A cup of coffee to start the day is such a cornerstone of modern mornings that few of us ever stop to think about how we came to be drinking this brew made from tropical beans. If your coffee of choice is Costa Rican then you have a Guernseyman, William Le Lacheur, to thank for establishing the trade in coffee between Costa Rica and Europe in the mid nineteenth century. Over the course of a quarter of a century Le Lacheur is credited with transforming Costa Rica from one of Central America’s poorest nations into its wealthiest and is considered something of a national hero.
William Le Lacheur (christened Guillaume) was born in the parish of Forest on October 15th 1802. He went to sea following a basic education, and by 1827 had worked his way up to his first captaincy of the 111 ton brig St George which worked the routes between the Mediterranean, Spain, Madeira and England transporting fresh fruit. In 1936, having worked the fruit trade from both the Mediterranean and Azores to England for a number of years, William went into partnership with a good friend of his called Captain Grace and they formed the shipping company Le Lacheur & Co. William captained their first purpose built ship, the barque Monarch, to Brazil in 1941 on which voyage he first became aware of a trading possibility on the Pacific coast of Costa Rica.
It was a period of global recession, so not only were ship owners searching for business at the time, but Costa Rican coffee farmers had been having trouble getting their coffee to the European market since the country gained its independence in 1921 because of issues transporting their product. Much of Costa Rica’s coffee is grown in the centre of the country, which is separated from the Caribbean coast (and its trans-Atlantic shipping routes) by mountains and rainforest, and therefore producers only export route was from a Pacific port. Prior to the building of the Panama Canal or a railway linking the capital San José to the Caribbean coast, ships had to make the treacherous and lengthy voyage around Cape Horn to travel between the Pacific Coast of the Americas and Europe. William Le Lacheur undertook this journey and unloaded his first cargo of over one million pounds of coffee in 4,493 bags from Puntarenas, Costa Rica, in London in October1843 – the first direct shipment of Costa Rican coffee to Europe. William was accompanied by a Costa Rican acquaintance, Santiago Fernandez, who acted as the supercargo – the person responsible for buying and selling cargoes in port. The first cargo was sold to the London Coffee House for 36,700 pesos, which was paid in silver sixpences. These were taken back to Costa Rica where many were over-stamped with the crest of Costa Rica, the rest thought to have been melted down and re-minted in local denominations. With the first venture being such a success William expanded his fleet and then diverted his other ships from the fruit trade to the Costa Rican coffee route. Starting in 1850 he commissioned five new ships specifically for the coffee trade, adding a further seven during the 1860s.
He contributed to the growth of the coffee industry by using the profits from coffee sales in London to purchase equipment and machinery at the request of the Costa Rican government. As the agricultural economy grew, larger ships were commissioned to allow the increasing crops to be shipped to market, and thus the fortunes of Le Lacheur & Co. and Costa Rica were intertwined. A devout Christian, he also introduced the protestant faith to Costa Rica by importing and distributing 3,500 Spanish language bibles (obtained through the British and Foreign Bible Society) having been perturbed by what he described as a “poverty stricken and superstitious” society where superstition took precedence over religion. The first protestant church in the country, The Church of the Good Shepherd, was made of pre-fabricated iron and was shipped there by William’s son John the year after his death, With a fleet of ships making regular journeys between Puntarenas and London, William arranged passage for the children of several families so that they could be educated in England, which is believed to have both contributed further to the country’s economic development, as well as introducing football to the Central American nation. In 1856, a year before he retired, Costa Rica was invaded by an American filibuster William Walker (an American adventurer from the United States), however the ships of Le Lacheur & Co. had been placed at the disposal of the Costa Rican military and were used to transport troops north to the Nicaraguan border where they were able to repel the invading militants in the Battle of Santa Rosa. William Le Lacheur’s ships were featured on various Costa Rican bank notes and postage stamps during the 19th and 20th centuries, and he appeared on stamps in Guernsey in 1997. He passed away in June 1863 and is buried at Highgate Cemetery in North London. His son John had been established as his permanent representative in Costa Rica, whilst his daughter Louisa-Maria co-founded Banco Lyon with her husband Benjamin Abbot Lyon.
You can learn more about the life and work of William Le Lacheur on the Guernsey Museums and Galleries website, and can view several exhibits in the World Trade section of the Maritime Museum at Castle Cornet, which is open daily between March and October.