Magazine article Whole Earth

Goatherds, Smugglers, and Revolutionaries: A History of Coffee

Magazine article Whole Earth

Goatherds, Smugglers, and Revolutionaries: A History of Coffee

Article excerpt

   Coffee, Coffee musse ich haben und wenn jemand reich will laben ach so 
   schenkt mir Coffee ein! 
 
   Coffee, I must have coffee Anyone who would refresh me must pour me out 
   some coffee. 
 
   --PICANDER/J.S.BACH, "COFFEE CANTATA," 1735 

According to legend, we learned about coffee from goats. Around the year 850 in southern Abyssinia, a young goatherd named Khaldi noticed that his goats were particularly frisky and frolicsome when he brought them home in the evening. Curious, he followed them the next day and observed them eating the leaves and berries of the coffee tree. Possessing the scientific spirit of inquiry, the lad tried the fruits himself and was delighted with the result. The prior of a nearby monastery of dervishes followed his example, and found the beans excellent for sustaining the all-night prayers and devotions of his sect.

Some say the arts of roasting and brewing coffee were revealed to mankind by the Angel Gabriel. Avicenna wrote of the medicinal qualities of coffee around the year 900. The first known cultivation of coffee was by the Arabian colony at Harrar, in the thirteenth century. From Harrar, on the banks of the Red Sea, coffee traveled to the center of the world: Mecca. Quranic authorities generally frowned on coffee drinking, but by the fifteenth century it had spread around much of the Muslim world. When the first coffeehouse opened in Constantinople in 1475, there were already coffeehouses in Cairo and in Persia.

   When the black spirits pour inside us, Then the spirit of God and air And 
   all that is wonderous within Moves us through the night, never-ending. 
 
   --RUMI, THIRTEENTH CENTURY 

Religious opposition to coffee drinking resulted in political proscription a number of times during the sixteenth century. Central to the debate was whether drinking coffee fell under the same Quranic prohibition against intoxication as wine. Quahweh, coffee, was also a poetical word for wine. Both sides of the debate had their proponents. The "strict" interpretation was that since the Quran did not specifically mention coffee, it was not forbidden. The nonliteralists maintained that wine was a symbol of inebriation, and that any substance that produced inebriation was included in the meaning. Not surprisingly, many of the strict interpreters were coffee drinkers.

   Where coffee is served, there is grace, splendour, friendship, and 
   happiness. You flow through the body as freely as lift's blood, refreshing 
   all that you touch. 
 
   --SHEIKH ANSARI DJERZERI HANBALL ABD-AL-KADIR, SIXTEENTH CENTURY 

Descriptions of coffee drinking began to appear in Europe and England through reports of travelers. Coffee first appeared in Venice in the early seventeeth century; from there, it spread north over the next century. Through all of this time the Arabs kept a complete monopoly on coffee beans. Foreigners were not allowed access to the Red Sea plantations, and no viable seeds were allowed to leave the country. But around 1600 an Indian pilgrim was able to smuggle seven beans back to Mysore by strapping them on his belly, a technique still in use at various border crossings as other plant products have fallen under customary scrutiny.

In 1690 a group of Dutch mariners managed to steal several live coffee plants and smuggle them out of the Arab port of Mocha. They planted some of the saplings in Java, a Dutch colony already supplying Europe with pepper, nutmeg, and other spices. At least one coffee plant was sent to the botanical garden in Amsterdam. A shoot of this plant was presented as a gift to King Louis XIV of France in 1713.

Ten years later an enterprising French officer, Gabriel-Mathieu de Clieu, the Captain of Infantry in Martinique, broke into the Jardin Royale and stole the plant. In this he was assisted by a lady of the court whom he had broken into in another manner, and who felt kindly towards him. …

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