The coffee plant, native to Ethiopia, was introduced to the mountainous southwestern region of the Arabian Peninsula around the fourteenth century. Coffee bushes and the habit of drinking coffee were not introduced into Indonesia by Arabs but by the VOC in 1696. Dutch men with personal interests in botany and agriculture and who owned private estates around Batavia had their local workforce experiment in raising and propagating the seedlings. VOC officials used their personal networks with Sundanese nobles to establish the coffee industry in the highlands of west Java. Plants were given to Sundanese district heads who directed farmers to deliver the harvested beans to fulfill their tax obligation. The first harvest was in 1718. The VOC paid the district heads in cash and textiles. It took over the coffee business at the warehouse where the beans were packed and stored until they could be transported to Europe.
At first the VOC paid high prices for coffee, giving local farmers an incentive to grow more coffee than their tax quota for sale to VOC agents. The opportunities attracted migrants into the area. By 1725 three million pounds were harvested and the district chiefs were becoming rich from their percentage of the profits. As supplies of coffee from Java added to coffee available from other production areas in Amsterdam’s market, prices for the luxury product began to decline in Europe. The VOC’s solution was not to expand the number of coffee drinkers but to reduce the amount of coffee grown by cutting the prices paid the west Javanese farmer, requiring some coffee bushes to be uprooted, and banning sales of coffee to private wholesalers. Such actions brought economic loss to communities just learning to enjoy a higher standard of living, marked by the increased numbers of Sundanese households able to own a buffalo.
This experiment in coffee production was undertaken by officials who argued for more direct VOC involvement in Indonesian societies. They wanted to bypass Indonesian kings and court factions to work directly with the provincial nobles who controlled networks of village heads and jagos.