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Coffeeland: A Short Summary and Review

Coffeeland book
Coffeeland by Augustine Sedgewick

COFFEELAND: One Man’s Dark Empire and the Making of Our Favourite Drug (2020), Augustine Sedgewick

Coffeeland is the story of El Salvador’s century-long development into a coffee plantation. The book zooms in and out on the family and life of the tireless autodidact, James Hill (1871-1951), a Manchester-born product of Britain’s late industrial revolution, to exemplify how El Salvador’s economy became debt-laden and reliant on ‘mild’ coffee exports for cash. This had grave consequences for the people of El Salvador, their ability to feed themselves, and on the political stability of the country.

As with the essence of the time, there was much scientific thinking in the management of James Hill's coffee plantation, Las Tres Puertas. Having established himself in El Salvador in 1889, in the following decades he sent his children to California to study agronomy in an effort to bring best practice back from the state’s orchards and researchers. Meanwhile, a scientific approach was used in managing the Labour force, ideas considered abhorrent today. Wages included two parts, cash and meal rations. These were sometimes task based e.g. two tortillas and beans (1 ration) for a task or three rations for a day’s work, with the amount of rations offered flexed depending on urgency, such as digging holes in the rainy season in which trees would be planted. Hill would pick different jobs for women, the old and the infirm, something not done in other parts of El Salvador. The capitalists of the day did not want workers to become too prosperous and in many cases, the ration would be the only worthwhile part of working, with money being of no value from time to time, depending on the circumstances.

This view of humans being machines fitted the scientific thinking of the time, that all could be quantified. The book delves into the discovery of the calorie and how it was used by plantation and factory owners to manage their workforce. Caffeine, however, seemed to bypass the laws of thermodynamics, or the idea that food provided the energy for output at work. Caffeine increased this and became seen as a work drug. Factories and plants (called so because they ultimately derived their energy from the sun) in the US gave out free coffee and cream at noon to keep their workers productive. Although hard to quantify the return on investment, it was felt there certainly was one. This idea was backed up by scientific research conducted in the post war (I) years, which sought to disprove the negative press and pseudo-science of earlier opponents to coffee, such a cereal magnate Kellogg.

A note on the book’s style. It is written as a loose narrative without strictly adhering to chronology or falling into a teleological trap. This is a strength, taking many fascinating detours in time and place to give a wider context of coffee in the world and its effects on El Salvador, such as Brazil’s abolishment of slavery in 1888. Another is the development of grocery stores into supermarkets in the US during the interwar era. They were built around coffee as a high-margin, high-demand product. It describes how and why Brazilian coffee took its place as a price-over-quality commodity, something I think the legacy of which many of us have tasted today! Other subjects include the aforementioned discovery of the calorie, thermodynamics, US loans to Latin American countries, Herbert Hoover's obsessive fight against world hunger, Marx and Engel’s 1848 Communist Manifesto, the Bolshevik Revolution, even the effects of soft lead-tipped bullets... All take their place in how the coffee industry borrowed the fashions and science of the time to push forward its own interests.

The 1930 precursor to the 1939 'Behind the Cup' for the Golden Gate Exhibition - Source: Prelinger Archive

Tragedy in El Salvador

The 1930s were a time of great ideological development in El Salvador, with Communism and workers’ rights taking hold. The highland coffee and lowland cotton planters were organised so that all naturally-growing forageable foods to satiate hunger, like mangos, yuccas and tomatoes, were destroyed in favour of monoculture. This tied the peasants' hunger to working on the farms for rations, and allowed the wealthiest to accumulate more land. The issues didn't stop there though. US loans to El Salvador became impossible to pay when prices dropped below 10 cents a pound. The country had become so reliant on coffee exports that once the price dropped beyond a certain level, it couldn't service its debts. Planters responded by cutting workers, pay and rations. This brought worker's rights into sharper focus and was fertile ground for revolutionaries organised around Communist ideals. In January 1932, it eventually gave.

As did the anti-Communist drive of Indonesia in the 1960s end up being a racist culling of ethnic Chinese people, in El Salvador the indigenous Indian people were targeted and slaughtered. In the response to the uprising, thousands of people were killed and this gave the military dictator, Maximiliano Hernandez Martinez, support of the British and American governments for protecting their investments, and the prevention of what they saw as another country falling to Communism. This brought relative peace, albeit an oppressive one, that kept many planters in business and workers on the hunger line. It drove the leftist movements underground and reverted people to a slavish condition; they needed to work to eat. It's no surprise they'd be more uprisings decades later, a successful coup and continuous violence. In 1980, an Inter-American Commission concluded "Life is the exception, and death the rule in El Salvador."

The book does an excellent job in showing how, in over the course of a century, El Salvador lunged into desperation from an initial condition of relative natural abundance, how people like Manchester-born James Hill transformed the landscape so that it no longer fed people, how millions of people around the world benefitted by, but were disconnected from, the suffering of coffee workers. It discusses how the scientific revolution provided the justification for such oppressive working conditions, and in turn how that produced the fertile ground for leftist revolutionaries to forcefully demand more financial and food security. It is also apparent how the actions of well-meaning people can bring long-term tragedy in the obsession with efficiency, profit making and progression, especially when they never stop to ask if everyone, namely the less fortunate workers, are on board with the vision the elites have set for a nation, confident that their education and money-making prowess elevate them to the position of master.

These events are part of the development of the coffee industry many of us benefit from and enjoy. When we drink our coffee, it is not just the fruits of the multitude of people involved today, but also those who came before – the plantation owners, the financiers, the politicians, the importers, the shop keeps, the consumers, the pickers, the workers, the slaves. Without the decision makers of the past, and the forgotten sacrificed people who lifted and held the industry up, it’s unlikely we’d have access to such wonderful coffee today. For me, this was the most poignant takeaway from this fast-paced, holistic, detail-packed and highly enjoyable read.

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