Uncommon Grounds: The History of Coffee and How It Transformed Our Worldby Mark Pendergrast, Pendergast Mark
The first comprehensive business and social history of coffee, written by the author of a successful history of Coca-Cola. There are plenty of books for the coffee connoisseur, full of advice about where to find the best beans and how to brew the perfect cup, but none of them comes close to this remarkable story.
The first comprehensive business and social history of coffee, written by the author of a successful history of Coca-Cola. There are plenty of books for the coffee connoisseur, full of advice about where to find the best beans and how to brew the perfect cup, but none of them comes close to this remarkable story.
Pendergast concludes his sweeping history on an up note. After largely dismissing reports of coffee's bad health effects, he offers what most readers have probably been craving all along: instructions on how to brew the perfect pot.
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COFFEE COLONIZES THE WORLD
Coffee makes us severe, and grave, and philosophical.
Jonathan Swift, 1722
[Coffee causes] an excessive state of brain-excitation which becomes manifest by a remarkable loquaciousness sometimes accompanied by accelerated association of ideas. It may also be observed in coffee house politicians who drink cup after cup ... and by this abuse are inspired to profound wisdom on all earthly events.
Lewis Lewin, Phantastica: Narcotic and Stimulating Drugs (1931)
Possibly the cradle of mankind, the ancient land of Abyssinia, now called Ethiopia, is the birthplace of coffee. Situated at the conjunction of the African and Arab worlds known as the Horn of Africa, the mountainous country, split down the middle by the earthquake-prone Great Rift Valley, has a biblical qualityand little wonder. Across the nearby Red Sea, further to the north, Moses led his people to freedom. The Queen of Sheba later descended from the Ethiopian mountains to join King Solomon in Jerusalem, and, according to legend, she founded the Axum dynasty that established its rule in the first century A.D. (a monarchy that continued, with a hiatus between 572 and 1270, until 1974, when Haile Selassie was deposed).
Always relatively poor, the Abyssinians were nonetheless a proud, independent people, most of them adopting a cloistered, orthodox form of Christianity when no other African indigenous people held thatfaith. "Encompassed on all sides by the enemies of their religion," the historian Gibbon noted, "the Ethiopians slept near a thousand years, forgetful of the world by whom they were forgotten." Likewise forgottenor not yet discoveredwas the beverage we now call coffee.
The Puzzled Boy and His Mad Goats
We do not know exactly when or by whom coffee was discovered. Of the various Ethiopian and Arab legends, the most appealing involves dancing goats. A goatherd named Kaldi, a poet by nature, loved following the wandering paths made by his goats as they combed the mountainsides for food. The job required little of him, so he was free to make up songs and to play his pipe. In the late afternoon, when he blew a special, piercing note, his goats scampered from their browsing in the forest to follow him back home.
One afternoon, however, the goats did not come. Kaldi blew his pipe again, fiercely. Still no goats. Puzzled, the boy climbed higher, listening for them. He finally heard bleating in the distance.
Running around the corner of a narrow trail, Kaldi suddenly came upon the goats. Under the thick rain forest canopy, which allowed the sun to sift through in sudden bright splotches, the goats were running about, butting one another, dancing on their hind legs, and bleating excitedly. In winded wonder, the boy stood gaping at them. They must be bewitched, he thought. What else could it be?
As he watched, one goat after another chewed off the glossy green leaves and red berries of a tree he had never seen before. It must be the trees that had maddened his goats. Was it a poison? Would they all die? His father would kill him!
The goats refused to come home with him until hours later, but they did not die. The next day, they ran directly back to the same grove and repeated the performance. This time, Kaldi decided it was safe for him to join them. First, he chewed on a few leaves. They tasted bitter. As he masticated them, however, he experienced a slow tingle, moving from his tongue down into his gut, and expanding to his entire body. Next, he tried the berries. The fruit was mildly sweet, and the seeds that popped out were covered with a thick, tasty mucilage. Finally, he chewed the seeds themselves. And popped another berry in his mouth.
Soon, according to legend, Kaldi was frisking with his goats. Poetry and song spilled out of him. He felt that he would never be tired or grouchy again. Kaldi told his father about the magical trees, the word spread, and soon coffee became an integral part of Ethiopian culture. By the time Rhazes, an Arabian physician, first mentioned coffee in print in the tenth century, it probably had been deliberately cultivated for hundreds of years.
