The Making of a Global Commodity | Part 2: Coffee Comes to the Americas

By Steven Topik

Read Part 1: The Making of a Global Commodity | Part 1: Out of Arabia

After the advent of a Muslim coffee economy in the sixteenth century and the arrival of Europeans to the world of coffee as described in The Making of a Global Commodity: Out of Arabia, coffee truly flourished in the Americas. Coffee was brought to the Americas from Europe first in the 1718 when it was initially planted on relatively small islands or enclaves. Although the Dutch played a key role in coercing the Javanese to grow coffee in their Asian colony, The Dutch East India Company (VOC) preferred to serve as intermediaries in the slave and sugar trades in the New World. They were little engaged in coffee production, except in Surinam whose production peaked in 1772-76 at 7,615 metric tons despite the fact that the Netherlands continued to be a leading continental importer and have continued today to be one of the world’s leading consumers of coffee.[1] Again, producing coffee and consuming coffee were not closely linked.

However, the Dutch were able to overtake Mocha and Mediterranean ports to transform Amsterdam into the world’s leading coffee entrepot for over a century. By 1750, Amsterdam’s imports of American production almost matched its purchases of Javanese coffee and Yemen had ceased being internationally important. Initially, the American good was mostly colonial production from Dutch Guyana. But soon the price of French production from St. Domingue made that island more attractive. Already, before the French Revolution, over 80 percent of the world’s production originated in the Americas.

The British were perhaps the first Europeans to bring coffee to the Americas., but they weren’t much interested in coffee as an export crop. They were the only western European power to reduce per capita coffee consumption in the nineteenth century rather than fully exploiting the coffee-growing potential of colonial Jamaica, Ceylon, or India.[2]

St. Domingue

The French were the principal purveyors of coffee in the Americas in the eighteenth century. But they did not begin with a plot to integrate production and consumption within the colonial system .[3] On the contrary, the French at first attempted to prohibit production in their colonies of Martinique and St Domingue (Haiti) because the Levant Company’s interest in its Middle Eastern monopoly and the French East India Company in Reunion.

In St. Domingue it was not the aristocratic and bourgeois elite of the empire, the sugar planters, who cultivated coffee on the remote hills, but middling landowners and affranchise, modest people of color.[4] Initially, their market was the prosperous colonial community on the island, but from the mid-1700s on coffee production became increasingly export-oriented and slave-driven. By 1787-89, French colonies supplied two-thirds of the world’s coffee.[5] Although not as large as the colony’s lowland sugar plantations, the coffee farms in the hillsides had dozens and sometimes hundreds of slaves on privately owned property in what became known as the “West India System.” But the massive concentration of African slaves led to the most successful slave rebellion in the world (1791-1804) causing Haiti’s production to fall by more than three-quarters by 1818. World prices for coffee responded by rising quickly.[6]  Haiti would return to exporting coffee by the middle of the nineteenth century, but even more than a hundred years later, its exports were 40 percent less than at the time of the French Revolution.[7]

Coffee spread in substantial scale to the American mainland later, but the rise of exports of coffee – by far the most important of all Spanish and Portuguese American commodities – was not a colonial imposition. It was the slaves, peasants, peons, and planters of independent Latin American countries who transformed the world coffee market. By the 1830s, bourgeois merchants in independent countries, particularly in Brazil, transformed the world coffee economy. Cheap, fertile land and slave labor, accompanied by industrial advances such as the railroad and steamship, allowed coffee prices to plummet after 1820 and remain low until the last quarter of the century, creating supply-induced demand in Western Europe and then the United States.  Brazil’s exports jumped 75 fold between independence in 1822 and 1899. World consumption grew more than 15 fold in the nineteenth century![8] No colonies could compete with Brazil in price, nor meet the large new demand in the colonial powers and in the U.S. By 1850, Brazil was producing over half the world’s coffee; in 1906, it produced almost five times as much as the rest of the world combined. Indeed, about 80 percent of the expansion of world coffee production in the nineteenth century occurred in Brazil alone![9] Known for some of the largest coffee plantations the world had ever known, first in the state of Rio de Janeiro and then in São Paulo, other Brazilian states such as Minas Gerais, Espirito Santo, and later Paraná, grew Arabica on medium sized family farms. Once slavery was abolished in 1888, southern European immigrants replaced the Africans, eventually working their own farms that came to average under 10 hectares and using family and free seasonal labor.

Most of the rest of the growth of world coffee production up to World War II was in Spanish America (Venezuela, Costa Rica, then Colombia, Guatemala, and El Salvador) as African and Asian production fell from one-third of world total in the middle decades of the century (the 1830s to the 1870s) down to 5 percent on the eve of World War I.[10]

Coffee during the nineteenth century boom was no marginal commodity. At the dawn of the twentieth century the value of internationally-traded coffee trailed only grains and sugar.[11] Thus Latin American production helped to redefine the nature of consumption, by dropping prices and boosting volume sufficiently to reach a mass market.

