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Coffee: A History of the Mind-Altering Everyday Necessity

Augustine Sedgewick tells us about his latest book and research into how Coffee came to rule the world
Published on April 7, 2020
First published in the May-June 2020 edition of The American magazine
Shop: Buy A Copy of ‘Coffeeland’ by Augustine Sedgewick

Thank you for your time Augustine. Our traditional first question, where in the States are you from?

The great state of Maine, social distancing since 1820.

Your latest book Coffeeland is coming out in the UK on April 7. What inspired you to tell the story of coffee through the ages?

I started researching coffee because I wanted to understand the deeper history of Central American migration to the US, and more generally why societies discriminate against people they depend on economically. Once I got going, coffee began to look like a key piece of a key puzzle in modern history - how globalization has at once connected and divided us.

You've chosen a really interesting epigraph for the book, words from Martin Luther King Jr emphasizing how dependent we are on the world for most of our products - why did you opt for these words?

It’s always overlooked that the most ambitious project of the last year of King’s life was a writing project: he was working on developing “new ways to speak for peace” in Vietnam and around the world. The epigraph is a description of everyday life in what King called “the world house,” one of his attempts to articulate a new language and morality of global interconnection and interdependence. What I like about the quotation is how strange and even dark it is underneath the surface. The phrase “given to you at the hands of” is an unusual, awkward way to describe international trade. But it redeploys language that was common in the Jim Crow South: “at the hands of persons unknown” was a boilerplate verdict in lynching trials that shielded judges and juries from convicting large groups of their friends and neighbors, while also of course promising indemnity to future killers, as long as they could raise a mob. Even in King’s vision of global interdependence, the history and future possibility of violence is still present. We have to decide every day whether we’re going live together or die together.

LBJ speaking with Civil Rights Leaders in the Oval Office LBJ speaking with Civil Rights Leaders in the Oval Office over a cup. Photo courtesy Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum

Why has coffee been such an important commodity around the world?

We have come to depend on coffee to meet the everyday demands of modern capitalism. The fact that a powerful mind-altering drug has become an everyday necessity for the vast majority of people on earth speaks volumes about just how extraordinary those demands are.

One of the topics the book explores is the role of plantations and slavery - how did trade in produce like coffee influence the dialogue and debates around slavery and emancipation at the time?

Tropical commodities played a key role in the nineteenth-century campaign for global abolition because the connection between slavery and consumption was so clear. In 1791, a London bookseller named William Fox claimed to have worked out that each pound of sugar contained two ounces of human flesh. So a family could save the life of one enslaved worker by foregoing sugar for two years. He published his argument in a pamphlet that went through 26 printings, a quarter million copies in all, making it more popular than even Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man.

Today, coffee and America have quite an interesting association - how has America's relationship with coffee developed over the years?

The United States built its place in the world economy in part through the coffee trade, forging important alliances first with the French and the Dutch, imperial coffee producers, in the 18th century, and then with independent nations of Latin America in the 19th century. This helps to explain why coffee became a mass beverage for the first time in history in the United States — cheap and widely available even for those who did the worst-paid, most-exhausting work. In that way, it was relatively easy for a society that venerates the work ethic to become addicted to what has been portrayed as a kind of miracle work drug.

There's an interesting note in one chapter where you explain why the Boston Tea Party didn't end with coffee being dumped into the harbor! Can you explain?

In England, coffee was tea before tea. Between 1650 and 1700, hundreds and hundreds of coffee houses opened in London, so many that some observers feared an epidemic of overdoses. Yet the coffee trade was controlled by Arab merchants, so it wasn’t nearly as profitable as the East India Company-led tea trade that took off in the early 18th century, and which swamped British coffee culture and shaped imperial politics, including the Tea Act, for centuries.

What do you think the legacy of coffee is, and what it should be?

Coffee is the unrivaled work drug. Most of us drink it because we have adopted, in part from the coffee business itself, a way of understanding ourselves and the world that makes coffee look like a godsend when we have no choice but to keep working. But it would also be possible to use coffee to think about the way our work depends on the work of others, or even to develop shared standards for evaluating our lives in terms of the lives they depend on - a sort of carbon footprint that accounts for both other people and our planet at once.

On a more personal note, what do you hope readers take away from the book?

There has always been one takeaway for me: The economic processes of globalization have vastly outpaced our understanding of what they mean and why they matter. It’s a bland truism to say that we are living in the most connected age in human history, but it is terrifyingly clear now, perhaps more than ever, that we have no common language for talking about life on earth as a collaborative project, or about the ways our individual lives depend on others. What I most wanted the book to show is that we need a new language and morality of interconnection and interdependence. We need a shared idea of how to care for each other.

Do you have any other projects coming up on the horizon?

I’ve been working on a book about two couples who independently decided, following years depression and war in the 1930s and 1940s, that the modern world was corrupt and ruined, and it was time to get out and start over. One couple left New York, the other left Los Angeles, and both ended up in Maine, actually. I suspect a lot of people in a lot of places have been thinking similar thoughts in the last few years: Where’s the reset button on this thing, and what happens if I push it?

Finally, what's the best thing about being Augustine Sedgewick?

We’re holed up in rural Maine at the moment, and I’m sleeping in the same room as my two-year-old son. He’s making an unscheduled transition out of his crib by force of circumstance, so I pushed twin beds together and stuffed pillows and blankets between the mattresses to bridge the gap. Every morning he wakes up around 6, rolls over next to me, and sighs and hums and pokes and prods until I open my eyes and look at him, and when I finally do he asks: “Dada? Can we share a coconut donut?” Yes we most certainly can my beauty.

Coffeeland by Augustine Sedgewick is out now - Click Here to Get Your Copy


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