I managed to get through this very dense book by taking breaks for light-hearted magazine reading every couple of days. Coffeeland: One Man’s Dark Empire and the Making of Our Favorite Drug, by Augustine Sedgewick (1920-21). It’s the second of the books I decided to read after they were referred to in This Is Your Mind on Plants. I’m not saying it wasn’t a good book, because it was, but there were so many details that sometimes I got a bit snoozy while reading it.
The book is not a history of coffee, but rather is a history of how the cultivation of coffee shaped the country of El Salvador, as engineered by one coffee planter and his descendants, starting in the late 1800s. James Hill came over from England at a time of much change, and he instigated just that when he emigrated to El Salvador. His descendants, now fully embedded in the upper classes of the country, continue to work toward change.
There’s a LOT more to this book than just a history of one coffee planter and his plantations. There are long digressions on the history of growing coffee, processing coffee, and marketing it. I had no idea how much it had changed, and what other changes to society went along with it (coffee breaks and supermarkets, to name a few).
You also learn a lot about the history of Central America from a much more neutral point of view than you’d get in a US history book. By the time you’ve read about the conditions the Hill family’s worker-people (as he called them) lived and worked in, you can easily see the appeal of Communism when it showed up. And Sedgewick does a great job of laying out the perspectives of the plantation owners, the government (such as it was), and the indigenous people who worked the land.
I guess what I learned the most about, and what was hardest on me to follow, was all sorts of scientific theories of humans and work. You learn how calories originally were measured, how the idea that in order to eat you need to work came about (that’s right, it was not always a given), and how people like James Hill motivated workers by giving them food, but not too much food, so they’d have to keep coming back to earn more food.
There was also a very interesting history of economics, what it originally was and what it came out to be. Yeah, there’s a lot of educational material crammed into 350 pages of Coffeeland. I’m not sure if this was stuff I was dying to learn about or what I had hoped the book would be about, but I think I’m probably a better and more thoughtful world citizen after learning all these things.
A final thing I enjoyed about Coffeeland is that it was told from the perspective of another part of the world, not the US. I enjoyed learning what the priorities were and are in El Salvador, the modern history of that country, and most of all, how events around the world (the Great Depression, World Wars, etc.) affect our commodities and societal norms.
While not everyone who reads this blog will be the right audience for the book, fans of history, science, philosophy and how they all interact, will enjoy it a lot and come out much wiser.