Coffee | Ethopia (17th Century)


White ceramic mug filled with coffee beside coffee beans by Janko Ferlic retrieved from

By DaeMyeong Choi

As a global trade commodity and a plantation crop, coffee dominates landscapes, markets, and workplaces of the world today. Consuming coffee is as an integral part of modern culture because coffee increases productivity and efficiency, which are key markers of modernity. Cafes also serve as hubs of social and cultural activities today, just as coffee houses in early modern Europe created public spheres for new ideas and relationships. When the focus is moved to the production side, however, there is another story unfolding; coffee production has fundamentally damages economic, social, and environmental relations of producing areas, historically. For instance, coffee plantations in tropical areas have devastated the soil, damaged both human and non-human lives, and destroyed self-subsistent economic systems of local societies. Coffee production, in essence, entails sacrifice of more vulnerable land and people. Even now, with profits of production mostly going to traders and speculators outside, rather than to the very people and land damaged, many small coffee farmers of decolonized societies, also called as the Global South are struggling for their survival in the global capitalist economy. In this respect, coffee is a commodity that epitomizes the uneven economic, social, and environmental relations of the world today.

This paper aims to analyze how closely the commercialization of coffee, ie production, circulation and consumption, is related to European colonization and the establishment of global capitalist system. It will also discuss how the non-Western world has been impacted by the plantation system in terms of human and natural resources. Lastly, it will examine what kind of cultural value is associated with coffee consumption today and bring up the issue of fair trade on the table. Historical sites that will be reviewed are European coffee houses in the 17th and 18th century, plantations in tropical areas in the 19th century, and coffee chain shops in East Asia today.

Encountering Black Drink

Originating in Ethiopia, coffee was a popular beverage in the Middle East, mainly used for religious purposes. When traders from the Ottoman Empire introduced it to Europe in the 16th century, coffee gained popularity quickly, yet for a different reason. The burgeoning bourgeois class in Europe regarded this black drink as what represented their identity, and embraced it as a central part of their culture. They believed that coffee, which works as a stimulant, “reduc(ing) fatigue and increas(ing) feelings of vitality and energy,” enabled them to think rationally and act efficiently, the core qualities that they believed to differentiate them from the old, medieval world. While denouncing medieval attributes as unreasonable, drunken, and static, they characterized themselves as rational, awakened, and progressive. In this analogy, coffee stood opposite to beer, the popular beverage in the medieval times; if beer made people wander in dreams, then coffee now made them strive for life. Therefore, it is not of big wonder that coffee quickly became the drink of bourgeoisie, of the modern, and subsequently of the West.

By the late 17th century, there were numerous coffee houses all over Europe. In London exclusively, there were around 2,000 coffee houses. They served as a public sphere where merchants, intellectuals, lawyers, and other middle class people shared information, discussed politics and business, and consumed modernity. It is also noticeable from use of the phrase “publiquely” in advertisement of a coffee house that they positioned themselves as designers of modern civil society. Yet, establishing a modern state did not end up doing the common good for all as they proclaimed. The common good that they relentlessly pursued was merely the interests of white, male colonists and capitalists.

Turning it to a White Commodity

As coffee continued to rise in popularity, coffee imports from the Ottoman Empire could not meet the demand in Europe, and consequently, European bourgeoisies started to embark on coffee trade themselves. As policy makers, they took the initiative in launching colonial expansion to tropical areas that had suitable weather for cash crops like coffee and sugar. Then, they adopted the plantation system in colonies, which is characterized by mass production in large-scale farmland, incorporation of enslaved labor, and intensive use of scientific methods like agrochemicals. Since discipline was important in controlling the workforce and maintaining the whole system, “violence was commonly used to terrify people into subservience.” In addition, plantation landscapes were also orchestrated in a way that could create a spatiality of control, for “enslavement was a material and spatial condition as much as an economic and legal one.” For instance, “the construction of buildings, walls, and designated paths on Cuban plantations formed a carceral landscape that restricted slave activities and movement to specific areas.”

