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Book Review – Augustine Sedgewick, Coffeeland: A History

By Jordan Buchanan

Augustine Sedgewick, Coffeeland (Allen Lane, 2020), £25.00.

In Coffeeland, Augustine Sedgewick achieves the often-elusive goal of creating an academic history that is enjoyable for the non-professional history enthusiast. Coffee is a product so closely attached to complex historical themes that this history could easily have become an esoteric one. By taking the reader on a biographical journey entwined with world history, Sedgewick creates a work that accessibly demonstrates the complexity of its main theme of global capitalism.

Sedgewick uses the narrative of James Hill, a textile salesman from the slums of Manchester, to guide the reader through the tortuous global history of coffee. By drawing upon the previously unexamined private archives of the Hill Family, the author reveals how James Hill migrated to El Salvador and ameliorated his socio-economic position through his participation in the coffee trade – like many contemporary British migrants across the world working in other industries. Sedgewick details the Hill family’s trajectory to becoming a major Salvadoran coffee supplier to the U.S. market. He employs this family business history as a springboard to approach the major interconnected themes of the book: coffee and global capitalism. 

The rise of global capitalism in connection to coffee is the central motif in Coffeeland. As Sedegwick notes early on, ‘coffee is…the commodity we use more than any other to think about how the world economy works.’ By utilising the history of this commodity, Coffeeland exposes the intricacies of the world economic system that emerged after the Industrial Revolution. The author details the interconnection between the spread of global capitalism to the periphery and the growth of the coffee trade by using the case of El Salvador’s reliance on this key export commodity for its economic development. Sedgewick argues that this global economic system played a key role in the development of inequality for the coffee-exporting countries. He asserts that coffee ‘is one of the most important commodities in the history of global inequality.’ Connected to exporting coffee is the exploitation of labour, export-oriented development and extractivist economic policies; all of which exacerbated social and economic inequality within El Salvador.

Beyond this central motif, Sedgewick elaborates on other themes in world history, such as how Karl Marx and Fredrich Engels developed their critique of global capitalism, as well as the history of the U.S.A.’s political interference in El Salvador during the first half of the twentieth century. Furthermore, he outlines topics in the history of science, including the origins of the scientific measurement of the calorie and the geology of coffee cultivation. This synoptic style allows the reader to acquire the foundational knowledge necessary to follow the history of coffee and the Hill family. More than solely understanding El Salvador’s political conflict in the micro-history format, Coffeeland connects Salvadoran history with different world phenomena. Consequently, the book successfully combines the local with the global to show their symbiotic relationship throughout history.

Engaging with so many themes in world history, the book cannot be comprehensive on all of them. Sedgewick does not enter into the long debate regarding Britain’s role in Latin America after its independence. If he had incorporated this vexed topic, the author would have included another fascinating dimension of world history in his work. Additionally, the book does not discuss the surrounding coffee-exporting republics of Central America. In the coffee consumer’s mind, coffee is synonymous with places such as Costa Rica and Guatemala. Although Sedgewick effectively expands the reader’s comprehension of Salvadoran history, more regional context would have supplemented this achievement. 

In spite of these minor limitations, Sedgewick has written a concise world history that elicits the reader’s curiosity to investigate further topics. By briefly mentioning the role of British enterprise in Latin America during the nineteenth century, he allows for the esteemed works of historians such as D.C.M. Platt and Rory Miller to attract fresh readership. Moreover, by engaging with the history of coffee in El Salvador, Sedgewick succeeds in drawing attention to Central American history. Equipped with the knowledge gained from this guide to coffee’s history, readers are able to follow up on their own interests in the other coffee exporting countries of the sub-region. Thus, Augustine Sedgewick’s Coffeeland provides an invaluable contribution to the world history of coffee, as well as offering a consumable history for the inquisitive coffee-lover. 

Image: “El Salvador land” (public domain via Wiki Commons).

Reckoning with Britain’s Colonial Past: The Mau Mau Detention Camps and Dedan Kimathi

By Lauren Brown @LaurenBroon

Britain has a complicated colonial history. Sadly, thousands of descendants from former colonial territories, still face the legacies of Britain’s hegemony. This is true for the Kikuyu, Embu and Neru people of Kenya. During the Mau Mau rebellion of 1952-1964, the British colonial government placed some 80,000 people from these ethnic groups in a ‘pipeline’ of detention camps after a series of violent attacks on British settlers and ‘loyalist’ Africans. Camp inmates were subjected to brutal interrogations, whippings, sexual assault and even castration.[1] Detainee letters cited a lack of food and poor sanitation, whilst David Anderson’s ‘Histories of the Hanged’ detailed the systematic hangings of many ‘hardcore’ prisoners.

