Coffee – Slavery, Conflict & Hope

23 October 2021

Coffee – Slavery, Conflict and Hope – Coffee is a popular drink but next time you stare into your cup realise that few drinks are more intriguing than coffee.

Few things are as they first appear. There are always hidden aspects of the things we hold dear.

Coffee, like all those other commodities we enjoy, is no different. It has many faces, and here below I reveal a few in this Coffee Focus – First Sip Series article.

It is evident that Commerce is central to our lives, and it is commerce that drives our world. But commerce is classless and headless.

Its goal is to grow and grow and then some. At almost any cost it seems.

This view is a perspective and some would disagree with it. But I say that it’s not what gets said that matters. It’s people’s actions and deeds that tell the real story. 

Life is not only about commerce but also about conflict, love, death and survival. Among all of that, we strive and grow, hope to make a difference, get appreciated, pass on our genes then make room for the next generation. 

At this point, you’re probably wondering where I’m going with this Coffee Focus – First Sip Series article.

If you’ve not yet figured it out, I’m heading towards coffee’s underbelly, and hope to drag you there with me

When writing, the unspoken guidance is this “Always be positive. Don’t make any negative associations with things that people usually buy. We all need the money”. 

In most writing of the past, the thinking is that it’s important to give the impression that all is well. That it has always been so.

Few bring up the past as if it matters no more. The past helps us to navigate the future and recognise past indiscretions.

And they do that all in the hope that you’ll continue to buy, with as few mental barriers and hang-ups as possible. Everything must seem right, bright and rosy, even when it hasn’t always been so.

So let’s look at the underbelly. Whatever happens, don’t lose sight, though. Our focus here is coffee.

Q. Have you considered for a single moment how coffee managed to become the number one most popular drink across the globe? 

Until researching this series, I had never even considered it. And I’m betting that perhaps you haven’t considered it either.

But to know is to understand. And to understand is to manage the present and the future in the face of all that might happen.

Coffee has many faces. Let’s look at the dark side of coffee and the relationships that people have had with coffee.

Fall Coffee Bean
Fall Coffee Bean

Coffee, An Unlikely Boost

Today coffee is the biggest selling commodity.

But in 1675, King Charles II of England proclaimed a ban on coffee houses in England. But not just a proclamation to end coffeehouses but for businesses to desist from buying and selling other drinks around which people may congregate. 

Ostensibly, the King’s reasons were that these coffeehouses disturbed the peace and promoted idleness (among other things).

Still, people knew the real reason – The King suspected the coffee houses were places where powerful people gathered and were hotbeds for political dissent and thus a threat to his kingdom.

This proclamation was, therefore, one attempt to disrupt the coffee status quo. But, ultimately, it failed.

The Boston Tea Party And Coffee

Later on, Tea, like other commodities, became popular in Britain and its colonies. The British colony in America was no different.

In 1698, the East India Company received a monopoly from Parliament on the importation of Tea into Great Britain.

The company imported the coffee and then sold it at auction. Coffee buyers then exported it to the colonies and resold it to merchants, who had access to the local markets. 

In the late 1770s, Parliament imposed huge taxes on the sale of Tea in the British American colony. Parliament felt that, on principle, they had the power to tax any of their subjects anywhere, anytime. 

The British American colony disagreed. “No taxation without representation”, locals proclaimed. The authorities taxing them were thousands of miles away and played no part in any local political structures and so locals refused to pay. 

I feel certain they would have found another excuse if the King did have local representation, but that strategy proved effective.

This dispute over taxes on Tea led to The Boston Tea Party incident, which forced people to rethink their tea consumption to avoid paying more in tax.

They effectively chose to consume more coffee instead as a matter of principle. And as a means of not paying the King’s excessive tax.

And so, in one of the world’s biggest consumption markets, coffee got a considerable boost that has remained.

The path to the top for coffee as a significant commodity today was not a straightforward one. One of its characteristics, caffeine, meant that everyone got their morning boost. 

