A History of Coffee since the Middle Ages

Image via Internet Archive

Coffee provides a lens through which to view many of the most important world-historical processes of the last several centuries.


Coffee is a large plant that grows in tropical regions between twenty degrees north and south of the equator. Wild coffee can grow up to twenty feet high. It produces red fruit that resemble cherries; the coffee bean is actually the seed of the coffee plant, contained within the fruit. Coffee is prepared by roasting the beans (which are green when harvested), a process which brings about a complex chemical reaction within the bean, producing natural oils. Coffee beans must be dried and, preferably, sealed in order to prevent spoilage during transportation.

There are two major varieties of coffee cultivated by humans: Coffea Arabica and Coffea Canephora. The former is normally referred to simply as “Arabica” and the latter as “Robusta.” Arabica is by far the older of the two varieties to be cultivated by humans, originally harvested from wild coffee bushes in Ethiopia in the 1400s. It is also universally regarded as the more flavorful and enjoyable of the two. Robusta was discovered growing wild in Uganda in 1862 but was initially regarded as “useless” by coffee merchants because it produces a harsh, low-quality beverage. Arabica, however, is both more vulnerable to disease and can only be grown at certain altitudes, while Robusta is disease-resistant and has a much wider range of cultivation. Today, premium coffees are blends of Arabicas, while instant coffees are usually a blend of Arabicas and Robustas (pure Robustas are so bitter as to be almost nonexistent on the market.)

Coffee production stretches from Latin America to Africa to Vietnam. On the global coffee market as a whole, only about 13% of total coffee revenue goes to producing nations; the rest goes to the coffee corporations and concerns that run the trade from the United States and Europe.[1]

Coffee has emerged from obscure origins in eastern Africa to become a major globally-traded commodity. During the six centuries historians are able to trace of its history, coffee has always been an object of commerce. From a relatively closed circuit of distribution in the Red Sea area, it spread across the Islamic world in the sixteenth century. From there, it spread to Europe in the seventeenth century and became a truly global entity when Europeans started coffee cultivation in their colonies in Latin America, Africa, and Asia. As the world underwent the “modern revolution” in the nineteenth century, coffee both fueled the workday of the emerging industrial working classes in western Europe and tied slaves and wage laborers to the land in tropical regions throughout the world. In the twentieth century, coffee continued to be exported from relatively poor nations to relatively rich ones, usually to the benefit of the latter, a tendency that culminated in the newly deregulated markets of the post-1989 global economy.

Thus, coffee provides a lens through which to view many of the most important world-historical processes of the last several centuries. Coffee was a point of contact between the Middle East and Europe in the early modern period, being traded by European and Muslim merchants alike in the Indian Ocean trade. After Europeans had secured their own coffee crops, coffee was part of both the slave system and colonialism, being cultivated in far-flung colonies from Indonesia to Mexico. Coffee almost literally fueled the human side of industrialization in Europe, helping to break the ties of sleep and wakefullness to natural cycles and substituting clock time, the working day, and caffeination. Finally, coffee was at the center of Cold War and post-Cold War policies of global capital, which first sought to regulate prices in order to prevent social unrest in producing nations, then abandoned them to the mercies of the free market when the collapse of communism obviated the necessity of insuring the welfare of the third world.

Devotees gather for the Sufi ritual of dhikr in downtown Istanbul. / Photo by Christopher Manoharan, Creative Commons

There is scant documentary evidence of coffee use before the early 1500s, but historians have found that there was a small-scale trade in coffee between Ethiopia and Yemen starting in the middle of the fifteenth century. Apparently, coffee was harvested from wild bushes in Ethiopia and transported across the Red Sea. The first documented use of coffee was among Sufi religious societies in the late fifteenth century. There, coffee was used as a devotional aid in Sufi dhikr ceremonies, in which Sufi devotees would meet a night and perform rituals meant to elevate their consciousness toward the divine.[1] In these ceremonies, coffee was regarded as a useful aid to worship since it allowed the devotee to perform the rituals well into the night.

Coffee seems to have spread rapidly in the Near East; it was established in the Muslim holy city of Mecca by 1511. By the time the Ottoman Turks conquered Egypt from the Mamelukes in 1517, coffee-drinking was already widespread in Cairo. It spread equally quickly across the Ottoman Empire after the Egyptian conquest; the court physician to Suleiman the Magnificient approved its use for medicinal purposes in 1522.[2] Within a few decades, coffee was enjoyed across the entire Islamic world, from North Africa to the Mughal Empire in India. From being a ceremonial drink of Sufi mystics, in the course of about a century coffee became a part of the social fabric of the Muslim nations.

For the first few decades of the sixteenth century, the vast majority of coffee cultivation was still carried out in Ethiopia. In 1544, however, the Imam of Yemen insisted that coffee be cultivated in place of qat, a mildly intoxicating herb that was grown locally, and from then on the majority of middle eastern coffee cultivation took place in the highlands of Yemen.[3] There, perched atop rocky mountain ridges, farmers built dwellings literally stacked on top of one another to maximize the space available for growing coffee. They dug deep terraces into the mountains and for the next century or so produced most of the world’s coffee. Likewise, at this time the Yemeni port of Mocha came to have a monopoly on coffee distribution to the Islamic world; coffee was transported by pack animals down from the mountains, purchased by merchants in Mocha, and distributed from there throughout the Ottoman Empire, Persia, and to the Muslim kingdoms in Africa and India accessible via the Indian Ocean trade. Until the middle of the seventeenth century, coffee was cultivated, traded, and consumed almost exclusively in the Islamic world; it would not arrive in Europe for another century.

