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How Did Coffee Influence History?

Updated: Jan 19

Coffee's influence on revolutionary political ideas can't be overstated. From the Ottoman Empire to the American Revolution, coffee served as fuel to nurture new waves of thought which shaped the course of history. In today's world, coffee is intertwined with productivity, brands, and the love of the brew itself, but an easily forgotten fact is it's role in fuelling revolutionary ideas and changing the status quo. Lets explore the global history of coffees impact on modern democracy and the enlightment...

 

The Ottoman Empire


Coffee's initial boom of mass consumption took place in the 15th an 16th century with the opening of the worlds first coffee houses in Yemen. Premises like bars which served alcohol were off limits for devout muslims, so the alternative was coffee houses, allowing an open space to drink coffee, socialise and freely share ideas. This liberty was shortlived. In 1633 Sultan Murad IV made coffee consumption a crime, and was so committed to crushing this liberty, that he supposedly disguised himself as a commoner, entered underground coffee houses, and decapitated coffee drinkers with his hundred pound broadsword!


Ideas like rebellion, critical thinking and the fallibility of the powerful thrived in these environments, and fresh cups of coffee only opened more thoughtful pathways. Coffee started in the Ottoman empire as a delight for the ruling class, little did they know it would be fuel for empire's fall. The following series of sultans went back and forth with coffee bans, but the efforts were ultimately futile. The following hundred years saw coffee spread around the world, and make its way from the central growing hub in to England, France, America and many more nations.



 

London


1652 marks London's first coffee house, setup by Pasqua Rosee; an Armenian servant of the Levant company which monopolised coffee trade with the Ottoman Empire. Pasqua Rosee opened London's first coffee stall in 1652. The booming success of his trade meant that within less than a year, the stall became a store, with a bustling community of avid coffee drinkers with a newfound enthusiasm for conversation. By 1664, there were over 80 coffee houses spread around London of which the main clientelle was businessmen, who spoke about business related topics with space for new political ideas...


In 1672, Charles II had grown increasingly paranoid since the decapitation of his father during the english civil war, and word of politcal free spech did not take well with Charles II. In a public announcement, Charles II wrote 'men have assumed to themselves a liberty, not only in Coffee-houses, but in other Places and Meetings, both public and private, to censure and defame the proceedings of State by speaking evil of things they understand not.' This was under the title of 'Restrain the Spreading of False News, and Licentious Talking of Matters of State and Government'. Talk about fake news!


December 1675, Charles II ordered the closure of all coffee houses in London, which only lasted a mere 11 days given the publics outrage and push to keep coffee a strong staple of culture. Coffee houses resistance to authority underpinned the enlightment; a broad phenomenon across politics, science and philisophy during the late 17th and early 19th century which valued rationality over traditional authority. Learning was so strong in these newfound communities that coffeehouses were called 'penny universities'. For the cost of a cup of coffee you had access to intellectual debates and crucial conversations.

 

American Revolution


Across the pond, saw coffeehouses spread throughout America with a similar phenomenam of educational free speech and political discourse. Even George Washington took part in the coffee buzz by growing coffee beans on his Mount Vernon estate.


Coffee went beyond fuel for poltical discourse. When King George III saw how much tea the colonists were drinking, he established the tea act of 1773, which granted the British East India Company a bail out after they ran into financial problems, and fundamentally, a monopoly. Colonists were outraged because of colonial tea merchants being cut out of trade, and having to pay extra tax on tea. In resistance, the Boston Tea Party protest saw colonists sabotage East India Company ships, and dumped chests of tea into Boston Harbor.

Alongside The Boston Tea Party, drinking coffee became a political statement against the British Empire, and tea was seen as the drink of the enemy. Patriots message to the British government was they shouldn't be paying more on tea without a position and voice in parliament. The Boston Tea Party was a crucial factor that triggered that American revolution a few years later.


Across all of these radical phenomenans, coffee served as the fuel which challenged traditional notions of authority, nurtured critical thinking, and generally made a push towards more egalitarian societies. Modern Science author Steven Johnson says 'Its not an accident that the ‘age of reason’ accompanies the rise of caffeinated beverages… The culture is moving from a depressant to a stimulant … The coffee house was a great hub of enlightenment era culture.' So coffee not only has great taste, but also great historical impact. A footnote worth remembering before your next sip!

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