During the American Civil War, coffee played arguably a more critical role than gunpowder. While in reality, people fought only a few times a year, they drank coffee across the day, every day.

Soldiers got allotted 36 pounds of coffee per year and, from that, they made themselves happy.

Coffee US Civil War Soldiers
US Civil War

Coffee – As A Weapon

Coffee also got used during that time as a weapon.

While the Confederates in the South had access to tobacco, alcohol and Southern foods, the Union soldiers in the North had coffee. The Union soldiers blockaded Southern ports, thus cutting off the supply of coffee from the Confederates in the South.

The lack of available coffee had a big impact on the Confederate soldiers. Desperate Confederate soldiers in the South attempted to make alternatives to coffee using rye, sweet potatoes, beets, rice and other substances.

Interestingly, during lulls in the fighting, the opposing sides would meet and exchange items – presumably, the Union soldiers received sugar from the South. In contrast, the Confederates received coffee from the North!

Coffee – As A Tool

Not only was the rifle used as a tool for fighting in the ordinary way we all understand, but it got used as a tool for grinding coffee too.

The use of coffee as a substance to energise soldiers (and still today people) was so prevalent during the American Civil War that one of the rifle manufacturers, Sharp, had the brilliant idea of building a hand-cranked grinder right into the butt of the rifle.

It’s unclear if the intended purpose of the grinder was for grinding corn, wheat or charcoal. But soldiers used it for grinding coffee beans.

Using this rifle feature, soldiers could fill the stock with beans, grind them and use them to make their coffee. From the coffee, they got the start to the day they needed.

Coffee – During the Vietnam War

Coffee also played a significant part after the Vietnam war.

After the trauma of the Vietnam War, returning soldiers wanted places to hang out and speak of their troubles and shared experiences, in many cases in military towns outside of bases, without being in the presence of the military. 

Hangouts for G.I.s came in the form of coffeehouses. There they could talk freely about their experiences, worries, concerns and frustrations.

In the 70s, the number of G.I. coffee houses numbered about two dozen. 

Later as more people began to question the role of the U.S. in the war, these meeting places became ever more vital. They became places where G.I.s could get legal counselling, and among other things, learn about ways to protest the war, publish newspapers and publish info on their conditions.

The coffeehouses came into existence all due to the availability and prevalence of coffee.

Coffee – As Fuel For the Military 

It won’t be evident to regular civilians how much the U.S. .military runs on coffee. I’d wager that similarly, the U.K. military runs instead on Tea.

In both cases, nothing of importance begins without their preferred beverages. A large percentage of the planning no doubt happens over coffee, in this case.

Compass Coffee in Washington D.C. is a roastery and community place created by two U.S. marines, who met on tour in Afghanistan, became friends over coffee and got into the hot drink that bound them together, coffee, on their return home.

Coffee And Slavery

Coffee has a long history, with references to it going as far back as 800AD. Unless I’ve misunderstood, that is far earlier than sugar. 

But to create the dominant morning hot drink today that coffee is, preferred across the globe, business people would have, early on, spotted the money-making opportunities it presented. The Capitalists of the day did what most characterised them: enslave the weakest and poorest to make money. 

From a business perspective, slavery carries the lowest possible operating costs and the highest possible profit margins.

And that’s why it remains prevalent today—backed by military might and power plus the psychotic ability to overlook the pain and suffering of others on a gigantic scale, slavery as a way of doing business, spread across the world, underpinning coffee. 

If you’re genuinely paying attention carefully, you’ll notice the attempt to not only turn coffee into a commodity that businesses could freely buy and sell but to do the same with human beings.

In those days, people sought to dehumanise people to justify buying and selling them like other commodities. 

This thinking was, and is, a long way from the nice slogan that “all men are created equal”.

And to a large extent, for several hundred years, the Capitalist succeeded and still do so today.

