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Coffee Tells the Story of the Modern World

Updated: Oct 20, 2022

As featured in AP World History

In the late 15th century, coffee beans were exported from Ethiopia to Yemen. And in Yemen is where the local Sufi population developed the supposed first cup of drinkable coffee. From that point on, coffee was forever intertwined with religious and cultural practices in the Middle East. In part due to the Middle East’s geographical position, as well as the desire for more exotic goods on the European side, the concept of coffee had spread all the way to the shores of France. Coffee is a perfect first hand witness of globalization. The beverage has witnessed this foundation of the modern world through historical travel and cultivation by a plethora of people around the globe.

The travel and distance covered by the coffee bean over the years is a feat that few other crops have made in their lifetime. The astonishing journey and history of coffee starts in the plateaus of Ethiopia where the first known growth of coffee was traced back to. There are many stories of how man discovered the wonders of the fruit and were able to turn the caffeine-filled bean into a drink, but legend has it that a nomadic sheep herder saw his own cattle eating the berries from the tree. Upon seeing the cattles’ ensuing rejuvenation, the herder decided to try the berries himself. Although it was bitter, he experienced the rush of caffeine that we all crave today. From that point on, the Ethiopians knew that this crop could indeed be traded with civilizations around them. Geographically, Yemen is just across a small channel and has a history of trade with Ethiopia. In the late 1400s, the coffee bean began to make its way to Yemen. Yemen at the time was a blooming country with a bustling port that brought economic prosperity. All the while, the merchant religion of Islam was at the core of Yemen’s values and government. Sufi priests commenced the tradition of drinking Coffee as a beverage and implemented consumption into their daily lives and spiritual rituals. Once the practice became popular, it ended up being a staple in Muslim culture, throughhout the middle east, replacing the forbidden alcholic drink of wine. Trade with Europeans was inevitable at that point, so in due time, coffee made its way into Europe, becoming one of the most popular non-alcoholic drinks along with tea. The Europeans eventually brought the crop to the new world, most likely due to high demand for the product, where the climate and soil was perfect for growing coffee, among other factors. Thus, began the european production of the crop and the general expansion of the consumption and desire for coffee. The simple fact that coffee today is consumed on every continent on earth (scientists in Antarctica must be drinking the stuff too) supports the arguement that coffee is a crop that personally witnessed the mass globalization and interaction between civilizations that occured during the Muslim empire reign over the middle east, and the european conquest of the Americas. This interaction brought us to the modern world we live in today.

Although one might think that globalization leads to homogenization of products like coffee, this has not occurred (yet). In different parts of the world, coffee is produced differently and cultivated by different people. Before the rise of capitalism, coffee, in addition to just about every other crop, was grown for subsistence (to raise only the money you need) or personal use. But when the Europeans saw the increase of demand for coffee, and the lack of large-scale production in the middle east, it was to their delight that the soil and climate of the Americas could sustain coffee growth. Additionally with other cash crop plantations, such as sugar or cotton, the coffee industry developed in the carribean and later in south and central america. Surprisingly, much of the manual labor needed was provided by the indigenous populations, rather then the african slaves brought there (it is important to note that indigenous labor was also forced). As the indigenous population was on a steep decline, labor for coffee plantations became scarce and resulted in a decline in coffee production. Fast-forward to today, and one can see that corporations followed the greedy capitalist ways of early mercantilist, colonizing europe by re-establishing large-scale agricultural projects to harvest and fulfill our demand for coffee. Today, the impoverished people of South and Central America are often times coerced into these agricultural projects for little pay and hard working conditions. The history of the cultivation of coffee accurately shows the development of subsistence agriculture to the capitalist, commercial agriculture, the latter being the main form of agriculture we consume today in North America. This connection shows the story of our modern world, which is built on a foundation made of capitalist ideals.

Ultimately, when one savours a cup of coffee, they simultaneously, and unconsciously, experience years of interesting yet oppressive history. Your coffee has travelled from the terraces of Ethiopia and Yemen, to the silver french coffee pots elites drank out of, to the plantations in the Americas where hundreds if not thousands of indigenous people lost their lives, and finally to your cup. When purchasing your coffee, you are supporting the greedy, capitalistic system that underpays and takes advantage of destitute people around the world. Both of the elements of capitalism, colonization, and overall globalization are clear indicators and incredible “storytellers” of the modern world we live in today, especially our own North America.

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