The spread of coffee to the rest of the world took place in the seventeenth century. To maintain their monopoly on its control, coffee merchants in Mocha prohibited the distribution of live seeds or seedlings of the coffee plant. This technique worked to restrict coffee production to Yemen (and to restrict coffee distribution to Mocha) until late in the seventeenth century. This is not to say, however, that other people were unaware of coffee’s existence. The British East India company was founded in 1600 to facilitate trade in luxury goods from Asia, particularly spices. By 1620 the British were trading in coffee.[4] It did not, however, spread to Europe initially; the British joined Muslim traders in buying coffee at Mocha and selling it elsewhere in the Islamic world. Coffee was thus one of the commodities the British sold to the Mughal empire in India (of course, starting from these trading contacts, the British would eventually come to dominate the Indian sub-continent.)

Coffee was, however, eventually transported back to Europe, and it spread as rapidly there as it had a century earlier in the Middle East. The first British coffee house was opened in Oxford in 1651 and it enjoyed immediate success, particularly among university faculty and students.[5] Soon, coffee houses spread across continental Europe as well, although until the end of the century all coffee had to be imported from the Middle East. The first coffee shop established in Paris was next to the famous Comédie Français in 1689, and the first in Germany appeared in 1670.[6] Coffee thus joined with commodities like spices and tea in the long-range trade in luxuries from Asia to Europe.

The Yemeni monopoly on coffee production broke down at the end of the seventeenth century. Coffee cultivation’s spread to Europe is often tied to the last Ottoman siege of Vienna in 1683; as they retreated, the Ottomans supposedly left behind large stores of coffee, both in the form of coffee beans and as raw seeds and seedlings. Whether or not the story is true (it seems just as likely that smugglers had made off with seedlings earlier than 1683), coffee cultivation did spread to Europe (or, more precisely, to European colonies) at the end of the seventeenth century. The Dutch VOC, their equivalent of the East India Company, established a coffee plantation on the Indonesian island of Java in 1699 and other European powers soon followed: the British brought it to their possessions in the Carribean and the French to theirs in the early eighteenth century: Jamaica in 1730, Cuba in 1748, and Mexico in 1790.[7] Coffee was not as important as sugar to the European powers in the eighteenth century, but European colonial coffee production skyrocketed nevertheless. By 1788, for instance, French colonies, especially St. Dominique (soon to become the independent nation of Haiti), produced fully two-thirds of the world’s coffee.[8]

(As an aside, it is interesting to note that as coffee production became globalized, coffees were sold according to their port of origin. Thus, “Mocha” and “Java” were specific varieties of coffee sold from the ports that bore their name, a nominal legacy that has remained with coffee ever since in the form of nicknames. It was not until the nineteenth century that coffee merchants began to consolidate a grading and naming scheme distinct from the port-of-origin technique.)

The labor systems in coffee-growing regions varied considerably. In the old coffee country of Yemen, farmers continued to grow coffee on their own plots in the highlands and merchants continued to purchase it directly from them. In the Portugese colony of Brazil and in the various colonies of the Carribean, coffee was grown on large plantations almost exclusively with slave labor. While Latin American production was relatively small until the nineteenth century, its labor systems were already regionally divided: where Brazil employed slave-labor, Guatamela and Mexico relied on both small farmers and on wage laborers working the plantations of large estates. Finally, on the Dutch-controlled Indonesian island of Java, coffee was extorted from Javanese peasants as a tax in kind (i.e. peasants were required to grow coffee and submit it as a form of taxation, rather than being required to pay in currency.)[9]

Under the European powers of the eighteenth century, coffee was intimately embedded in colonialism and slavery. The eighteenth century was the height of the slave trade between Africa and the New World, and slaves were forced to cultivate coffee on plantations throughout the Caribbean and parts of Latin America alongside other cash crops like sugar. However, while coffee cultivation spread rapidly in the late eighteenth century, supplying coffee-drinkers in Europe and the United States, it still remained something of a luxury item. Coffee prices were not yet low enough for it to be consumed regularly with meals, and most coffee consumption still took place in public coffee houses and taverns and was associated with a degree of upper-class (or at least bourgeois) respectability. Much was at stake in the future diet of the world in the last few decades of the eighteenth century, as the British gravitated toward tea over coffee, the United States rejected tea in obstinance to British tastes, and the foundations were laid for coffee to become an item of mass consumption, rather than the centerpiece of a respectable social ritual.

It was in the nineteenth century that coffee underwent a fundamental shift, fueling the new industrial economies of the west and becoming the centerpiece of the agricultural economies of various emerging nations in Latin America and certain areas in Asia and Africa. Nevertheless, the fundamental pattern of coffee production and consumption that has survived to the present was established by the late eighteenth century: tropical regions produced coffee and exported it to the wealthy nations of Europe and North America, largely for the economic benefit of the latter. Likewise, from being produced in the formal colonies of imperial powers, coffee came to be grown as a cash crop by nominally independent nations, albeit ones who were frequently dominated politically and economically by their neighbors to the north.

