Coffee History is Black History
When we think of Black history in the United States, the crop that defined the lives of the enslaved Africans was King Cotton. The other crop that influenced the lives of many Black people, and changed the course of history, is Queen Coffee.
For this Black History Month, I’m sharing the stories of five countries whose history was defined by coffee.
All coffee originated in Ethiopia, where it was discovered around the 9th century by a goat herder who observed that his goats were energized after consuming coffee berries from a shrub. Coffee later spread to the Middle East, Europe, and eventually, the Americas.
In addition to being coffee’s homeland, Ethiopia is the only country in Africa that was never successfully colonized. In fact, it’s the inspiration for Black Panther’s “Wakanda.” Italy attempted to colonize Ethiopia on several occasions, but the efforts were ultimately squashed after Ethiopia won a decisive victory in 1896 during the battle of Adwa. Though Italy lost the battle to control coffee’s motherland, it won the hearts of global citizenry with the most emulated coffee culture in the world. Starbucks’ founder, Howard Schultz, was famously inspired by Italian coffee culture following a visit to Italy.
Ethiopia’s triumph over attempted colonization is a great source of pride for Africans and Black diaspora. Was it the coffee? We can’t be sure, but there is a pattern of Black triumph when coffee is in the mix, both in the diaspora and within the African continent.
By the 18th century, Haiti was the largest coffee producer in the world, supplying 60% of the world’s coffee. To maintain low commodity prices, land owners relied on slave labor to grow coffee beans and process them. The working conditions on the coffee farms were so horrifying — up to 10% of slaves died during the course of farm work annually — that enslaved producers rebelled in 1791. The resulting 14-year strife, dubbed the Haitian Revolution, remains one of world’s most successful Black uprisings and changed the course of history in the western hemisphere. When Napoleon learned of the final defeat of his troops in 1804, he reportedly angrily exclaimed, “Damn coffee! Damn colonies!”
This victory was especially meaningful in part because it shattered a core supportive argument for mainstream reliance on slavery — that Black people were intellectually inferior. As the French experienced firsthand, a group of enslaved Africans led by Toussaint “Black Spartacus” Louverture, employed a sophisticated military and political strategy to out-maneuver their heavily-armed oppressors. Louverture’s strategy is oft-referenced in business books as an example of strong and effective leadership. To draw a parallel to more recent history, what Haiti did to France in 1804 is similar to what Jesse Owens did to Hitler during the 1936 Olympics.
In the 19th century, Brazil surpassed Haiti to become the world’s largest coffee producer, a position that it maintains currently. Production was again fueled by slave labor, with Brazil absorbing about half of the 12 million Africans kidnapped from West Africa and held in bondage. The effects are still palpable today, with Brazil having the second-largest Black population globally, behind only Nigeria.
Brazil was the last country in the Western hemisphere to abolish slavery. The 1888 abolition arrived without a bloody civil war, as in the United States (1861–1865), or a slave rebellion, as in Haiti (1794). Conversely, the decision was purely economic.
Britain had banned the transportation of of slaves across the Atlantic, which curtailed supply and materially increased the cost of slave labor. Relying on slaves became a more expensive endeavor that employing immigrant laborers, resulting in immigrants replacing slaves on Brazilian farms.
But the worldwide coffee labor struggle wasn’t over. Commodity merchants decided to pivot back to Africa with a new approach. If you can’t transport Africans across the Atlantic, can you get them to work on their own land for free?
In 1893, five years after Brazil officially outlawed slavery, British colonialists arrived in East Africa for the express purpose of setting up coffee farms reliant on exploited labor. Kenya was colonized specifically to grow coffee. The British seized highly-prized fertile farming land, forcing Kenyans into encampments in the outskirts of plantations. The colonizers then implemented a taxation scheme in which encampment residents were charged head taxes. The only way to pay off these taxes was to work on the farms.
The systematic abuse of Kenyan natives at the hands of the British sparked one of the bloodiest wars for independence in Africa. In the 1950s, the expansive British empire unleashed more violence in Kenya than in all of its colonies combined. The scale of brutality prompted Britain to hide records and evidence that historians are only now uncovering.
The “Mau Mau” movement in Kenya that was the face of this struggle became an inspiration for other civil rights movements and leaders around the world, including Malcolm X.
Today, Kenyan is one of the most celebrated origins in the world and a favorite of coffee connoisseurs.
Though I was born and raised in Kenya, I had no concept of the extent to which my own life was defined by the coffee crop. They don’t teach that in school and our grandparents are still traumatized, they don’t talk about it much. It’s too soon. It wasn’t until I founded my own coffee company that I began to dig into the history of coffee in Kenya and the African continent. I named my company “Kahawa 1893” in recognition of the rich history of this crop and its origins.
The story of coffee in Rwanda is one of both tragedy and triumph. Coffee was a factor in the Rwandan genocide that broke out in 1994, considered one of the worst genocides of modern history. Dr. Isaac Kimola explores this link in his work: The Global Coffee Economy and the Production of Genocide in Rwanda.
Belgian colonialists took over Rwanda from Germany after the first World War. Looking to profit from the booming coffee trade, they forced Rwandans to convert their land to coffee farms.
To control the population, the Belgian officials exploited the Eugenics race theory — prevalent at the time — to divide the country into two racial groups based in part on several physical characteristics. This division stroked ethnic tensions that ultimately culminated in the 1994 genocide.
During the Cold War, to prevent countries from falling into communism, the United States worked to regulate the supply of coffee beans in order to keep prices stable. In 1989, when the Berlin wall fell and the cold war ended, the price stabilization mechanism was abandoned, sending coffee prices into a free fall. Rwanda suffered the consequences as these stabilization forces unraveled.
Coffee accounted for over 70% of Rwandan exports, and the overnight collapse of the coffee market threw the country into an economic crisis. When added to the already delicate ethnic relations in the country, Rwanda’s harsh economic realities led tensions to boil over.
In an impressive feat, Rwanda has been able to rebuild and is one of the fastsest growing economies in Africa. Rwanda is now known for producing some of the highest-quality coffee in the world. The coffeee industry is rebuilding thoughtfully, prioritizing the advancement of gender equality and promoting unity. The two ethnic groups work side-by-side growing and processing coffee beans.
Rwanda shines as an example of Black resilience and the power of unity.
The histories of coffee and Black people are intertwined, with recurring themes of freedom, triumph, and excellence.The lesson here, if there is any, is to stay caffeinated and stay woke. Every country’s story may have a different script, but the plot is consistent.
In the words of the great author James Baldwin in his essay Fire Next Time:
I think this is a fact, which it serves no purpose to deny, but, whether it is a fact or not, this is what the Black populations of the world, including Black Americans, really believe. The word “independence” in Africa and the word “integration” here are almost equally meaningless; that is, Europe has not yet left Africa, and Black men here are not yet free. And both of these last statements are undeniable facts, related facts, containing the gravest implications for us all. The Negroes of this country may never be able to rise to power, but they are very well placed indeed to precipitate chaos and ring down the curtain on the American dream.