Since Kenyan independence in 1964, the truth about the camps had been hidden. However, in 2011, a series of court cases, brought by survivors of these camps against the British government, finally highlighted their brutality and the true nature of the British colonial state. The former prisoners were immensely successful. The Foreign Commonwealth Office conceded and provided the ex-prisoners with compensation, a public apology and the erection of a memorial in Nairobi. The court cases also prompted the release of thousands of colonial documents, which the British Government had supposedly ‘lost’ at its Hanslope Park warehouse.[2] Later, it was revealed that Hanslope Park was home to 20,000 undisclosed government files from 37 former colonies.

Initially, these court cases seemed to herald a new era of post-colonial apology and recognition for the unfiltered history of empire. However, such a revolution was swiftly stopped in its tracks. In 2018, 40,000 more ex-detainees took to the English courts seeking justice. Files in the National Archives at Kew highlight the horrific conditions of the camps, with prisoners writing to local government representatives complaining of squalor, food shortages and corporal punishment. Yet, the case was dismissed under the notion that a fair trial was not possible because of the 50 year delay. High Court Judge Justice Stewart J pointed to a lack of ‘clear’ evidence, despite the swathe of files which live in the archives.[3]

Here lies the crucial issue – until this point the ex-prisoners could not have filed the case as the documents were hidden. Now they are available for consultation and could be utilised in a trial. Nevertheless, the damage has been done, as no further legal action will be entertained.

Entwined in the history of the Mau Mau camps, is the story of field marshal Dedan Kimathi. Kimathi was executed by the British after a short career of anti-British ‘terrorism’. The government was so desperate for his capture, that they embarked on an unrelenting campaign to ‘eliminate’ him.[4] In 1957, Kimathi was hanged. He was buried in an unmarked grave in Kamiti Prison, where he is believed to have lain ever since. Kimathi quickly became a martyr of the movement. His family – leaders of the Dedan Kimathi Foundation, have campaigned for decades for his body to be exhumed.

On October 25th last year, the foundation announced that Kimathi’s body had finally been found.[5] However, Kenya’s Interior Ministry dismissed the claim.[6] Evelyn Manjugu Kimathi, Kimathi’s youngest daughter and the chair of the foundation, said she would seek an order to exhume his body. On the 3rd of July this year, she said she had ‘fresh evidence’ that Kimathi is buried within the prison, but the Kenyan Government has not approved his excavation.

The British Government has also proven unhelpful in the quest for his body, refusing to conduct an investigation into the matter. It would seem that no further efforts towards securing justice for the Mau Mau veterans will be entertained. Evidently, the previous Mau Mau settlement was the only compensation and apology the ex-detainees would receive.


[1]Caroline Elkins, Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain’s Gulag in Kenya, p.209.

[2]David M Anderson, ‘Mau Mau in the High Court and the ‘Lost’ British Empire Archives: Colonial Conspiracy or Bureaucratic Bungle?,The Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History, Vol 39,Issue 5, (Routledge: London and New York, 2011)

[3]Casemine, Kimathi & Ors V The Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Casemine.com, https://www.casemine.com/judgement/uk/5b6401a42c94e04659e5effc, ND, accessed: 08/03/2020.

[4]The National Archives, WO276/431, ‘Special Forces’, ‘GHQ Operation Instruction No: 35’, 9/12/1955.

[5] Hillary Orinde, ‘62 years after hanging: Dedan Kimathi grave found’, Standard Media, 25th Oct 2019.  https://www.standardmedia.co.ke/article/2001346853/dedan-kimathi-grave-found. Accessed: 21/01/2020.

[6]Steve Njuguna, ‘Govt dismisses reports that Dedan Kimathi grave found at Kamiti’, Nairobi News, 26th Oct 2019. https://nairobinews.nation.co.ke/editors-picks/govt-dismisses-reports-that-dedan-kimathi-grave-found-at-kamiti. Accessed: 21/01/2020.

Image Credit:

Figure 1. Author’s photograph of Mau Mau Propaganda Poster, National Army Museum London.

