The Making of a Global Commodity | Part 1: Out of Arabia

Learn more with exclusive Digital Extra: The Making of a Global Commodity | Part 2: Coffee Comes to the Americas

By Dr. Steven Topik, University of California Irvine

How did a tree that sprang up in the remote highlands of Ethiopia become a global commodity? In the beginning, of course, was the coffee tree itself. The characteristics of coffee that we find so alluring arose out of its own fight for survival and expansion; they were not imposed by human design. The goal of the bushes and trees in the Rubiacae family, such as the one which botanists call “Coffea”, was to survive and propagate in the drought-prone areas of the African continent and on Indian Ocean tropical islands such as Madagascar and the Macarenes.1 Serendipitously, it so happened that people came to find coffee’s properties useful, and even seductive.

Coffea sprang up in Africa between Ethiopia in the Northeast (home to Coffea arabica), the Congo in the South (birthplace of Coffea canaphora, or Robusta), Liberia in the West (Coffea liberica’s homeland), and neighboring Sierra Leone’s Coffea Stenophylla. The star of the coffee story is certainly Coffea arabica. Its international renown is reflected in the fact that it became the first Coffea species to be scientifically labeled when Carl Linnaeus, the father of modern plant taxonomy, dubbed it “Coffea arabica” in 1737. It was the only coffee species known anywhere at the time, and indeed the only type of coffee then drunk anywhere outside of Africa. Two hundred years would pass before other Coffea species would begin to compete. Even today, Arabica provides as much as three quarters of the world’s coffee production and a substantial majority of coffee exports.

Botanists agree that the Arabica came into being in the tropical rainforests of what is today southwest Ethiopia and neighboring South Sudan.2 But its favor with humans was certainly not predictable or naturally preordained. Coffee aficionados today often assume that anyone who tasted good coffee would be naturally won over. In fact, most peoples of Ethiopia were slow to enjoy the coffee cherry, bean, leaves, or stems or the effects of its chemical components. Indeed, some Abyssinian Christian kingdoms outlawed it in the nineteenth century because coffee had become so closely associated with their archenemies, the Muslims in Ethiopia’s east.

Despite the fact that the Arabica began at the birthplace of humankind in an area of precocious agriculturalists, people have been very late to consume coffee and even later to trade and cultivate it. Unlike other beverages such as tea and cacao, which humans have consumed for thousands of years, there is no documented evidence of humans trading in coffee before the end of the fifteenth century.3

Initially, it was gathered from the wild stands of coffee that dotted southern Ethiopia. Viewed by the Oromo people who moved into those lands in the 15th century as a gift of their supreme deity Waqa, The fruit they called “buna” was used sparingly for ritual purposes or as a pep pill for military expeditions. Since the indigenous coffee trees were seen as gifts from God, human cultivation was frowned upon as an insult.4 The coffee that was picked in the forests was not drunk, but was rather fried in butter and eaten in an early coffeecake, and was not widely sold.

Indeed, trade was scarce among the archipelago of peoples that inhabited what is today Ethiopia, where transport was very difficult, dangerous, and slow, and market relations were mainly done by barter. Coffee in Ethiopia would only be turned into a major international market-oriented commodity in the 19th century, after Muslims across the Red Sea in Yemen domesticated the tree and stimulated a budding demand in the Muslim world. Production in Ethiopia then varied between the continued harvesting of wild forest trees in southwestern mostly Christian areas, such as Sidamo and Kaffa, and small farms in the Muslim east of Harerge, especially around the city of Harer. In the Christian areas the land was conquered from the resident Oromo, who were converted to debt peons or slaves to pick wild coffee and begin to plant coffee farms, while Christian landowning aristocrats became rich. The central government under emperors Menelik II (1889-1913) and Haile Selasse (1916-1974) encouraged coffee as Ethiopia’s main export so it could import modern arms and consolidate the national state. Today Ethiopia is one of Africa’s main coffee producers and consumers, but this is a recent phenomenon.5

The world’s most popular type of coffee is called “Arabica” because it was first domesticated for commercial use in Arabia Felix, today known as Yemen. Although the common image today of this area is a backward, isolated desert, in fact Yemen lay at the intersection of the earliest civilizations (Egypt, Greece, Mesopotamia, Persia, and India) and on the route of the China-Rome trade. The Yemeni people borrowed and perfected plant domestication, irrigation, and terracing techniques from its’ advanced neighbors, creating prosperous seasonal agriculture on the steep hillsides and valleys (wadis). They also “borrowed” the coffee plant from Ethiopia.

