Part1: The Forming of an Empire
Throughout history empires have come and gone. Countless wars have been waged and lives have been lost. Many for the aspiration of achieving “world dominance”. This desire continues even today. How ironic it is that mankind has not come to realize that it has already been subdued. Not by military might or by devious political maneuvers, but by a lowly bean, namely, “coffee”.
How did this come about? How is it that mankind has been unable to prevent this incredible expansion? Even more amazing is how all governments and people have done all in their power to promote and maintain the coffee bean in its position of world dominance. The history of coffee, especially in the past 600 years is a fascinating tale of determination and power.
In this series of articles we will strive to relate the power of coffee over mankind. The story begins with the humble unassuming bean in its natural habitat. It then explains how its thirst for world dominance becomes as insatiable as our thirst for the elixir it offers.
The lowly coffee shrub had a meek existence in Ethiopia, Eastern Africa*. It was not commercially cultivated. It grew free and wild, mainly unnoticed for centuries. Eventually, its stimulative powers were recognized. The most popular legend of the discovery of coffee is about “Kaldi, the goat herder”.
One day he noticed how much more active and happy his goats behaved after nibbling on the leaves and beans of a shrub that never received much attention before. This gave birth to a type of primitive “power bar”. This was prepared by mixing coffee beans with other spices pressed together with animal fat. It became a high-protein snack and was just what the herders needed for their long days away from home.
Another popular drink was what we call “cascara”, today.. This is the dried cherry skin of the bean which makes a delicious infusion. At this time, however, the leaves were also included in the infusion.
The Seeds of Expansion
The coffee bean had now begun to grow in popularity. It was cultivating a desire for expansion. An opportunity came sometime in the 15th Century. The wild coffee beans were now something worth trading. Coffee’s first target off the African Continent was the port of Mocha, Arabia. It was in Arabia that the coffee bean could expand and unleash its greatness.
It did not take long for the Arabian people to submit to the influence of the mightier coffee bean. As its popularity began to grow the Arabians saw the need to cultivate the plant. The first coffee farms were prepared in Yemen. Coffee roasting was developed, which unleashed a whole new dimension of flavour and addiction.
A religious order named “Sufi’s” enjoyed very much the infusion that coffee could provide. Its stimulating power helped them stay awake during the nightly prayers. The Sufi’s came from all walks of life. Their rituals and meetings were mostly at night. The power of the bean was quickly recognized. They would meet at night regularly in what we could call “coffee houses”.
In short order coffee became the drink of choice for rich and poor alike. “Coffee houses” were springing up all over the place. They were dubbed “schools of the wise” for the conversations that would take place while the people unwittingly succumbed to the influence of our favourite brew.
It is understood that the word “coffee” was probably developed in Arabia. It is called “qahwa”, roughly translated as “wine of the bean”. The Turks call it “kahveh”, the Dutch call it “koffie”. It didn’t matter what it was called, the fact remained, the bean was ever more popular. It was enjoying an increasing popularity and there was no end in sight.
Coffee Confronts Its First Resistance
Not everything goes so smoothly for the boisterous bean. As the number of coffee houses multiplied, so did illicit activities and rebellious speech against Mecca’s governor, Kair Bey. Coffee houses became centers for all types of social activities ranging from playing chess to prostitution.
Patrons would talk about a wide array of topics, one of the favourites being politics.
In 1511, Kair Bey learned he was the subject of many displeasing conversations. After some effort, the ever-ambitious coffee bean was banned. The battle was not over, however. The law had to be passed by the Sultan in Cairo. Our heroic bean won the favour of the Sultan who enjoyed coffee very much. The ban was quickly and absolutely reversed. The attempted bans on coffee and its rebellious reputation make up another fascinating chapter in the History of Coffee.
Coffee Conquers The Ottoman Empire
Having taken Ethiopia, Arabia and defending itself against its first attack, the mighty bean is ready for further expansion. By 1517 the Ottoman Empire under Selim Ⅰ controlled Arabia and developed a passion for coffee with all its attributes. The Ottoman Empire may have conquered Arabia, but the coffee bean was about to conquer the Ottoman Empire.
The ever manipulative bean used its charm and influence to win the masses once again. In short order the “Coffee Empire” had now spread throughout the entire Ottoman Empire. Coffee
became an important commodity for the Turks, Everywhere the bean went coffee houses followed. No one could get enough. Its influences did not stop at coffee houses. No, the energetic bean even found its way into the Sheik’s Harem!
A Failed Attempt at Suppression - Onward to India
Realizing its value, the Turks went to great lengths to control their monopoly of coffee production. Everywhere the bean went it had to be par-boiled or partially baked first. This was done to ensure no one would be able to plant the seeds and begin producing their own crops. The plan was successful for a time. Feeling trapped and confined, coffee was having no part of it. It would not be restrained and held back from its destiny.
The always alert coffee bean took note of the thousands of pilgrims visiting Mecca each and every year. Was there an opportunity to escape the confinements of the Turkish Empire? An opportunity did present itself sometime in the 17th century. Indian tradition gives credit to a “Sufi” monk named Baba Budan.
A “Sufi” monk visiting Mecca was a perfect means for the bean to continue its mission. Baba Budan experienced the power and joy that coffee could bring and was determined to share the exhilarating experience with his family and friends. The escape would take some ingenuity and courage. Being caught trying to smuggle out coffee beans was punishable by death.
Courageously, Baba Budan selected 7 seeds from the Yemen area. He wrapped them in a cloth which was then wrapped around his chest. Thus coffee expansion was able to continue its venture. It was now on its way to Southern India.
The trip was successful and Baba planted the seven seeds in the fertile soil of Chickmaglur, in the Mysore mountains. Descendants of these plants expanded into Indonesia and are still with us today.
Not Done, Yet
As we can see, the not-so.meek coffee bean has had great ambitions. In less than 300 years it managed to extend its empire from Ethiopia to the Middle East, Eastern Europe and India. There was still more to come. This was a time of Colonialism and the coffee plant had a lot to say about it. Part 2 of Coffee: The Bean That Conquered The World will take aim at how it conquered Europe and Indonesia.
By Damian Reed