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COFFEELAND: One Man’s Dark Empire and the Making of Our Favorite Drug by Augustine Sedgewick book review

  • Written by  Lucy Kehoe
  • Published in Books
COFFEELAND: One Man’s Dark Empire and the Making of Our Favorite Drug by Augustine Sedgewick book review
10 Jul
by Augustine Sedgewick • allen Lane • £22 (hardback)

Despite its ubiquity, few coffee drinkers will know the darker-than-an-americano history behind their daily fix. In this hefty history of the world’s most popular drug, New York-based historian Augustine Sedgewick lifts the lid on coffee’s troublesome history. Following English expat Jamie Hill across the globe, Coffeeland tells the intertwined tale of El Salvador’s coffee crop and the slum-born Mancunian who rose from cloth trader to notorious planter, securing both a lasting family dynasty and the moniker of El Salvador’s ‘Coffee King’.

Coffee, it turns out, has a bitter past. Sedgewick plants the crop into the rich narrative of global food production, emphasising its role as economic hope for the government of newly-independent El Salvador, before diving into the complexities of the globalising food market of the 19th and 20th centuries. This period saw the United States’ aggressive economic influence and intervention in El Salvador gobble up stable subsidence farming, sewing instead hardship and hunger across fertile volcanic lands. Intent on efficiency, the large-scale planters of the region privatised common land, removed wild food sources for the working population and even played a part in a bloody massacre of indigenous El Salvadorians in a quest to industrialise the coffee economy. Sedgewick offers harrowing vignettes aplenty, but the description of an overseer having ‘beaten a ten-year-old to death for eating a mango’ while working is a particularly painful snapshot. 

Coffeeland can’t escape the darkness, but it always offers rich descriptions of a land often overlooked in travellers’ tales. The small, steamy town of El Salvador is the protagonist of this book, and Sedgewick reveals a landscape wedded to coffee production. In El Salvador, Hill first notices ‘coffee trees climbing the hills…[and] coffee beans that had been packed into rough fiber bags loaded onto the train’. Sedgewick might take his time over details, but his book leaves a lasting impression of coffee’s impact on the global food market.

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