Coffee beans produced by the exploitation of slave labor and the deprivation of tropical lands were then moved to markets in the West and soon found to be highly profitable, which then inspired more capitalists to acquire coffee-growing lands overseas. But, as more and more western capital encroached on tropical soil, its economic, social, and ecological structures were seriously altered and impaired to such a degree that local people were forced to resort to the very plantation system for survival. This was why even after slavery was abolished, the plantation mode of production could continue to thrive with an influx of ‘voluntary’ cheap labor. In this respect, it could be argued that “engagement with the international circulation of commodities, knowledge, and labor could only remake local systems within those systems’ terms.”

Simultaneously, the commercialization of coffee also had to do with replacing indigenous knowledge with colonial knowledge. As the encounter with tropical spaces in Latin America, Africa, and Asia in the 16th and 17th centuries challenged and expanded the West’s perception of the world, Western intellectuals like Carl Linnaeus sought to identify, define, and categorize objects and entities of the ‘newly discovered world’ so as to incorporate them into their own knowledge system. But, this work was only a part of greater building of “colonial knowledge (that) sought to order the world in a taxonomy of the known.” In the course of European expansion, indigenous knowledge was too easily discredited and replaced by colonial knowledge.

This intellectual hubris turned out to be disastrous in many cases because “vast areas of forest were often cleared by aspiring entrepreneurs lacking in expertise resulting in subsequent desertion of the land.” For instance, in the case of coffee production in the Southern Indian region of Mysore in the mid 19th century, where local eco-friendly coffee production system already existed with high productivity, European entry into the industry only proved to be a calamity for both indigenous people and land. Although local small farmers, following the traditional way of cultivating coffee along with shade trees, succeeded in both conserving the environment and making profits, European planters, who believed that the indigenous mode of production was ineffective and their modernized and scientific methods would improve productivity, clear-fell entire forests and introduced mass production and chemicals. This resulted in not only smashing indigenous smallholders who used to out-compete European planters but also in damaging the eco-system and bio-diversity of the region.

In present-day too, coffee is produced at the expense of “denudation of natural species of trees and vegetation on the one hand and dislocation in the life pattern of the people living in forests on the other.” Local small farmers who cannot afford expensive technology of mass production fall behind the competition and often degenerate into contract workers. The situation is even more dire for child laborers, who tend to be more susceptible to agrochemicals like pesticides, as it is portrayed in the documentary film Coffee Break. Their situation resonates with Michelle Murphy’s idea of alterlife in that their lives are already altered, and are also open to alteration in the future. That is to say, no matter how much cups of coffee may be purchased, because of the unfair structure of profit-sharing, they would continue to be in marginal existence. The same goes for countless non-human lives in producing areas; deforestation takes their ground for survival and extensive use of chemicals “increases the risk for abnormal growth and for variations in biological functions and lowers the health status.”

Between Consuming and Denouncing Modernity

Currently, it is evident that there is a binary system of coffee production and consumption. While it is developed countries or the Global North that mainly consume coffee, it is the globalized periphery, so-called the Global South that is in charge of its production. For the former, coffee is like “magnet that draws people together for spirited interchanges of information and ideas.” On the contrary, for the latter, it is the last means they can resort to, to maximize the chance of their survival in the global capitalist economy. Simply put, the binary system works as a part of “policies of the industrialized world (that) conspire to keep poor nations poor.”

This conflicting situation, however, often goes unnoticed, if not ignored, because the image people connect to coffee is related to western modernity. Especially in East Asia, where coffee has been an early agent of western culture and Starbucks stands as a symbol of high culture, to consume coffee means to consume modernity. In early 20th century Korea, just as coffee houses in Europe in the 17th and 18th century, coffee shops served as a gathering place for intellectuals to experience and claim sense of modernity. In Taiwan and Japan, too, coffee has been a white commodity that “fulfilled the elite group’s curiosity toward western cultures.” Even today, coffee shops in East Asia normally use westernized names to create imagery of modernity, and TV commercials vigorously market such imagery featuring the hottest stars.

However, as Amartya Sen wrote, “time present and time past, are both perhaps present in time future,” it should not be neglected that “every cup of coffee contains within it the whole history of Western imperialism.” It is not clear whether there should be a fundamental transformation of global capitalism or contradictions can be mediated within the current system. Nevertheless, there should be no doubt that efforts need to be given immediately to overcome the colonial and post-colonial structure of exploiting cheap life and labor in regard to coffee production, build sustainable livelihood for local small farmers, and secure the safe environment for both human and non-human species to cohabitate.

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