The History of Coffee and How It Transformed Our World

coffee plantation

Like so many daily comestibles we completely take for granted—salt, sugar, and (far fewer of us) tobacco—coffee has a long and often brutal history. And like many of these substances, it tends to be addictive. But coffee has also inspired a longstanding social tradition that shows no signs of ever going out of fashion. It’s a drug that makes us thinky and chatty and sociable (I for one don’t speak a human language until I’ve had my first cup). It’s these contradictions of coffee history—its complicity in slave economies and the Enlightenment public square—that Mark Pendergrast takes on in his new book Uncommon Grounds: The History of Coffee and How It Transformed Our World. Pendergrast puts it this way:

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 Santo Domingo, which we now know as Haiti.

In the interview above with NPR’s “Morning Edition,” Pendergrast explains his interest in coffee history as a way to look at the “relationship between the have-nots and the haves.” His investigation is another foray into the hundreds of years of European colonial history that gave us both massive global inequality and Starbucks on every corner. Listen to the short interview, read Pendergrast’s book, and the next time you get thinky over coffee, you may just think a lot about how coffee shaped the world.

H/T Kim L.

Related Content:

The Podcast History of Our World Will Take You From Creation Myths to (Eventually) the Present Day

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“The Vertue of the COFFEE Drink”: London’s First Cafe Creates Ad for Coffee in the 1650s

Everything You Wanted to Know About Coffee in Three Minutes

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Washington, DC. Follow him @jdmagness



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  1. Hanoch says . . . | April 25, 2013 / 7:40 am

    I am not sure why you would say that “European colonial history . . . gave us . . . massive global inequality”. To the best of my knowledge, the far-flung areas of the world to which the western global powers came for trading purposes were extremely backward and poor to begin with. The opportunity to engage in trade with the western world, if anything, would have helped to raise standards of living. Indeed, in some of these places (e.g., Hong Kong, Singapore) the local populations arguably outdid their western counterparts over time in establishing thriving economies.

  2. See Tshiung Han says . . . | April 25, 2013 / 8:21 am

    Interesting response, Hanoch.

    Why is the assumption that this “massive global inequality” resides solely in developing countries? Hasn’t inequality risen to unprecedented levels in some developed countries as well?

    Couldn’t really muster a coherent response to your statement, “the far-flung areas of the world to which the western global powers came for trading purposes were extremely backward and poor to begin with.” I’ll have to leave it to my betters.

  3. diana says . . . | April 25, 2013 / 8:39 am

    I’m Colombian, my family was driven out of their coffee farm due to corruption. My grandfather has not been the same ever since. Our own people destroy the lands of farmers because of mafia and war.

  4. chris says . . . | April 25, 2013 / 9:59 am

    “His investigation is another foray into the hundreds of years of European colonial history that gave us both massive global inequality and Starbucks on every corner.”

    This is a great sentence.

  5. chris says . . . | April 25, 2013 / 10:07 am

    Ha, I just saw Hanoch’s comment.

    “Backward and poor.” This is such an imaginary, bigoted concept, and ironically, you contradict it at the end of your comment by admitting there were some ‘thriving economies’.

    Which one was it? I think ultimately, you’re just an apologist for colonialism and oppression by the wealthy, mostly white imperialists of the modern world. If you can’t understand how capitalism can create massive suffering, while yes, providing some material comforts for some portions of the population, you’re in denial.

    Capitalism is saving nobody. It’s a way for tiny slivers of the population to continue lording it over those of us who don’t feel that the pursuit of profits and fabricated wealth are the goal of human society.

  6. Hanoch says . . . | April 25, 2013 / 11:48 am

    Chris:

    It is very easy to toss out bombs like “bigoted” and “apologist for . . . oppression” in an attempt to defend a failed leftist worldview. It is a more difficult task, however, to muster a cogent argument backed by actual facts. If you believe that colonialism generally made local populations economically worse off than they had been prior to their contact with western powers, just point to the facts. No invective necessary.

    As for your point that “[c]apitalism is saving nobody”, you may want to give that further reflection as you eat your meals, live in your home, drive your car, use your computer, take your medications, turn on your lights, heat your home, etc., etc. All of this has come your way through the “pursuit of profits”.

  7. Josh Jones says . . . | April 25, 2013 / 1:08 pm

    Hanoch: tossing out rhetorical bombs like “backward” without presenting any factual evidence, then accusing others of doing the very same thing, is, well… hypocritical. Not that you could support a purely evaluative judgment like that. Whose criteria does a society need to meet in order to escape being backward? Who can measure up but the very people who define the terms?

    There would be no point, in any case, in citing evidence of, say, the elimination of entire people groups or the number of people displaced or enslaved during colonial history, or in demonstrating the continued ill effects of these actions. No doubt you would dismiss the sources–and all of academic history–as the biased product of a “failed leftist worldview,” a phrase that, like “gay agenda” assumes that the left is some monolithic entity like GE or Ford.

    In any case, pointing out serious problems with colonialism does not imply the kind of simplistic binary good and evil thinking you presume of your opponents (or that you yourself employ). One can certainly appreciate the benefits of living in the so-called developed world while also critiquing its history and working toward policies that ameliorate the worst excesses of capitalism. Or like some other leftists, one can desire to destroy capitalism altogether. Whatever the “worldview,” the argument is never just about facts, but values.

  8. chris says . . . | April 25, 2013 / 1:27 pm

    “The far-flung areas of the world to which the western global powers came for trading purposes were extremely backward and poor to begin with” was the first ‘bomb’ of invective you threw.

