Millions of people across the globe have the same morning ritual. They get out of bed and, before they do pretty much anything else, they make themselves a nice cup of coffee. This bitter drink has become such a commonplace part of modern life that many of us take it for granted and few of us realize the very real impact the drink has had on history. From its legendary origins in Ethiopia to the key role it played in both the Age of Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution, coffee is much more than just a simple drink. So, let’s sit back, pour ourselves a nice cup of coffee, and explore the amazing history of the world’s favorite drink.
1.The Legend of the Coffee-Loving Goats
According to one popular Ethiopian legend the history of coffee consumption can be traced back to ancient Ethiopia. As the story goes, during the 9th century AD, a goat herder by the name of Kaldi was having a particularly bad day and lost all of his goats. He searched far and wide only to find them frolicking in some nearby bushes.
He quickly noticed that his normally well-behaved goats were acting strangely. They were jumping wildly and making enough noise to raise the dead. Upon closer inspection, Kaldi realized his goats were eating small red berries that he was unfamiliar with. A curious fellow, Kaldi took a handful of the strange fruit to a nearby monastery and asked for advice.
Upon hearing his story, the monks weren’t quite as excited as Kaldi was. After learning of the effect, the berries had had on his flock the monks declared the berries a “devil’s creation” and threw them into the nearest fire.
The story might have ended there but as it turns out the monks had a keen sense of smell. As the seeds roasted in the fire their potent aroma was released. The monks soon changed their minds, gathering the beans from the ashes, grinding them, and throwing them into hot water. The world’s first cup of coffee was born.
A fun story, but how accurate is it? Well, we don’t know for sure. We do know that the coffee plant, coffea is indigenous to Ethiopia so it’s likely that it was one of the first places that coffee was consumed. But it’s much more likely the berries were first consumed by our ancestors as food and that coffee drinking came much later.
2.Yemen Invented Coffee
So, if the Ethiopians were the first to consume coffee but not the first to drink it, who was? That’s a topic of some debate but most evidence points to coffee as we think of it today originating in Yemen during the 15th century.
Coffee as a drink has been linked to Sufi mystics (a more spiritual offshoot of traditional Islam) who are said to have used coffee to stay awake for extended periods of time, especially during long rituals. While it’s likely that Arab tribes had been making wine from the coffee cherries for some time, it was in 15th-century Yemen that coffee was first roasted and served as it is today. Its popularity then quickly spread across the Arab world, most likely because no mention of it was made in the Quran, unlike another popular stimulant, alcohol, which was forbidden.
The settlement of Moka or Mocha, Yemen, as drawn by French artist Jacques-Nicolas Bellin, was the first port to be closely identified with coffee fortunes. This map shows the various districts of Mocha at its peak in the 18th century. (Jacques-Nicolas Bellin / Public domain )
3.The First Coffee House Opened in 1555
Coffee quickly began spreading across the Arab world and could be found on the Arabian Peninsula and in North-East Africa and Egypt by the mid-16 th century. This spread was sped up by the Ottoman conquest of Arabia. The Ottomans loved coffee and carried it everywhere they went.
In 1555, the first coffee house was opened in Constantinople (Istanbul), one of the world’s largest and most important cities. Coffee Houses quickly became immensely popular. They held pivotal roles as centers of social interaction, relaxation, and intellectual exchange. Beyond being places to enjoy coffee, these establishments played a crucial part in shaping the region’s cultural tapestry.
A coffeehouse in Constantinople, by Amedeo Preziosi. ( Public domain )
Ottoman coffeehouses welcomed individuals from diverse backgrounds, fostering connections and cosmopolitanism. Patrons engaged in lively discussions, shared news, and participated in leisurely activities, transcending social boundaries. They also engaged in intellectual discourse, drawing philosophers, artists, and scholars into animated debates and idea-sharing sessions. The relaxed ambiance encouraged patrons to linger, embracing the “oturak kültürü” or culture of sitting, symbolizing a leisurely pace of life.
This isn’t to say everyone was thrilled, the spread of coffeehouses quickly raised alarm bells among the more conservative Muslim clerics of the time. They feared that coffeehouses might replace Mosques as the people’s favored meeting place. It was also feared that even though the Quran didn’t expressly forbid coffee consumption, coffee might seduce good Muslims, intoxicating them and making them think un-Muslim thoughts.
