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.”

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