Coffee And Societies, 1400-1800

Storyteller (meddah) at a coffeehouse in the Ottoman Empire. The first coffeehouses appeared in the Islamic world in the 15th century. / Image via Wikimedia Commons

One of the most interesting elements of coffee’s history is the impact that coffee-based socializing had on various societies. This is a factor that is easy to overlook when considering only the large-scale commercial exchange of coffee. After all, demand for coffee sprung up in the Ottoman Empire almost immediately after it was introduced in the early sixteenth century. About 150 years later, demand for coffee exploded in Europe as well, shortly after it was introduced in the manner described above. The question is thus why was coffee in demand, and what impact did coffee consumption have on the societies in which it was consumed?

One answer has to do with the social settings in which coffee was served. From the beginning, in both the Middle East and Europe, coffee was a social drink. The coffee house quickly became a social gathering place outside of the immediate purview of state or religious authorities. People, largely men, gathered in coffee houses to read and to discuss news, religion, politics, and just to chat. Coffee was cooked in large vats, pots, or cauldrons and was distributed to the patrons while they talked and read. None of this seems exceptional today, but at the time there were potentially revolutionary implications for the social context of the coffee house.

In both the Middle East and in Europe, there were relatively few places for people to meet socially outside of the workplace and the place of worship. In the Ottoman Empire, for instance, in which alcohol was banned due to the strictures of Islam, the coffee house rapidly became a socially-acceptable place for men to meet and talk outside of the mosque.[10] Not only were coffee houses new in that they provided an acceptable social gathering spot, but there is considerable evidence that members of different social classes and backgrounds gathered in coffee shops and conversed with one another (although it also seems clear that coffee-drinking was a Muslim pastime; the Christian and Jewish subjects of the Ottomans were expected to socialize among themselves elsewhere.)[11]

The Ottoman authorities were quick to diagnose the potential problems this introduced: without the guiding hand of state or religious authorities present, after all, coffee houses might serve as hotbeds of sedition. Almost immediately, the Ottoman Empire introduced a series of measures meant to counteract the dangers of the coffee house. In 1544 the first of many bans was issued on coffee houses.[12] More followed over the years; the most serious was issued by Sultan Murat IV in 1623, who ordered the coffee houses of Istanbul torn down completely. They remained closed for the time of his reign (1623 – 1640) but were reopened afterward.[13] In every case, even when the penalty for coffee consumption was execution by drowning, coffee consumption continued and the bans had to be rescinded.[14] Meanwhile, in neighboring Persia, Shah Abbas dispatched official orators to the coffee houses of the major cities to lecture on religion and history (naturally, the lessons were designed to inculcate loyalty to the regime.)[15]

In the Islamic world, one of the most important debates was whether or not coffee was an intoxicant, and should thus be forbidden according to Islamic law. As early as 1511 in the holy city of Mecca, religious scholars (ulema) issued an anti-coffee polemic, since coffee was being consumed for pleasure rather than as an aid to religious devotion as it had been earlier by the Yemeni Sufi orders.[16] Likewise, in 1535 in Cairo, following a series of anti-coffee sermons by a religious leader, anti-coffee rioters attacked coffee houses, and were promptly engaged in street combat by pro-coffee mobs. The authorities had to restore order and a legal decision was rendered confirming the legality of coffee.[17] In the end, the bans and conflicts were never successful because religious leaders themselves were divided on the issue: coffee was thought by many to be harmless, if not actually beneficial to both health and religious piety. With a lack of consensus among religious leaders, the coffee shops stayed open.

In Europe and, later, the United States, coffee had a huge social impact. As it had in the Ottoman Empire, the coffee house quickly became a social gathering spot. London coffee houses were called “penny universities” because admittance cost a penny and the houses were packed with people discussing the latest news and the latest ideas. As in Ottoman coffee houses, in Europe coffee was served to patrons communally and discussion and education were the major purposes of being there. The impact of this cannot be overstated; from coffee houses many of the major social and political movements and institutions that were to shape European history emerged; Lloyd’s of London, The London Stock Exchange, and the East India Company were started in coffee houses as the result of discussions between patrons.[18] The Declaration of Independence was first read in front of The Bunch of Grapes, a Boston coffee house, and many of the revolutionary leaders met regularly at the Green Dragon, a coffee house / tavern.[19] In short, coffee houses were the intellectual and political centers of their day outside of the courts, palaces, and other official organs of political life.

The German philosopher Jurgen Habermas has argued that coffee shops were both an important site and a constitutent element of what he calls the emergence of the “public sphere.”[20] Habermas claimed that the eighteenth century saw the beginning of a public discourse about politics, society, and the proper role of both citizens and government, all topics which had been the more-or-less exclusive domain of elites in the past. Just as it had provided a social setting for discussion in the Islamic World, coffee shops in Europe were some of the most fertile locales for the discussion of new political and social ideas. The well-known aristocratic salon had its bourgeois counterpart in the coffee shop, where discussions were fueled as much by caffeine as by the excitement of discussing new ideas. This aspect of coffee and the coffee shop as social center-point faded in the nineteenth century, to be replaced by coffee as the fuel of industry and casual conversation, but both of these roles can be explained in part by coffee’s identity as the carrier of a powerful drug: caffeine.


