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

The His­to­ry of the World in 46 Lec­tures From Colum­bia Uni­ver­si­ty

“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

by | Permalink | Comments (16) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Comments (16)
You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.
  • Hanoch says:

    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.

  • See Tshiung Han says:

    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.

  • diana says:

    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.

  • chris says:

    “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.

  • chris says:

    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.

  • Hanoch says:


    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”.

  • Josh Jones says:

    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.

  • chris says:

    “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.

  • Gamal Ferrer says:

    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!

  • Hanoch says:

    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”?

  • joan says:

    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.

  • Josh Jones says:

    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.

  • Hanoch says:

    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.

  • Josh Jones says:

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

  • Hanoch says:

    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.

  • Pedro says:

    Just a cor­rec­tion on the post: San­to Domin­go in the present days, it isn’t in Haiti, it’s on the oth­er half of the island where is locat­ed Repub­li­ca Domini­cana. In mat­ter in fact San­to Domin­go is the cap­i­tal of Repub­li­ca Domini­cana.

    I’m curi­ous, now that you know the island you refer is divid­ed in half, which side did you mean? The Span­ish speak­ing side of Repub­li­ca Domini­cana or The French speakig side of Haiti?

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.