The authorities also worried that coffeehouses might become centers for instigating public disorder and revolt. It’s easy to guess what their solution was – to ban it!
4.Coffee Has Been Banned Multiple Times
Coffee has been banned at least five times throughout history. Luckily for us coffee lovers, each and every ban has been unsuccessful.
The first coffee ban came in Mecca in 1511. A local governor banned the beverage for being too stimulating and accused it of encouraging “radical thoughts.” He also declared that coffee was just as intoxicating as wine and should also be banned. Unluckily for him, the sultan of Cairo at the time was partial to a nice cup of coffee and overruled the governor, lifting the ban.
The next leader to attempt a coffee ban was the ruler of Constantinople, Sultan Murad IV , in 1623. One of his first acts after ascending to the throne was to ban both coffee and alcohol for religious reasons. He imposed the death penalty for anyone found to be drinking either and even went as far as donning disguises to catch coffee drinkers personally, having them beheaded on the spot. Ultimately his efforts failed, and coffeehouses became a staple of Ottoman Empire culture for centuries.
It wasn’t just Muslim religious leaders who had a problem with alcohol. Upon its spread to Europe, the clergy of 16th-century Italy began campaigning for the banning of coffee, describing it as the “Devil’s Cup”. Why? Two reasons.
Firstly, coffee was far too strongly associated with Islam and the Arabs for their tastes (coffee was also known as the Wine of Arabia at this point). Secondly, they didn’t like its use as a stimulant, deeming it to be too similar to the consumption of alcohol. Their attempts at getting the drink banned were unsuccessful though.
Pope Clement VIII considered coffee to be better for the people than alcoholic beverages. ( Public Domain )
Unfortunately for them, Pope Clement VIII disagreed and proclaimed, “This Satan’s drink is so delicious that it would be a pity to let the infidels have exclusive use of it.” Legend has it he loved the drink so much he wanted to officially baptize it. While this never happened the Pope’s blessing is said to have helped increase coffee’s popularity across the Catholic world, with Italy’s first coffee houses opening in the late 17th century.
The next attempted coffee ban came in 1746. Fearing its effects on the populace, King Gustav III of Sweden banned not just the drink but all coffee “paraphernalia,” e.g. cups and saucers. This isn’t to say everyone was banned from drinking it. Most bizarrely Gustav had prisoners consume coffee as a form of capital punishment, wishing to see how many cups it would take to kill them!
The most recent country to ban coffee was Prussia in 1777. Why? Well, Fredrick the Great of Prussia simply preferred beer. He reasoned it had been good enough for his ancestors so why change? This ban also failed.
5.Coffee Played a Major Role During the Enlightenment
Claiming that the introduction of coffee to Europe helped bring on both the Age of Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution might sound like a stretch. But the reasoning is surprisingly sound. Coffee’s influence on the Enlightenment was two-fold.
Before coffee came along the staple beverage for much of Europe was either beer or wine. Water supplies were full of nasty diseases and so, many people spent much of their lives inebriated to some extent or another. Some historians have claimed that coffee’s introduction as an alternative to beer meant people were much more alert and able to think more clearly.
The increasing popularity of coffee also led to the creation of Europe’s first coffee houses . The coffeehouse of the 1700s acted much like the internet of today. Men would meet over a coffee and do everything from gossip and air their grievances to share their thoughts on culture, politics, and science.
Everyone from political groups to artists, musicians, and intellectuals was drawn to coffeehouses as a safe meeting place. For example, Bach and Beethoven were regulars at their local coffee establishments, writing some of their best pieces in coffeehouses. Bach went as far as devoting an entire opera to the drink, The Coffee Cantata.
Café Zimmermann, Leipzig, where the cantata was performed. ( Public Domain )
6.Coffee Led to a Rise in Slavery
The spread of coffee wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows. It had to come from somewhere and demand quickly outgrew supply. The European powers of the 17th century, having developed a taste for the energizing bean, quickly realized they could grow their own coffee by utilizing peasant and slave labor in their colonies. By the 18th century, the Spanish, English, Dutch, Portuguese, and French had all founded their own coffee plantations. From Indonesia to South America and the Caribbean, slaves were forced to work on European coffee plantations. The numbers were staggering.
At one point, St. Dominique, a French colony in the Caribbean, grew two-thirds of the world’s coffee. Conditions were so bad that the slaves ultimately revolted, burning the plantations, and massacring their wonders during the Haitian Revolution of 1791.
