Book Review: â€œCoffee: A Dark Historyâ€ by Antony Wild
Written by Eric Chen
Wednesday, 28 June 2006
A Shiftless Baristo Book Review
Copyright 2006 Eric S. Chen for BARISTO.net
Antony Wild's foray into the history of the coffee trade
proposes some grand themes but fails to connect the dots. As a result, it reads
more as a collection of accusations rather than as a cogent history.
Some of Wild's grander themes:
The Coffee trade
exacerbated the extent, scope and duration of world slavery.
Wild bases this assertion mainly on the observation that the
countries with the longest and largest scale slave institutions were countries
that also grew coffee (not cotton). So if coffee was grown in Brazil, and slavery was extensive in Brazil....coffee
must have caused slavery! This facile argument overlooks the geographic
patterns. Chattel slavery was more common in countries with equatorial
climates; and by some reports, remains an unofficial institution in some
regions of equatorial Africa even today. Lots
of agricultural crops are more common in the tropics; herbs and spices, for
example; and many fruits. Why blame coffee?
The Coffee trade
accelerated the racist elimination of native peoples and the wholesale theft of
Goodness, so many things all seem to get the blame for this.
At various times I have heard racist imperialism blamed on the greed for gold;
for silver; for timber; or on religious fanaticism. "Coffee causes greed"? It
seems more likely to me that conquerors seized the land first and figured out
what to do with it later.
The Coffee trade has
caused environmental catastrophe, reduced biodiversity and drained many lands
of their natural resources, such as cutting down the rainforests.
Most of the dramatic stories that I read or hear about the
loss of the rainforests are about cutting down trees for the timber and
planting nothing at all in their place, leaving eroding muddy wastelands. I
don't think there would be much of a story if the cutters were planting long
term agricultural crops like coffee in place of the trees they cut down.
Americans clear-cut what used to be a solid forest from the Atlantic to the Mississippi and planted
wheat and potatoes, but those crops don't seem to get blamed for North American
Planting coffee might be a viable way to reclaim otherwise
wasted ex-rainforests. Someone ought to look into that.
The coffee trade
results in the impoverishment of poor, small, hardworking coffee farmers.
No, nondemocratic governments rife with corruption and
complacency, and free from the fear of being elected out of office do that.
Plenty such governments are in power in coffee producing countries, but there
are still worse places to be than growing coffee in Ecuador
Try making a living growing anything in Cuba. Try doing anything that you
aren't told to do in North
Korea. The problem in poor countries is not
the coffee trade. Coffee companies are just an easier, more assailable target
than the real culprits are.
The coffee trade takes
from the poor (the producing, third world farmers) and gives to the rich (the
coffee consuming, wealthy northern countries largely in Europe and North America).
I don't get this. I spend my money in New Jersey, buying a pound of coffee, and
some of my money goes to pay the farmer. Doesn't the farmer get something out
of this deal? Besides, like other such critics, Wild does not suggest an
alternative. What, exactly, does he propose that the farmers grow if they
dislike the coffee trade so much? Cocaine? Hashish? How many cash crops are
there that these farmers can actually grow and sell?
Wild goes off on strange historical tangents, for example,
an inexplicably long divergence into the history of the island of St. Helena.
This seems mainly an excuse to display photos of a porcelain coffee service
once owned by Napoleon, who was exiled to that remote place. I suspect it also
was an excuse for Wild to get his publisher to fund a boondoggle to that far island to
"research." As in many other aspects of the story, Wild does not succeed in
connecting this long digression to much of anything else.
The real meaning of
Now, it seems that most of us who brew the coffee for a
living have been misinformed. I always thought that Mocha referred to a drink
based on milk, with both chocolate and shots of espresso in it.
I learned something new reading Wild's book - that Mocha is
the name of a town that was once the port city where the coffee trade
originated. Mocha, in Yemen
(on the Arabian peninsula) is no longer a port
since the bay silted up and can no longer accommodate vessels of any size. So
Mocha is a place, not a drink. The connection with coffee is clear, but the
connection with chocolate, if any, is not spelled out.
The role of the coffee
houses in world history
Wild provides an interesting perspective on the historical
effects of coffee, that is, as a stimulant of creative thinking. He cites
examples from which he deduces that coffee houses were the crucial settings in
developing groups of thinkers in commerce, science, and politics (especially
revolution, including the American revolution). And here I always thought that
Sam Adams, a brewer by trade, preferred beer.
I rather like the thought of great things having been brewed
in coffee houses; but I must admit reluctantly that coffee itself probably had
little to do with it. When public meeting places were either theaters,
churches, taverns or coffee houses, it seems as though there really was not
much choice of venue for meetings of non-sectarian, serious thinkers of any
Many of us have noted the presence of writers, artists and
actors among the baristi profession. Perhaps the coffeehouse role in nurturing
creativity is still going on today.
The Shiftless Baristo
says - skip it. If you are still interested in buying it, though, I'm not too
proud to take Amazon's referral fee - click the icon on the right to buy the
Antony Wild’s foray into the history of the coffee trade proposes some grand themes but fails to connect the dots. As a result, it reads more as a collection of accusations rather than as a cogent history.