It is likely that, as in the legend, the beans and leaves of bunn, as coffee was called, at first were simply chewed, but the inventive Ethiopians quickly graduated to more palatable ways of getting their caffeine fix. They brewed the leaves and berries with boiled water as a weak tea. They ground the beans and mixed them with animal fat for a quick-energy snack. They made wine out of the fermented pulp. They made a sweet beverage called qishr out of the lightly roasted husks of the coffee cherry, a drink now known as kisher. Finally, probably in the sixteenth century, someone roasted the beans, ground them, and made an infusion. Ah! Coffee as we know it (or a variety thereof) finally came into being.
Ethiopians still serve coffee in an elaborate ceremony, which often takes nearly an hour. As charcoals warm inside a special clay pot, guests sit on three-legged stools, chatting. As your host talks with you, his wife carefully washes the green coffee beans to remove the silver skin. The beans, from your host's trees, have been sun-dried, their husks removed by hand. The hostess throws a little frankincense on the coals to produce a heady odor. Then over the coals she places a flat iron disk, a bit less than a foot in diameter. With an iron-hooked implement, she gently stirs the beans on this griddle. After some minutes they turn cinnamon, then begin to crackle with the "first pop" of the classic coffee roast. When they have turned a golden brown, she removes them from the fire and dumps them into a small mortar. With a pestle she grinds them into a very fine powder, which she deposits in a clay pot of water set atop the coals to boil. Along with the pulverized coffee, she also throws in some cardamom and cinnamon.
The smell now is exotic and overwhelming. She pours the first round of the brew into small 3-ounce cups, without handles, along with a spoonful of sugar. Everyone sips, murmuring appreciation. The coffee is thick, with some of the grounds inevitably suspended in the drink. When the cup is drained, however, most of the sediment remains on the bottom.
Twice more, the hostess adds a bit of water and brings the coffee to a boil for more servings. Then the guests take their leave.
Coffee Goes Arab
Once the Ethiopians discovered coffee it was only a matter of time until the drink spread through trade with the Arabs across the narrow band of the Red Sea. It is possible that when the Ethiopians invaded and ruled Yemen for some fifty years in the sixth century, they deliberately set up coffee plantations. The Arabs took to the stimulating drink. (According to legend, Mohammed proclaimed that under the invigorating influence of coffee he could "unhorse forty men and possess forty women.") They began cultivating the trees, complete with irrigation ditches, in the nearby mountains, calling it qahwa, an Arab word for winefrom which the name coffee derives.
At first the Arab Sufi monks adopted coffee as a drink that would allow them to stay awake for midnight prayers more easily. While coffee was first considered a medicine or religious aid, it soon enough slipped into everyday use. Wealthy people had a coffee room in their homes, reserved only for ceremonial imbibing. For those who did not have such private largesse, coffee houses, known as kaveh kanes, sprang up. By the end of the fifteenth century, Muslim pilgrims had introduced coffee throughout the Islamic world in Persia, Egypt, Turkey, and North Africa, making it a lucrative trade item.
As the drink gained in popularity throughout the sixteenth century, it also gained its reputation as a troublemaking social brew. Various rulers decided that people were having too much fun in the coffeehouses. "The patrons of the coffeehouse indulged in a variety of improper pastimes," Ralph Hattox notes in his history of the Arab coffeehouses, "ranging from gambling to involvement in irregular and criminally unorthodox sexual situations."
When Khair-Beg, the young governor of Mecca, discovered that satirical verses about him were emanating from the coffeehouses, he determined that coffee, like wine, must be outlawed by the Koran and he induced his religious, legal, and medical advisors to agree. Thus, in 1511 the coffeehouses of Mecca were forcibly closed.
The ban lasted only until the Cairo sultan, a habitual coffee drinker, heard about it and reversed the edict. Other Arab rulers and religious leaders, however, also denounced coffee during the course of the 1500s. The Grand Vizier Kuprili of Constantinople, for example, fearing sedition during a war, closed the city's coffeehouses. Anyone caught drinking coffee was soundly cudgeled. Offenders found imbibing a second time were sewn into leather bags and thrown into the Bosphorus. Even so, many continued to drink coffee in secret, and eventually the ban was withdrawn.