Burning of the Plaine du Cap – Massacre of whites by the blacks”. On August 22 1791, slaves set fire to plantations, torched cities and massacred the white population. ( Public Domain )
The vacuum this resulted in led to the Portuguese using yet more slave labor to take over the coffee trade. By utilizing slaves Brazil soon became the world’s number one coffee producer. The country ended up bringing the largest number of slaves to the New World and didn’t abolish slavery until 1888.
The coffee trade was just too lucrative, and coffee sat at the heart of its economy, banking system, and political structure. As one Brazilian Member of Parliament put it in 1880, “Brazil is coffee, and coffee is the negro.”
7.Yemen Took Coffee Smuggling Very Seriously
When you think of smugglers you most likely think of shady characters transporting illicit goods like drugs or illegal weapons. The last thing to come to mind is something as innocuous and everyday as coffee. But in 17th century Yemen coffee smuggling was big business.
Yemen took coffee production incredibly seriously. The country was one of its major producers, which led to strict governmental control over both its cultivation and distribution.
However, this monopoly led to the rise of coffee smuggling, a daring endeavor undertaken by those seeking to bypass the restrictions imposed by the authorities. Smugglers would discreetly transport coffee seeds to evade government oversight and capitalize on the lucrative trade. Engaging in coffee smuggling was not without risks.
Smugglers who were caught faced severe consequences that reflected the gravity of the offense. The penalties for engaging in coffee smuggling included not only financial fines but also physical punishments that aimed to discourage the illicit trade.
8.The Boston Tea Party
Coffee smugglers weren’t the only rebels attracted to coffee’s allure. Today coffee is incredibly popular in both the U.S. and U.K. but that wasn’t always so. Both were quite late to the party, preferring tea well into the early to mid-1700s.
Why? Well, it’s no secret that the British love tea. They loved tea so much that they went to the effort of colonizing India just so that they could grow tea there. They weren’t about to switch over to coffee.
But all this colonization was expensive, which led George III to levy a tax against the Americas (the Tea Act of 1773), the Americans responded by revolting. In particular, the people of Boston responded by throwing a whole lot of tea into the city’s harbor.
Americans throwing Cargoes of the Tea Ships into the River, at Boston, known as the “Boston Tea Party”, led to coffee becoming the staple beverage in The U.S to this day. ( Public domain )
This rebellious act, famously known as the Boston Tea Party, directly led to the American Revolution. From that point onwards many Americans deemed drinking tea unpatriotic, and coffee became increasingly popular. To this day it is a common stereotype that Americans prefer coffee while the British are partial to a cup of tea.
9.Coffee Fueled Modern Capitalism and the Industrial Revolution
How many of us need a good cup of coffee before we get to work? It’s no coincidence that the Industrial Revolution in England happened at the same time that coffee became more accessible than ever.
The factories of the Industrial Revolution used machinery that could run all day long. Unfortunately, the men who operated them couldn’t. However, the introduction of coffee meant workers who used to take five meal breaks a day could last all day as long as they got shorter but more frequent coffee breaks.
Factory workers were able to withstand a long day of labor thanks to the consumption of coffee. ( Public domain )
Quickly, a drink that had once been associated with the aristocracy turned into a stimulant that fueled modern capitalism. The working class needed coffee to get them through the long day and the rich needed them to keep their factories running at all hours. This is arguably a status quo that has lasted right into the modern day.
So, there we have it, from its legendary origin in Ethiopia to its role as the “Wine of Arabi” in Europe, coffee has left an indelible mark on human history. It served as the catalyst for intellectual discourse in Ottoman coffeehouses and helped spark the Age of Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution.
But coffee’s popularity came at a great cost, namely the slaves who were used to cultivate it. Today, coffee is more popular than ever before, but it continues to come at a cost. Our love of coffee has led to deforestation and the exploitation of coffee farmers in some of the world’s poorest regions. Even in the world’s richest countries the rise of “Coffee Shop Culture” has led to gentrification, rising rents, and the displacement of existing communities.
Millions of us across the globe have a shared love of coffee. There are few things so many of us can agree on. But we should remember it’s a drink with a fascinating history but a complicated legacy. We should never take our morning cup of Jo for granted.
Top image: What history is behind that cup of coffee? Source: Fabio/ Adobe Stock
By Robbie Mitchell
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