How Coffee Became a Modern NecessityHistorians in the News
tags: colonialism, Trade, coffee
Coffee is so ubiquitous that it’s easy to forget how unusual it is.
Its defining, namesake ingredient, caffeine, is not only the world’s most popular mind-altering drug—used regularly by perhaps 90% of the planet—but also, as Michael Pollan has noted, the only one we routinely serve to children. This nearly universal acceptance is all the more striking considering that, for much of its 500-year history, coffee drinking was viewed with confusion, suspicion and disgust.
What changed? Once used to fuel extraordinary acts of worship and creativity, coffee has become a necessity we rely on to meet the everyday demands of modern capitalism.
Coffee is native to Ethiopia, but Sufi monks in Yemen seem to have been the first to consume the brewed form, probably in the 15th century. According to many etymologies, “coffee” is derived from the Arabic word qahwah, which carried several meanings, including “to make unappealing,” “dark” and “wine.”
This raised some early questions. In 1511, officials in Mecca, suspicious of the drink’s intoxicating effects, decreed a coffee ban. Police torched the city’s supplies, but that hardly settled the matter.
A century later, around the time that European travelers recorded their first encounters with coffee, the beverage was so widespread in the Ottoman Empire that, according to the scholar Markman Ellis, it appeared “the perfect symbol of Islam.” Marked with foreignness, coffee entered Europe through a scrim of prejudice. In 1610, the British poet George Sandys judged it “blacke as soote, and tasting not much unlike it.”
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