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Book Review: “Coffee: A Dark History” by Antony Wild PDF Print E-mail
Written by Eric Chen   
Wednesday, 28 June 2006


A Shiftless Baristo Book Review

Copyright 2006 Eric S. Chen for

First Sip:

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.

Main Gulp:

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 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 their lands.

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 deforestation.

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 or Kenya. 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.

Interesting flavors:

The real meaning of "Mocha"

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 sort.

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 book

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.

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