Legends of Coffee #2 – Baba Budan

So who is Baba Budan?

Baba Budan is often cited as the person responsible for the first cultivation of coffee outside of Ethiopia and Yemen. During a pilgrimage to Mecca, sometime in 17th Century (thought to be around 1635), Budan successfully smuggled out of Yemen, seven fertile coffee beans. Budan had cleverly concealed the beans by strapping them to his belly. On returning to India he planted the beans at his home in the hills of Chickmaglur, near Mysore. The descendants of these plants not only populated India, but were also taken overseas to Indonesia; firstly to the island of Java and subsequently Celebres, Sumatra and Timor.

baba budan smuggled coffee beans strapped to his belly

So why is Baba Budan a legend?

Coffee is thought to have been cultivated in both Ethiopia and Yemen from as early as 15th Century. But it wasn’t until the Ottoman Turks took control of Yemen in 1536, that coffee started to be exported, throughout the Turkish Empire. The coffee trade was a major source of income for the Turks, so not surprisingly they were keen to protect their monopoly. For nearly a century they successfully prevented any fertile beans from leaving Yemen: all beans prior to export were soaked in boiling water and anyone found attempting to take fertile beans out of the country would be punished with the removal of their head.

Baba Budan's journey from Yemen back to India

So when Baba Budan decided to smuggle beans out of Yemen, he put his own life in jeopardy. This is a brave thing to do; particularly as he had no guarantee that if he did manage to escape Yemen, that he could successfully propagate the beans back in his native India. He put his head on the chopping block and it could all be for nothing. What precisely motivated Budan is unknown? As he was on a pilgrimage, maybe he had an epiphany asking him to take the beans. Or maybe he simply loved coffee – who can blame him.

While Budan’s efforts were truly heroic, he wasn’t solely responsible for breaking the Turkish monopoly on coffee. The Dutch had managed to acquire a tree in 1616 and offspring from this tree were planted in Sri Lanka in 1658. It was also a descendant of this tree that Captain Gabriel de Clieu took to Martinique in 1723. However, without Budan the spread of coffee throughout the World would have been much slower and who knows, Java might not have become so synonymous with coffee.

Baba Budan has already be rewarded by: India, the mountain range where he planted his beans is named after him (Baba Budan Giri); and the Muslim faith; they made him a saint. And I think he also deserves to be recognised as a coffee legend.

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