In 1819, the German chemist Friedlieb Ferdinand Runge isolated relatively pure caffeine for the first time; he called it “Kaffebase” (i.e., a base that exists in coffee). / Image via Wikimedia Commons

One fascinating aspect of the coffee story to consider in this context is the role of caffeine in shaping world history. As mentioned above, a major debate quickly emerged in the Ottoman Empire as to whether coffee was “intoxicating,” and thus expressly forbidden by the Quran. The initial decision was that it was not intoxicating, and thus coffee consumption, and coffee houses, were acceptable under Ottoman rule. As noted above, however, the Ottoman regime vacillated in its attitudes toward coffee and coffee shops over the years, and religious leaders sometimes argued that coffee was unhealthy and that it led to the spread of vice and should be banned as a result.

In Europe and the United States, it was a different story. Europeans had long consumed alcohol as their major source of liquid refreshment: water was often unsafe to drink, and as a result the daily drink of everyone (children, women, and men) was beer and wine, albeit with a lower alcohol content than their present-day equivalents. Some historians have noted that most Europeans were always at least slightly intoxicated as a result.[21] Coffee (and, of course, tea) changed the drinking habits of Europeans not only by providing an alternative to alcohol, but by providing an alternative with a dramatically different drug-effect.

Where alcohol is a depressant, lending itself to sociability but not to coherence, caffeine is a stimulant, a fact that contemporary coffee-drinkers were quick to realize. The enthusiasm for coffee in the Islamic World was due, at least at first, to its ability to sustain religious devotion. Likewise, Pope Clement VIII supposedly blessed coffee for its invigorating effects, just as literary coffee-drinkers praised its ability to heighten their focus and provide energy. In the midst of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, caffeine helped contribute to the intellectual ferment of the age (and justified the fears of authorities that coffee houses were potential hotbeds for pernicious political agitation.) Numerous writers and thinkers at the time were not only coffee-house aficionados, but caffeine-addicts; many took advantage of coffee and tea to stay up well into the night. Simultaneously, Europeans began to consume sugar in ever-increasing amounts. Thus, the diet of Europeans of all classes came to include powerful stimulants and easily-digestible simple sugars, which provided short-term energy boosts.[22]

There was still another side to the advent of coffee and other caffeinated drinks. As the industrial revolution began to stir in the second half of the eighteenth century, caffeinated drinks helped the new industrial working class adjust to the demands of a work-day that no longer conformed to natural cycles: instead of rising with the sun, working during the day, then going to sleep as night fell, increasing numbers of people were obliged to follow “clock time” instead. The same writers who praised coffee and tea for enabling them to focus their thoughts and write for longer hours also suffered from horrendous sleep-deprivation. Some historians have even argued that insomnia began with caffeinated beverages: freed from natural cycles and under the influence of a powerful stimulant, eighteenth-century Europeans began to have a profoundly different relationship to sleep than any before them.[23]

Concluding 1400-1800

Coffee from 1400 to 1800 was at the center of two major movements of world history: the growth of global commerce and the beginnings of the modern revolution. From an obscure stimulant traded in the Red Sea region, it came to be grown, transported, and consumed from Brazil to Java. European colonialism brought coffee to tropical regions and Africans enslaved by Europeans grew it, often on the same plantations on which they grew sugar. Elsewhere, independent farmers continued to grow coffee for their own subsistence (and/or profit.) Everywhere that coffee was consumed – largely in the Islamic World, in Europe, and in North America – it fueled social ferment by creating social spaces that lent themselves to relatively open conversation. It also, along with tea, introduced a powerful stimulant into the regular diets of millions of people around the world, playing a part in the break from natural cycles to the systemization of time that was concomitant with modernity.

Coffee from 1800 to the Present

“Discussing the War in a Paris Café”, The Illustrated London News, 17 September 1870. / Image via Wikimedia Commons

While coffee was widely cultivated, traded, and consumed by the end of the eighteenth century, the nineteenth century saw the true coffee boom, as prices dropped and coffee became a staple part of the diet of much of the world. Modern transportation insured that ever-larger quantities of coffee could be transported from producing regions, particularly Latin America, to consuming regions in the north. Simultaneously, earlier forms of forced labor (particularly slavery) eventually gave way to wage labor, although the latter was not always significantly less onerous than the former. Likewise, the twentieth century saw attempts to regulate the international coffee market to protect the livelihoods of producers eventually collapse, leading to a flood of cheap coffee and an overwhelming imbalance of profits between the financial and commercial nations of the north and the producing nations of the tropics.

In 1804, Napoleon Bonaparte crowned himself Emperor of France. He promptly set out to conquer Europe, for a few years controlling much of the (sub-)continent. Napoleonic France’s greatest enemy was Britain, which dominated the seas after its conclusive naval victory at Trafalgar in 1805. Napoleon’s response was to create the “continental system,” in which the areas under French control were to strive for self-sufficiency, hoping to bankrupt Britain’s overseas trading empire and providing for the needs of continental Europe in the meantime. The Napoleonic system had two long-term effects on coffee: since the amount of coffee reaching Europe dropped dramatically under the continental system, various substitutes were tried (the most successful of which was the chicory root, which makes a vaguely coffee-like beverage when boiled, if one ignores the fact that it tastes nothing like coffee and has no caffeine.) This somewhat altered long-term consumption patterns in Europe.