Why did coffee drinking persist in the face of persecution in these early Arab societies? The addictive nature of caffeine provides one answer, of course; yet there is more to it. Coffee provided an intellectual stimulant, a pleasant way to feel increased energy without any apparent ill effects. In an elaborate social ritual, coffee was brought to a boil three times in the ibrik (a small conical copper pot with a long handle) before the viscous drink was dispensed into small cups, the pourer carefully shaking his hand so that a little wesh, or froth, topped each cup. Coffeehouses allowed people to get together for conversation, entertainment, and business, inspiring agreements, poetry, and irreverence in equal measure. So important did the brew become in Turkey that a lack of sufficient coffee provided grounds for a woman to seek a divorce.
Smugglers, New Cultivation, and Arrival in the Western World
The Ottoman Turks occupied Yemen in 1536, and soon afterward the coffee bean became an important export throughout the Turkish empire. The beans generally were exported from the Yemeni port of Mocha, so the coffee from that region took on the name of the port. The trade route involved shipping the coffee to Suez and transporting it by camel to Alexandrian warehouses, where it was picked up by French and Venetian merchants. Because the coffee trade had become a major source of income, the Turks jealously guarded their monopoly over the trees' cultivation in Yemen. No fertile berries were allowed to leave the country unless they first had been steeped in boiling water or partially roasted to prevent germination.
Inevitably, these precautions were circumvented. Some time during the 1600s a Moslem pilgrim named Baba Budan smuggled seven seeds out by taping them to his stomach and successfully cultivated them in southern India, in the mountains of Mysore. In 1616 the Dutch, who dominated the world's shipping trade, managed to transport a tree to Holland from Aden. From its offspring the Dutch began growing coffee in Ceylon in 1658. In 1699 another Dutchman transplanted trees from Malabar to Java, followed by cultivation in Sumatra, Celebes, Timor, Bali, and other islands in the East Indies. For many years to come, the production of the Dutch East Indies determined the price of coffee in the world market.
During the 1700s Java and Mocha became the most famous and sought-after coffees, and those words are still synonymous with the black brew, though little high-quality coffee currently comes from Java, and Mocha ceased operation as a viable port in 1869 with the completion of the Suez Canal.
At first Europeans didn't know what to make of the strange new brew. In 1610 traveling British poet Sir George Sandys noted that the Turks sat "chatting most of the day" over their coffee, which he described as "blacke as soote, and tasting not much unlike it." He added, however, that it "helpeth, as they say, digestion, and procureth alacrity."
Europeans eventually took to coffee with a passion. Pope Clement VIII, who died in 1605, supposedly tasted the Moslem drink at the behest of his priests, who wanted him to ban it. "Why, this Satan's drink is so delicious," he reputedly exclaimed, "that it would be a pity to let the infidels have exclusive use of it. We shall fool Satan by baptizing it and making it a truly Christian beverage."
In the first half of the seventeenth century, coffee was still an exotic beverage, and like other such rare substances as sugar, cocoa, and tea, initially was used primarily as an expensive medicine by the upper classes. Over the next fifty years, however, Europeans were to discover the social as well as medicinal benefits of the Arabian drink. By the 1650s coffee was sold on Italian streets by aquacedratajo, or lemonade vendors, who dispensed coffee, chocolate, and liquor as well. Venice's first coffeehouse opened in 1683. Named for the drink it served, the caffè (spelled café elsewhere in Europe) quickly became synonymous with relaxed companionship, animated conversation, and tasty food.
Surprisingly, given their subsequent enthusiasm for coffee, the French lagged behind the Italians and British in adopting the coffeehouse. In 1669 a new Turkish ambassador, Soliman Aga, introduced coffee at his sumptuous Parisian parties, inspiring a craze for all things Turkish. Male guests, given voluminous dressing gowns, learned to loll comfortably without chairs in the luxurious surroundings, and to drink the exotic new beverage. Still, it appeared to be only a novelty.
French doctors, threatened by the medicinal claims made for coffee, went on the counterattack in Marseilles in 1679: "We note with horror that this beverage ... has tended almost completely to disaccustom people from the enjoyment of wine." Then, in a fine burst of pseudoscience, one young physician blasted coffee, asserting that it "dried up the cerebrospinal fluid and the convolutions ... the upshot being general exhaustion, paralysis, and impotence." Six years later, however, Sylvestre Dufour, another French physician, wrote a book strongly defending coffee, and by 1696 one Paris doctor was prescribing coffee enemas to "sweeten" the lower bowel and freshen the complexion.
