Coffee, Commodification and Colonialism

Coffee historian Steven Topik of UC Irvine speaks at Bowdoin

Coffee historian Steven Topik of the University of California, Irvine, speaks at Bowdoin

Reported by Raleigh McElvery ’16

America’s favorite morning beverage contains much more than just milk and sugar, according to Steven Topik of the University of California, Irvine.

“There’s a lot of world history in one cup of coffee,” Topik said in an Oct. 30 lecture in Searles Science Building titled Coffee Colonialism: From the Spice Trade to European Colonies to Latin American National Export Crop, sponsored by the College’s History, Latin American Studies, and Africana Studies Departments.

“I’ll never look at coffee the same way again,” said attendee Sarah Steffen ’17. “Now I know a lot more about its commodification, as well as its social history.”

Since its discovery in Ethiopia, Topik said, coffee was a symbol of wealth, an opportunity for colonial exploitation, and more. “In a lot of ways coffee isn’t just a commodity,” he said. “You have to understand it from a number of different angles.”  Coffee’s saga, he said, is entwined with issues of religion, slavery, and independence.

Though coffee is known as a crop of European colonialism, Yemen was the first country to domesticate the crop and monopolize its trade starting in the 15th century. The beverage was soon promoted as a religious substance consumed by whirling dervishes in their quest to stay energized for extended periods of time.

Under the moniker of “the wine of Islam,” coffee became a staple of the Muslim market, and continued to spread throughout the region via the Hajj pilgrimage route to Mecca. During Ottoman reign, the first coffeehouses served as meeting places for people of all religions and social classes.

It wasn’t until the late 17th century that Europeans joined the coffee craze, implementing systems of mass production in areas like Réunion and Haiti. Under French rule, Haiti became particularly affluent from the booming coffee and sugar trade. The heightened demand for these products required additional labor, leading to the importation of African slaves to work on coffee plantations.

Topik argued that coffee was actually fairly unsuccessful as a tool of colonialism. “In fact, one might say that coffee was a crop of independence in a lot of places,” he said. The Haitian Revolution of 1791-1804, for instance, was a direct result of the exploitation of slaves for coffee production.

Topik noted that the newfound autonomy of Haitian slaves prompted an increase in coffee production elsewhere, namely in Brazil, which eventually emerged as the world’s leading exporter of coffee – while the United States became coffee’s chief consumer. All in all, plenty to think about the next time you order a cappuccino.

thumb:"This Is a Portrait of Iris Clert If I Say So," 1961, Telegram, by Robert Rauschenberg, 1925–2008, Collection Ahrenberg, Vevey, Switzerland. Art © Robert Rauschenberg Foundation/Licensed by VAGA, New York, New York