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BOOK REVIEW

Augustine Sedgewick serves up a bitter brew in ‘Coffeeland’

The ugly story behind our morning addiction

For something that’s so ubiquitous in our lives, coffee is — for most people — a little murky in its origins. Maybe you’re aware that the plant is native to Ethiopia. Maybe you know that the commercial coffee trade got its start in Yemen and then spread through the Ottoman Empire.

But how did coffee get to Java, the Philippines, and Latin America?

Augustine Sedgewick’s “Coffeeland: One Man’s Dark Empire and the Making of Our Favorite Drug” connects the dots, even as it focuses primarily on a single coffee plantation in western El Salvador. The first owner of that plantation was James Hill, a textile salesman from working-class Manchester, England, who through hard work and some cruelly exploitive labor practices became “the coffee king of El Salvador.”

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Sedgewick gives Hill and his heirs their due for weathering coffee booms and busts and for their resourcefulness in finding markets for their beans. But his larger subject is the way a coffee monoculture transformed El Salvador for the worse, replacing its viable egalitarian subsistence-agriculture economy with something far more punitive and ugly.

“Coffee is not just one of the most important commodities in the history of global capitalism,” Sedgewick writes, “it is one of the most important commodities in the history of global inequality.”

In El Salvador, that inequality increased after the Salvadoran government abolished indigenous communities’ communal landownership in 1882.

“Those without a land title in hand were instructed to go to local authorities with proof that they had been cultivating a particular plot, pay a fee, and secure the title,” Sedgewick explains. “If they did not or could not do so within six months, the land would be put up for auction. … Even where coffee did not take over cultivated communal lands, it took over woodlands that had been an important factor in subsistence economies: a source of game, fruit, fuel, and medicine.”

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Former peasant farmers had no choice but to become hired laborers in what Sedgewick dubs “hunger plantations.” Working conditions were brutal, and political unrest was inevitable.

“Coffeeland” opens with the 1979 kidnapping of James Hill’s grandson, Jaime, by leftist rebels, and the Hill family saga serves as a loose framework for the whole book. But Sedgewick also spends a lot of time on economic theory, Salvadoran politics, the science of coffee cultivation, the differences between various coffee varietals, studies of caffeine’s effects on the human body, coffee-marketing strategies in the US, and the workplace changes that coffee’s increasing popularity brought to American society.

Nineteenth-century attempts to explain “both the organic and the inorganic worlds in terms of their causes and effects” are part of the picture as well. So was a Victorian-era “productivist gospel of energy,” which proposed that “the extraction, concentration, and application of the energy latent in nature to profitable ends was ‘the eminently moral supreme purpose to be achieved.’ ” Sedgewick even explores the relevance of the laws of thermodynamics to coffee production and consumption. Less esoteric phenomena — wild fluctuations in bean prices, violent revolutions, global wars that cut off overseas markets for years at a time — led to an utterly unpredictable state of affairs, he points out, for plantation owners, laborers, political leaders, and military forces alike.

To keep the upper hand over their workers, Hill and his fellow plantation owners ran a “hunger-based system of plantation coffee production.” They ordered tomato plants, blackberry bushes, fruit trees, maize, beans, and rice torn up. They even ordered foods of last resort — including monkeys, armadillos, and anteaters — exterminated. As the natural bounty of early-19th-century El Salvador was destroyed, the indigenous population had no choice but to work on the plantations

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As one leftist leader observed, “there was no need for demagoguery” to stir protest against a system that pushed workers past their endurance points. Revolution led to a genocidal military-government response, with indigenous peoples specifically targeted.

Sedgewick periodically alludes to Gabriel García Márquez (his book’s opening line is an altered quote from “One Hundred Years of Solitude”), and a few key characters feel as if they’re straight out of a magic-realist novel. General Maximiliano Hernández Martínez, for instance, “believed in telepathy, reincarnation, and the transmigration of souls.” After seizing power in 1931, “[h]e strung up colored lights around the capital to ward off a smallpox epidemic. He went on the radio and said that in fact there were ten senses — procreation, urination, defecation, thirst, and hunger being the five that physiologists had missed.”

Other bizarre examples include an episode in the US where, in 1955, “the coffee break was [put] on trial.” It involved a Denver necktie-weaving company trying not to pay its workers for the coffee breaks that its owner forced them to take to boost their productivity. After two rounds through the courts, the case was settled in the workers’ favor.

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Sedgewick concludes that we still “have no shared idea of what it means to be connected to faraway people and places through things.” But “Coffeeland” is not relentlessly grim. In its last lap, it strikes some positive notes, including an altruistic turn that a chastised Jaime Hill took in his life after his kidnappers released him. The rise of fair-trade coffee cultivation, while not perfectly just, is better than what went before it, too.

Meticulously researched, vivid in its scene-setting, fine-toothed in its sociopolitical analysis and, admittedly, sometimes dense going in its tackling of economic and physiological theories, “Coffeeland” lays bare the history and reality behind that cup of joe you’re drinking.

COFFEELAND: One Man’s Dark Empire and the Making of Our Favorite Drug

By Augustine Sedgewick

Penguin Press, 433 pp, $30

Michael Upchurch is the former Seattle Times book critic.