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Jonathan Yardley

By Jonathan Yardley
Sunday, July 10, 2005

COFFEE

A Dark History

By Antony Wild

Norton. 323 pp. $25.95

Antony Wild isn't kidding. The history of coffee is indeed as "dark," as his subtitle puts it, as the cup of Colombian that sits on my desk as these words are written. Himself a coffee lover and an expert on the subject -- he worked for more than a decade as the buyer for a prestigious British specialty-coffee company -- Wild is nonetheless no sentimentalist when it comes to the human and natural toll the bean has extracted -- "poverty, violence, exploitation, environmental devastation, political oppression, and corruption" -- nor to the threats that caffeine poses to the health of those who consume it. As he writes, with the wry touch that makes his book a pleasure:

"Nature has so ordered things that the highest levels of caffeine are to be found in the most important part of its plant, its seed. This is because caffeine is nothing more than a natural insecticide, and the high caffeine levels protect the seed from unwanted attention. Hapless insects who ingest too much find that their nervous systems go into overdrive. By the miracle of international trade, the same symptoms can be observed in office workers the world over."

However harmful caffeine may be -- a question on which the jury is still out, though Wild argues that "science produced by the coffee industry" glosses over and/or distorts its effects -- the buzz it produces has had a significant influence on human history. So Wild argues, and his case is persuasive. He is unable to trace coffee's beginnings to a precise point -- it is commonly understood to have originated in Ethiopia, and "it would appear that the Sufis were the first to adopt coffee drinking," in Yemen in the late 15th century -- but once he reaches the 16th century and the rise of coffeehouses in the Ottoman Empire, things start to fall into place.

The role of the coffeehouse, he argues, simply cannot be underestimated. In the Arab world it "was, other than the reviled tavern, the only place to meet friends outside the home, discuss politics and literature, play backgammon or chess and perhaps gamble," and thus it became "an integral part of the imperial system, providing a forum for the coming together and dissemination of news and ideas." When coffee arrived in Europe in the next century, the same development occurred. People who "had been accustomed to swilling considerable quantities of weak beer throughout the day," and were thus inclined to be phlegmatic and woozy, now were energized by caffeine, setting off "a revolution in . . . political, economic, and cultural life." Wild writes:

"It is almost impossible to distinguish the cultural effects of the coffee house from the physical effects of the coffee served in it. The environment of the 'Penny University' undoubtedly encouraged a degree of association between men who might otherwise never have met, but would they have formed societies without the intellectually stimulating nature of the beverage? It has been argued that, until the arrival of coffee, the population of Europe had existed in a constant state of mild intoxication, since the quality of water was such that many people drank the weak beers of the time morning, noon, and night. By switching to coffee, they were not only reducing the muddle-headedness resulting from alcohol consumption, but also ingesting a powerful new drug. Indeed, it could be said that the introduction of coffee to England led to a . . . 'brain explosion.' "

The list of British institutions that had their origins in coffeehouses is indeed impressive. It includes Lloyds of London, the Stock Exchange, the East India Company and the Royal Society, "which was to become the most illustrious scientific institution of the age." This was "the key contribution of coffee house culture to Britain," with remarkable ramifications: "That these societies consolidated into institutions that were no longer based in coffee houses reflects their evolutionary success and the adaptability of the coffee house culture, which could inspire the creation of august commercial institutions . . . , a magazine such as the Spectator , the first use of the ballot box, the Royal Society, Freemasonry, and the police force."

This creature whom Wild calls "Coffee House Man: energetic, self-motivated, political, practical, reformist, well-connected, cultured, and philanthropic," changed much more than England. Revolutions in the American colonies and then in France traced much of their origins to coffeehouse palavering; indeed, wherever coffee was and is drunk its influence has been nothing short of spectacular. Caffeine -- whether in coffee or tea or in the "so-called 'energy' [soft] drinks which were heavily caffeinated" -- is the fuel that drives the world, as one need look no farther than the nearest coffee line at an office cafeteria to see.

Like so much else in human life, in other words, coffee giveth and coffee taketh away. Its sensory pleasures are undeniable (though not easily found in a world where most coffee is mediocre or worse), and its energizing powers are formidable. So, too, is its place in the international economy. The World Bank "estimates that a staggering 500 million people globally are involved directly or indirectly in the coffee trade," only a tiny number of whom are getting wealthy in the process. Mostly coffee is grown, harvested and processed by subsistence laborers and farmers, producing coffee "at the lowest possible cost for markets in the developed world." Wild, who views this "colonialism" with what can only be called anger, minces few words:

"Instead of living by the old maxim that 'Trade follows the flag,' powerful corporations have realized that it is easier to dispense with the burdensome responsibilities of actual colonization, and use modern transnational organizations such as the [World Trade Organization], the World Bank and the [International Monetary Fund] to impose their will from the boardrooms of Manhattan, Paris, and Berlin. For the impoverished farmer whose national politics bend to the needs of these transnational institutions and the corporations they serve, the notion of democracy is a spurious validation of the yoke under which they are forced to work."

No matter where one looks, the coffee picture is not pretty. When it was introduced to the Western Hemisphere in the 18th century, the common feature in all the countries where it flourished -- Jamaica, Cuba, Guatemala, Peru, Costa Rica, Venezuela, Mexico -- was "that they had large existing slave populations that enabled coffee growing to be established with startling rapidity." The huge plantations of Brazil were "founded on the continuation of slavery long after it had been banned in Europe." In 1880, one member of Parliament said, "Brazil is coffee, and coffee is the negro." Eight years later, Brazil finally banned slavery, but the conditions under which the ostensibly freed laborers worked barely changed.

Coffee is now huge in Vietnam, "the second largest producer of coffee worldwide" after Brazil, which is -- at least for the moment -- good for Vietnam, but according to Wild its "massive increase [in production] has been blamed for the global collapse of coffee prices." There are also "unsubstantiated but persistent rumours concerning possible dioxin contamination of the coffee crop, a legacy of the widespread spraying of Agent Orange by the Americans during the Vietnam War. Vietnam is the country where coffee's dark history has come home to roost with a vengeance."

Et cetera. Like sugar (see Sidney Mintz's Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History ), cotton and many other agricultural products that are grown to serve the global market, coffee has a long history of exploitation and abuse of resources both human and natural. The indignation with which Antony Wild tells its story is well founded, and so too is the sorrow: "Coffee used to be a business in which, despite its manifest drawbacks, a man could think himself honourably employed. In common with many other businessmen, the coffee man as often as not now finds himself effectively a receiver of stolen goods and an enslaver of the Third World. The more conscientious may scratch their heads and wonder how on earth this came about. Most keep their conscience prisoner." ยท

Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is yardleyj@washpost.com.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company