclude that Goto decided that since the commentary began on the 1813 date, that was the date on which coffee was planted by Marin.  Whatever Goto’s reasoning, I find the 1813 date very hard to believe.  Nothing about the journal nor Wyllie’s comments suggest that coffee and 1813 are related.  Readers of Gast’s book, seeing Wyllie’s insertion of “planting coffee” just beneath the 1817 date, must have concluded that was the year coffee was brought by Marin.  

Wyllie, for whatever reason, was convinced that the 1817 date was the date on which Marin planted coffee.  In 1850, Wyllie gave a speech to the inaugural meeting of the Royal Hawaiian Agricultural Society.  In this speech, he delineates agriculturally relevant dates (for Hawai‘i) from Marin's journal.  For the January 21, 1813 date, he says nothing about coffee.  However, he included coffee in the December 30, 1817 date.   

Wyllie’s conviction for the 1817 date is compelling, except that he offers no evidence for believing it.  I am not convinced of this date because of a Russian explorer named Vasilii Golovin.  Golovin spent time with Marin on O‘ahu during November 7-11, 1818.  In his journal, Golovin wrote, “The tireless Spaniard is making efforts to obtain coffee trees and tea bushes, but so far has not succeeded”.  The term “obtain” is unequivocal: by the end of 1818, Marin had no coffee to unsuccessfully plant!

Based on all this evidence, I find it difficult to believe that either 1813 or 1817 is the original arrival date of coffee to Hawai‘i.  Moreover, I don’t think there is credible evidence that Marin brought it (although, Gast proffers evidence that he planted it after it arrived in 1825).  The earliest known recorded arrival of coffee to Hawai‘i is on the HMS Blonde in 1825.  In his journal, Andrew Bloxam, a naturalist on the Blonde, listed that 30 coffee plants were on the boat, which arrived in Honolulu on May 6.

Many people have looked into the history of plant arrivals to Hawai‘i.  None, except Goto, has confidently listed a date earlier than 1825 for coffee’s arrival.  I suspect all of the obvious resources have been looked at that would suggest an earlier date.  Until any other trustworthy resource is found to include contradictory information, I must believe that 1825 is the date of coffee’s arrival to Hawai‘i.

New information can surface at any time.  Thus, as I continue my research on this topic, I look forward to finding new pieces of this historical puzzle.  As I write this, in fact, I’m waiting to hear back from the author of a recent publication that offers several new ideas about coffee’s history in Hawai‘i, including its arrival date.  When I can confirm his information, I’ll be sure to share it with all who are interested!



Bloxam, A. 1925.  Diary of Andrew Bloxam, naturalist of the “Blonde” on her trip from England to the Hawaiian islands, 1824-25. Honolulu: Bernice P. Bishop Museum Special Publication 10.  96 pp.

Crawford, D. 1937. Hawaii’s Crop Parade: a review of useful products derived from the soil in the Hawaiian Islands, Past and Present.  Honolulu: Advertiser Publishing Co., Ltd.  305 pp.

Gast, R. 2002.  Don Francisco de Paula Marin: A biography.  Agnes C. Conrad, ed.  Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press.  344 pp.

Golovnin, V. 1979.  Around the World on the Kamchatka, 1817-1819.  Translated by Ella Wiswell.  Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press. 353 pp.

Goto, B. 1982.  “Ethnic groups and the coffee industry in Hawai‘i”.  Hawaiian Historical Society.  112–124.

Kinro, G. 2003.  A Cup of Aloha: The Kona Coffee Epic.  Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press.  150 pp.

Steiman, S. 2008.  The Hawai‘i Coffee Book: A Gourmet’s Guide from Kona to Kaua‘i.  Honolulu: Watermark Publishing.  144 pp.

Wyllie, R. 1850.  “Wyllie's Address, Read before the Royal Hawaiian Agricultural Society, on the 12th of August, 1850”. The Transactions of the Royal Hawaiian Agricultural Society: Including a Record of the Proceedings Preliminary to the formation of the society, in August, 1850. Honolulu: Henry M. Whitney, Government Press. 1(1): 36-49.

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