Anthro Talks: Coffee

Graphic by Kayla Drazan

A classic cup of joe. Some re-charging battery acid at 4 a.m. One of the world’s most traded commodities.

This buzzing brew commenced in 11th century Ethiopia. Legend has it, a goat herder named Kaldi witnessed his goats’ antsy energy after consuming coffee plant cherries. Kaldi brought these magical red drops to a monastery, where several monks announced that they were the Devil’s products and tossed them into a fire, wherein the beans began to emit coffee’s classically sweet aroma. Afterward, the monks raked the beans out of the fire pit, diffused them in hot water and brewed the world’s first cup of coffee.

After blooming in Ethiopia, the bean journeyed to Yemen, where the country’s fertile soil facilitated rich cultivation. In 1555, coffee reached Istanbul and became a staple in an Ottoman palace, where it was the duty of the royal court’s “chief coffee maker” to brew the Sultan’s coffee and keep his secrets. Coffeehouses soon emerged across the Middle East and East Africa, fostering space for musical performances, dancing, chess matches, gossiping, arguing and discussing breaking news — coffee houses became “schools of the wise.”

Coffee traveled to Europe with Venetian merchants carrying the drink from Istanbul. At first, some people believed it to be the “bitter invention of Satan”; however, they eventually came to enjoy it. 

The first known English coffeehouse was established in Oxford in 1650. The Grand Café still occupies the same site today. Coffeehouses popped up across Europe, representing spots for dissemination of news and and for discussions about the Roman Empire, the difference between being awake and dreaming, etc..

Coffeehouses entertained enlightened discussion from the 17th–19th centuries,; but this  atmosphere arose from the dark cost of human life. European colonizers benefitted from the profitable commodity and sustained coffee’s production by exploiting over 11 million Black and Indigenous people for over 300 years through the Atlantic Slave Trade. By the 1830s, Brazil, which had previously been colonized by the Portuguese, accounted for 30% of the world’s coffee production, with Brazilian coffee plantations relying on Black and Indigenous people’s labor.

Today, 125 million people of color farm coffee across Africa, South America and Asia. Of this group, 63% live in poverty and 71% in extreme poverty, according to Heifer International. Farm owners are typically of European descent, while farm workers are usually people of color, whose exhausting manual labor receives next-to-nothing payment. Brazil’s coffee sector has a history of human rights abuses, with child labor being 37% more prevalent there than in other coffee-producing countries, according to Heifer International.

Wealthy North American and European companies, such as Starbucks, profit off of an exploited labor force. The Fair World Project found that Starbucks was connected to a Brazilian plantation where “workers reported dead bats and mice in their food, no sanitation systems, and work days that stretched from 6AM to 11PM.” 

Next time you’re sipping on some java, ponder how the plant originated in Ethiopia and was used by colonizers to garner immense profit by means of exploitation, to eventually land on your taste buds.

 


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