Coffee's road to world domination was not so pretty. During this Black History Month, we would like to acknowledge the colonialist roots of coffee and how these power dynamics still, unfortunately, persist today.
Coffee was discovered in Ethiopia, transported through the triangular slave trade, and still continues to fuel child labor and slavery in developing countries today: This is coffee’s bitter, black history.
The Origins of Coffee
Coffee was first discovered in Ethiopia, and continues to be the country’s primary export to this day. While the distinct origins of coffee are unknown, a common folktale tells the story of a goat herder who first discovered the plant. Known as Kaldi, the goat herder saw how his goats became energized when they ate the coffee cherries, so he brought the plant to a monastery in order to share his discovery with others.
The monks were enraged by the plant, calling it the “Devil’s work.” In their fury, they threw the plant into the fire, allowing for the scent of roasting coffee beans to become unveiled. Entranced by the smell, the monks drank the brew from the beans, which helped them stay awake during their work. From that day onward, they began drinking coffee daily and spreading its virtue throughout the region.
Although this tale has become somewhat of a legend, the true origins of coffee are unknown. However, it is speculated that coffee was discovered by the Galla tribe of Eatern Africa, Modern day Ethiopia, in the 11th century.
Eventually, Ethiopia began to trade their coffee with Yemen, until Yemen was overtaken by the Umayyad Caliphate. Ethiopia then continued their coffee trade with the new Empire up until the 14th century. At the turn of the century, the powerful Umayyad Caliphate began smuggling coffee out of Ethiopia and into Yemen in order to produce its own crop.
Ethiopia’s coffee exportation business was left in the dust while coffee grew to become a huge entity in the Middle East and later the Ottoman empire.
The Ottoman Empire formed a virtual worldwide monopoly over the growing commodity of coffee, something that would only be disrupted much later by the brutal forces of the European and American slave trade.
The Intertwined History of Coffee and Slavery
By the 1700s, major European powers began to recognize the power and popularity of coffee. In a move to gain control of this power, they began to colonize places like Barbados and Jamaica in order to grow coffee in plantations.
The British, the French, and the Dutch were the primary powers that fueled the slave trade, shipping hundreds of thousands of African slaves across the Atlantic and into Brazil, The Caribbean Islands, and other regions of the Americas. These slaves came from modern day Senegal, Gambia, Angola, and other countries in Africa as well.
By the beginning of the 19th century, American demand for coffee had increased drastically due to the aftermath of the Boston Tea Party and a strong desire to drink more coffee rather than British tea. Production of coffee in colonized regions began to increase, and with that, the number of slaves tirelessly working in the plantations did as well.
Over 1.2 millions slaves were brought to Jamaica to work on plantations and over 4.8 million slaves were brought to Brazil. In total, around 12.5 million slaves were displaced from Africa through the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, and out of those, only 10.6 million survived the Middle Passage from their home countries to the new colonies the would be working in. These slaves would later be forced to labor in the harsh, cruel, and unbelievably difficult conditions of slave-worked coffee and sugar plantations.
Slaves on coffee plantations not only had to work grueling hours, but they were never compensated for their work. Slaves lived in crowded, closed quarters, were overworked, underfed, and often became malnourished or terribly sick.
Along with the physical trauma and hardships, slaves were beaten down emotionally as well, due to the depravity of the environments they were forced to live and work in.
Slavery continued in most countries up until late in the 19 century, but even once slaves were technically freed, their lives and working conditions continued to worsen and underground forms of slavery persisted in coffee plantations.
A Modern Legacy of Coffee and Slavery
Since slavery and colonialism has such a deep-rooted legacy in the production and growth of coffee, forms of it still exist today in developing countries.
A prime example of this occurs in Brazil. While most coffee farmers generally earn 7-10% of the retail price of coffee, Brazilian coffee farmers make a meager 2% of the retail price of their coffee.
Since their wages are so small, these laborers often pull their children out of school to work in coffee plantations. This happens so often that the child labor rate in Brazil is a ghastly 37 percent. This creates a never-ending cycle of poverty, as children are never fully educated and are instead forced to live out their lives earning minuscule wages in back-breaking labor.
Additionally, the racial divide between working laborers on plantations and white collar jobs in the coffee industry is extremely apparent. In an interview with Sprudge, BD Imports CEO Phyllis Johnson talks about the tangible racial divide in the coffee industry. She describes a trip to Latin America where she saw that the physical laborers were all of Mayan descent while the higher paying jobs were occupied by people of Spanish descent.
Modern Discrimination in The Coffee Industry
Some believe that discrimination against targeted communities in the coffee industry continues to exist to this day. According to the National Coffee Association African Americans consume less gourmet coffee compared to Caucasian Americans do every day.
Although this is sometimes attributed to the high price point of gourmet coffee and the marginal gap in income between racial groups, other factors are at work here as well.
Johnson elaborates on the targeted marketing of coffee towards the young, white male, while African Americans are targeted more with energy drinks and sodas.
This Black History Month it's a good time to reflect and acknowledge these issues in the coffee industry. We would also appreciate you considering becoming a customer at a local Black owned coffee shop in your neighborhood, or buying from Black owned coffee brands and roasters.