Although the citrus, pomegranates, sugar, bananas, and grains they grew often on communal land were for subsistence use in Yemen, the small scale farmers did sell some of their varied produce in local and regional markets. Despite the widespread use of slaves (often from Ethiopia) for domestic work, and military/administrative service in Yemen, coffee seems to have been grown by free farmers on their small gardens alongside numerous other crops. They enjoyed a virtual world monopoly between the 1400s when cultivation may have started, until the 1700s when Europeans began successful coffee propagation amongst their colonies. 6 Merchants enjoyed only a loose control of the small market—only 12,000 to 15,000 metric tons a year were produced in Yemen in the eighteenth century.7 Traders were subject to the whims of Arabica- producing (and largely self-sufficient) peasants who brought small amounts to market as their need for money and goods demanded.8 Merchandizing was long controlled by a trading Hindu diaspora from the Indian port of Surat.9 By the 1600s, Yemeni coffee was integrated into the world economy in the sense that Indian merchants acting for Middle Eastern, Indian Ocean, North African, and European exporters purchased the Arabian product with Mexican silver. For the first time, coffee was becoming a global commodity.

Yemen was able to dominate the trade because of the small initial demand for coffee. Yemeni farmers and merchants had to create a taste and therefore a market for coffee. Arabia Feliz succeeded in doing so because of a fortuitous combination of appropriate climate, human adaption, location, and timing. Coffee became attractive to a widening public in the Muslim world in part because of the Muslim prohibition of alcohol, after which coffee became known as “the wine of Islam.”. Also important was coffee’s attraction for a popular and widespread Muslim order, the Sufi, who used stimulants in their religious worship.  The prescribed annual pilgrimage for the devout to Mecca, just up the Arabian peninsula from Yemen, served to distribute coffee in the Muslim world. And the advent of a new social space, the coffeehouse, in Yemen, Cairo, Mecca, and then further north in the Middle East popularized the new drink. Particularly important was the rise of the Islamic Ottoman Empire in the fifteenth century, which brought peace to the Middle East, northern Africa and the Balkans, and encouraged trade with Muslim India after the spread of the Mughal Empire there. That enabled coffee to hitch onto the burgeoning spice, textile, silk exchanges, and pilgrimage travel that connected these areas. So it spread into the Indian Ocean world and to the greater Middle East.

Europeans came to coffee late as they found it while trying to break into the rich Indian Ocean spice trade in the early 1600s.10 At first trading it between Muslim ports on the Persian Gulf and India, Europeans finally began to enjoy drinking, rather than just selling, coffee only in the middle of the 1600s when coffeehouses began appearing in Italy, England, France, and then further north. Merchant monopoly companies like the Dutch and English East India Companies, followed later by the French, set out to control the rich trade.

Yemen, particularly its largest port of Mocha, lost its monopoly of production in the 1600s when the Dutch (or, according to local tradition, the Muslim pilgrim Baba Budan) transplanted coffee seedlings from Yemen to the Malabar Coast in India. From there, they were moved more successfully to Java in today’s Indonesia at the end of the century as well as to Sumatra and Timor. The first reports of Java coffee arriving in Amsterdam came in 1706. Surprisingly, the Dutch, who, unlike foreign traders in Yemen, did indirectly control production, did not change the essentially peasant nature of cultivation. Peasants were forced by local Javanese officials to grow coffee and sell the exotic crop at a set price to Dutch East Indian stores or, after the demise of The Dutch East India Company (VOC) in 1800, to Dutch colonial repositories. The production high in the eighteenth century for Java was around 2,000 metric tons. Coercion and state command of the trade only diminished after 1880, when Java’s production declined from its peak at 120,000 metric tons, due to competition from the Americas and the spread of the now famous leaf pathogen hemileia vasatrix.11 When production rose again in the twentieth century, it was mainly with the Robusta tree, imported from Central Africa, and grown on a small scale by peasants in a market-based system.