Figure 2. Q1 building at The National Archives, Kew, 9 March 2007. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Q1_building_at_The_National_Archives.jpg#/media/File:Q1_building_at_The_National_Archives.jpg

Egyptian Hajj murals: a centuries old tradition

By Yayha Nurgat (@yahyanurgat)

Every year, Muslims from across the world travel to the city of Mecca in order to undertake the Hajj, the fifth and final pillar of Islam. In many rural areas of modern-day Egypt, pilgrims return from Mecca to find the exterior of their home adorned with illustrations of the holy sites of the Hajj, along with various other images and calligraphy (see figs. 1, 2 and 3).[1]

Figure 1. An Egyptian Hajj mural near Aswan. It is somewhat austere compared to most other examples. From Top L to R: The Kaaba in the foreground of the Sacred Mosque of Mecca, Verse 22:27 (see below). Bottom L to R: A steamship at sea, and an airplane taking off. Image: Yahya Nurgat.

The earliest description of Egyptian Hajj murals comes from the Ottoman bureaucrat and intellectual Mustafa Ali (1541-1600). In his description of Cairo from 1599, he mentions:

The nice custom is also highly praised by wise people that one of the relatives of the person that undertakes the pilgrimage, one who is known to be sincerely devoted to him, has the Quran verse on the pilgrimage [Āl ʿImrān, 3:97] inscribed with large letters on the wall of his door. Some even decorate it with various embellishments and colours. Those who pass through that street will know for sure that the owner of that house has gone on the pilgrimage that year.[2]

Ali’s description alludes to the fact that it was the pilgrims’ friends or family who commissioned the artwork, and not the pilgrim themselves. The same holds true today. In the first instance, the murals form part of the pilgrim’s homecoming celebrations. Newly returned pilgrims are greeted with a prayer: ‘[May your] Hajj be accepted, efforts be appreciated and sins forgiven’ (ḥajj mabrūr wa saʿy mashkūr wa dhanb maghfūr). The same words can often be found on the murals themselves, representing the prayers and good wishes of the community. In return, the pilgrimoffers their own prayers for their guests and shares gifts from the Holy Cities, among them holy water from Mecca and dates from Medina, the adoptive city of the Prophet Muhammad and the site of his tomb.[3] Once these initial celebrations are over, the murals remain as a lasting monument to a successful Hajj. This is no longer a normal house, but a ‘Hajj house’; like the pilgrim within, the home too has undergone a sacred transformation.

Figure 2. The pilgrim’s name flanked by depictions of the Kaaba and the Green (Prophet’s) Dome in Medina. Translation of central text: ‘al-Ḥājj ʿAbd Rabbih [the servant of his Lord].  Ḥāmid Maḥmūd Sakhiyy. He undertook the major and minor pilgrimage in 1435 AH/ 2014 AD.’ Image: Yahya Nurgat.

The murals tell a story, and the pilgrim is the protagonist. Their name features prominently above the front door, prefixed by the newly acquired honorific of al-ḥājj, as well as the year in which the Hajj was undertaken (see fig. 2). The murals commemorate not only the fulfilment of the Hajj obligation but also the Hajj’s arguably most challenging component: the journey from Cairo to Mecca. From at least the eighth century to the nineteenth, the Hajj journey was undertaken primarily by land, a route that was as lengthy as it was perilous. By the mid-nineteenth century, pilgrims began to travel via steamship from Suez to Jeddah, cutting the journey to only three days. Despite its swiftness, sea travel carried its own hazards, mainly related to a lack of safety and the spread of disease.[4] Sea travel was itself superseded by air travel beginning in the 1970s, though a small number of Egyptians continue to travel via the Red Sea to Jeddah. The murals convey this long history of Hajj travel, with steamships and camels depicted alongside buses, trains and aeroplanes.

Figure 3. Side wall, carrying verse 3:97 (see below). Image: Yahya Nurgat.

While illustrations vary from one mural to the next, representations of the Kaaba are ubiquitous (see figs. 1 and 2). Even though the rites of the Hajj occur both in and around Mecca, the Kaaba is the magnet which draws pilgrims to the city. The Quran states that ‘Pilgrimage to the House [the Kaaba] is a duty owed to God by people who are able to undertake it’ (3:97).[5] This verse frequently captions depictions of the Kaaba on the murals, just as observed by Mustafa Ali in the late sixteenth century (see fig. 3). Another commonly inscribed verse represents God’s instruction to Abraham: ‘Proclaim the Pilgrimage to all people. They will come to you on foot and on every kind of swift mount, emerging from every deep mountain pass’ (see fig. 1).[6] By undertaking the Hajj, pilgrims respond to this ancient call.

