Coffee & Revolution

This month we welcomed the Year of the Fire Monkey, a cycle of the Lunar Calendar associated with turbulent change. Being the coffee lovers that we are, this sparked among us a discussion of revolution. After all, 1776 was a remarkable year, falling precisely 4 cycles before.

Indeed, coffee and revolution are inextricably linked. The humble bean is aptly associated with free thinking, egalitarian gatherings, and rebellion - simultaneously the drink of the oppressed and the oppressor.


American Revolution

Perhaps one of the best remembered episodes in the American Revolution is the Boston Tea Party. Rivals even then, tea and coffee were put further at odds after the incident - one quintessentially British, the other homegrown and patriotic. Crucially, coffee houses played host to the first rebels, in Boston at the Green Dragon, and across the colonies. Coffee is of course, the “local” and symbolic alternative, enabling it to land squarely in the American pantry. To quote a letter from John Adams to Abigail, “[As a result of declaring tea unpatriotic,] I have drank Coffee every Afternoon since, and have borne it very well. Tea must be universally renounced. I must be weaned, and the sooner, the better.”


Indonesian Independence

The first Dutch traders arrived in Indonesia in 1595, in search of spices and conquest. This sets in motion the colonization of the archipelago by the Dutch East Trading Company, which in 1800 is declared the Dutch East Indies.

Given the high cost of doing business as a colonizing power, the Dutch were desperate to recoup military expenditures through the “Cultivation System,”  mandating that ⅕ of farm land be dedicated to export crops (crucially, coffee). Unsurprisingly, this profited the Netherlands but devastated the local populations with famine. Outraged with the state of affairs, Dutch writer Multatuli is inspired to write Max Havelaar or “The Coffee Auctions of the Dutch Trading Company” - which many credit with reforms leading to education in the colony and ultimately the nationalist movement for Independence in 1945.  


Haitian Slave Uprising

At the end of the 18th century, the Saint Domingue colony - now known as Haiti - was the envy of the world. In fact, the colony produced over 50% of the world’s coffee at the time. Brutal conditions combined with torture and sadistic oppression often led the slave death rate to exceed the birth rate, resulting in the colony to also have the dubious title of being the world’s largest market for African slaves. Over time, society was fractured into three parts - the white colonists, the mulattos and free people of color (who were both well educated and tended to be part of the elite, with some being plantation and slave owners themselves) and the huge African slave population. With tensions between all parties and brutal treatment of the slave population, a large resistance grew out of Haiti.

On August 26, 1789 France published the Declaration of the Rights of Man, which recognized all men as being free and equal. Word of this spread to the colonies, and quickly escalated into a full scale conflict between multiple groups: the mulatto and freedmen, who were fighting to be recognized as full citizens and equals; the white colonists for independence from France; and the slave population, led by charismatic General Toussaint L’Ouverture. This ultimately resulted in the largest slave rebellion since Spartacus in 73 BC, as well as the formation of the first independent black state in the New World.