More importantly, the continental system encouraged coffee-producing nations, many of whom were gaining their independence in South America from Spain at the time, to look to the United States as their most likely major consumer. They were not disappointed. During the nineteenth century the US became the single largest consumer of coffee; by the end of the century it was importing 40% of the world’s total amount of coffee, and it continues to be the single largest coffee importer.[24] As the American population grew, its thirst for coffee grew with it, and the proximity of Latin American coffee-producing nations helped insure that the long-term production and consumption pattern of southern coffee satisfying northern tastes was predicated on solid foundations.

A complex set of circumstances came together to make the nineteenth century the era of Latin American dominance in coffee production. First, the Haitian Revolution in 1791 spelled the end for Haitian coffee production, which had produced roughly half of all coffee exports immediately prior to the revolution.[25] The specter of a successful slave uprising, and the independent black nation that arose as a result, terrified the powers of Europe and the Americas and all refused to open official relations with Haiti until well after the revolution. While this doomed Haiti to economic backwardness, the gap left in the global coffee (and sugar) market allowed ample room for the emerging nations of Latin America to make tremendous gains in their respective shares.[26]

Second, in many areas (especially Brazil), planters aggressively seized land and introduced coffee cultivation. Virgin rainforest was converted into coffee plantations in South America, Africa, and Asia. In almost every case, the favored method was the slash-and-burn technique in which plots of virgin forest were cut down, burned on the spot (thus providing nutrients to the soil), and coffee was planted on the ashes. This provided high yields for the first few years, but had a deleterious long-term impact on the ecology of the forest and, ultimately, on coffee cultivation itself. As long as fresh virgin forest remained, however, coffee plantations could grow rapidly and yields remained high.

Two Examples: Ceylon and Brazil

Plate from Ceylon, Physical, Historical and Topographical, titled “The Coffee Regions. Badulla”. / Image via the Biodiversity Heritage Library, Wikimedia Commons

Two areas illustrate this pattern of coffee development in the nineteenth century: Ceylon (present-day Sri Lanka) and Brazil. [27] The British had taken control of Ceylon in 1796 and, as European colonists did the world over, tried to cultivate foods already familiar to them rather than adapting to local cuisine. Coffee already grew wild in Ceylon thanks to earlier seedlings planted by either Arab or Dutch traders, but large-scale cultivation did not start until 1824. The Kandyan Highlands of Ceylon had long remained inaccessible to human settlement thanks to the thick forest and their remoteness. The British, however, impressed local villagers into service and began a long-term assault on the forest for the purpose of growing coffee. Large-scale cultivation began in 1824. After 1840, large numbers of impoverished laborers from southern India began to make the arduous journey from their homes, across the Palk Strait, and to the Kandyan highlands looking for work on the coffee plantations. Many died, and those that made it were paid a pittance. For several decades, coffee cultivation thrived.

The downfall of coffee in Ceylon, however, was ecological in nature. Once the British had forced their way through the rainforest to the Kandyan hills, they initiated a full-scale effort to convert the forest to plantations. Once the protective vegetation had been destroyed, the thin, nutrient-poor soil was extremely vulnerable to erosion, and the high winds that swept across the hills wreaked havoc on the coffee plants. The destruction of the forest ecosystem drove away or killed large predators, and rats thrived amongst the plantations as a result. The British overseers struggled to find methods that would hold the soil in place, provide windbreaks, and control pests even as they carved further into the remaining forest. By the 1880s, less than sixty years after the first coffee plantation in Ceylon, the forest was all but destroyed.

In the late 1860s, a fungal infection spread among the coffee plantations of Ceylon. Called “coffee rust” or “left rust,” Hemileai Vastatrix infected the leaves of coffee plants and could quickly devastate entire plantations.[28] From Ceylon it spread rapidly to other coffee-producing regions in Asia and Africa but, interestingly, it did not spread to Latin America (a fact that had much to do with the consolidation of Latin American coffee dominance in the late nineteenth century.) Coffee rust destroyed a number of coffee economies, particularly that of Dutch-controlled Java; it was one of the major factors that saw Java’s share in the global coffee market plummet after 1873. Meanwhile, the British in Ceylon struggled against the eroded soil, pests, and the coffee rust to keep coffee production going until the 1880s, but finally abandoned it when coffee prices plummeted on the world market. They then switched to the cultivation of tea.

Ceylon is an interesting context in which to consider coffee cultivation in the nineteenth century not only because it starkly demonstrates the ecological impact of coffee, but because the problems the British faced in Ceylon led them to establish the first modern scientific institutes explicitly devoted to studying agriculture in the tropics. After the switch had been made to tea, the British established the Gannaruwa Research Station in 1902, the first station to consider the medium-term and long-term impact of farming in tropical areas. It was perhaps the first initiative to conclude that slash-and-burn agriculture was ultimately detrimental to both the environment and, in the long-run, to agriculture itself. Likewise, it concluded that the rainforest itself helped maintain the natural balance of the area, and that for agriculture to succeed in the tropics the forest had to be treated as more than just a nuisance to be replaced with cultivated fields. Ceylon was thus the setting of some of the first “scientific” scholarship on the impact of human activity on the environment of the tropics.

