The Essence of Commodification: Caffeine Dependencies in the Early Modern World

By Jamieson, Ross W. | Journal of Social History, Winter 2001 | Go to article overview

The Essence of Commodification: Caffeine Dependencies in the Early Modern World


Jamieson, Ross W., Journal of Social History


In 1671 Philippe Sylvestre Dufour, a Lyon pharmacist, published a volume entitled De l'usage du cafe, du the, et du chocolate. This book brought together information circulating in Europe on three caffeine drinks that had all achieved widespread popularity on the continent over the previous thirty years; cacao, coffee and tea. The frontispiece of Dufour's treatise (Figure 1) shows us the triumvirate through the eyes of contemporary Europeans. On the left coffee, being consumed by a man in Middle Eastern garb, from a bowl without handles and a tall metal pot. In the center tea, consumed by a richly dressed man from the Far East, with a bowl without handles, and his squat Chinese teapot. Finally on the right cacao, consumed by a Native American man from a gourd mounted in silver. On the ground in front of him a chocolate pot with its typical horizontal handle, with a beater, or molinillo, for foaming the cacao lying on the ground beside it. All three of the consumers are male, each an exotic stereotype, and eac h bearing the gift of a novel beverage for Europe. (1)

Caffeine and theobromine are two naturally occurring alkaloids that are present in plants used to brew beverages in many cultures. At the end of the fourteenth century Europe was one of the few regions of the world where such drinks were entirely unknown. In the early seventeenth century this situation changed entirely as, according to Fernand-Braudel, "Europe, at the center of the innovations of the world, discovered three new drinks, stimulants and tonics, coffee, tea and chocolate." And yet, is discovery really the word we want here? Caffeine beverages have played an important role in historians' vision of a single world system, in which they provided dry, lightweight, high value commodities that could be transported from the peripheries to supply the people of Europe. These stimulants were an alternative to the traditional alcoholic beverages of medieval Europe, eventually entering the capitalist system as acceptable drinks for daytime consumption by the workforce. The sudden increase in popularity of the consumption of these beverages in Europe in the mid-seventeenth century parallels the rise of a capitalist world economy, in which both consumption and production were important forces behind the development of mass markets. As commodities in early modern Europe, Sidney Mintz has placed caffeine beverages as part of a larger suite of "drug foods" produced on colonial plantations, including sugar and tobacco. All were imported to Europe in sharply increasing quantities from the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries, in an "intimate and entangled" change in the way Europeans consumed such products. (2)

If, however, we accept that the people of Europe were not the only consumers in the early modern world, the picture becomes more complex. Coffee, tea and chocolate were not the only caffeine beverages available, and their eventual dominance of the European market is only part of complex regional variations in the origins, production, and consumption of caffeine on a world scale in the early modern period. The introduction of caffeine into Europe through several beverages provides a nuanced example of the complexities of colonialism, and the regional variation that occurred in the creation of a world market for caffeine products. For each of the caffeine beverages there is a unique history of the European encounter with a non-western drink, including not only the drink itself, but social signals as to its proper use. This is followed by European attempts to co-opt the regional market for the product, and then the eventual acquisition, or rejection, of the plant as part of the mercantile plantation system of ea rly modern Europe.

Cacao and the Early Spanish Empire

Chocolate, cocoa, or cacao (Theobroma cacao) was the first caffeine beverage encountered by Europeans in the expansion of empires. Cacao was present in the earliest parts of the colonial encounter, as Christopher Columbus, on his 1502 voyage, captured a Maya trading canoe at Guanaja Island, just off Honduras.

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