The Botanical and Social History of Coffee

3D front cover of An Historical Account of Coffee by John EllisI don’t know about you, but I am not a morning person.  It’s not the getting up (though this is bad enough), it’s the problem that my eyes don’t quite come into focus until some time after I get dressed. Therefore I may already be at work before I realise that I’m not wearing the clothes I thought I was getting out from the wardrobe – though it’s not as though I am one of the Press’s more elegant dressers, and all of my clothes are sufficiently un-bright that nothing clashes with anything else too badly (at least I hope not).

The morning comes better into focus after a small cappuccino with one sugar and chocolate on the top from our wonderful in-house coffee bar. (I have had more satisfying cups of coffee there than anywhere else in the world, including places like Italy and the USA which are supposed to be good at it – though it does remain a mystery how the same machine, when operated by different people, can produce so many variations of flavour and temperature.)

Anyway, I owe all this, apparently, to one Gemaleddin, the mufti of Aden (then in Arabia Felix, now in Yemen) in the fifteenth century, who travelled to Persia, where he saw many of his own countrymen drinking coffee.  On returning to Aden, ‘finding himself indisposed, and remembering that he had seen his countrymen drinking Coffee in Persia, in hopes of receiving some benefit from it, he determined to try it on himself; and, after making the experiment, not only recovered his health, but perceived other useful qualities in that liquor; such as relieving the head-ach, enlivening the spirits, and, without prejudice to the constitution, preventing drowsiness’.

Realising that coffee could keep you awake, the mufti recommended it to devout Muslims who wished to pray through the night, and the usage spread to those who needed to work through the night, and then to those who did not need to keep awake, but liked coffee’s ‘other agreeable qualities’.

The mystery in this account is why expatriate Adenites drank coffee in Persia, when the Persians themselves didn’t, and why it was ‘very little used in Arabia, where the tree grew’, though ‘it had been drunk in Aethiopia from time immemorial’. However, coffee-drinking then spread throughout the Muslim world (though there was a slight hiccup when concern was raised over the potential for dissolute behavior in coffee-houses) until, in 1554, the trend reached Constantinople, ‘when two private persons, whose names were Schems and Hekin, the one coming from Damascus, and the other from Aleppo, each opened a Coffee-house … and sold Coffee publicly, in rooms fitted up in an elegant manner; which were presently frequented by men of learning, and particularly poets and other persons, who came to amuse themselves with a game of chess, or draughts; or to make acquaintance, and pass their time agreeably at a small expence’.

Again, there was a reaction, and the mufti of Constantinople decreed the drinking of coffee to be un-Islamic, but people continued anyway, in their own houses, or in the backs of shops, until a later mufti repealed the unenforceable decree, and the coffee shops came back in even greater numbers (and the Grand Vizier imposed a very remunerative tax on them).

Meanwhile, coffee continued its march westward: Pietro della Valle, who was travelling east as a medically prescribed alternative to suicide after a failed love affair, mentioned coffee in a letter from Constantinople in 1614. Coffee was first sold in Venice in 1638, and coffee houses sprang up rapidly: the oldest surviving one, Florian, on Piazza San Marco, has been a tourist honey-pot since the eighteenth century. Antoine Galland records in his journal that coffee was brought back to Paris by the traveller Thévenot in 1644, but it was known at Marseille earlier than that.

The earliest mention of coffee being drunk in England comes from 1652, when Pasqua [Paschalis?], the Greek servant of a ‘Turkish merchant’, sold coffee ‘and kept a house for that purpose in George-yard, Lombard-Street’, then as now in the financial centre of London. (It was first taxed by statute of Charles II in 1660.) In 1690, John Ray referred to it as very much in use, was astonished at the number of bushels being exported yearly from Arabia Felix, and surprised that no other surrounding countries had yet attempted to cultivate the bushes for themselves.

All this information is culled from An Historical Account of Coffee, With an Engraving, and Botanical Description of the Tree (1774), by John Ellis (1710–76), a botanist and zoologist who from 1770 to 1776 served as a London agent for the government of Dominica. He was trying to promote the growing of coffee for export in the West Indies, and gives a botanical account of the plant, fruit and seed. He also explains the ideal growing conditions, including a discussion of altitude and temperature, and provides detailed descriptions of the various processes by which the seeds are converted into the drink.

Ellis was clearly a coffee proselyte, an enthusiast of its health-giving properties and economic benefits: he wanted coffee to overtake tea as the hot drink of choice in Britain. One argument was that its price was affected by high taxation, whereas tea was not. Surely it was better that Britain’s own colonies, rather than the distant empire of China, should profit from domestic spending habits? (There is also a fascinating list of all the stuff which the West Indies had to import from Britain, from ‘fire engines’ to silk stockings, mops and brooms – the rather dubious argument being that a monopoly in sugar was not enough to sustain the West Indian economy.) Interestingly, he quotes at length information collected by Dr John Fothergill, physician and botanist, who was the mentor of John Coakley Lettsom, the great advocate of the health benefits of tea.

At the back of the book is a short pamphlet on the safe transporting of live plants, preceding the revolutionary sealed glass cases of Nathaniel Ward by some seventy years. This is clearly a vital part of Ellis’s argument:  coffee plants had to get from Arabia to the Caribbean, and it was found easier to grow on existing plants than to begin with seed. It is interesting that Lettsom in 1799 suggests the use of Ellis’s system and even reproduces one of his engravings (more about this soon).

A final short section in the volume contains a ‘Botanical Description of the Dionaea muscipula, or Venus’s Fly-Trap, a Newly Discovered Sensitive Plant’, in a letter to Linnaeus of 1769. This possibly random binding-together gives fascinating insight into the interests of a ‘natural philospher’ of the eighteenth century, but if you simply must have more coffee, then try Edward Forbes Robinson on The Early History of Coffee Houses in England!


This entry was posted in Gardening, History, Life Science, Slavery and Abolition, Travel and Exploration, Uncategorized and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to The Botanical and Social History of Coffee

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