Ceylonese coffee cultivation lasted for just over half of a century. Brazil, on the other hand, seized its position as the major coffee producer in the world and kept it. Indeed, it is difficult to overstate the importance of Brazilian coffee cultivation: Brazil was largely responsible for the explosion of affordable coffee in the nineteenth century that saw the shift from respectable sipping-drink to common chugging-drink. In a sense, Brazil’s entire social structure came to center on coffee: coffee planters formed a powerful political bloc, coffee merchants became wealthy on exports, and the entire banking system was deeply enmeshed with the coffee industry.

Just as coffee was at the heart of the Brazilian economy (a fact that remained true until the late twentieth century when manufacturing finally surpassed its importance), slavery was at the heart of Brazilian coffee. Brazil was the single largest importer of slaves during the centuries of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. In turn, Brazil was the last nation in the world to abolish slavery within its borders (in 1881), a fact that can be explained in large part by the social and economic power wielded by coffee planters. As has been noted, the forms of labor by which coffee was cultivated varied considerably around the globe. Even within Latin America, there were many areas (Costa Rica and Mexico, for instance) that employed wage-labor and small farms to grow coffee, rather than relying on slavery.[29] In Brazil, however, the planting class was adamantly opposed to abolition, believing that slavery was the very condition of Brazil’s continued existence.[30]

The combination of slave labor and the hitherto-untouched vast expanses of the Amazon rainforest allowed Brazil to seize preeminence among global coffee producing regions. From 1800 to 1850, the Imperial government of Brazil (which was technically the crown of Portugal; the king of Portugal had fled Napoleon and set up shop in Brazil) awarded land grants to anyone who would promise to cultivate crops. One of the conditions of land grants, however, was that the would-be cultivator had to have proof of owning enough slaves to work the land.[31] Land grants in the Amazon led to an explosion of both coffee-farming and land speculation. Previously virgin rainforest was rapidly converted into coffee plantations (even as the same process was taking place in Ceylon.) One of the important differences, of course, was that Brazil’s potential coffee-growing areas were vastly largely than their equivalents in Ceylon, and Brazilian coffee production soon dominated global exports.

While it was almost exclusively Portuguese-descended Brazilians who owned and ran the coffee plantations, their coffee ultimately ended up enriching banks and trading companies based in London and New York. Even prosperous farmers were often deeply in debt, having staked their plantations and (until the end of the century) their slaves as collateral on loans. The banks that supplied these loans were, as often as not, owned and run from overseas. The planters lived harvest-to-harvest, a fact that led to widespread bankruptcy when harvests went badly. The banks, of course, were able to foreclose on the plantations in question and the coffee industry as a whole continued to grow despite fluctuations.

By the time Brazil finally abolished slavery in 1881, coffee had transformed the nation completely. Certain areas were already ecologically devastated: in the Parahyba Valley, for instance, what had been virgin forest a century before was reduced to barren hillsides covered in weeds, now given over to cattle pasture since they could no longer sustain coffee plants. This in turn drove coffee planters further into the jungle to carve out new plantations. As newly-freed slaves struggled to establish lives for themselves and their families, many became wage-laborers on the ever-growing plantations. At the same time, the Brazilian government (a Republic as of 1889) subsidized the immigration of large numbers of Europeans, primarily southern Italians, in order to insure a continuous supply of cheap labor for the coffee industry.[32]


Slaves on a fazenda (coffee farm), c. 1885 / Image via Wikimedia Commons

The question of labor was always central to coffee production. The nineteenth century saw a slow and intermittent shift away from forms of outright forced labor to more subtle forms of coercion. Brazil was unique not only in having relied on slavery for as long as it did, but for its subsidization of immigration after the end of slavery, a factor that kept its massive coffee industry stable despite the radical shift that abolition brought about. Elsewhere, Javanese coffee production had been a particularly pernicious form of taxation in kind, a practice which continued even after Java had vanished as a major player in the coffee market (labor taxation was finally eliminated completely in Java in 1917.)[33] In Guatemala, meanwhile, a shortage of cheap labor led the state (which was controlled by coffee barons) to impose a labor law in 1877 which obligated Mayan villagers from the highlands to work on the coffee plantations for fixed times and fixed wages, a system that lasted until the early 1920s.[34] Finally, forced labor and other forms of quasi-slavery continued in West Africa (particularly Angola) until the 1940s.

Elsewhere, however, a longer-term labor pattern was coming about. Where slavery and labor laws had obliged people to work on coffee plantations, the global coffee system increasingly relied on a combination of state intervention and market forces to insure a steady supply of labor. Foreign-owned coffee buying concerns dictated the policies of many Latin American states, resisting efforts to allow organized labor and setting coffee prices as low as possible. Prices themselves were sensitive to natural forces (i.e. diseases, droughts, etc.) but, after the first coffee futures market was founded in New York City in 1883, they came to be dictated as much by price speculation as by the size and quality of the actual harvests.[35]

Likewise, by 1900 the emerging global coffee companies were almost all owned and operated by Europeans and Americans, which coffee-producing nations were forced to cater to. Essentially, debt forced coffee producers to sell their beans at the going rate as soon as they were harvested, no matter how successful or unsuccessful those harvests had been. Good years saw flooded markets and low prices, while bad years saw higher prices but poor yields. Either way, the bulk of the profit went to the coffee concerns run in New York, London, and Hamburg. Foreign firms not only owned and financed coffee production, but they monopolized coffee exportation and processing, the most technologically advanced and costly areas of the coffee economy (and thus the areas from which most of the profits were to be derived.)