It wasn't until 1689 when François Procope, an Italian immigrant, opened his Café de Procope directly opposite the Comédie Française, that the famous French coffeehouse took root. Soon French actors, authors, dramatists, and musicians were meeting there for coffee and literary conversations. In the next century the café attracted notables such as Voltaire, Rousseau, Diderot, and a visiting Benjamin Franklin. Coffee also provided a living for fortune-tellers, who claimed to read coffee grounds. A long line indicated a long journey. A circle forecast a birth. A cross meant eventual death.
The French historian Michelet described the advent of coffee as "the auspicious revolution of the times, the great event which created new customs, and even modified human temperament." Certainly coffee lessened the intake of alcohol while the cafés provided a wonderful intellectual stew that ultimately spawned the French Revolution. The coffeehouses of continental Europe were egalitarian meeting places where, as the food writer Margaret Visser notes, "men and women could, without impropriety, consort as they had never done before. They could meet in public places and talk."
Increasingly they did so over coffee that was not nearly so harsh a brew as the Turks made. In 1710, rather than boiling coffee, the French first made it by the infusion method, with powdered coffee suspended in a cloth bag over which boiling water was poured. Soon they also discovered the joys of sweetened "coffied milk" or "milky coffee." The Marquise de Sevigne declared this form of coffee "the nicest thing in the world," and many French citizens took to café au lait, particularly for breakfast.
French writer Honoré de Balzac did not trifle with such milky coffee, though. He consumed finely pulverized roasted coffee on an empty stomach with virtually no water. The results were spectacular. "Everything becomes agitated. Ideas quick march into motion like battalions of a grand army to its legendary fighting ground, and the battle rages. Memories charge in, bright flags on high; the cavalry of metaphor deploys with a magnificent gallop." Finally, his creative juices flowing, Balzac could write. "Forms and shapes and characters rear up; the paper is spread with inkfor the nightly labor begins and ends with torrents of this black water, as a battle opens and concludes with black powder."
Kolschitzky and Camel Fodder
Coffee arrived in Vienna a bit later than in France. In July 1683 the Turkish army, threatening to invade Europe, massed outside Vienna for a prolonged siege. The count in charge of the Viennese troops desperately needed a messenger who could pass through the Turkish lines to reach nearby Polish troops who would come to the rescue. Franz George Kolschitzky, who had lived in the Arab world for many years, took on the job, disguised in a Turkish uniform. On September 12, in a decisive battle, the Turks were routed.
The fleeing Turks left tents, oxen, camels, sheep, honey, rice, grain, goldand five hundred huge sacks filled with strange-looking beans that the Viennese thought must be camel fodder. Having no use for camels, they began to burn the bags. Kolschitzky, catching a whiff of that familiar odor, intervened. "Holy Mary!" he yelled. "That is coffee that you are burning! If you don't know what coffee is, give the stuff to me. I can find a good use for it." Having observed the Turkish customs, he knew the rudiments of roasting, grinding, and brewing, and he soon opened the Blue Bottle, the first Viennese café. Like the Turks, he sweetened the coffee considerably, but he also strained out the grounds and added a big dollop of milk.
Within a few decades, coffee practically fueled the intellectual life of the city. "The city of Vienna is filled with coffee houses," wrote a visitor early in the 1700s, "where the novelists or those who busy themselves with newspapers delight to meet." Unlike rowdy beer halls, the cafés provided a place for lively conversation and mental concentration.
Coffee historian Ian Bersten believes that the Arab taste for black coffee, and the widespread European (and eventually American) habit of taking coffee with milk, owes something to genetics. The Anglo-Saxons could tolerate milk, while Mediterranean peoplesArabs, Greek Cypriots, and southern Italianstended to be lactose-intolerant. That is why they continue to take their coffee straight, if sometimes well-sweetened. "From the two ends of Europe," writes Bersten, "there eventually developed two totally different ways to brew this new commodityeither filtered in Northern Europe or espresso style in Southern Europe. The intolerance to milk may have even caused cappuccinos to be smaller in Italy so that milk intolerance problems could be minimized."
Lovelier Than a Thousand Kisses
Coffee and coffeehouses reached Germany in the 1670s. By 1721 there were coffeehouses in most major German cities. For quite a while the coffee habit remained the province of the upper classes. Many physicians warned that it caused sterility or stillbirths. In 1732 the drink had become controversial (and popular) enough to inspire Johann Sebastian Bach to write his humorous Coffee Cantata, in which a daughter begs her stern father to allow her this favorite vice:
Dear father, do not be so strict! If I can't have my little demi-tasse of coffee three times a day, I'm just like a dried up piece of roast goat! Ah! How sweet coffee tastes! Lovelier than a thousand kisses, sweeter far than muscatel wine! I must have my coffee, and if anyone wishes to please me, let him present me withcoffee!