    For people who are still being exploited by colonialism and neoliberalism, it isn’t hard to recognize as the mantra of occupiers, who display cynical ignorance at best, and at worst, cultural imperialism to justify economic devastation.

    Facts? Why do I need to be the one to teach you that civilizations such as those of the Americas were just fine without the Europeans? That the colonizers’ arrivals resulted in the mass destruction of societies and millions of human lives, and the effects are STILL the source of ‘massive inequality’ that you appear to contend. It’s all readily available in even the most biased history books, so don’t act naive.

    As for my worldview – you have no idea what that is – suffice to say, human innovation and solutions to sustenance have existed for a lot longer than colonialism and it’s descendants such as capitalism and neoliberalism.

  9. Gamal Ferrer says . . . | April 25, 2013 / 5:26 pm

    So, I heard this report on the radio and I had to look it up to validate what I had heard. What was called Santo Domingo back in the Colonial times is now still the islamd of Santo Domingo, which is shared by both Haiti AND the Dominican Republic. Not know as Haiti… Yes, I am Dominican!

  10. Hanoch says . . . | April 25, 2013 / 6:41 pm

    Mr. Jones:

    First, rather than presenting facts to make a point, Chris accused me of bigotry and acting as an “apologist for . . . oppression”. Had I hurled similar epithets at Chris, then you could justly accuse me of being “hypocritical”.

    Second, many of the areas colonized by western powers, among other things, had no court systems for the protection of property rights, no banking and insurance institutions, and little, if any, forms of industrialization. Thus, these cultures can fairly be described as “backward” by western economic standards.

    Third, let’s focus on the original comment you made and the rather narrow question I asked, i.e., is past colonization really the cause of economic hardship today? The British colonized North America and Burma. The former is currently a wealthy region and the latter is poor one. Similarly, they colonized Hong Kong and India. Again, the former is currently a wealthy region and the latter is poor one. One could go on for a while with similar examples. How, then, can one conclude that European colonization is the source of “massive global inequality”?

  11. joan says . . . | April 25, 2013 / 6:45 pm

    i bought this book about 6 months ago, after seeing it on the coffee table of a sitting room in the great house of a coffee plantation, that was perched on a cliff nestled in the blue mountains of jamaica.
    the plantation was owned by a jamaican family that had ‘been in the business’ for 4 generations. the members of the family had skin tones that ranged from cafe latte to espresso, with all shades in between. the matriarch, now over 87, had an accent with hints of english, swedish and jamaican, and her son spoke a mix of english and patois, and had eyes a crystal green unlike any i had ever seen before.
    and the coffee…the coffee is really on a level all its’ own.
    ~~the funniest thing…when the matriarch, a lovely woman that was a friend of my friend, invited us to coffee and sweet things in her sitting room, she prepared the freshly roasted and ground beans in a mr. coffee maker!! this cracked me up! when i asked her about it, she told me the coffee maker gets the water ‘just the right temperature’.
    and, seriously, it was one of the best damn cups of coffee i have ever had.

  12. Josh Jones says . . . | April 25, 2013 / 7:02 pm

    I appreciate you narrowing the question, Hanoch, but even you admit that you’ve narrowed the field of discussion. You completely ignore British adventures in Africa and the Caribbean, as well as the Spanish, French, Dutch, Portuguese, and Belgian colonial projects all over the globe. You also ignore the extreme inequality within the U.S. and other prosperous countries. And you do not even touch on the issues of slavery, forced migration, mass killing, and resource depletion (or theft) that are the hallmarks of much of colonial history and have very real effects into the present. But this isn’t the forum to argue these huge geopolitical questions, nor can they ever really be resolved. I stand by my statement and don’t feel the need to debate it to your satisfaction.

    I’ll just quote an old friend who once said, “there are two kinds of people in the world, and then there are infinitely many more.” Enjoy the rest of your week.

  13. Hanoch says . . . | April 26, 2013 / 12:33 pm

    I am not sure that I am narrowing (rather than focusing in on) the question. My original query was (and remains) as initially stated: “I am not sure why you would say that ‘European colonial history . . . gave us . . . massive global inequality’”.

    I think the question is legitimate. If colonization is indeed the source of economic hardship on a “massive” scale, then how can it be that many areas that were colonized are quite well off materially while others are not.

    Concerning your other comments, if your initial point was that colonizing countries, at times, practiced deplorable acts vis-a-vis indigenous peoples, we would be in complete agreement. But that was not my question, and I am not sure why you are veering off in that direction.

    Having said that, I will take your suggestion and make one tangential point in response since you appear troubled by inequality. There is no doubt that there is material inequality in the U.S. (and all over the world). Bill Gates is far, far richer than I am. But I do not see any moral problem with that. To the best of my knowledge he earned his fortune legally and ethically. The same could be said about thousands of others like him (though perhaps their fortunes are smaller), many of whom came from the opposite side of the economic spectrum earlier on in their lives. So, maybe, economic inequality is not so troubling after all.

  14. Josh Jones says . . . | April 26, 2013 / 12:50 pm

    Time is precious, Hanoch. Go argue with someone who cares about your opinions. I don’t.

  15. Hanoch says . . . | April 30, 2013 / 10:28 am

    Time is indeed precious. When you get some, I would highly recommend Thomas Sowell’s “Economic Facts and Fallacies”. My guess is you will learn something.

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