The Twentieth Century

Coffee beans drying in the sun, Alto Jequitibá, Minas Gerais. / Photo by Hugovianabarros, Wikimedia Commons

The history of coffee in the twentieth century was a struggle surrounding the price of coffee beans. Having been battered by price fluctuations since the 1880s, Brazil introduced a revolutionary “valorization” scheme in 1906, in which it deliberately kept a portion of its harvest off of the world market to keep prices at a certain level. This brought about howls of protest in consuming nations, especially the United States, which had long since latched on to free market ideology as the holy writ of economic relations.[36] Where low coffee prices were a matter of convenience for American and European consumers, they were a matter of life and death for Latin Americans. By 1912 coffee was over half of the total exports of Brazil, El Salvador, Guatemala, Haiti, Nicaragua, and Venezuela. Likewise, by 1913 fully 91% of all coffee produced in the world was Latin American.[37]

Thus, until World War II, the fundamental pattern of global coffee was Latin American production feeding American (and, to a lesser extent, European) consumption. Labor was kept in check (and thus prices were kept low) by an alliance between the foreign-owned transportation and processing concerns and local oligarchies of land-owning elites, who often held tremendous political power. It is important to emphasize that the exact circumstances of this process varied from nation to nation: Brazil’s plantations were already huge, while Costa Rican farms remained small, for instance. Likewise, while the general pattern was that oligarchic coffee magnates controlled land and labor, their relationships with peasants and workers varied. Brazil instituted the valorization scheme at least in part to protect the livelihoods of workers, while in El Salvador coffee barons massacred communist-affiliated peasants who rose up in protest to the confiscation of their lands for coffee production in 1932.[38]

World War II and its aftermath brought about a few major changes in coffee. First, the massive consumption of coffee by soldiers in the war cemented the taste for cheap instant coffee in the US, creating a long-term market for low-quality beans at rock-bottom prices. This in turn allowed regions (such as the Ivory Coast in Africa) that could not grow large amounts of higher-quality arabica, but could grow robusta, to enter the world market. Second, the postwar colonial liberation movements, particularly in Africa and South Asia, ended the last vestiges of imperialist coffee ventures. European and American corporations continued to control the industry as a whole, but coffee production was no longer under the direct power of imperial governments. Finally, the Cold War realigned global politics in such a way that western powers, primarily the US, had an active interest in maintaining capitalistic (though certainly not always democratic) governments throughout the world. This, in turn, saw the growth of a limited consensus between coffee-producing and coffee-consuming nations that set prices to prevent the more severe economic cycles of the “pure” free market from destabilizing the economies of producers.

The most important event in the global coffee economy that arose in the Cold War context was the signing of the International Coffee Agreement in 1962. The ICA was an international accord between producing and consuming nations that regulated the amount of coffee sold on the international market (it was inspired by the Brazilian valorization scheme, which had continued in different forms since its inception in 1906.) Quotas were set which were meant to fix supply to demand and thereby regulate prices in order to prevent the kind of major price fluctuations that had wreaked havoc on the economies of coffee-producing countries in the past. The ICA was a strategic decision on the part of western nations in response to the Cold War: the United States in particular was concerned that economic crises in third-world nations could result in the growth of international communism. Thus, to prevent the possibility of a coffee-based crisis feeding into an upsurge in leftist politics, the US (which represented more than half of the total coffee consumption in the world at the time) supported the agreement.[39]

Patterns of production and consumption throughout the Cold War period were similar to those of the early twentieth century, with the exception that the US frequently intervened should a communist (or even left-leaning) leadership come to power in a “third world” nation. In the civil wars in Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala in the 1980s, US-trained death squads wreaked havoc. Coffee oligarchs usually supported the right-wing dictatorships that faced leftist opposition, but even the most powerful planters were often simply trapped between warring sides, trying to bring in their harvests and keep their farms from being destroyed or seized. Likewise, even when leftist regimes did come to power (despite American intervention), the plight of coffee producers was not always improved. When the leftist Sandinistas seized power in Nicaragua in 1979, they nationalized coffee production, but paid producers only a small percentage of profits and proved utterly incompetent at maintaining the coffee plantations themselves.[40]

Approaching the Present: Neo-Liberal Economic Policy

Terraced Coffee Plants in Vietnam / Photo by kangotraveler, Wikimedia Commons

In 1989, the Berlin Wall fell, a symbolic event which is often thought to have spelled the beginning of the end of the Cold War. Not coincidentally, the US withdrew its support from the ICA a few months later. While revised versions of the ICA are still technically in effect, the withdrawal of the major coffee consuming nation in the world has undermined its effectiveness. Prices of coffee dropped rapidly in 1989, driving huge numbers of coffee farmers into desperate circumstances and often forcing them off of the land entirely.

The US’s withdrawal from the ICA was symptomatic of global economic changes in the post-Cold War era, changes which had a profound impact on the coffee trade. Without the threat of communism to balance the need for profits with the need for social welfare, US-led global economic organizations like the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank became increasingly stringent in enforcing free market-based (“neo-liberal”) policies. Typically, the IMF and World Bank would provide loans to developing nations to build up infrastructure on the condition that social services and any kind of price-stabilizing policies were abandoned and that the commodities would be sold directly on the world market with a minimum of taxes and tariffs.

