How Coffee Influenced The Course Of History

Apr 24, 2013
Originally published on January 9, 2014 3:49 pm

Coffee is a powerful beverage. On a personal level, it helps keep us awake and active. On a much broader level, it has helped shape our history and continues to shape our culture.

Coffee plants grow wild in Ethiopia and were probably used by nomadic tribes for thousands of years, but it wasn't until the 1400s that people figured out they could roast its seeds. "Then it really took off," historian Mark Pendergrast — author of Uncommon Grounds: The History of Coffee and How It Transformed Our World — tells Morning Edition host Steve Inskeep.

By the 1500s, he says, the drink had spread to coffeehouses across the Arab world. Within another 150 years, it took Europe by storm.

"It actually had a major impact on the rise of business," Pendergrast says. Coffeehouses became a spot not just to enjoy a cup but to exchange ideas.

The insurer Lloyd's of London was founded hundreds of years ago in one of London's 2,000 coffeehouses, he notes. Literature, newspapers and even the works of great composers like Bach and Beethoven were also spawned in coffeehouses.

It is often said that after the Boston Tea Party of 1773, when American colonists raided British tea ships and threw crates of tea into the harbor, Americans universally switched over to drinking coffee.

"There's a lot of truth to the story, I found," Pendergrast says. He cites a letter John Adams wrote to his wife, Abigail, in which the Founding Father proclaims his love of tea but says he will have to learn to embrace coffee instead, because drinking tea had become unpatriotic.

For all the upsides coffee has brought the modern world, it also ushered in its fair share of downsides, too. Europeans carried coffee with them as they colonized various parts of the world, and this frequently meant they enslaved people in order to grow it.

"One of the ironies about coffee is it makes people think. It sort of creates egalitarian places — coffeehouses where people can come together — and so the French Revolution and the American Revolution were planned in coffeehouses," Pendergrast says. "On the other hand, that same coffee that was fueling the French Revolution was also being produced by African slaves who had been taken to San Domingo, which we now know as Haiti."

In Brazil — where slavery was legal until 1888 — coffee plantations would use slash-and-burn agriculture, tearing down rain forests and planting coffee trees that depleted the nutrients in soil. Once the soil had been sapped, growers would move on to another place.

And then there are history's many coffee naysayers. In 1511, for example, the governor of Mecca banned coffee because his medical advisers warned it was bad for people's health. In 1674, women in London were convinced that coffee made their husbands impotent.

And yet, in an age when beer soup was the breakfast of champions, coffee had one undeniable health benefit: "Western civilization sobered up," Pendergrast says. Coffee, he says, "had a very good impact in many ways on our civilization, even though it was, for a long time, grown by slaves."

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Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

This is of course coffee week at MORNING EDITION. We explore that substance because it's so intimate. Like your radio. Coffee can be with you in a private moment at home or in the car. It's also incredibly global - a substance that explains much of our modern world. Which is the reason Mark Pendergrast wrote a book about it.

MARK PENDERGRAST: People think that I wrote this book because I was a coffee lover, and that's not true. I was interested in coffee as a way to look at the relationship between the developing world, the have-nots, and the haves.

INSKEEP: Mark Pendergrast wrote "Uncommon Grounds: The History of Coffee and How It Transformed Our World." He says coffee was discovered in Ethiopia. It spread through trade in the Arab world and eventually made its way to Europe.

PENDERGRAST: As the colonial powers were beginning to try to spread themselves all over the place, they took coffee with them. So you had the Dutch take a coffee tree over to the East Indies, and - by the way, and enslave the people there in order to grow it.

INSKEEP: Mm-hmm.

PENDERGRAST: Similarly, you had the French take a tree to Martinique in the early 1700s and from that one tree most of the trees in the Western Hemisphere spread. You know, one of the ironies about coffee is it makes people think. It sort of creates egalitarian places - coffeehouses where people can come together - and so the French Revolution and the American Revolution were planned in coffeehouses.

On the other hand, that same coffee that was fueling the French Revolution was also being produced by African slaves who had been taken to San Domingo, which is what we now know as Haiti.

INSKEEP: So the Europeans spread coffee cultivation through much of the colonial world because they were drinking it themselves. How did the consumption of coffee spread worldwide?

PENDERGRAST: It took over Europe by storm in the latter part of the 17th century. And I argue in my book that it actually had a major impact on the rise of business. Lloyd's of London was founded in Lloyd's coffeehouse. Bach and Beethoven created some of their finest works scribbling away to coffee, some of it in coffeehouses. A lot of literature began and newspapers began in coffeehouses.

And prior to coffee, people were drunk a lot of the time. They would get up and begin with beer soup in the morning and proceed from there. So really, Western civilization sobered up because of coffee starting in 1650.

INSKEEP: When we talk about the spread of coffee in the world, there's a story that I learned as a kid. It involves the Boston Tea Party in the 1770s in the United States when American colonists who were on their way to a revolution were said to have raided British tea ships and thrown crates of tea over the side. And then the story ends by saying that after that, Americans universally switched over from tea to coffee. Really?

PENDERGRAST: There's a lot of truth to the story. I found a letter from John Adams to his wife Abigail saying, you know, I love tea but I'm going to have to learn to do without it and to love coffee now because it's really unpatriotic for us to drink tea. It also helped that it was cheaper to get coffee from South America at that point than it was to get tea. So, Americans have always been rather pragmatic, and part of the reason that we switched from tea to coffee was that it cost us less.

INSKEEP: And was it also a matter of commercial independence? Americans could send ships to South America and get the coffee, but the tea trade probably ran in some fashion through Britain from other countries.

PENDERGRAST: Yes. Americans were more independent by relying on coffee.

INSKEEP: In its early years, when it spread throughout the colonial world, it sounds to me in your research that coffee comes across as a very destructive force, socially, politically. Would you say that that has all changed now?

PENDERGRAST: By and large, I would say it has all changed now, that coffee is actually a force for good in many ways. It's a way for small holders, people who have limited access to other forms of making a living on these very steep mountainsides, can make a living, at any rate, can actually put shoes on their children's feet.

There are still many, many social issues involved with coffee, but it's getting better. People are more aware. People now have access to the Internet and to cell phones and so they know what kind of price they should be getting. So I see things getting better.

INSKEEP: Mark Pendergrast is the author of the book "Uncommon Grounds." And he knows his caffeine. The third edition of his book "For God, Country and Coca-Cola" is out next month. Thanks very much.

PENDERGRAST: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.