Augustine Sedgewick’s Coffeeland

No single product better exemplifies our global world than coffee, produced somewhere and consumed everywhere. Millions of people have come to take their morning cup for granted, incorporating it into their daily lives, relying on its caffeine injection to get them through a busy workday. Four hundred years ago, however, it was grown only in Ethiopia and widely consumed only in the Arab world. Coffeeland, the debut work by Augustine Sedgewick, tells the story of coffee’s rise to global prominence. “Two hundred years ago,” Sedgewick writes, “coffee was a luxury for society’s privileged classes, enjoyed in coffeehouses that were centers of ideas, conversation, art, politics, and culture. Today it is the unrivaled work drug, filling billions of cups around the world each day and consumed by nearly two-thirds of Americans.” But the history of coffee is also the history of empire and of globalization, and no single product better exemplifies the 19th century’s creation of a world economy and the attendant division of nations into producers and consumers, winners and losers. In a single century, between 1800 and 1900, the global economy grew forty-four times larger, and world trade between 1850 and 1914 “increased by 1,000 percent,” but the benefits accrued to the winners of the previous centuries game of empires: “In 1880 per capita income in ‘developed’ industrial societies was double that of the rest of the world; by 1914 it was triple; by 1950 it was five times greater.” Taking the fascinating history of coffee as his starting point, Sedgewick expands the scope of his narrative to encompass the industrial revolution in Britain, the advent of supermarkets in America, and the economic subjugation of El Salvador, the “coffeeland” of the title, where the cash crop of coffee gradually took over most of the country’s arable land, reducing the majority of the population to a state of dependence and servitude.

Sedgewick’s protagonist, of sorts, is James Hill, a child of the Manchester slums, at the very heart of the industrial revolution, who strikes out from his native country – like so many men before and after him – in search of his personal fortune. Manchester began the 19th century as any other quaint English town, boasting only a single tall chimney and a population of 30,000. By 1842, when Friedrich Engels would pay the city a visit to inspect his family’s cotton mill, the “city’s lone chimney had sprouted into a defoliated forest of smokestacks, below which lived 300,000 people and above which bloomed a bruise-colored canopy of smoke so thick it extinguished sunlight.” Sedgwick quotes from the historian Eric Hobsbawm, naming Manchester the capital city of the Industrial Revolution, “the most important event in world history.” There is something contradictory about this city in this time period: it is at once a world-leader in industrial innovation, outproducing entire nations in cotton production, and a center of squalor and dispossession not seen in England. To illustrate, Sedgewick quotes Engels, whose horrified impression of a humanity harnessed to machinery for the benefit of an ownership class would work its way into The Communist Manifesto, published four years later:

Right and left a multitude of covered passages lead from the main street into numerous courts, and he who turns in thither gets into a filth and disgusting grime, the equal of which is not to be found – especially in the courts which lead down to the [River] Irk, and which contain unqualifiedly the most horrible dwellings which I have yet beheld. In one of these courts there stands directly, at the entrance, at the end of the covered passage, a privy without a door, so dirty that the inhabitants can pass into and out of the court only by passing through foul pools of stagnant urine and excrement.

We are given these early glimpses of industrial England because the ideology that birthed the Industrial Revolution was exported with Britain’s overseas subjects and territories, and when James Hill finally arrives in El Salvador, it is the language of optimization, efficiency and maximal output that inform his approach to cultivating coffee – an endeavour for which he had no prior experience or qualification whatsoever. Fortune, in the form of the clash of the great empires, also worked in Hill’s favor. Here, for example, is one of Sedgewick’s better summaries of the role the major European powers played in spreading coffee’s cultivation, beginning with the Dutch, who smuggled coffee seeds from Arab traders to their colony on Java, the first place under European control with hospitable growing conditions for coffee.