Later in the century, coffee-obsessed Ludwig van Beethoven ground precisely sixty beans to brew a cup.
By 1777 the hot beverage had become entirely too popular for Frederick the Great, who issued a manifesto in favor of Germany's more traditional drink: "It is disgusting to notice the increase in the quantity of coffee used by my subjects, and the like amount of money that goes out of the country in consequence. My people must drink beer. His Majesty was brought up on beer, and so were his ancestors." Four years later the king forbade coffee's roasting except in official government establishments, forcing the poor to resort to coffee substitutes, such as roast chicory root, dried fig, barley, wheat, or corn. They also managed to get hold of real coffee beans and roast them clandestinely, but government spies, pejoratively named coffee smellers by the populace, put them out of business. Eventually coffee outlived all the efforts to stifle it in Germany. Frauen particularly loved their Kaffeeklatches, gossipy social interludes that gave the brew a more feminine image.
Every other European country also discovered coffee during the same period. Green beans reached Holland by way of Dutch traders. The Scandinavian countries were slower to adopt itthough today they boast the highest per-capita consumption on earth. Nowhere did coffee have such a dynamic and immediate impact, however, as in England.
The British Coffee Invasion
Like a liquid black torrent the coffee rage drenched England, beginning at Oxford University in 1650, where Jacobs, a Lebanese Jew, opened the first coffeehouse for "some who delighted in noveltie." Two years later in London, Pasqua Rosée, a Greek, opened a coffeehouse and printed the first coffee advertisement, a broadside touting "The Vertue of the COFFEE Drink," described as
a simple innocent thing, composed into a Drink, by being dryed in an Oven, and ground to Powder, and boiled up with Spring water, and about half a pint of it to be drunk, lasting an hour before, and not Eating an hour after, and to be taken as hot as possibly can be endured.
Pasqua Rosée made extravagant medicinal claims; his 1652 ad asserted that coffee would aid digestion, cure headaches, coughs, consumption, dropsy, gout, and scurvy, and prevent miscarriages. More practically, he wrote: "It will prevent Drowsiness, and make one fit for business, if one have occasion to Watch; and therefore you are not to Drink of it after Supper, unless you intend to be watchful, for it will hinder sleep for 3 or 4 hours."
Coffee and coffeehouses took London by storm. By 1700 there were more than two thousand London coffeehouses, occupying more premises and paying more rent than any other trade. They came to be known as penny universities, because for that price one could purchase a cup of coffee and sit for hours listening to extraordinary conversationsor as a 1657 newspaper advertisement put it "PUBLICK INTERCOURSE." Each coffeehouse specialized in a different type of clientele. In one, physicians could be consulted. Others served Protestants, Puritans, Catholics, Jews, literati, merchants, traders, fops, Whigs, Tories, army officers, actors, lawyers, clergy, or wits. The coffeehouses provided England's first egalitarian meeting place, where a man was expected to chat with his tablemates whether he knew them or not.
Edward Lloyd's establishment catered primarily to seafarers and merchants, and he regularly prepared "ships' lists" for underwriters who met there to offer insurance. Thus began Lloyd's of London, the famous insurance company. Other coffeehouses spawned the Stock Exchange, the Bankers' Clearing-house, and newspapers such as The Tattler and The Spectator.
Before the advent of coffee the British imbibed alcohol, often in Falstaffian proportions. "What immoderate drinking in every place!" complained a British commentator in 1624. "How they flock to the tavern! [Here they] drown their wits, seeth their brains in ale." Fifty years later another observed that "coffee-drinking hath caused a greater sobriety among the nations", for whereas formerly Apprentices and Clerks with others, used to take their mornings' draught in Ale, Beer or Wine, which by the dizziness they cause in the Brain, make many unfit for business, they use now to play the Good-fellows in this wakefull and civill drink."
Not that most coffeehouses were universally uplifting places; rather, they were chaotic, smelly, wildly energetic, and capitalistic. "There was a rabble going hither and thither, reminding me of a swarm of rats in a ruinous cheese-store," one contemporary noted. "Some came, others went; some were scribbling, others were talking; some were drinking, some smoking, and some arguing; the whole place stank of tobacco like the cabin of a barge."
