26 December 2012

Coffee European Immigrant Labor

Uncommon Grounds by Mark Pendergrast, 1999, Excerpts

After 1850, with the banning of slave importation, coffee growers experimented with alternative labor schemes. The planters paid for the transportation of European immigrants. It was illegal for the immigrants to move off the plantation until all debts were repaid – which typically took years – this amounted to debt peonage, another form of slavery. Thus it was no surprise when Swiss and German workers revolted in 1856.

Poor Italians flooded Sao Paulo plantations. Between 1884 and 1914 more than a million immigrants arrived to work on the coffee farms. Some eventually managed to secure their own land. Others earned just enough to return to their homelands, embittered and discouraged. Because of the poor working and living conditions, most plantations maintained a band of armed guards who carried out the planter’s will. One much-hated owner, Francisco Augusto Almeida Prada, was hacked to pieces by his workers when he strolled through his fields unprotected.

The Brazilian coffee farmers did not think of themselves as oppressors, however; on the contrary, they considered themselves enlightened and progressive, wishing to enter the modern world and to industrialize with the profits of coffee.

23 December 2012

Coffee Slaves

Uncommon Grounds by Mark Pendergrast, 1999, Excerpts

As the European powers brought coffee cultivation to their colonies, the intensive labor required to grow, harvest, and process coffee came from imported slaves. Slaves had initially been brought to the Caribbean to harvest sugar cane, 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.

The coffee, therefore, that fueled Voltaire and Diderot was produced by the most inhuman form of coerced labor. A former San Domingo 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?”


Over the half century before 1900, non-native coffee conquered Brazil, Venezuela, and most of Central America as well as a good portion of India, Ceylon, Java, and Colombia. In the process, the bean helped shape laws and governments, delayed the abolition of slavery, exacerbated social inequities, affected the natural environment, and provided the engine for growth, especially in Brazil, which became the dominant force in the coffee world during this period.

What happened in Brazil exemplifies the benefits and hazards of relying on one product. Coffee made modern Brazil, but at an enormous human and environmental cost. The Portuguese proceeded to destroy much of that paradise. The sugar plantations of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries had established the pattern of huge plantations owned by the elite, where slaves worked in unimaginably awful conditions. It was cheaper to import new slaves than to maintain the health of existing laborers, and as a result, slaves died after an average of seven years.

Although some plantation owners treated their slaves decently, others forced them into private sadistic orgies. Beatings and murders were not subject to public scrutiny, and slaves were buried on plantations without death certificates. Slave children were frequently sold away from parents.

Brazil maintained slavery longer than any other country in the Western hemisphere. In 1871, Pedro II declared the “law of the free womb” specifying that all newborn offspring of slaves from then on would be free. He thus guaranteed a gradual extinction of slavery. Even so, growers and politicians fought against abolition. “Brazil is coffee,” one Brazilian member of parliament declared in 1880, “and coffee is the Negro.”

22 December 2012

Coffee and the Industrial Revolution

Uncommon Grounds by Mark Pendergrast, 1999, Excerpts

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, there was less time to run a household and cook meals. European lace makers in the early nineteenth century lived almost exclusively on coffee and bread. Because coffee was stimulating and warm it provided an illusion of nutrition. The drink of the aristocracy had become the necessary drug of the masses, and morning coffee replaced beer soup for breakfast.

The Coffee Trader by David Liss, 2003, Excerpts

“Beer and wine may make a man sleepy, but coffee will make him awake and clearheaded. Beer and wine may make a man amorous, but coffee will make him lose interest in the flesh. The man who drinks coffee cares only for his business.” She paused for another sip. “Coffee is the drink of commerce.”

21 December 2012

Coffee and Early America

Uncommon Grounds by Mark Pendergrast, 1999, Excerpts

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 cohabitated, for instance, in Boston’s Green Dragon, a coffeehouse-tavern 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.”

Throughout the first half of the 1800s the American taste for coffee swelled. Per-capita consumption grew to three pounds a year in 1830, five and a half pounds by 1850, and eight pounds by 1859. Although there were urban coffeehouses, most Americans drank coffee at home or brewed it over campfires while headed west. Typical North American coffee of the period was boiled until it was a bitter brew badly in need of milk and sugar to make it palatable.

The Civil War gave soldiers a permanent taste for the drink. Each Union soldier’s daily allotment included one-tenth of a pound of green coffee beans. For fifteen years following the Civil War, coffee prices remained high as consumption and production raced to match one another worldwide. As a result, coffee cultivation exploded in Central America, Java, Sumatra, Ceylon, Venezuela, and Brazil.

By the 1870s, coffee had become an indispensable beverage to citizens of the Western world especially to Americans, who consumed six times as much as most Europeans. By 1876 the United States was importing 340 million pounds of coffee annually, accounting for nearly a third of all coffee exported from producing countries. The world coffee supply continued to grow, stimulated in large part by the seemingly bottomless American coffee cup. Of all the coffee consumed in the United States nearly three-quarters came from Brazil, where coffee had not even been a meaningful crop two generations earlier. 

20 December 2012

Coffee Revolution

Uncommon Grounds by Mark Pendergrast, 1999, Excerpts

As coffee 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. In 1511 the coffeehouses of Mecca were forcibly closed. Constantinople, fearing sedition, closed the city‘s coffeehouses. Offenders found imbibing a second time were sewn into leather bags and thrown into the Bosporus.

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. Coffeehouses allowed people to get together for conversation, entertainment, and business, inspiring agreements, poetry, and irreverence in equal measure. Unlike rowdy beer halls, the cafes provided a place for lively conversation and mental concentration.

Coffee 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, “Whenever 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.”

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.”