Friday, September 9, 2011

Muse of the Week: Coffee

I should probably be writing about President Obama's job speech and the ongoing fight to restore the American economy to some measure of health. However: 1) I find the entire situation profoundly depressing given the absolute refusal of most sectors of the government to listen to anything approaching common sense, and 2) I didn't get much sleep last night for some reason, making a completely different topic far more fascinating to me this morning...

That topic?


As a historian, I am fascinated by the manner in which products we take for granted have made their way around the world and into a state of ubiquity in our lives. Coffee is a wonderful example of the ways in which local, regional and international trade networks, colonial relationships and social dynamics have combined to render a once-specific crop an international staple (and, according to the International Coffee Organization--see their fascinating history of coffee here--the second most valuable source of foreign exchange for producing countries, after oil).

Despite our tendency to associate coffee with the western hemisphere, the coffee tree is actually native to the eastern Horn of Africa. Spread initially through local trade networks and the migration of slaves throughout northern Africa, it eventually made its way to the Middle East. For a period of time in the 16th and 17th centuries an active coffeehouse culture flourished in Yemen. Yemen also tried to prohibit cultivation of the plant from spreading to keep a corner on the market, but Dutch traders eventually managed to circumvent this prohibition and brought live plants back to the Netherlands by the early 1600s.

The problem with coffeehouse culture is that it tends to promote exchange of ideas. All those people getting together and discussing things tends to give people notions about how society might better function. This was not something Yemen's authorities wished to promote, and they clamped down on coffeehouse culture in their region of the world. Meanwhile, however, citizens in other regions started to prize the qualities of this new beverage. The Dutch colonies in India and Indonesia were some of the earliest non-African or Middle Eastern producers of coffee. Dutch colonizers were also responsible for bringing the crop to Central and South America in the 1700s. Coffeehouse culture, however, was far from confined to the Netherlands. By the end of the 17th century, coffeehouses were flourishing in many parts of Europe--and in North America.

What was happening in these coffeehouses? Well, for starters, the development of our modern economic systems. The famous insurance agency Lloyd's of London started as a coffeehouse. Both the New York Stock Exchange and the Bank of New York began in coffeehouses. Also? Well, the Boston Tea Party was organized in the rooms of the Green Dragon, a Boston coffeehouse.

One crop; a new economic and political way of life. Pretty impressive for a bean.

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