From Java coffee spread along a path cut by empire and slavery. In 1714 the Dutch gave a coffee tree to Louis XIV for the royal botanical garden in Paris. The following year French colonial administrators took coffee plants to Bourbon, an island off the southeast coast of Africa later renamed Réunion, where every planter was required by law to plant 200 coffee trees for every enslaved person he owned. By 1718 the Dutch had brought coffee to Surinam, their colony o nthe northeast coast of South America, Five years later, in 1723, Gabriel de Clieu, a former French colonial official who had fallen out of favor, is said to have stolen a seedling from the royal botanical garden in Paris and smuggled it to Martinique. In 1727 a Portuguese official smuggled coffee seedlings from French Guiana into Brazil and established plantings on the Amazon. […] But in no corner of the Western Hemisphere did coffee take root as it did in Saint-Domingue – Haiti. By the end of the eighteenth century, the French island colony, home to 40,000 white settlers and 500,000 enslaved laborers, was producing half of the world’s annual coffee crop.

Prior to the American Revolution, Haiti was America’s primary source of coffee beans, but when the Haitian Revolution began in 1791, America was forced to cut ties with Haiti, preferring to remain on good terms with the French – then their only source of support in Europe. That decision had massive secondary consequences, especially for coffee cultivation: “Soon Brazilian planters were burning hillsides clear to make way for more coffee – nearly 3,000 square miles of forest went up in smoke so thick that gray ash fell in the center of Rio, and the sun’s rays reached the earth as if through smoked glass.” Recall the similar description of the Manchester skies?

The Industrial Revolution had one major effect everywhere it took hold: former peasant farmers left the land of their ancestors to work in factories, or on much larger, agglomerated farms. In England, this was not a smooth transition, but some accommodations and concessions to the landless workers were gradually won: limits on hours worked, child labour laws, and free basic education. In Latin America, however, and in El Salvador – already desperately poor and short on arable land – in particular, the transition resembled nothing so much as a new feudalism. The plantation owners were faced with a glaring problem: coffee cultivation is extremely labour-intensive, and the peasant population of El Salvador was loath to work for low wages when there was an abundance of food literally growing all around them. In the early years of El Salvador’s coffee plantations, limits on farming techniques and the kinds of coffee beans available constrained the expansion of the coffee crop, but with experience and the introduction of more resilient coffee strains, these meagre limits were lifted and more and more land became devoted to the country’s cash crop. “The expansion of coffee production in El Salvador,” Sedgewick writes, “was also the contraction of the country’s plant and animal life, and, in turn, its culture and its stomach.” Robbed of a vibrant and balanced diet, the El Salvadoran working poor are eventually reduced to eating the same bean-and-tortilla meal almost three times a day, and almost the only industry offering wages enough to purchase this bland fare was coffee cultivation.

The progress of the two crops [two different coffee varieties, grown at different altitudes] toward each other squeezed out food production, in particular corn, El Salvador’s most important staple crop. During Taylor’s time in El Salvador, between 1922 and 1926, the price of corn doubled, the price of beans more than doubled, and the price of rice tripled. The country began to import more and more food.

Knowing full well the increasing dependence of the native population on the largesse of the owners, wages were often paid in food, grown especially on the coffee plantations, and in such a way as to incentivize work and reward maximum productivity: breakfast, for example, was served at the crack of dawn, available only to those labourers who chose not to sleep in. Race played an important role in justifying this injustice: as black Africans were regarded as little better than farm animals in America, so too were the “mozo,” the landless male “Indian,” regarded as natural farm workers in El Salvador. Thus did the plantation owners alleviate their guilt.

Coffeeland excels as both a wide-angle history of the cultivation of coffee and the expansion of global trade and as a close-up of El Salvador’s economic and social inequality. At the global level, we learn of the expansion of railways and shipping services, the advent of vacuum-sealed canisters and supermarkets, innovations that drove down the cost of goods imported from all over the world. This is a comforting and familiar story of progress: the American quality of life ascended as the cost of domestic goods dropped. But the picture in El Salvador is much bleaker: as coffee prices dropped, as the once-lucrative cash crop came to crowd out all other concerns, the peasant population was steadily disenfranchised. That disenfranchisement provoked growing resistance on the part of the peasantry, culminating in a peasant uprising in 1932 that was brutally and murderously repressed. In popular memory, it is known simply as La Matanza (the massacre). Augustine Sedgewick collected and assembled an enormous amount of historical and biographical material to produce Coffeeland, but he tells his story so adeptly, his narrative flows so seamlessly, that his efforts are masked by his very success. This is a remarkable and painful book, and a timely reminder that progress has a price seldom paid for by its foremost beneficiaries.