The strongest blast against the London coffeehouses came from women, who unlike their Continental counterparts were excluded from this all-male society (unless they were the proprietors). In 1674 The Womens Petition Against Coffee complained, "We find of late a very sensible Decay of that true Old English Vigour.... Never did Men wear greater Breeches, or carry less in them of any Mettle whatsoever." This condition was all due to "the Excessive use of that Newfangled, Abominable, Heathenish Liquor called Coffee, which ... has so Eunucht our Husbands, and Crippled our more kind gallants.... They come from it with nothing moist but their snotty Noses, nothing stiffe but their Joints, nor standing but their [Illegible]."
The Women's Petition revealed that a typical male day involved spending the morning in a tavern "till every one of them is as Drunk as a Drum, and then back again to the Coffee-house to drink themselves sober." Then they were off to the tavern again, only to "stagger back to Soberize themselves with Coffee." In response, the men defended their beverage. Far from rendering them impotent, "[coffee] makes the erection more Vigorous, the Ejaculation more full, adds a spiritualescency to the Sperme."
On December 29, 1675, King Charles II issued A Proclamation for the Suppression of Coffee Houses. In it he banned coffeehouses as of January 10, 1676, since they had become "the great resort of Idle and disaffected persons" where tradesmen neglected their affairs. The worst offense, however, was that in such houses "divers false malitious and scandalous reports are devised and spread abroad to the Defamation of his Majestie's Government, and to the Disturbance of the Peace and Quiet of the Realm."
An immediate howl went up from every part of London. Within a week, it appeared that the monarchy might once again be overthrownand all over coffee. On January 8, two days before the proclamation was due to take effect, the king backed down.
Ironically, however, over the course of the eighteenth century the British began to drink tea instead of coffee. Most of the coffeehouses turned into private men's clubs or chop houses by 1730, while the huge new public tea gardens of the era appealed to men, women, and children alike. Unlike coffee, tea was simple to brew and did not require roasting, grinding, and freshness. (It was also easier to adulterate for a tidy additional profit.) In addition, the British conquest of India had begun, and there they concentrated more on tea than coffee growing. The British "Honourable East India Company" pushed tea through its monopoly, and smugglers made tea cheaper. Also, the British had never learned to make coffee properly, and the milk they added to it was foul. Thus, while the black brew never disappeared entirely, its use in England diminished steadily until recent years.
The Legacy of the Boston Tea Party
As loyal British subjects, the North American colonists emulated the coffee boom of the mother country, with the first American coffeehouse opening in Boston in 1689. In the colonies there was not such a clear distinction between the tavern and the coffeehouse. Ale, beer, coffee, and tea cohabited, for instance, in Boston's Green Dragon, a coffeehousetavern from 1697 to 1832. Here, over many cups of coffee and other brews, John Adams, James Otis, and Paul Revere met to foment rebellion, prompting Daniel Webster to call it "the headquarters of the Revolution."
By the late eighteenth century, as we have seen, tea had become the preferred British drink, with the British East India Company supplying the American colonies with tea. King George wanted to raise money from tea as well as other exports, however, and attempted the Stamp Act of 1765, which prompted the famous protest, "No taxation without representation." The British parliament then repealed all the taxesexcept the one on tea. Americans refused to pay the tax, instead buying tea smuggled from Holland. When the British East India Company responded by sending large consignments to Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Charleston, the Boston contingent rebelled in the famous "tea party" of 1773, tossing the leaves overboard.
From that moment on, it became a patriotic American patriotic duty to avoid tea, and the coffeehouses profited as a result. The Continental Congress passed a resolution against tea consumption. "Tea must be universally renounced," wrote John Adams to his wife in 1774, "and I must be weaned, and the sooner the better." Of course, the pragmatic North Americans also appreciated the fact that coffee was cultivated much nearer to them than tea and was consequently cheaper. Increasingly, over the course of the nineteenth century they would rely on coffee grown due south in their own hemisphere.
Coffee Goes Latin
In 1714 the Dutch gave a healthy coffee plant to the French government, and nine years later an obsessed French naval officer, Gabriel Mathieu de Clieu, introduced coffee cultivation to the French colony of Martinique. After considerable court intrigue, he obtained one of the Dutch offspring plants from the Jardin des Plantes in Paris and nursed it during a perilous transatlantic voyage, later referring to "the infinite care that I was obliged to bestowe upon this delicate plant." After avoiding capture by a corsair and surviving a tempest, de Clieu's ship floundered in windless doldrums for over a month. The Frenchman protected his beloved plant from a jealous fellow passenger and shared his limited supply of water with it. Once it finally set down roots in Martinique, the coffee tree flourished. From that single plant, much of the world's current coffee supply probably derives.
