Coffeeland: A History

Augustine Sedgewick

Allen Lane, £25

Review by Barry Didcock

In 1905, 30-year-old American William H Ukers started work on a book about coffee. He spent a year travelling and researching then returned to his native New York where he researched some more, in public libraries, private collections and museums.

Through correspondence with representatives in Europe he mined as many archives and sources of information as possible, particularly those in London and Amsterdam. That process took seven years. Ukers then spent six further years organising the material he had gathered, and four years writing up his findings. In the spring of 1922 Ukers tracked down “his last fugitive fact”, as American historian Augustine Sedgewick puts it, and his book finally went to the printers. It was titled - as well it might be - All About Coffee. By now, William H Ukers was 47.

That labour of love isn’t unique in the history of coffee, a natural resource which has few equals in terms of the passions it inspires and the questions it asks of producers and consumers. Is it a drink or a foodstuff? It offers virtually no calorific benefit yet has long been connected with industriousness and energy.

There’s more: why is coffee utterly ubiquitous and yet also venerated as if it were some rare, magical element? Why does it course through the world’s central nervous system untroubled by threats of legal censure despite being an acknowledged drug with addictive qualities? Why is it traded as a commodity like gold or oil? Why does the poor south produce it and the rich north consume it and what does that inequality tell us? When your boss allows you a coffee break, who really benefits?

More fundamentally, is coffee good for our bodies and spirits – or is it a hazard, both physical and moral?

All those questions feature in Coffeeland, as do many of the individuals, organisations, corporations and societies which have stood on either side of the various debates during the half millennia in which coffee has been consumed.

But Sedgewick’s focus is on coffee in America and he tells that story primarily through the prism of one coffee-producing family in El Salvador: the Hills, descendants of Englishman James Hills, who was born in the poor, crowded Manchester mill district of Ancoats in 1871 and who, in 1889 aged just 18, sailed from Southampton to El Salvador hoping to find work as a textiles salesman.

Instead, he founded a dynasty and became an integral part of a project which would turn the volcanic soil of his adopted country into one of the richest coffee-producing regions on the planet – but at no little cost to the indigenous peoples, the nascent country’s wider economic and societal prospects, the labourers who worked from dawn until dusk picking the beans and even the land itself. Fields which had produced food for generations were burned, cleared and given over to coffee plantations. Hill himself would scour his territories looking for stray avocado trees which had escaped (or been deliberately overlooked by hungry workers) and order them chopped down.

Sedgewick’s focus on the economics of coffee and on America’s place in its development and history is understandable. After all, he teaches History and American Studies at a university in New York and specialises in the interconnections between work, food and capitalism.

But his focus is also more valid than it may at first appear to Europeans, who view modern Italy as the epicentre of coffee culture, or those in countries where coffee-drinking is still associated with the even more ancient Arab or Ottoman cultures. The proliferation of coffee production in Central America meant it was a fairly easy jaunt up the Pacific west coast of America to San Francisco, which is why the city became an early centre for the roasting of coffee and for innovations such as canning, which kept the coffee fresh.

Plus coffee is very much the American drink, a staple of everything from cowboy films to the diner culture of small-town America that David Lynch celebrated/eviscerated in Twin Peaks (“This is a damn fine cup of coffee” is one of the show’s oft-quoted lines). We Brits drink tea, but the American rejection of that beverage in favour of coffee is even enshrined in one of the country’s most celebrated founding stories, the Boston Tea Party. America is Coffeeland, and Coffeeland is America.

For the start of the story, however, Sedgewick has to turn to the east – first to Ethiopia, where the plant Coffee Arabica was a native species and from where Arabs across the Red Sea in Yemen began to monopolise trade and develop cultivated production in the 16th century.

Then to Constantinople, where in 1554 two Syrians called Schems and Hakim opened a coffee shop. If history records its name Sedgewick doesn’t give it, but it was decked out with couches and carpets and was a meeting place for students, people looking for work, intellectuals and chess players. Plus ça change.

As the decades rolled on and coffee became more and more popular in Constantinople, then one of the greatest cities on earth, Ottoman rulers began opening coffee houses in the places they conquered, seeing them as a mark of civilisation. Not that everyone was convinced. In 1511, authorities in Mecca became suspicious of the effects of coffee and burned all supplies they could find, and in 1587 a pamphlet was published trying to determine whether coffee drinking was consistent with the Muslim faith. The jury remained out for some time.

European travellers inevitably began to take notice. Some fell under coffee’s spell, others didn’t. A German called Leonhard Rauwolf travelled to Aleppo in 1573 and noticed a group of men drinking something “black as Ink … as hot as they can, they put it often to their Lips but drink little at a time”.

Two decades later Dutch physician Bernard ten Broeke recalled his travels among Turks in the Eastern Mediterranean and described how the coffee “fruite” was roasted in the fire then boiled up in water. This drink the Turks then drank hot every morning out of an earthen pot, “and they say it strengtheneth and maketh them warme, breaktheth wind, and openeth any stopping”.

William Biddulph, an Englishman, tried the drink in Aleppo and in 1609 wrote that it was made of “a kind of Pulse like Pease, called Coava”. Some blamed coffee drinking for ailments including impotence but others hailed the medicinal properties of what came to be known as the Turkish berry. In 1650 the first coffee house opened in London and it was being drunk even as the English Civil War raged.

History aside, Sedgewick’s book picks up many other fascinating threads. He’s particularly strong on the economics of coffee and its role in the workplace, as well as the finer points of agronomics and horticulture. Even as he zeroes in on the Hill family in El Salvador, he throws his net widely across people and places (both Goethe and Martin Luther King Jr. feature) and some of the subjects he tackles in passing are well worth studying in their own right, such as the use of slavery in Brazilian coffee production or the arguments that raged in the 1950s over whether a coffee break was legally part of the working day.

The courts ruled that it was because the taking of coffee increased productivity and that, ultimately, was of benefit to the employer. Chew on that as you sip your mid-morning latte.


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