Coffee: there have been more books written about the black stuff than you’d imagine. They range from Jonathan Morris’s recent espresso-sized Coffee: A Global History to William H. Uker’s 1922 extra-tall-long-shot-double-cupped epic All About Coffee. Few, however, have captured the mucky residue of exploitation resting in your cup of joe as effectively as Augustine Sedgewick’s Coffeeland.
The book is essentially a modern history of El Salvador. Lacking an Atlantic coastline, the Central American territory was something of a backwater when it won independence from Spain in 1821. What El Salvador did possess, though, was rich soil. Accordingly, within two generations the tiny republic was transformed into one of the most intensive monocultures in modern history: a violent and unequal place of white-skinned capitalist “haves” and an indigenous mass of “have nots” where nearly every aspect of existence centred around coffee production.
Instrumental in this process was a Mancunian nobody named James Hill, who breezed into town in 1889 aged just 19. Fresh off the boat and with but a few shillings to his name, Hill went on to forge a commercial empire by transplanting the grey exploitative norms of smoggy Lancashire onto the coffee plantations of the New World.
If Coffeeland leans at times toward a hoary humble-immigrant-to-big-shot narrative reminiscent of The Godfather Part II, Sedgewick checks this tendency by anchoring the story in the overarching contexts of an expanding global marketplace and early US imperialism.
Hill’s timing was good: America was starting to mop up the region’s Spanish colonial possessions, and Brazil had recently ended slavery, denting its coffee production. El Salvadorian coffee would help fill this gap in the market, satisfying North American cravings.
Hill, the book’s anti-hero, was straight out of the nauseating rags-to-riches memoirs beloved of the Victorians: the penniless but enterprising lad who leaves home to make his fortune in far-flung lands. He streamlined an economy driven by hunger. If a planter wanted his labourers to work harder, he would withhold food from them (wages were so poor that locals were forced to survive on the meagre workplace fare of tortilla and beans).
Hill adhered to this starvation model of production, yet was considered one of the more benevolent plantation owners. For example, he was opposed to child labour not on principle, but because he disdainfully observed that kids’ work tended to be shoddier. The embodiment of Max Weber’s “iron cage”, Hill was an authoritarian innovator who revolutionised Salvadorian coffee by industrialising it, revered by the tight-knit European planter oligarchy who came to run the country.
It wouldn’t be the White Man’s Burden, however, without the ungrateful natives acting up. Fitting to a part of the world pockmarked by volcanoes, resistance smouldered away then erupted in style. In the years following the first World War, opposition to the increasingly ruthless influence of the USA would produce one of the region’s greatest heroes – Augusto César Sandino – the Robin Hood of neighbouring Nicaragua who would inspire the later Sandinista revolution of 1979.
In El Salvador communism gained popular appeal by turning the hunger-based economy of plantation coffee on its head: if to be human was to be hungry, then the goal of government should be provision, not privation. El Salvador’s vile elites did not agree.
A peasant uprising in 1932 was suppressed with genocidal alacrity, and, as the 20th century progressed, the country suffered the familiar Latin American tragedy of military dictatorship and civil war.
Hill died old and very rich in 1951, leaving his eldest son, Jaime, in charge of the business. Twenty-eight years later, James Hill’s grandson, a Californian-educated spoiled preppie also named Jaime, was kidnapped at gunpoint by leftist guerrillas engaged in a blood-soaked struggle with the planter oligarchy and the military dictatorship.
Following the intervention of the country’s most famous champion of the poor, Archbishop Óscar Romero, Jaime Hill was released. The selfless Romero, by contrast, wouldn’t survive the civil war, assassinated by a right-wing death squad just 10 days later while celebrating Mass.
Coffeeland – Sedgewick’s debut monograph – is at times overly didactic. In labouring the (very valid) contrast between the mundanity of the morning coffee and the nightmare of its productive process, the author occasionally over-steeps the brew. Yet the book succeeds in highlighting the gory realities underlying globalised consumption in the form of a character-rich national history of El Salvador.
As the book’s opening quote from Martin Luther King Jr puts it, “before you finish eating breakfast in the morning, you’ve depended on more than half the world”. In capturing the 20th-century tragedy of a small corner of that world through a breakfast staple, Coffeeland is a bittersweet triumph.
Bryce Evans is associate professor of history at Liverpool Hope University.