Then, in 1727, a mini-drama led to the fateful introduction of coffee into Brazil. To resolve a border dispute, the governors of French and Dutch Guiana asked a neutral Portuguese Brazilian official named Francisco de Melho Palheta to adjudicate. He quickly agreed, hoping that he could somehow smuggle out coffee seeds, since neither governor would allow the seeds' export. The mediator successfully negotiated a compromise border solution and clandestinely bedded the French governor's wife. At Palheta's departure, she presented him with a bouquet of flowerswith ripe coffee berries disguised in the interior. He planted them in his home territory of Para, from which coffee gradually spread southward.
Coffee and the Industrial Revolution
Coffee's growing popularity complemented and sustained the Industrial Revolution, which began in Great Britain during the 1700s and spread to other parts of Europe and North America in the early 1800s. The development of the factory system transformed lives, attitudes, and eating habits. Most people previously had worked at home or in rural craft workshops. They had not divided their time so strictly between work and leisure, and they were largely their own masters. People typically ate five times a day, beginning with soup for breakfast.
With the advent of textile and iron mills, workers migrated to the cities, where the working classes lived in appalling conditions. As women and children entered the organized workforce, there was less time to run a household and cook meals. Those still trying to make a living at home were paid less and less for their work. Thus, European lacemakers in the early nineteenth century lived almost exclusively on coffee and bread. Because coffee was stimulating and warm, it provided an illusion of nutrition.
"Seated uninterruptedly at their looms, in order to earn the few pennies necessary for their bare survival," writes one historian, "[workers had] no time for the lengthy preparation of a midday or evening meal. And weak coffee was drank as a last stimulant for the weakened stomach whichfor a brief time at leaststilled the gnawing pangs of hunger." The drink of the aristocracy had become the necessary drug of the masses, and morning coffee replaced beer soup for breakfast.
Of Sugar, Coffee, and Slaves
By 1750 the coffee tree grew on five continents. For the lower class it provided a pick-me-up and moment of respite, although it replaced more nutritious fare. Otherwise its effects seemed relatively benign, if sometimes controversial. It aided considerably in the sobering of an alcohol-soaked Europe and provided a social and intellectual catalyst as well. As William Ukers wrote in the classic All About Coffee, "Wherever it has been introduced it has spelled revolution. It has been the world's most radical drink in that its function has always been to make people think. And when the people began to think, they became dangerous to tyrants."
Maybe. Yet increasingly, as the European powers brought coffee cultivation to their colonies, the intensive labor required to grow, harvest, and process coffee came from imported slaves. Captain de Clieu may have loved his coffee tree, but he did not personally harvest the millions of its progeny. Slaves from Africa did.
Slaves had initially been brought to the Caribbean to harvest sugarcane, and the history of sugar is intimately tied to that of coffee. It was this cheap sweetener that made the bitter boiled brew palatable to many consumers, and that added a quick energy lift to the stimulus of caffeine. Like coffee, sugar was popularized by the Arabs, and its popularity rose along with tea and coffee in the second half of the seventeenth century. Thus, when the French colonists first grew coffee in San Domingo (Haiti) in 1734, it was natural that they would require additional African slaves to work the plantations.
Incredibly, by 1788 San Domingo supplied half of the world's coffee. The coffee, therefore, that fueled Voltaire and Diderot was produced by the most inhuman form of coerced labor. In San Domingo the slaves lived in appalling conditions, housed in windowless huts, underfed, and overworked. "I do not know if coffee and sugar are essential to the happiness of Europe," wrote a French traveler of the late eighteenth century, "but I know well that these two products have accounted for the unhappiness of two great regions of the world: America [the Carribean] has been depopulated so as to have land on which to plant them; Africa has been depopulated so as to have the people to cultivate them." Years later a former slave recalled treatment under French masters: "Have they not hung men with heads downward, drowned them in sacks, crucified them on planks, buried them alive, crushed them in mortars? Have they not forced them to eat shit?"