Little to no mention gets made of the likely start of the inequality that pervades our world today. The enterprise around the buying and selling of coffee (and sugar too) is the best candidate for the large scale start of the massive divide between people (and countries) today.

Coffee And Slavery: Brazil

In 1820, Brazil, a Portuguese controlled colony, had around 2 million. By 1852, Brazil was the most prominent global coffee producer tripling its exports across 11 years (1890 and 1901).

By 1920, Brazil produced around 70% of the world’s coffee exports. 

Coffee And Slavery: Haiti

Similarly, in 1715, Haiti, a French colony at that particular time, began cultivating coffee. The parent coffee plant had come from Martinique, another French colony.

Haiti too has gone through its share of hardships across its coffee years. We see many of those hardships repeated even today – natural disasters (earthquakes), slave revolutions, embargoes, dictatorships, and even harsh climatic conditions.

But the Haitian slaves revolted in 1791, leading to the Haitian Revolution, thus disrupting the tremendous wealth machine created by the French. Saint Domingue was, with its sugar exports too, perhaps the wealthiest colony in the world.

The French were exporting 40% of sugar and 60% of coffee from Haiti to Europe. Haiti’s economy depended 100% on tearing African slaves away from their homes, shackled and dragged over the shores.

Coffee (and sugar) were at the heart of these activities.

Coffee And Slavery: Cuba

During the Haitian Revolution, French colonists left Haiti for Cuba due to the abolition of slavery. They headed to Cuba, one of Haiti’s neighbouring countries and introduced improved coffee production methods. 

Cuba produced coffee based on the Arabica and Robusta beans. Much of its exports went to Germany and the Netherlands. 

Exports also went to the U.S. until the U.S. imposed an embargo in 1962 that damaged Cuba’s economy. Cuban exports were also affected by the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989. 

Today it also exports to France, the United Kingdom, Germany, Canada, Japan and New Zealand.

Below is a list of coffee-producing nations that employed strategies involving slavery to varying degrees – Jamaica, Cameroon, Haiti, Indonesia, India, Brazil, Uganda, Ethiopia, Vietnam, Columbia, Tanzania, Papua New Guinea and Costa Rica; naming only a few!

Coffee in a Red Cup
A red cup of tasty drink and scattered coffee grains, isolated on white

Coffee And Costa Rica

But Costa Rica was different and continues to be so.

Those who governed Costa Rica took an approach, right from the start, compared with most other nations, that meant their country had something to offer the world over the long term. 

After Spanish colonists introduced coffee into the country in the 1700s, the government offered incentives to be more enterprising. 

For example, they gave free plants to locals to grow. Also, coffee was exempt from tithe payments. And, you could claim ownership of unused land if you grew coffee on that land for five years.

Today Costa Rica is a thriving coffee producer.

Global adoption requires tremendous momentum from the outset. For example, low prices, scaling of production, domination of markets by big companies, and international distribution, to name a few. 

Such activity requires tremendous resources to get that thing into the entire world’s consciousness and make it commonplace.

It’s all about getting the commodity commonplace. 

In terms of coffee evolution, people refer to this as “The first wave of coffee”. 

And with coffee, they have succeeded. Spectacularly.

The 2nd wave is about getting people interested in being less common and becoming more interested in quality. As you might imagine, people who have long since met their basic needs will identify with being naturally interested in quality.

The 3rd wave is even more focused and centres this time on the story behind the product (at the upper end, of course, few are concerned, it seems, about the lower end hardships endured along the way). 

And so this gives yet another perspective on the thing of interest – in this case, coffee. 

Think for a second though, about how other commodities might have fared, for example, cocoa, chocolate, sugar, and bananas, to name but a few.

Coffee and Conflict – Congo

The Democratic Republic of Congo, to give it its proper name, is a land blessed by the gods with natural resources and precious minerals, like gold, copper, cobalt, diamond, tin and other minerals.

