Coffeeland: One Man's Dark Empire and the Making of Our Favorite Drug

by Augustine Sedgewick
Setting: El Salvador
Published on April 7, 2020
Format: Audiobook Source: Library

The epic story of how coffee connected and divided the modern world
Coffee is an indispensable part of daily life for billions of people around the world--one of the most valuable commodities in the history of global capitalism, the leading source of the world's most popular drug, and perhaps the most widespread word on the planet. Augustine Sedgewick's Coffeeland tells the hidden and surprising story of how this came to be, tracing coffee's five-hundred-year transformation from a mysterious Muslim ritual into an everyday necessity.
This story is one that few coffee drinkers know. It centers on the volcanic highlands of El Salvador, where James Hill, born in the slums of Manchester, England, founded one of the world's great coffee dynasties at the turn of the twentieth century. Adapting the innovations of the Industrial Revolution to plantation agriculture, Hill helped to turn El Salvador into perhaps the most intensive monoculture in modern history, a place of extraordinary productivity, inequality, and violence.
Following coffee from Hill family plantations into supermarkets, kitchens, and workplaces across the United States, and finally into today's ubiquitous cafes, Sedgewick reveals how coffee bred vast wealth and hard poverty, at once connecting and dividing the modern world. In the process, both El Salvador and the United States earned the nickname "Coffeeland," but for starkly different reasons, and with consequences that reach into the present. This extraordinary history of coffee opens up a new perspective on how the globalized world works, ultimately provoking a reconsideration of what it means to be connected to faraway people and places through the familiar things that make up our day-to-day lives.

This book tells the story of coffee production in the 1800s and 1900s through the story of a family of plantation owners – the Hills.

James Hill moved from England to El Salvador in order to sell textiles. He married into a plantation family. Over the course of his life, he changed the way coffee was grown in El Salvador. In the process he changed El Salvador from a relatively peaceful country with a wide variety of agriculture to a violent country almost entirely planted in a monoculture of coffee.

The author of this book goes off on a lot of tangents from this story. He spends a huge amount of time talking about energy. People in the 1800s were trying to figure out how to get the most work out of people with the minimal cost to employers. Planters in El Salvador had a very cruel system. They forbid their workers to pick any food crops that they might find on the plantations. They also destroyed as many sources of food as they could so workers would be dependent on the plantation owners giving them food. If they didn’t work, they didn’t eat. People who missed a day’s work went hungry, even on scheduled days off. The plantations were big enough and they worked long enough hours that it was almost impossible to get to a town for food. I’m not surprised that eventually people violently rebelled.

My problem with this book is that it tried to cover too many topics.

  • The history of coffee
  • History of Central America
  • Discovery of energy
  • How people learned to ship coffee
  • How coffee was graded
  • How coffee became a loss leader in grocery stores
  • Why free trade doesn’t work very well
  • and on and on…..

Honestly, I would have probably stopped listening to this audiobook if I didn’t need a book about El Salvador for my Around the World Challenge but I pushed through.