"A World of History in Your Cup": Teaching Coffee as Global Commodity C. 1400-2000

By Watt, Carey | World History Bulletin, Fall 2012 | Go to article overview

"A World of History in Your Cup": Teaching Coffee as Global Commodity C. 1400-2000


Watt, Carey, World History Bulletin


Over two billion cups of coffee are consumed around the world daily. Coffee is amass-market global commodity, and in recent decades it has commonly been the second most traded good on world commodity markets after oil. The coffee trade involves over sixty-five exporting countries on five continents across the world's tropical zone. It employs as many as 100 million people, and, as of 2006, it was worth $140 billion per year. (2)

Coffee has been many different things over the past six centuries: tropical plant, bean, crop, resource, export, import, drink, medicine, drug, luxury, and commodity. Thus, a mundane cup of coffee allows a world history class to explore many centuries of history, including topics such as capitalism, colonialism, globalization, the environment, science, medicine, slavery, revolution, war, gender, sociability, civil society, and democracy.

My approach is to explore how "Atlantic Europeans" (3) gained control of the coffee trade and how this long-term process was connected to the growing importance of global transoceanic commerce in the early modern (c. 1450-1800) and modern (c. 1800 to present) eras. After all, in 1500, Yemen, in the Arabian Peninsula, controlled 100% of the emergent coffee trade whereas in 1900 it produced less than 1% of the world's coffee. Moreover, by the late twentieth century the international coffee market was --and still is--dominated by four multinationals: Kraft, Nestle, Procter & Gamble and Sara Lee, all with headquarters in the United States or Western Europe. (4)

A number of basic questions will help get students thinking about coffee and their world on a global scale, thereby gaining perspective on present-day issues. How did coffee--a plant and drink indigenous to Arabia and the Horn of Africa as Coffea Arabica (5)--become a global commodity? Who benefitted from coffee going global? Who suffered? How is the process related to the growth of global transoceanic commerce, colonialism and the rise of capitalism after 1500? Why has coffee been a target of the Fair Trade movement since the 1970s? To borrow a phrase from Antoinette Burton, the history of coffee offers "pathways into and out of 'the global.'" (6)

Coffee is a particularly interesting commodity because it is "one of the few holdovers from the era of the spice trade and mercantilism." (7) This allows for the possibility of doing history over long timelines and broad geographies and across conventional historical periods. Burton calls this "economic time," (8) but we could also call it "commodity time." Similarly, Steven Topik, William Clarence-Smith, and Mario Semper examine the coffee commodity chain to highlight the complex links between producers, intermediaries, and consumers from the local to the global, across regions, continents, seas, oceans and hemispheres.

There has been arise in the number of global commodity histories since the 1980s, including anthropologist Sidney Mintz's landmark study of sugar, Sweetness and Power, as well as journalist Mark Kurlansky's work on cod and salt. (9) A number of popular works on coffee have also been published, such as Mark Pendergrast's Uncommon Grounds and Antony Wild's Coffee: A Dark History. (10) Some of these studies could be accused of lacking scholarly rigor, but they are affordable, accessible, and entertaining. In my class I have recently used Tom Standage's A History of the World in 6Glasses--with two chapters on coffee--as a supplement to the brief edition of Traditions & Encounters. (11)

While the commodity chain approach is very informative and useful for upper-year undergraduates, graduate students, and instructors, it is too specialized for students in a world history survey. It also leans strongly in the direction of economic history with its focus on inanimate structures over people. Popular history "trade books" appeal to students because they are strong on narrative and feature lots of human drama. …

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