How Coffee Influences Politics

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Image retrieved from on October 17th, 2014

It goes without saying that a commodity as economically important as coffee is going to have political influence. In countries like Brazil, Colombia and Indonesia, where coffee was once virtually the only export crop, the treatment of coffee was once virtually the only export crop, the treatment of coffee-growers is equal to the treatment of the masses. And in countries around the world, where the consumption of coffee is as important as any staple in the diet, the price of coffee is as important as any staple in the diet, the price of coffee can indirectly be an indicator of economic trends as a whole. Marie Antoinette never did say, “Have they no water? Let them drink coffee!” But she lived in an age when coffee was more fashionable even than wine. And there were some who blamed the influence of coffee for the French Revolution itself.

At any rate, from its beginnings and the controversy between Islam and Christianity, coffee has held its own as a major factor in world events.

In a number of coffee-growing countries, certain injustices become part of the major motivations for revolution itself.

In Indonesia, for example, the post-Sencond Wold War revolution against the Dutch took Dutch economic injustice as the major reason to fight for independence. And there was much justification for this. Virtually from their colonial beginnings, the Dutch, realising the potential of the island of Java in coffee exporting, made coffee-raising a “culture cultivation.” Which, in economic terms, meant that the Government claimed the land for coffee, and corvèe labour was used to work the coffee plantations.

This prompted abortive native revolutions in 1723 and 1733 but injustices continued as before. And when the dutch Company (which had a monopoly on trade with the East Indies) had only coffee to ship during the competition with the British trading companies, they insisted that coffee be raised on “state plantations.” The rule wasn't relaxed until 1920 – but sufficient resentment was aroused to cause the Sukarno Revolution to cite “Coffee Injustice” as being typical of Dutch rule.

While one could conceivably find coffee as an impetus in other revolutions, ranging from the Mau Mau Rebellion in the Kenya Highlands to today's insurrection in El Salvador, the only other direct influence of coffee-planting on revolution came in Madagascar in 1947.

The largest coffee plantation in Madagascar had always been owned by the French, who produced arabica and robusta coffee beans for the world market. But still, about 85 per cent of the coffee was grown by small farmers. Unfortunately, so much was exported that the people of Madagascar could rarely afford to drink coffee themselves. Their usual drink was the rather poor substitute of water in which rice has been boiled.

Of the two tribes which raised the coffee, the Betsimsiaraka people are very sophisticated, while the Tanala are known as “the people of the forest.” Both of them had been exploited for centuries by the Chinese coffee-buyers, but they blamed their problems on the French, who owned much of the land, the plantations being worked by slave labour throughout the 19th Century.

When the revolt came in 1947, it was led by Madagascan officers who had been trained by the French. They were followed by various political parties and wich doctors. But behind them all came many of the small coffee-growers who felt that they had been exploited.

When they burned or deserted their plantations, they caused a drop in coffee production which has lasted until this day. The tragedy of the revolt is that it lasted one year – but the number of deaths is estimated at around 80,000. Predominant among the dead were the jungle men, the Tanala, who had left their coffee and had come to the cities to become cannon fodder.

The country's coffee production has barely survived, so great was the destruction.

But in these revolutions, coffee could have been substituted by any commodity. In the political revolutions, or just in politics in general, coffee plays an exceptional part.

The reason is simple. Coffee is not simply a drink with nutrients. It is, in the words of Dr. Gyula Ceybert, of Geneva's Research Institute For Food Preferences, “a drink which warms, which sets ideas flowing and which gives a sense of security and comfort to the individual drinking it. Tea is a social drink, meant to provide a conservative feeling of being one with society. Coffee makes the drinker feel, if not against society, at least an individual for whom society must prove itself before he accepts it.”

This is the 20th Century interpretation from a well-known socio-psychologist. But in the 16th Century, the Turks and Arabs were equally aware of coffee's “seditionary” values. The Turks called their coffee-houses “schools to the wise”. To Moslems in general, coffee was the answer to the intoxication of Christian wines. Thus it was a powerful force.

So powerful that in 1511, the Governor of mecca, ruling on behalf of the Sultan of Cairo, decided, after a long “trial,” to ban coffee. In theory, when he discovered the coffee-houses (which had been opened by mystic Moslems who had used coffee in their religious services in Yemen), he criticized only fact that “in these places , men and women meet and play violins, tambourines, chess and do other things contrary to our sacred corrupt Governor bribed two Persian doctors to say that coffee was unhealthy. Then he banned coffee altogether – proudly sending this decree to the Sultan in Cairo.

