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The history of coffee as it relates to political debate

By       Message Mary MacElveen     Permalink

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In this column, I thought I would go slightly off topic but not really.  If you are like me, next to your keyboard you have a cup of coffee.  Perhaps, while online and in the middle of a lively political debate, that cup has fallen over onto your keyboard thereby angering you and ending said debate.

If you are one of those who hates coffee, then you may not fully understand this piece ... but for those of us who enjoy this lively brew, our senses are heightened and we feel we can zero in on what is being said by another.

We are the masters of our domain as we sip away at our cup of coffee.

You may be asking, why I am writing about coffee?  As I was flipping around the TV channels a while back, I stumbled upon the History Channel's "Modern Marvels" and this particular episode dealt with the history of coffee.  For a coffee lover like me, it was a rush.  Little did I know that my beverage of choice was the very bedrock of political debate.

Little did I know that coffee was the second largest commodity traded around the world where the first one is oil.  As wars are fought for oil, I wonder if one could ever be fought for this commodity.  Just imagine if you will, you are a coffee lover and the largest coffee growing nations increased the price of this commodity.  That is just something to ponder there.  Would you cut back on your consumption as some have done for health reasons?  Or would you go out and raid the store shelves before the price increases hit them?

If we were forced to cut back on our consumption, what would happen to our political debate?  This is just something to think about, folks.

The history of our political debate and the information age can be traced directly back to coffee houses which were referred to as "penny universities" where people would gather to discuss not only politics, but religion, poetry and yes, gossip.  Since many could not afford to attend universities and the price of coffee was just pennies, these coffee houses became the centers of debate.

In 1663, 82 coffee houses were set up in London and by 1700 that number increased to more than 500.  Through these coffee houses, the information age was born. 

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The London paper, The Tatler, founded in 1709, often monitored the debates in these coffee houses and used the names of coffee-houses as subject headings for its articles.  Coffee houses commerce and technology became intertwined.

Does that sound familiar?  Can a comparison be made with the Internet?

Some folks have mocked Al Gore for inventing the Internet ... which he did not. If they would do a little research, they would see that these coffee houses were the places to disseminate information to the masses.

In the 1680s, Edward Lloyd opened a coffee shop which became a meeting-place for ships' captains, ship-owners and merchants who gathered to hear the latest in maritime news.  Lloyd began to summarize the information in the form of a regular newsletter supplemented with reports from a network of foreign correspondents and the newsletter was then sent out to those who subscribed.  Underwriters began to assemble at the coffee house and it gave birth to Lloyds of London.

So as you will see, coffee did give birth to the print medium and how information was distributed.

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According to Coffee fuelled the information exchanges of the 17th and 18th centuries the ballot box can be linked directly back to coffee houses: "Miles' coffee-house was the meeting-place of a discussion group, founded in 1659 and known as the Amateur Parliament. Pepys observed that its debates were “the most ingenious, and smart, that I ever heard, or expect to hear, and bandied with great eagerness; the arguments in the Parliament house."

It then goes onto say: "After debates, he noted, the group would hold a vote using a “wooden oracle” or ballot-box a novelty at the time."

So, wherever you are and if you use a ballot box to vote, you have coffee to thank.

If I am to be true to history, the western world did not invent coffee.  In AD850 in Abyssinia (now known as Ethiopia), a goat herder named Kaldi was tending his flock when he noticed that his goats were acting jumpy and wondered what was causing them to react in this way.  He saw they were eating berries, tried them and he too became as jumpy as the goats.  From what historians have been able to piece together, the plant was cultivated by the Ethiopians as energy food and it is believed that at around AD1100 coffee made its way to Yemen an then to the rest of the Arab world.  The Arabs found that it was a more palatable way to boil the beans and by the 13th century, they were roasting, grinding, brewing and enjoying coffee as we do to this day.

By the 15th century, coffee had been introduced to Egypt, Turkey and North Africa. It later found its way into Europe.  In America in the early 1900s, we had prohibition against the sale and consumption of alcohol, but back in 1511, when Emir Khair Bey (the new governor of Ottoman) attempted to ban coffee.

I guess the American law makers should have listened to history.

As I read Coffee...A History, I realized that there is so much that I did not know of my favorite drink.  What amazed me is that, during the time of the Boston Tea Party, drinking coffee became the patriotic thing to do.  I wonder if those that are anti-Islamic or are bigots to the Arab community as a whole would feel if they knew its origins?  Imagine if they knew of its origin that it was the patriotic duty of early Americans to consume it.  There is a 16th-century Arabic saying: "The Intelligent man who empties these cups of foaming coffee, he alone knows truth."

Again, if you do not drink coffee, this does not compute.

As South America has become the biggest grower of coffee, we who love coffee should be very diplomatic when it comes to our political debates with these nations.  If we think, 'hey we can just grow our own,' the only state in our nation that indeed does grow it is Hawaii, because of their rich volcanic soil and a climate similar to South America.

To the western world: be very nice to these South American countries if you value your first cup of the day.

Just how did South American (namely Brazil) become the biggest suppliers of coffee?  Oh it all boils down to a love affair.  As I was reading 'Coffee ... A History':


"In 1727 a Brazilian official named Francisco de Melo Palheta was called upon to settle a border dispute between the French and the Dutch colonies in Guiana.  Not only did he accomplish the task, but he also bedded the wife of French Guiana's governor for good measure."

At that time the French and Dutch colonies in Guiana were trying to prevent this commercial cultivation from spreading, but Palheta persuaded the governor's wife to help him smuggle the plant ... when they ended their relationship, and he returned to Brazil, she presented Palheta with a few bouquet of a few coffee plants along with seeds ... and the rest, as they say, is history.

So, the next time you sit down with your favorite cup of coffee and harp on those in power for engaging in extra-marital affairs, if Francisco de Melo Palheta had not so engaged, what would you be drinking?

Of course I am not advocating extra-marital affairs ... but it is something to ponder here.

So, as you gather in your favorite coffee houses or read the news paper, log onto your computer with coffee at your side, ready to discuss politics, I thought you should know the history of your favorite beverage.  It is truly fascinating to see how a beverage shaped the world that we are all living in.

I have a renewed reverence for my cup of coffee; since democracy can be literally linked to this precious brew. The aroma of a civilized world can quite literally be traced back to the humble coffee bean.

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I am a writer who currently writes pieces for my own blog I have been published by, and I was a guest on the Jay Diamond Radio Show on WRKO in Boston and have (more...)

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