The effects of neo-liberal economic policies are easy to discern in the case of Vietnam. In the early 1990s, Vietnamese farmers received large numbers of loans to start coffee cultivation (although Vietnam had been producing coffee since the 1920s, it was not until the 1990s that it did so on a large scale.)[41] In order to repay those loans, they were forced to sell their coffee on the world market as soon as possible. The flood of cheap Vietnamese coffee drove international prices sharply down, provoking crises in other coffee-producing countries. Meanwhile, Vietnamese farmers found themselves locked into a cycle of debt: interest rates on their loans forced them to produce as much coffee as possible, while there was little possibility of ever paying the loans in full. Meanwhile, already China shows signs of entering the world coffee producing market; if it does, prices will be forced down even further and Vietnam will probably join the ranks of impoverished coffee-producing nations as the market is further glutted with overproduction.[42]

Meanwhile, some efforts were made starting in the 1990s to introduce more sustainable models for coffee production. “Fair Trade” coffee is produced by farmers (largely in Central America) who own the land they work, sometimes communally with their neighbors, and are paid a guaranteed minimum price per pound. Currently, most Fair Trade coffee is sold in Europe, although there is also a significant market in the United States. Fair Trade coffee is, however, only a tiny percentage of the total coffee produced in the world; the vast majority of coffee is produced according to (internationally enforced) free-market principles and most coffee farmers themselves are wage laborers working for large plantations.[43]


Today, coffee consumption has stabilized overall; despite the explosion of specialty coffee shops (such as Starbucks), actual per capita consumption of coffee has not grown significantly world-wide. With consumption stable, every new region to entry coffee cultivation drives prices down further. Thanks in large-part to the decline of the ICA, the percentage of profits going to coffee-producing nations has dropped from 40% in 1991 to 13% in 2004, since transportation, processing, and commercial markups remain in the hands of American and European corporations.[44] Free Trade coffee is one of the only efforts within the coffee economy that tries to maintain a minimum price per pound and thus to allow the possibility of a living wage for coffee producers. [45] Thus, despite the vast changes brought about by the modern revolution, the fundamental patterns of the global coffee trade have remained consistent since the end of the Yemeni coffee monopoly at the close of the seventeenth century: interests in the temperate zones of the north control the coffee trade while tropical producers cater to their interests.



  1. Hattox, Coffee and Coffeehouses, 24.
  2. Wild, Coffee: A Dark History, 49-52.
  3. Ibid., 71.
  4. Ibid., 69.
  5. Ibid., 88.
  6. Pendergrast, Uncommon Grounds, 9-11
  7. Wild, Coffee: A Dark History, 124.
  8. Clarence-Smith and Topik, The Global Coffee Economy, 30.
  9. Ibid., 157-172.
  10. Hattox, Coffee and Coffeehouses, 73, 125.
  11. Ibid., 93-96.
  12. Ibid., 38.
  13. Ibid., 102.
  14. Wild, Coffee: A Dark History, 55.
  15. Cohen, Glass, Paper, Beans, 85.
  16. Hattox, Coffee and Coffeehouses, 30-36.
  17. Ibid., 39.
  18. Wild, Coffee: A Dark History, 86-87.
  19. Cohen, Glass, Paper, Beans, 110-111.
  20. Habermas, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere.
  21. Wild, Coffee: A Dark History, 21.
  22. Schmidt, “Caffeine and the Coming of the Enlightenment.”
  23. Ibid.
  24. Clarence-Smith and Topik, The Global Coffee Economy, 37.
  25. Pendergrast, Uncommon Grounds, 405.
  26. Clarence-Smith and Topik, The Global Coffee Economy, 29.
  27. All data concerning Ceylonese coffee production is from Webb, Tropical Pioneers, 55-146.
  28. Clarence-Smith and Topik, The Global Coffee Economy, 102.
  29. Roseberry, Gundmondson, Kutschbach, Coffee Society and Power in Latin America, 8-10.
  30. Stein, Vassouras, 62.
  31. Ibid., 55.
  32. Roseberry, Gundmondson, Kutschbach, Coffee Society and Power in Latin America, 17.
  33. Clarence-Smith and Topik, The Global Coffee Economy, 165.
  34. Ibid., 196.
  35. Ibid., 39-46.
  36. Pendergrast, Uncommon Grounds, 81-93.
  37. Topik and Wells, The Second Conquest of Latin America, 56.
  38. Ibid., 72.
  39. Wild, Coffee: A Dark History, 233-234.
  40. Pendergrast, Uncommon Grounds, 351-352.
  41. Clarence-Smith and Topik, The Global Coffee Economy, 106.
  42. Wild, Coffee: A Dark History, 265, 285-295.
  43. Cohen, Glass, Paper, Beans, 53-55, Wild, Coffee: A Dark History, 258-264, Pendergrast, Uncommon Grounds, 354-355.
  44. Wild, Coffee: A Dark History,226.
  45. Cohen, Glass, Paper, Beans, 45-57.


Originally published by the Center for World History, University of California Santa Cruz, free and open access, republished for educational, non-commercial purposes.



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