The Sultan realized what was really going on. He discovered that the real reason for banning coffee was that “it stimulated the common customers of coffee-houses to discuss the wrongdoings of their leaders.”

The governor had a lot of wrongdoings to be discussed. And the Sultan not only “repealed” coffee (comparing it to the Holy Islamic waters of Zem Zem), but investigated the Governor, discovering so much corruption that he was put to death.

Politics also raised its ugly head in Istanbul in 1623. when a governor there closed the coffee houses – again for preaching sedition – he opened up a can of worms. For the Turks needed their coffee and drank it secretly. Punishment was sever. For the first drink, one was beaten with a stick. For the second, one was sewn in a leather bag and dumped into the sea.
(See Coffee and the coffee-houses).

How could the Turks get around it? They simply opened “floating” coffee-houses. People walking around with pots of the brew, pouring out secret “quickies”. Visitors to Istanbul today still see these floating drink-makers (though alas, the drink today is mainly tea!).

After coffee was “officially blessed” by a Pope (see, coffee an religion), coffee-houses boomed in England. But not for long. King Charles II, with exactly the same logic as the Governor of mecca, decided that coffee-houses and coffee itself were immoral and unhealthy. The real reason was that coffee provoked unhealthy political discussion. They were, in the words of his ministers “seminars of sedition.” He banned coffee-houses entirely – but only 11 days later, the pressure was so great that he repealed his order “out of Royal Compassion.”

It was at that time that coffee-houses turned into real political institutions. Newspapers were founded in coffee-houses, writers and politicians gathered (along with highwaymen and thieves picking up rumours on where the wealth lay) and soon the coffee-house became so important that a fatal mistake was made. In the early 19th century, a group of coffee-house owners asked that a law be passed insisting that all newspapers originate out of their own coffee-houses. That was too much! And with the newest fad being tea from China, coffee died a fairly natural death until its recent revival.

In France, one could conceivably say that the Revolution was founded in the coffee-house. Inspired by hearty Haitian coffee (as well as talk about Haiti's own revolution at that time, people like Voltaire, Diderot and the great speakers and thinkers of France would find their common subjects of interest in the coffee-houses.

In July 1789, at the famous cafe Foy, one Camille Desmoulins, a journalist “high”on coffee, leaped onto a table and made an impassioned speech about democracy and freedom. So stunned were the people at his wisdom and emotion that a crowd gathered, and two days later the Bastille fell, leading to the French Revolution.

In the New World, coffee played second fiddle to tea – until politics intervened. The politics were the “unfair” taxation imposed upon the British Colonies by King George III. Under the Townsend Act of 1767, essential articles were taxed beyond people's endurance. And when King George finally repealed the act in 1773, he retained the tax on tea-- both on principle, and to help the East India Company. But the independent new Englanders wanted no part of this hated symbol of oppression. When the tea-clippers came over, the people resisted. In Charleston, the tea was locked up in vaults; in Philadelphia and New York, it was sent back to the ships. And in the most famous incident, in Boston, on December 16, 1773, a party of about 50 men disguised as Indians, boarded the ships, which had sailed from Macao, burst open the 343 chests of tea and emptied them into the harbour.

War was inevitable. So was coffee-drinking.

Tea-drinking to the Americans, was like approving British taxation. The Boston Tea Party itself was instigated by coffee-drinkers in Boston's Green Dragon Coffee House, which Daniel Webster called “the headquarters of the revolution.” In New York, at the merchants Coffee House, in a group of radicals made the first plan for a union of the colonies. And in 1788, the United States Constitution was celebrated by unfurling a flag from – you guessed it – the merchants' Coffee House.

Coffee was to remain the great American drink through all its wars. During the Mexican American and Civil wars, coffee was a vital part of the rations. And in the American West, coffee was so important and so strong that cowboys and pioneers felt that they couldn't do with out it. Coffee had to be strong enough to walk its own! And what did American coffee have to do with the sophisticated coffee-houses of Europe? As usual, Mark Twain has the last word: “The average American's simplest … breakfast consists of coffee and beefsteak... (European coffee) resembles the real thing like hypocrisy resembles holiness. It is a feeble, characterless, uninspiring sort of stuff. (Not like) the rich beverage of home, with its clotted layer of yellow cream on top of it”

Whether such a description of home-brewed coffee fits all, we dare not say. But coffee is history itself. And for that alone, we can all be thankful.

pp. 62-67 of The Complete Book of Coffee by Harry Rolnick (1982)