Additionally, not to mention its natural beauty of mountains, great lakes, culture, volcanoes and music, it has conditions perfect for the growing of coffee. 

But seemingly, the gods don’t bestow goodness for free and without a price. Their resources serve as a magnet for external forces that would seek to exploit and create conflict for their benefit. 

As you would have already gathered, conflict divides people and destabilises nations in all senses and affects the country’s long-term prospects, leaving it vulnerable to further exploitation.

The Congo has suffered all of it. And, at its heart, is coffee. 

Still, coffee has the power to provide a better future for the inhabitants of a country, which, despite its natural wealth, subsists on less than $1.90 per day.  

Here’s to hoping the Congo’s government skilfully navigates the obstacles ahead.

Coffee and Conflict – Colombia

Today Colombia produces the 3rd largest amount of coffee in the world after Brazil and Vietnam. Their mild, well-balanced coffee Arabica beans (the coffee plant reached Colombia in 1790) are well received across the globe but mainly in the United States, Germany, France, Japan and Italy.

But along Colombia’s journey, there have been setbacks. The natural development of their coffee business got disrupted by its 50-year long Civil War.

Some coffee growers that remained (many departed their homes, never to return) survived by cultivating other crops, many illegal. 

But after the government and the rebel forces reached a peace deal in 2016, the option became real for many people to return to their previously abandoned homeland. And farmers then switched to cultivating coffee instead. 

Then opportunities came knocking again. People love Colombia’s mild flavoured Arabica blends, and with the reduction in violence, international markets have opened up again. 

So we love every drop of our coffee, but behind every bean, this is perhaps an unspoken story.

Coffee & Conflict – Uganda

According to research conducted by Kelly Austin, associate professor of sociology at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, only half of the coffee growers she interviewed knew that coffee was for making drinks.

Many interviewees thought bread or medicine was the purpose of the coffee they were cultivating and producing. How remarkable is that? 

Interestingly, people also thought coffee got used for making weapons! To me, yet another remarkable fact.

I also found this fact remarkable. The women cultivate the coffee – plant, grow, water, harvest and carry it – but the men sell the coffee and keep the money. And, so the women make nothing! 

cup of coffee on wood background
cup of coffee on wood background

Coffee and Hope for the future

But not all of the facets of coffee are dark. The coffee production methods worldwide are now less inhumane, and the production environment is continually improving.

People congregate around coffee daily. It has become part of our lives.

The coffee houses and the introduction of coffee machines in offices and homes have made it almost commonplace. Various brands and varieties now sit on supermarket shelves.

People grab coffees between classes, operations, surgeries, assignments, venues, speeches and more.

Great coffee helps us associate with people, places and things, and we fall in love more easily when all of our senses get used and engaged. Coffee helps our senses engage. 

That signature smell helps businesses and their receptions seem more welcoming and inviting. I’m sure the lovely coffee smell helps sell homes too. 

Great smells, locations, memorable conversations, and contribute to creating circumstances conducive to love and laughter. So, it’s not all bad, and we’ve benefitted from the path that coffee has taken.

Coffee with it slavery, conflict and hope, has led us here. Its highest price has been paid by earlier generations and people are still paying today.

But coffee, warts and all, we love it in its million new forms.

As usual, if you have any comments, feel free to leave them in the comments section below.

Previous Article in Series: Coffee Ordering Terms and Jargon Explained – What You Should Know.

Don McDonald


    1. If War Is Hell, Then Coffee Has Offered U.S. Soldiers Some Salvation: The Salt: NPR
    2. Coffee and Slavery – a little big history of coffee (
    3. Slavery on Coffee Plantations in Saint-Domingue (
    4. The Costa Rican coffee industry – DRWakefield
    5. Coffee & Conflict In The Democratic Republic Of Congo
    6. Exploring The 3 Waves of Coffee in Costa Rica
    7. Coffee production in Colombia
    8. Study exposes dark side of coffee cultivation in Uganda


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