Coffee before the Plantations

Reviewed by Daniel Martin Varisco

Yemen Update 44 (2002)

Le commerce du café avantl'ère des plantations coloniales: espaces, réseaux,sociétés (xve-xixe siècle), edited by Michel Tuchscherer. Cairo: Institut français d'archéologie orientale, 2001. Cahier des annales islamologiques 20-2001. x, 410pp. IL IN BIB

Coffee house in the mid-sixteenth century(p. 66).

Of all the commodities that Europe appropriated for its globalized plantation frenzy an era we now call the age of colonialism none has a more distinctiveYemeni stamp than coffee. The tree, the berry, the drink: coffee has never had a national boundary. It is thus fitting that the origin of its use is still clouded, despite the obvious botanical placement in the highlands of Ethiopia. Who first drank coffee before even a bean had been dropped in the Yemeni port of Mocha or transplanted by Dutchmerchants to Java? This anonymous African "Juan Valdez" perhaps even a Juanitia is inevitably lost to history, noris there any credible way to fix a terminus post quem for the discovery. The earliest sources for probing the appearance of coffee as a significant commodity are in Arabic, supplemented by early European accounts of the bean or its trade. Readers in English mainly have the excellent historical study of Ralph Hattox (Coffee and Coffeehouses: The Origin of a Social Beverage in the Medieval NearEast, Seattle, 1985), while there are several valuable monographs available in French. The present volume, edited by Michel Tuchscherer, is a welcome addition and update to the previousliterature. Indeed, no scholar interested in the early distribution of coffee could afford not to read through the articles in this new collection.

Some 22 papers are included, preceded by a brief introduction by the editor. These stem from a conference held in Montpellier (8-9 October, 1997) entitled "Le café avantl'ère des plantations coloniales." Befitting the jointsponsorship by CIRAD (Centre de coopération international enrecherche agronomique pour le développement, Montpellier) and IREMAN (Institut de recherches et d'études sur le monde arabeet musulman, Aix-en-Provence), the papers combine for the most part rigorous historical research and an attention todetail, especially for the economics of the early trade. In considering almost five centuries of the coffee phenomenon, the information relates to much of Asia and the European traders involvedin the process. A major goal of the conference and volume is to focus on the earliest history of coffee, since the history in Western texts usually starts with the introduction of coffeehouses into Europe. Most of the papers deal with the Arab World, and at least five have direct relevance to Yemeni Studies. these include:

Éric Geoffroy, "La diffusion du café au Proche-Orient arabe par l'intermédiaire des soufis: mythe et réalité," 7-15.

Charles G. H. Schaefer, "Coffee Unobserved: Consumption and Commoditization of Coffee in Ethiopia before the Eighteenth Century," 23-33.

Edward J. Keall, "The Evolution of the First Coffee Cups," 35-50,

Michel Tuchscherer, "Commerce et production du café en mer Rouge au xvie siècle," 69-90,

C. G. Brouwer, "Al-Mukhâ as a Coffee Port in the Early Decades of the Seventeenth Century according to Dutch Sources," 271-295,

Iftikhar Ahmad Khan, "Coffee Trade of the Red Sea First Half of the 18th Century," 319-331,

Ernestine Carreira, "Les Français et le commerce du café dans l-océan Indien au xviiie siécle," 333-357. My focus in this review will be on the information regarding coffee and the coffee trade in Yemen, but I encourage the reader to look at the full range of articles.

In summing up the contributions in the volume, Tuchscherer highlights "quelques moments décisifs" in the early history of coffee. I will follow his insights in framing my comments. The first event is the appearance of coffee in East African and Yemeni history during the 15th century. No precise date for thisevent is compelling; indeed it is probably a mistake to look for a specific origin moment. Picking a date out of a historical text is about as hazardous as giving credence to the old goat trope found in both Yemeni and Ethiopian folklore that the stimulative properties of coffee were first noticed by a goatherd, whose billy or nanny went bean-happy after chewing some berries of the yet-to-be-nomenclatured Coffea arabica. Charles Schaefer's (p. 26) observation is probably one of the more accepted views: "Sometime prior to the fourteenth century coffee found its way to Yemen from southwest Ethiopia where it was domesticated." [Inexplicably, Schaeffer footnotes without commentan outdated claim by Addison Southard in a non-scholarly journal that "Arabs became acquainted with coffee in the eleventh century."] This may be so, but as I have noted elsewhere, is it curious that the large corpus of Rasulid agricultural, botanical and medical texts makes no reference at all to coffee. If coffee was being grown beforeal-Malik al-Afdal wrote his Bughyat al-fallâhîn inthe 1370s, it must have been a very well-kept secret; since the Rasulids taxed everything in sight, it is highly doubtful a new commodity of growing social interest would have escaped their notice. I propose that the earliest dates of substantive cultivation and use of this substance are probably around 1400, only about a century before the recorded 1511 Mecca conference on coffee drinking. Schaefer develops an intriguing thesis that Arabs took coffee plants from the western highlands of Ethiopia and domesticated these inYemen. Then in the early 16th century the Yemeni variety eventually called "longberry Mocha" was reintroduced into Harar of the eastern Ethiopian highlands. An added twist, followingan earlier argument of E. J. Van Donzel, is that Dutch merchants may have acquired their first seeds from Ethiopia rather than Yemen directly. Either way, of course, it was a Yemeni variety that was being colonized.

