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Coffee and Politics

The Arabs are recognized for being the pioneers in drinking and promoting coffee for at least five hundred years. As detailed in the History of Coffee, Arabica coffee originated in Abyssinia, modern day Ethiopia, where it was exported to Yemen, where the first commercial coffee was harvested. From the port of Mocha the Arabs warily controlled for centuries the monopoly of the distribution of the product.

The coffee boom was facilitated or rather was a consequence of the prohibition of alcoholic beverages in Islamic culture. Apparently the pilgrimages to Mecca played an important role in extending the coffee consumer base in Persia, Arabia, and Northern Africa. Several myths were spun around the consumption of the beverage in this region of the world.  One of them speaks of an occasion when the prophet Mohammed became ill, and the archangel Gabriel brought back his health and virility by offering him a beverage as dark as the black stone of Mecca. Many Muslims describe the infusion as a tool provided by Ala in order to help them remain awake long enough to fulfill their religious obligations.

Nonetheless, the consumption of coffee was not exempt of problems in the Arab world. In the year 1511 the emir Khair Bey had all the doors of the coffee shops in Mecca closed, arguing that coffee promoted many prejudices. It is said that it is most likely that he had political reasons for this action, as many of the criticisms of his regime emanated from people that met around a cup of coffee. The prohibition of coffee caused an upheaval that led to its cancelation, as well as the consolidation of coffee consumption. It is estimated that by 1630 there were more than a thousand coffee shops in Cairo.

In 1517, when the Ottoman sultan Selim I conquered Cairo, his spoils included besides camels laden with gold, a large shipment of coffee. Thus, the beverage was brought to Istanbul. By means of the Ottomans coffee was exported to Europe. H.J.E. Jacob confirms that coffee as a beverage in Europe commenced in Vienna with the invasion Turks under the command of Kara-Mustafa. Jacob also credits a hero of the time, Josef Koltschitzky, for opening the first Café in September 12 of 1683 in the center of Vienna. Nonetheless there are prior records of coffee consumption in other European countries. The first café in Berlin was opened in 1670.

Other authorities mention that the expansion of coffee in Europe was due to the initiative of diverse merchants. Coffee first arrived in Italy in 1645 courtesy of the Venetian trader, Pietro Della Valle. England began drinking coffee in 1650 thanks to another merchant, Daniel Edwards, who was the first to open a coffee shop in England. The first coffee shop in London was opened in 1652. These coffee shops were places where both liberal and progressive ideas were frequently discussed, as these were meeting places for philosophers and scholars.

Coffee arrived in France through the Port of Marseille. In 1660 several merchants of this port that were knowledgeable of the coffee trade, its attributes and effects because of their voyages around the world, decided to ship a load of coffee from Egypt and by 1661 the first coffee shop in Marseille was opened. Soliman Aga, the ambassador of Persia in Paris during the reign of Louis XIV, is noted as the first to introduce coffee to the monarchy and the high society of France. The first coffee shop in Paris was opened to the public in 1672 by Pascal Armeniano in the traditional avenue Saint German. A Sicilian named Procopio opened a similar shop nearby, where the most salient members of Parisian society met around coffee. It was in this locale where a new way to prepare the beverage was developed, utilizing a filter with ground coffee through which hot water was poured.

The consent of Pope Clement VIII, who became impassioned with the new beverage, was a fundamental factor for the expansion of coffee consumption.  The monks, as the emirs had done earlier, received favorably the consumption as it permitted them to remain awake and alert for prolonged periods. Nonetheless, the expansion of the coffee consumer base occurred amidst numerous movements against the beverage. The controversies were from diverse segments of society. Some raised the idea that coffee violated Islamic law, and that the reunions in coffee houses incentivized undesirable political activities and induced alterations of public morality. For example, some records from approximately 1570 show a relationship between coffee and wine, a beverage prohibited by the Koran.

There are also evidences of coffees shops forced to close in Mecca, Cairo, and Constantinople during the XVI century, in the XVII century in England; and in the XVIII in Sweden and Venice, because they were considered meeting places for seditious acts. Also, coffee at some point considered to be a medicinal beverage, a theme that also generated controversy even today (see coffee and health). Even the women of London protested against coffee in 1674. This movement argued that the beverage reduced the sexual vigor of their husbands, which was refuted years later.

Coffee always had arguments to compensate for the bad press. As a means of illustration, we highlight that many of the most prosperous businesses were born within these European cafés. This is the case of Lloyd's of London, an insurer that began to function at the founding of a coffee shop during the XVII.

There are also references of the consumption of coffee by famous historical figures. It is said the Napoleon consumed up to 20 cups a day, and the Honoree de Balzac once drank nearly 70 cups in one day. It is said that during the creation of his book, The Human Comedy, he drank over fifty thousand cups of coffee. Other famous coffee drinkers included the musician Johann Sebastian Bach, the philosopher Emmanuel Kant, Frederic the Great, and the thinkers Jean J. Rousseau and Voltaire. Clearly there are many more studies pending in order to relate the political and artistic successes of the famous coffee drinkers throughout history with the amount of coffee that they consumed.

By the end of the XVIII century the tariffs on coffee imports to the United States of America were extremely high, making New York City the center of the international tea market, the most accessible beverage and the least expensive alternative of the time. Suddenly the English throne decided to apply a tariff on the tea trade, which generated a greater disenchantment of English rule amongst the colonies and was an important impetus for the American Revolutionary War. This situation reached its most agitated period on the night of December 16th of 1773, when Samuel Adams and a group of habitants from Boston stole 342 cases of tea and tossed them overboard into Boston Harbor, in a symbolic act of colonial independence. This act, referred to as the Boston Tea Party, fed the rejection of all that was considered British, including tea, and contributed to the increased consumption of coffee as an additional symbolic act of independence, making this product the preferred beverage of North Americans.

From the point of view of international and institutional economics, coffee has also been a significant source of innovation and schemes of cooperation. For more information in regards to this subject please visit the Institutional Economics of Coffee on this site.


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