Coffeeland has more than a few strands to it – among them El Salvador’s own turbulent history, the dawn of America as a consumer superpower, 19th-century doctrines of energy and efficiency, and, of course, the extractive economics of capitalism. There is even attention given to the birth of the coffee break, including the surprising legal tussles that took place over using, as one 1920s pamphlet put it, “coffee as an aid to factory efficiency”. What ties it all together is Sedgewick’s quasi-hero, Hill, a man who, in the 80 years of his life, made his way with quite ruthless determination from the slums of 19th-century Manchester up to the peak of Salvadoran society, all by farming coffee.
This is clearly a staggeringly well-researched piece of work. You suspect it started life as a dissertation: the Bibliography alone is nearly 20 closely printed pages.
I would have liked some illustrations: the story is peopled with vivid characters and scenes but you want to see them. It is a serious book and not an airport read at all — but then we won’t be going to airports any time soon.
Coffeeland – Sedgewick’s debut monograph – is at times overly didactic. In labouring the (very valid) contrast between the mundanity of the morning coffee and the nightmare of its productive process, the author occasionally over-steeps the brew. Yet the book succeeds in highlighting the gory realities underlying globalised consumption in the form of a character-rich national history of El Salvador.
As the book’s opening quote from Martin Luther King Jr puts it, “before you finish eating breakfast in the morning, you’ve depended on more than half the world”. In capturing the 20th-century tragedy of a small corner of that world through a breakfast staple, Coffeeland is a bittersweet triumph.
Augustine Sedgewick has written an dark, exhaustive, survey of what one commodity can do to a poor country that has the world’s richest neighbour as a market. His account starts with one of coffee’s founding dynasts, James Hill. From the squalid slums of 19th-century Manchester, Hill escaped via textile trading to El Salvador in 1889. Only independent from Spain in 1821, the country was one of ‘subsistence farmers, with four lawyers and four physicians among its 250,000 citizens’.
Similarly, the latter half of Coffeeland, which describes the 1932 massacre, La Matanza, in El Salvador of peasant farmers by the government, is far more gripping than the endless talk of the variation in coffee prices. A more stern editor — one perhaps fired up with their morning brew — could have condensed this book down and tightened its focus, giving it the hit and bite of an espresso. Instead, the sprawling history of a place, a product and a family left this reviewer with the impression of an unsatisfactory, watery cup.
The attempt to turn coffee into the story of global capitalism, though not without its successes, falls short of Harvard historian Sven Beckert’s Empire of Cotton (2014), a masterly exercise in explaining the modern world through a single commodity. Sedgewick’s effort to do the same sometimes reads less like a well-thought-out theory and more like a jumble of anecdotes, personalities, philosophies and locations. His approach is distracting in both senses of the word. The multiple digressions are often entertaining. But the book’s overarching theme of labour exploitation occasionally gets lost in the clutter.