Coffeehouse in a cemetery
Camille Rogier, 1860
A Cup of Coffee - A Special Memory of 40 Years
Yapı Kredi Publications

Sugar, Coffee and Slaves

By 1750, the coffee plant was being cultivated on five continents. Though it replaced more nutritious foods for the lower classes, it provided a stimulating energy and respite. Sometimes controversial, it was seen as relatively beneficial. It played a big role in Europe’s sobering up from alcohol drunkenness and, at the same time, enlivened the social and intellectual life. William Ukers in his book All About Coffee, noted that wherever coffee went it bred revolt. He said it was the world’s most radical drink because it elicited people to think, and when people start to think there ensues dangerous opposition to their despotic rulers.

Perhaps. But gradually, when the European powers carried coffee for planting in their own colonies, it was the strong labor force of slaves brought from abroad who cultivated, harvested and processed the coffee. Kaptan Clieu may have loved his coffee plant but he was not the one who garnered the millions of coffee beans. The slaves from Africa did this.

At first the slaves were brought from the Caribbean to harvest sugar cane; indeed, the history of sugar and that of coffee is closely related. For many customers, the cheap sweetener and the stimulus from caffeine rendered drinkable this bitter drink brewed with boiling water. Like coffee, sugar was made popular by the Arabs and, in the second half of the 17th Century, its consumption increased along with tea and coffee. This is why, in 1734 when the French colonizers first planted coffee in San Domingo (Haiti), it naturally followed that they would feel the need for more Africans to work there.

Amazingly, by 1788 San Domingo was supplying half of the world’s coffee. For this reason the coffee that nourished Voltaire and Diderot was produced by forced labor in the most inhumane manner. The slaves In San Domingo existed in hellish conditions of windowless barracks and inadequate food and were extremely overworked. A French traveler in the 18th Century wrote: “I do not know whether or not coffee and sugar are required for the happiness of Europe, but I know these two products are the reasons for the unhappiness in two big regions of the world. One of these is the depopulation of America (the Caribbean) for the purpose of planting coffee and the other, the depopulation of Africa to cultivate the plants.” Years later a former slave in the French government wrote: “Were they not hanged upside down, smothered in sacks, crucified on boards, buried alive, shot from a cannon? Were they not forced to eat dirty food?”

It came as no surprise when the slaves rose up to gain their freedom. The 20-year-long rebellion was the only successful slave uprising in history. They burned many plantations and killed the owners. In 1801, Haitian African leader Toussaint Louverture worked to revive the coffee exports. The amount of product he was handling had dropped to 45 percent of the 1789 amount. Louverture established the tenant system on the plantations as a way of paying the state’s slaves. Like the peasants who worked for feudal landlords in the Middle Ages, the workers as property of the state were obligated to work long hours at very low pay on the plantations. At least now they were not constantly tortured and were given treatment. However, in the years 1801-1803, Napoleon sent his troops to retake Haiti in vain and once more the coffee plants had been abandoned. At the end of 1803, upon learning his troops had been defeated, Napoleon shouted “Coffee be damned! The colonies be damned!”

The Dutch eagerly grabbed the coffee beans of Java to meet the demand for coffee. They did not torture them but systematically enslaved the workers. In the view of Heinrich Eduard Jacob, who was writing the history of coffee, the white landlords of the island would work only a few hours a day pruning the coffee plants in the sultry tropical heat of Java.

Very little change took place in Java during the years of service of Holland bureaucrat Eduard Douwes Dekker, which started at the beginning of the 1800s. In the end, Dekker left his job to write the novel titled Max Havelaar under the pen name of “Multatili.” He described as follows:

Strangers came from the West and imposed themselves as lord of the land and forced the natives to tend the coffee for a pitiful wage. “Food scarcity? Rich, fertile, blessed Java – Scarcity? Yes, dear reader. Only a few years ago the entire region died of starvation. Mothers put their children out for sale to get food. It was as if these mothers had eaten their own children, he wrote.

Dekker bitterly criticized one Dutch landholder: “Those workers by the sweat of their brows had rendered their own lands fertile. He kept the wages from the workers and fed himself with the food of the poor. By making others poor he became wealthy.”

Generally, these words echoed throughout the history of the coffee industry. But small farmers and their families, for example in the high Ethiopian hills, were working in their own small coffee fields and securing their livelihoods from coffee, and workers on plantations were not always repressed. This stems not from the plant itself or its production method, but rather from the workforce that nurtures the coffee and harvests its produce.

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