In Our Time – Coffee (BBC Radio 4) Back

When the thirteenth-century Sufi poet and mystic Jalaluddin Rumi defined intoxication as a spiritual journey, he enlisted a plethora of sensations encompassing the body and mind as wine was consumed. To Rumi, such an embodiment also had a social dimension as he wrote:

Become of one hue with the community, that you may feel spiritual delight; enter the street of the tavern, that you may behold the dregs-drinkers.

Drain the cup of passion, let it be that you become a disgrace; close up the eyes of your head, that you may see the secret eye.

Open your two hands if you desire an embrace; break the idol of clay, that you may see the face of the idols.

The evolution of coffee as an intoxicant in the western world has become far wrought from this kind of spiritualism, yet, as this episode of In Our Time has revealed, the consumption of coffee had implications on sociability and identity formation. Social connections surrounding the consumption of coffee came to define the standards of taste and politeness that, in turn, shaped ideas on cultural refinement. The discussions on the practices of coffee-drinking in the episode combined a chronological setting with a thematic approach. The interactions between Melvin Bragg and his guests, Professor Judith Hawley, Professor Markman Ellis, and Professor Jonathan Morris, revealed the shifting nature of the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century British and European landscapes and the rapid emergence of coffee-houses. Coffee-houses became almost an exclusively male enclave where men gathered to discuss everyday business, alongside the political conditions of the times. Coffee and its consumption, in particular, as Professor Hawley pointed out, became associated with the reading of newspapers and pamphlets, thus linking the world of goods to that of ideas and knowledge. Coffee thus became an integral component in the making of English masculinity and its consumption signified a proactive, responsive mind, both cognizant of the affairs of the nation and beyond.

Whilst the consumption of coffee, as noted above, received much attention from the discussants, their approach to the aspect of production remained comparatively limited. This is, however, not to suggest that the sources of coffee for the European markets were unacknowledged. From the balmy coasts of the Levant to India, South-East Asia, Africa, and Brazil, the areas where coffee was grown and processed, often to the overall disadvantage to the producer, did come up in the discussions, but the relations of production were not dealt with to the extent that wider questions of otherness would become prominent. Although otherness featured very briefly as an appendage to the discussions after the end of the programme in the context of the French Morocco, such issues ideally should have been at the forefront. This is because otherness itself is an important part of the making of the self and identities, something that was very much central to what the experts addressed. It is inevitable that the topics of slavery and forced labour should come up in any discussion on coffee. Even though such subject matters can make us uncomfortable, it is necessary that they are re-centred in our conversations about the past and its impacts on the present and future. The discussion on the Haitian Revolution seemed abrupt as it was short, and the audience would have clearly benefitted from a more elaborate consideration of the larger ideas of power and hierarchies that are entrenched in the cultures of consumption. In this regard, it is important to point out that the minimal attention devoted to the role of slaves in the production of coffee was a missed opportunity, which if utilised, could have been extremely useful in the wider understanding of complexities within the themes like imperialism, nationalism, and even post-colonialism.

As a historian interested in cultural representations, I had very much expected that the aspects of visual and material cultures surrounding the consumption of coffee would be addressed in the episode. Although it may not seem justified to provide criticism for something that has been placed outside the scope of the programme, a consideration of the visual and material dimensions would have added immensely to the already rich discussions on the role of coffee in the western world. An acknowledgement of the rapidly growing importance of items such as coffee equipment, trade cards, bills, and the symbolism used therein would have helped bring to the fore more prominently the notion of exoticism that mystified the culture of coffee-drinking. Addressing exoticism better would have been useful in the consideration of the questions of otherness that was ultimately both a product of and an essential ingredient of the refinement and politeness. For example, the meaning of an image of a Black Moor as a shop sign for a business in eighteenth-century London dealing with coffee was perhaps not lost on the contemporaries who could easily conflate the darkness of coffee with that of the Moor’s complexion. In this context, consumption also becomes a productive ground to explore issues of race and the politics of difference which are so central to the understanding of the legacies of our shared colonial pasts in the present day.

Overall, the In Our Time episode on coffee has brought into focus a very interesting set of stories of a commodity which is now a commonplace in almost all of our lives. In doing so, it is clearly symptomatic of the potentials of public history as well as the areas where there is room for improvement for a better understanding of life and society. In this respect, it should be stated that the tale of coffee as told in course of the discussions suffers from the lacuna of being essentially one of western Europe and the USA— an inadvertent reproduction of the imperial and neo-imperial hierarchizations. It is, therefore, not only important to bring the regions beyond Euro-America within the latter’s conventional histories, but such narratives should also be situated at par and in conversation with those of the West.