Figure 4. A Prophetic tradition (see below) beside the Green Dome of the Prophet in Medina. Image: Yahya Nurgat.

Another ubiquitous feature of the murals is the iconic green dome which sits atop the Prophet Muhammad’s tomb in Medina (fig. 4). Pilgrims visit both Muhammad’s mosque and the tomb located within it before or after travelling to Mecca. A famous tradition of the Prophet explains that the space between his grave and his pulpit is a garden of paradise.[7] This tradition is often found alongside images of the tomb (fig. 4). Another commonly used tradition promises Muhammad’s intercession for anyone who visits his tomb.[8] In combining both text and imagery, the artist testifies to the pilgrim’s journey through a sacred landscape, their fulfilment of an important obligation, and their gaining of blessings and intercession in the Prophet’s city.

The Hajj murals recall a time prior to the advent of photography in which illustrations of Mecca and Medina were few and far between. While such illustrations are now significantly more widespread, the murals endure as a living tradition through which Egyptian Muslims continue to commemorate, contemplate, and celebrate the Hajj.    


[1] Depictions of other historic means of transport, such as pilgrim caravans, other animals and talismanic symbols are also sometimes added to this combination. See Juan E. Campo, “Visualising the Hajj. Representations of a Changing Sacred Landscape Past and Present,” in The Hajj: Pilgrimage in Islam, ed. Eric Tagliacozzo and Shawkat M. Toorawa (Cambridge University Press, 2015), 269–87, at 283. For the richest collection of images of Hajj murals, see Ann Parker and Avon Neal, Hajj Paintings. Folk Art of the Great Pilgrimage (Cairo: AUC Press, 2009 [1995]).

[2] Mustafa bin Ahmet Ali, Halatü’l-Kahire Mine’l-Adati’z-Zahire, trans. Andreas Tietze, Mustafa Ali’s Description of Cairo of 1599: Text, Transliteration, Translation, Notes (Österreichische Akademie der Wissenschaften, 1975), 33. Cited in Remke Kruk & Oort Frans, “Hajj Murals in Dakhla Oasis (Egypt),” in Hajj: Global Interactions through Pilgrimage, ed. Luitgard Mols and Marjo Buitelaar (Sidestone Press), 163-184, at 164.

[3] The date palm is frequently mentioned in the Quran and was both favoured and praised by the Prophet Muhammad.

[4] This issue of safety continues into the recent past; many hundreds lost their life in a disaster on the Red Sea in 2006: “Hundreds feared drowned in Red Sea disaster.” The Irish Times https://www.irishtimes.com/news/hundreds-feared-drowned-in-red-sea-disaster-1.1010828 [Accessed 19 July 2020].

[5] M.A.S. Abdel Haleem (trans.), The Qurʾan (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), Q 3:97.

[6] Ibid. Q 22:27.

[7] ‘There is a garden from the gardens of Paradise between my house and my pulpit,’ as recorded partially or wholly in several Hadith collections.

[8] ‘Whoever visits my grave, my intercession is guaranteed for him,’ as recorded in Sunan al-Dāraquṭnī and Musnad al-Bazzār.

A familiar tune: the Proms affair highlights Britain’s reluctance for critical self-reflection

By Daniel Adamson (@DanielEAdamson)

Controversy was caused by the recent announcement that orchestral versions of Rule, Britannia! and Land of Hope and Glory would feature at the Last Night of the Proms, in a break with the traditional singing of the anthems. Eventually, this decision was reversed by the BBC.  According to the broadcaster, the original change was made in response to COVID-19 restrictions. However, concern had previously been raised that the lyrics of both patriotic songs contained troubling references to Britain’s history of imperialism and slavery.

Boris Johnson dismissed the decision of the BBC, demanding instead that ‘we stopped our cringing embarrassment about our history’. Johnson’s rebuke was symptomatic of a trend which is endemic within British public historical memory: a concerted reluctance to engage in critical self-reflection.

It could be argued that Johnson’s reaction represents an avoidance technique which, in turn, betrays an acknowledgement of the difficult conversations to be had. Consistently, national historical narratives within the United Kingdom have avoided meaningful engagement with problematic aspects of the past. The Coronavirus pandemic has allowed society the time for existential debate. It is troubling, therefore, that the inability to grapple with uncomfortable facets of British history is still afflicting those in the highest offices of power.