It is little surprise, then, that the slaves revolted in 1791 in a struggle for freedom that lasted twelve years, the only major successful slave revolt in history. Most plantations were burned to the ground and the owners massacred. By 1801, when black Haitian leader Toussaint Louverture attempted to resuscitate coffee exports, harvests had declined 45 percent from 1789 levels. Louverture instituted the fermage system, which amounted to state slavery. Like medieval serfs, the workers were confined to the state-owned plantations and forced to work long hours for low wages. At least they were no longer routinely tortured, however, and they received some medical care. But when Napoleon sent troops in a vain attempt to regain Haiti from 1801 to 1803, the coffee trees were once again abandoned. Upon learning of his troops' final defeat in late 1803, Napoleon burst out: "Damn coffee! Damn colonies!" It would be many years before Haitian coffee once more affected the international market, and it never regained its dominance.
The Dutch jumped into the breach to supply the coffee shortfall with Java beans. Though they did not routinely rape or torture their laborers, they did enslave them. While the Javanese pruned trees or harvested coffee cherries in the sweltering tropical heat, "the white lords of the islands stirred only for a few hours every day," according to coffee historian Heinrich Eduard Jacob.
Little had changed by the early 1800s, when Dutch civil servant Eduard Douwes Dekker served in Java. He ultimately quit in protest to write the novel Max Havelaar, under the pen name Multatuli. Dekker wrote:
Strangers came from the West who made themselves lords of his [the native's] land, forcing him to grow coffee for pathetic wages. Famine? In rich, fertile, blessed Javafamine? Yes, reader. Only a few years ago, whole districts died of starvation. Mothers offered their children for sale to obtain food. Mothers ate their children.
Dekker excoriated the Dutch landowner who "made his field fertile with the sweat of the labourer whom he had called away from his own field of labour. He withheld the wage from the worker, and fed himself on the food of the poor. He grew rich from the poverty of others."
All too often, throughout the history of the coffee industry, these words have rung true. But small farmers and their families; such as Ethiopians tending their small coffee plots in the highlands, also make their living from coffee, and not, all coffee workers on estates have been oppressed. The fault lies not with the tree or the way coffee is grown, but with how those who labor to nurture and harvest it are treated.
Napoleon's System: Paving the Way for Modernity
In 1806, three years after going to war against Great Britain, Napoleon declared France serf-sufficient and enacted what he called the Continental System, hoping to punish the British by cutting off their European trade. "In former days, if we desired to be rich, we had to own colonies, to establish ourselves in India and the Antilles, in Central America, in San Domingo. These times are over and done with. Today we must become manufacturers." Tout cela, nous la faisons nous-memes! he proclaimed: "We shall make everything ourselves." The Continental System spawned many important industrial and agricultural innovations. Napoleon's researchers succeeded, for instance, in extracting sweetener from the European sugar beet to replace the need for cane sugar.
The Europeans could not, however, make coffee for themselves, and settled on chicory as a substitute. This blue-flowered European herb (a form of endive) had a long white root with a bitter juice. When roasted and ground, it produces a substance that looks somewhat like coffee. When brewed in hot water, it produces a bitter-tasting, dark drink that some might take as a coffee substitute, but without the aroma, flavor, body, or caffeine kick of coffee. Thus the French developed a taste for chicory during the Napoleonic era, and even after the Continental System ended in 1814 they continued to mix the herb root with their coffee. The Creole French of New Orleans soon adopted the same taste.
From 1814 to 1817, when Amsterdam once more resumed a central place in coffee trading, the price ranged from 16 cents to 20 cents a pound in U.S. moneyquite moderate compared to the $1.08 a pound it had been in 1812. Growing consumer demand throughout Europe and the United States, however, jacked the price back up to 30 cents or more for Java. As a result, coffee farmers planted new trees, and in areas such as Brazil entirely new coffee areas were carved from the rain forests.
A few years later in 1823, just when these new plantations were coming into production, another crisis loomed. War between France and Spain appeared imminent. Coffee importers throughout Europe rushed to buy. They assumed that the sea routes would shortly be closed again. The price of the green bean rose sharply. But there turned out to be no war, at least not immediately. "Instead of a war," wrote the historian Heinrich Jacob, "something else came. Coffee! Coffee from all directions!" Beans arrived from Mexico, Jamaica, the Antilles. For the first time, a major Brazilian harvest loomed. Prices plummeted. There were business failures in London, Paris, Frankfurt, Berlin, and St. Petersburg. Overnight, millionaires lost everything. Hundreds committed suicide.
The modern era had commenced. Henceforth coffee's price would swing wildly due to speculation, politics, weather, and the hazards of war. Coffee had become an international commodity that, during the latter part of the nineteenth century, would completely transform the economy, ecology, and politics of Latin America.
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