Whatever the links between Ethiopia and Yemen were, there appears to be no formal coffee trade and noliterary references to coffee in the Ethiopian hagiographic literature before 1500 (Schaeffer, 23). The development of coffee drinking may very well be attributed to mystical interest. Éric Geoffroy examines the Sufi connection through suchnotables as Shaykh 'Alî ibn 'Umar al-Shâdhilî (died 821-1418), Muhammad ibn Sa'îd al-Dhabhânî (died 875-1470) and Abû Bakr al-'Aydarûs (died 914/1508) all reputed candidates for the honor of bringing coffee toYemen. Geoffroy (pp. 8-9) finds the evidence foral-Shâdhilî and al-Dhabhânî unconvincing. Examining the mention by the historian al-Bakrî (died 952/1545) of Shaykh al-'Aydarûs as the initiator of coffee drinking in Aden, Geoffroy (p. 9) concludes: "Cependant, cette hypothèseparaît improbable." In the last case the shaykh in question patron saint of Aden, no less would be aYahyâ-come-lately, since coffee was already known to be in useat the time. Thus, the claims in Arabic historical sources must betaken with a grain of salt; finding the first Sufi to imbibe coffeeis so far without grounds.

A second notable change occurs with the transition from a ritual and communal use to individual consumptionin small cups. Based on a lengthy archaeological project in Zabîd, Ed Keall (p. 35) proposes "a connection in 15th centuryYemen between the reduction in size of ceramic drinking bowls and the notion that coffeehouse drinking passed from the communal domain ofurban-based mystics around the middle of the 15th century into the hands of ordinary consumers by the end of the same century. "Fittingly, this Yemeni innovation was as global then as trade in Yemen is today. The inspiration for the smaller bowl, argues Keall,may have been the classic Chinese porcelain tea bowl. Thus, the consumptive war between coffee and tea drinking fueled in large part by the thirst of colonialists and colonized was there virtually from the start. By the middle of the 16th century potters in Hays "were producing what may be perceived as their firsttrue coffee cups, vessels the size of a demi-tasse or, even smaller, the classic Turkish findjân" (Keall, p. 36). Keall's thesis fits the available evidence well, allowing time for a transition from communal to individual drinking by the middle of the 15th century in Yemen. Curiously, though, Ibn al-Dayba''s (died 1537) Bughyatal-mustafîd does not mention coffee in his fairly comprehensive discussion of Zabîd. [It is clear that coffee(at least the husk) was being traded through the Sinai port of al-Turat least by 1497 (Kawatoko, p. 52).] Was Ibn al-Dayba' unaware oft his new drink, or could it be that by his time coffee was so takenfor granted that it did not warrant a specific mention? Should Professor Keall have the good fortune to find a Zabidi coffee cupwith this noted historian's monogram, the mystery could be cleared upin a moment.

The third general trend mentioned byTuchscherer is the flourescence of the coffeehouse as both an urban and rural social phenomenon between 1560 and 1600. In large part due to spread throughout the Ottoman empire and beyond to Iran, India and Sumatra, coffee became almost an overnite global commodity. The spread of coffee within Yemen, as well as the emerging trade from Yemen in the 16th and 17th centuries, is discussed in detail by Michel Tuchscherer (p. 76), who notes a noticeable increase of coffeeas a trade item in the Red Sea after 1560. This was due in part to the promotion of Mocha as a major trading port following the warfare between the Ottomans and Venice in the earlier 1570s. "Moka setransforma en une place marchande majeure," concludes Tuchscherer (p.79). Coffeehouses became important social and political venues in Cairo and elsewhere in the Ottoman domain. [The growth of coffeeconsumption in Cairo between 1580 and 1630 is discussed in an articleby Nelly Hanna (pp. 91-109) and the use in Syria is discussed byAbdul-Karim Rafeq (pp. 127-141).]

The two oldest known documents fromal-Tˆur mentioning coffee (p. 64).

A fourth discernable blip in the trajectory of coffee use and trade dates to its appearance in Europe after 1660.The rise of the coffeehouse and its cultural impact on subsequent European history is well documented. Among the tidbits to mull over on your next visit to Starbucks, consider the opening remarks in Schaeffer's (p. 23) article: "Edward Lloyd opened a coffeehouse located near the wharves on the Thames River in 1688 thereby attracting the ruckus of haggling merchants, underwriters, and seacaptains negotiating maritime contracts in haphazard fashion. Continually observing this while serving coffee Lloyd gauged risk andbegan Lloyd's of London. Likewise, while sittting in coffeee houses, Johann Sebastion Bach was inspired to write the Coffee Cantata." The vast majority of this early supply of coffee came from Yemen, often from the port of Mocha. The historian C. G. Brouwer, who has published extensively on the history of Dutch trade with Yemen,provides a detailed analysis of this trade between 1614-1640 based on Dutch archival material. Brouwer shows that Mocha despite being the port attached by name to its most famous product was not alone in the trade; indeed, much Yemeni coffee was shipped from Jeddah. Old myths are dispelled by Brouwer's painstaking historical analysis: "In the transshipment of goods in al-Mukhâcoffee played but a secondary role. Quite often the product was not included in the return cargos of the Indian vessels, sometimes in small lots only, rarely in sizeable quantitites. Coffee was in fact aby-product. The VOC, the most powerful European company active in Southern Arabia, sailed there for the sake of comptanten orcash, as did the Indians, not for coffee. For a brief spell, from 1725-1735 Yemen held a virtual monopoly on coffee exports. However, this was the age of colonial plantation development. Even as early as1690 the Dutch transplanted coffee to Java. By the second decade ofthe 18th century coffee had arrived to Brazil. The race was on and ina short time Yemen's monopoly was broken. But that is another story and takes us far away from Yemen itself.


Introduction (M. Tuchscherer)

1. Aux origines de l'histoire du café (5 articles)

2. L'Égypte au coeur du réseau méditerranéen (4 articles)

3. Le café dans l'espace ottoman de la Méditerranée (5 articles)

4. Le café en Europe (2 articles)

5. Le café autour de l'océan Indien (4 articles)

6. Le Coffea arabica à travers le monde (2 articles)

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