A case in point: British Holocaust memory

A dearth of national reflexivity is perhaps no more pronounced than in the sphere of British Holocaust consciousness. The British response to the Holocaust in the 1930s and the Second World War was, at best, ambiguous. Certainly, there were redemptive episodes during this period of history. The Kindertransport scheme in 1938-39, for example, facilitated the passage of thousands of child refugees from Europe to the United Kingdom. However, British efforts were also marked by apathy and inaction, both in the social and military responses to the persecutions in mainland Europe. This was illustrated by the prolonged obstinance evident in governmental responses to the refugee crisis of the 1930s.

Despite this, public memory of the Holocaust has only recently begun to engage with the incommodious strands of British involvement. In the immediate post-war years, mainstream discussion of the Holocaust as a whole was limited. In turn, the subsidiary issue of the British response was largely occluded from public view.

Even as the general sphere of Holocaust remembrance grew in the United Kingdom throughout the 1990s, critical appraisal of the British response to the genocide did not feature heavily in public memory. Although the inaugural Holocaust Memorial Day occurred in the United Kingdom in 2001, the historian Donald Bloxham has noted how the narrative presented failed to ‘turn the mirror around’1. Little mention was made either of how Britain responded to the Holocaust, or whether more could have been done at the time. In other words, a sense of historical and geographical detachment between Britain and the Holocaust facilitated the pervading tendency of British society to ask difficult questions of its past.

Naturally, there are several factors which are likely to have contributed to the limited critical engagement with the relationship between Britain and the Holocaust. The issue is placed within the wider framework of public memory of the Second World War. Triumphalist narratives of British victory in 1945 have overshadowed most other contemporary issues. The entrenched impression of British involvement in a ‘good war’ is not easily compatible with more discerning evaluations of national actions during the conflict. The typically ‘black-and-white’ nature of public memory offers little space for gradation within theorisations of Britain’s complicated history.

In 2016, a school-based survey conducted by the UCL Centre for Holocaust Education found that some ‘34.4 per cent incorrectly believed that the Holocaust triggered Britain’s entry into war and a further 17.6 per cent of students thought the British drew up rescue plans to save the Jews’2. In the same survey, nearly ‘23.8 per cent’ also incorrectly thought the British government did not know about the Holocaust until the end of the war in 1945’

More promisingly, recent historical research has started to erode the stubborn lack of self-reflection within British Holocaust consciousness. Through the collection of Kindertransport testimonies, Jennifer Craig-Norton has shed light on the unpleasant experiences of some refugee children once they had arrived on British shores3. Elsewhere, Gilly Carr is spearheading a reassessment of native complicity during the Nazi occupation of the Channel Islands4. Some 22 islanders from Jersey alone are believed to have died following deportation to Nazi concentration camps and detention centres. In the weeks since the BBC Proms controversy, the National Trust has published an equally provocative report on links between its historic properties, colonialism, and slavery.

In conclusion, the BBC Proms affair brought into focus an entrenched reluctance within British society to confront troubling elements of our national history. Whether concerning slavery, colonialism, or the Holocaust, for the most part British historical consciousness has displayed a distinct unwillingness to acknowledge less triumphant moments in the ‘Island Story’. This is not a phenomenon limited to the United Kingdom. In East-Central Europe, Holocaust complicity remains a continual bone of political contention. Likewise, France has long struggled to reconcile narratives of victory in the Second World War with those of Vichy collaboration.

Recent events – namely Black Lives Matter and the Coronavirus pandemic – have provided a crucial opportunity to redress an imbalance in British historical consciousness. As a society, the United Kingdom is at a juncture where it is possible to complicate the past. There is a chance to acknowledge where mistakes have been made. However, if those in political power continue to rebuff attempts at historical re-evaluation, there is only limited hope for the development of more nuanced interpretations of the rich history of Britain.  

References:

  1. Quoted in Pearce, in Sharples, Caroline, and Olaf Jensen. Britain and the Holocaust : Remembering and Representing War and Genocide, (2013), p.203.
  2. Foster, in Pearce, A., Remembering the Holocaust in educational settings (Routledge, 2018), p.241.
  3. Craig-Norton, Jennifer. The Kindertransport : Contesting Memory. (2019).
  4. For example, see Carr, G. (2016). “Have you been offended?” Holocaust memory in the Channel Islands at HMD 70. Holocaust Studies, 22(1), 44-64.

Image: ‘Proms in the Park’ by Neil Rickards in the Public Domain via Wikipedia Commons https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Proms_in_the_Park_2.jpg