Coffee Production Today

The seventy years since 1945 have seen further changes in coffee’s geography, technology, cultivars, and labor systems. Although Brazil continues to be the dominant grower and Latin America still leads all other global cultivators, their place in the world market has declined. Coffee’s dominance has fallen in almost all the Latin countries as other crops and industry have overwhelmed its importance in the balance of payments and employment. The scale of production is relatively small almost all over – including Brazil  – but the fertilizers, pesticides, and machinery inspired by the Green Revolution have inspired a tremendous rise in per hectare yields in some places. In others, fair trade and organic techniques combined with peasant family self-exploitation have sustained coffee cultivation but have not greatly increased output. Now, climate change is threatening some of the gains of recent decades.

Geographically, the great change has been the decline of coffee exports from many African producers that prospered in the middle of the twentieth century, like Angola, Kenya, and Ivory Coast, while others like Ethiopia and Uganda have become world leaders. The biggest surprise has been the remarkably rapid rise of production in Vietnam, to become the world’s second greatest exporter. The advent of soluble (instant) coffee in the 1940s gave a push to robusta production, which thrived in the Indian Ocean and Southeast Asia. There, peasant families grow Robusta on small plots mainly for export. Other Asian growers such as early leaders Indonesia and India have greatly expanded their harvests, cultivating mostly on private small holdings.  And India, which had failed to grow much coffee when the Dutch and British first attempted colonial cultivation there in the seventeenth century, is now a leading producer and increasingly an important consumer. The globalization of coffee has taken a tortuous route involving peoples and places from around the world in a process that is constantly evolving. Now China is Starbuck’s most profitable market.

Over the last  five hundred years we have continued to use some word like coffee (quahwa, kavah, café) and continued to roast, brew, and drink the beans. But  that apparent continuity masks the fact that the nature of the world of coffee has undergone tremendous geographic, technical , social, and cultural transformations. The devout Sufi who first sipped coffee to escape the worldly in order to  find spiritual bliss, would be amazed (and disturbed?) at the  vast international commodity chain and enormous corporations that their bitter berry had borne.

Steven Topik has taught Latin American and world history at the University of California Irvine for nearly three decades. His publications include Global Markets Transformed: 1870-1945 with Allen Wells (Harvard: 2013), The Global Coffee Economy in Africa, Asia, and Latin America co-edited with William Clarence-Smith (Cambridge University Press: 20030), The World Trade Created: Culture, Society and the World Economy, 1400 to the Present with Kenneth Pomeranz (M.E. Sharpe: 2013),The Second Conquest of Latin America, Coffee, Henequen and Oil, During the Export Boom, 1870-1930 with Allen Wells (University of Texas Press: 1998), and From Silver to Cocaine. Latin American Commodity Chains and the Building of the World Economy 1500-2000, co-edited with Carlos Marichal and Zephyr Frank (Duke University Press, 2006). He is currently writing a world history of coffee.

[1] Mario Samper and M.R. Fernando, “Historical Statistics of Coffee Production and Trade,1700 to 1960″ in Clarence-Smith and Topik, Global Coffee, p. 412.

[2] Francis B.Thurber, Coffee, From Plantation to Cup (NY: American Grocer Publication Association, 1881), p. 212 notes that British consumption declined, from 1.25 pounds per capita in 1846-1860 to .96 pounds in 1880. Edward Bramah in Tea and Coffee: A Modern View of Three Hundred years of Tradition  (London: Hutchinson & Co. 1972) p. 50 charts the decline to .74 pounds in 1921. All this while (1886-1921) tea consumption jumped from 3.42 pounds of tea per capita to 8.51 pounds. India did produce coffee, according to Walsh Coffee, p. 23, Mysore had some 500,000 acres of coffee under cultivation. Not much of this found its way to England, however.

[3] Joel, David and Karl Schpira, The Book of Coffee and Tea  (NY: St. Martins Press, 1982), p. 11.

[4]Carolyn  Fick, The Making of Haiti, (Knoxville Tenn. University of Tennessee Press, 1990)pp. 19,22. Michel-Rolph Trouillot, “Motion in the System: Coffee, Color, and Slavery in eithteenth-Century Saint-Domingue”.”Review  3 (winter 1982), 331-388.

 [5]José Antonio Ocampo, Colombia y la economia mundial, 1830-1910 (Bogota: Siglo Ventiuno, 1984) , p. 303.

[6]Spenser Buckingham St. John,. Hayti; (London, Smith, Elder, & co., 1884), p. 321 gives data on “coffee production.” In the nineteenth century when this was written this was usually meant to entail exports since domestic production was ignored but it is unclear what was meant here.

[7] Walsh, Coffee, p. 160.

[8] Brazil, IBGE, Séries Estatísticas Retrospectivas vol. 1 (Rio: IBGE, 1986), p. 85.

[9] Calculated from Robert Greenhill, “E. Johnston: 150 anos em café” in Marcellino Martins  E. Johnston, 150 Anos de café (Rio: Marcellino Martins & E. Johnston, 1992), p. 308; Ocampo, Colombia, p. 303, Brazil, I.G.B.E. Séries Estatísticas retrospectivas vol. 1 (Rio: IBGE, 1986), p. 84.

[10] Clarence-Smith, “Coffee Crisis”, p. 100.

[11] Mulhall, The Dictionary of Statistics 4th ed. (London: G. Routledge and Sons, 189), p. 130.


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