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The Startling History of America’s Favorite Drug — Coffee

Coffee has become a vital part of most of our days, whether it’s a cup to get us going in the morning or for a pick-me-up to get through the workday. Now, a new book unpacks the rich (and sometimes) dark history of the beloved drink.

“The history of coffee runs through the middle of this larger story about global connection and transformation,” Baruch College Professor Augustine Sedgewick writes in his new book Coffeeland: One Man’s Dark Empire and the Making of Our Favorite Drug. “What does it mean to be connected to faraway people and places through everyday things?” 

Coffeeland explores the centuries-long history of coffee, from its use by Sufi monks in Yemen hundreds of years ago to its place on our tables today. As it turns out, the history of coffee is riddled with exploitation, poverty, and greed.

Coffeeland rests on the story of James Hill, a Manchester-born Englishman who moved to El Salvador in the late 1800s to find wealth. He decided to break into the coffee planting business, but found himself short on wage labor (coffee monoculture requires immense labor). So, he cut off the locals’ access to land, forcing them to rely on the coffee plantations for work and food.

“The purpose of the state in those places was the production of coffee. And they helped plantation owners like Hill force people to work by starving them,” Sedgewick tells WNYC.  He writes: “What was needed to harness the will of the Salvadoran people to the production of coffee, beyond land privatization, was the plantation’s production of hunger itself.”

In the next century, Hill’s empire would grow and become the oligarchy known as the “Fourteen Families.” Coffee made up 90 percent of El Salvador’s exports and a military dictatorship emerged. Today, after uprisings and a civil war in the 1980s, El Salvador is no longer the coffee capital it once was — its coffee is now marketed as gourmet with Brazil dominating coffee production, according to The New York Times.

 As much as it serves as a history lesson, Coffeeland paints a picture of global consumer habits and the capitalism we all participate in. In fact, it was coffee planters and roasters who pushed the idea of stopping the workday for what they called a “coffee break.”

“The most important thing for me was realizing the extent to which the history of coffee is the history of work. The history of work is really the history of the idea of energy, the history of the idea that our bodies are energy-based mechanisms that consume and expend energy in the course of doing everything,” Sedgewick tells WNYC. “When we think of the body this way, we think of the body’s most basic function as work. That way of thinking of the body normalizes the extraordinary requirements that modern capitalism places on us on an everyday basis.”