Book Review – Coffeeland: A History by Augustine Sedgewick

Jordan Buchanan reviews Augustine Sedgewick’s Coffeeland: A History (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).

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