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A dark, rich history of coffee (with a bitter aftertaste): the bean that has taken over the world

HISTORY

Coffeeland: A History

By Augustine Sedgewick (Allen Lane £ 25,448 pp)

Have you ever scanned the blizzard on offer at your nearest Costa and thought, ‘I just want a cup of coffee’? If so, then this book – over 350 pages with a dense political history of the erogenous little bean – may not be for you.

But on closer inspection, perhaps we should know the extraordinary story behind our morning present. Where would we be without coffee, the miracle cure of the world?

The great French writer Honore de Balzac was a manic consumer. He worked continuously through the night, continuing with a continuous stream of strong black coffee, often up to 50 cups. He died at the age of 51, unsurprisingly from caffeine poisoning.

Where would we be without coffee, the miracle cure of the world? And without it, the best sitcoms on TV would be lost

Where would we be without coffee, the miracle cure of the world? And without it, the best sitcoms on TV would be lost

And without it, the best sitcoms on TV would be lost. Curb Your Enthusiasm’s Larry David, of course, opened his own coffee shop called Latte Larry’s; Friends’ cappuccino-veiled twenties lived on the stuff on the bench in Central Perk (Phoebe drank the most, if you’re interested, which might explain her general irritability). As for Frasier and all the cranes, they were regulars at Cafe Nervosa and ordered pretentious macchiatos.

But the theme of Augustine Sedgewick’s hugely detailed book is considerably darker than all that. Sedgewick, a left-wing historian from New York, wants to portray the coffee industry as a metaphor for global exploitation. Coffee, he writes, “is one of the most important commodities in the history of global inequality.”

Relief! But is that so?

Certainly the story of this book, which since 1889 has largely focused on one plantation owner in El Salvador and his family, has a great deal of exploitation and cruelty. But it doesn’t mean that globalization is the universal evil that Sedgewick implies. We enjoy our morning coffee; Brazilian coffee farmers grow it because they want to build a decent life for their family.

For Frasier and all the cranes (photo), they were regulars at Cafe Nervosa and ordered pretentious macchiatos

For Frasier and all the cranes (photo), they were regulars at Cafe Nervosa and ordered pretentious macchiatos

For Frasier and all the cranes (photo), they were regulars at Cafe Nervosa and ordered pretentious macchiatos

Every year, billions of cups of coffee are consumed worldwide, bringing exports to billions of pounds. The word itself is one of the most widely used in the world. In the American Civil War, soldiers’ diaries referred to coffee much more often than bullets or rifles.

Coffee originally came from Ethiopia, then took root in Yemen and was exported to the world from the port of Mokka. Of course. The first registered coffee shop was in Constantinople in 1554.

It started in the middle of the next century in Europe, where the medicinal properties – giving the drinker a huge boost – were quickly appreciated. By the 1960s, hundreds of coffeehouses grew up all over London, places where men could escape their wives and put the world to the test – and injustice.

But it was more than two centuries later that coffee spread around the world – and it was an Englishman behind it. James Hill was born in a Manchester textile family in 1871 and grew up in the teeming heart of the industrial revolution.

By the time he was 18, he was on a boat to Central America and made his way to the small country of El Salvador, arriving in 1889.

The coffee industry started to take root and Hill, by marrying a local girl, inherited some plantations. El Salvador was a stable farming community, with its rich soil perfect for growing guavas, papayas, avocados, mangoes, tomatoes and much more.

But if Hill wanted to run his coffee plantations at full speed, he had to make sure the local Indians needed work. Which meant they had to make sure they couldn’t eat for free. Which in turn meant taking over common land and removing all fertile trees and shrubs.

Friends' cappuccino-veiled twenties lived on the stuff on the couch in Central Perk (Phoebe drank the most, if you're interested, which could explain her general irritability) (far right)

Friends' cappuccino-veiled twenties lived on the stuff on the couch in Central Perk (Phoebe drank the most, if you're interested, which could explain her general irritability) (far right)

Friends’ cappuccino-veiled twenties lived on the stuff on the couch in Central Perk (Phoebe drank the most, if you’re interested, which could explain her general irritability) (far right)

Hill employees had to show up at 6:30 AM at 6:00 AM. He knew that because they were hungry, they would work to eat, so a breakfast of tortillas and beans with coffee was delivered as part of the reward.

Certainly brutal capitalism and effective in the short term. Within decades, Hill had built up a huge coffee empire. He had also made a colossal fortune.

The work was grueling and the conditions of the workers were appalling. In 1932, the inevitable explosion came: several thousand Indian farmers rose up, equipped with only machetes, and were quickly shot by the National Guard armed with machine guns. The death toll can reach 50,000. Forget the coffee house, this was a charnel house.

In the decades that followed, there was a period of growing instability in Central America. Tens of thousands died in the Salvadoran Civil War of the 1970s and 1980s, and in 1979 Hill’s grandson Jaime Hill was kidnapped by guerrilla fighters.

He was released after a $ 4 million ransom was paid. Now there is relative peace and Salvadoran coffee is a high-end product.

Every year, billions of cups of coffee are consumed worldwide, bringing exports to billions of pounds. In the photo: Marilyn Monroe

Every year, billions of cups of coffee are consumed worldwide, bringing exports to billions of pounds. In the photo: Marilyn Monroe

Every year, billions of cups of coffee are consumed worldwide, bringing exports to billions of pounds. In the photo: Marilyn Monroe

It’s a rich and complex story, and the book is full of glances at the history of time, including the movement that legalized your morning coffee break, which has been enshrined in U.S. law since the mid-1950s after a tough legal struggle.

Coffeeland: A History By Augustine Sedgewick (Allen Lane £ 25,448 pp)

Coffeeland: A History By Augustine Sedgewick (Allen Lane £ 25,448 pp)

Coffeeland: A History By Augustine Sedgewick (Allen Lane £ 25,448 pp)

Phil Greinetz owned a weaving mill in Denver, where he employed young men to work his looms in a very tough job.

When the men went to war, Greinetz hired some middle-aged women who were quickly exhausted by the “primitive” looms. Finally, broken by fatigue, they suggested a few 15-minute breaks twice a day. With coffee.

Greinetz agreed and quickly noticed a rapid improvement in his workers, but he deducted 30 minutes a day from their salary.

In subsequent legal actions, Greinetz argued that it was free time and that he shouldn’t pay for it. Ultimately, the court said that was nonsense: coffee breaks were counted as working time and should be considered as such. That was good news for all of us.

This is clearly a stunningly well-researched piece of work. You suspect that life started as a dissertation: the bibliography alone is almost twenty printed pages.

I would have liked to see some illustrations: the story is filled with lively characters and scenes, but you want to see them. It’s a serious book and not an airport read at all – but then we don’t go to airports anytime soon.

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