The French were the second European power to enter into colonial coffee production when they brought seeds from Yemen to the island of Reunion (east of Madagascar) in 1715.12 Again, we find merchant capitalism as the French East India Company governed the island from 1708 to 1758. But rather than coercing local peasants, they imported at least 10,000 slaves, brought from the African coast and Madagascar.13 Rather than peasant plots as in Yemen and Java, plantations of an average of 200 hectares, were the rule early on, though they declined sharply in size over time. For the two centuries that followed, during Europe’s industrial revolution and rise of bourgeois society, overseas slavery, coffee production, and plantations were inextricably linked.  But they transformed the world of coffee, both production and consumption, not in Africa, Arabia, or the Indian Ocean.  The European colonial powers brought the system first developed in the East to the Americas. There, after a boom in the Caribbean, coffee would help construct  independent  nations of Central and South America.


1 André Charrier and Julien Berthaud, “Botanical Classification of Coffee” in Coffee. Botany, Biochemistry and Production of Beans and Beverage edited by M.N. Clifford and K.C. Willson (London: Croom Helm, 1985), p. 13; Frederick L. Wellman, Coffee, Botany, Cultivation, and Utilization ( NY: Interscience Publishers Inc., 1961), pp. 41-54, and Aaron P. Davis, Rafael Gouvaerts, Diane M. Bridson, and Piet Stofelen, “An Anotated Taxonomic Conspectus of the Genis coffea (rubiaceae) Botanical Journal of the Linnaean Society 152:(4):465-512.

2 A article to genetically verify that the Arabica began in Ethiopia, not Yemen or elsewhere is M.C. Combes, C. Astorga, B. Bertrand, G. Graziosi and P. Lashermes, The Origin of Cultivated Coffea arabicaL. Varieties Revealed by AFLP and SSR Markers Theoretical and Applied Genetics 2002 on-line DOI 10.1007/s))122-001-0798-8.

3 The eminent Persian scholar Avicenna (Ibn Sina), was clearly writing about something other than coffee when he discussed “buncho” in  the year 1000 CE. For Ethiopia see: Michel Tuchscherer, “Coffee in the Red Sea Area from the Sixteenth to the Nineteenth Century”, The global Coffee Economy in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, 1500-1989, eds. William Gervase Clarence-Smith and Steven Topik (NY: Cambridge University Press, 2003), p. 51.

4 Lambert Bartels, Oromo Religion: Myths and Rites of the Western Oromo of Ethiopia—An Attempt to  Understand (Berlin: Eietrich Reimer  Verlag, 1983), pp. 87-89.

5 In 2009-10, according to the data of the International  Coffee Organization, Ethiopia was the leading consumer of coffee in Africa, and not only the leading African  producer in that year, but the fifth largest coffee producer in the world.

6 There is no evidence of substantial amounts of coffee from Ethiopia entering the Red Sea trade this early.

7 Michel Tuchscherer, “Coffee in the Red Sea from the Sixteenth to the Nineteenth Century” in William Gervase Clarence-Smith and Steven Topik, The Global Coffee Economy in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, 1500-1989 (NY: Cambridge University press, 2003), p. 55.

8 Tuchscherer, “Coffee in Red Sea”, p.55.

13 Gwyn Campbell, “Coffee in Reunion and Madagascar” in Clarence-Smith and Topik, pp. 67-99.

Steven Topik has taught Latin American and world history at the University of California Irvine for nearly three decades. His publications include Global Markets Transformed: 1870-1945 with Allen Wells (Harvard: 2013), The Global Coffee Economy in Africa, Asia, and Latin America co-edited with William Clarence-Smith (Cambridge University Press: 20030), The World Trade Created: Culture, Society and the World Economy, 1400 to the Present with Kenneth Pomeranz (M.E. Sharpe: 2013),The Second Conquest of Latin America, Coffee, Henequen and Oil, During the Export Boom, 1870-1930 with Allen Wells (University of Texas Press: 1998), and From Silver to Cocaine. Latin American Commodity Chains and the Building of the World Economy 1500-2000, co-edited with Carlos Marichal and Zephyr Frank (Duke University Press, 2006). He is currently writing a world history of coffee.