How Coffee Ruined a CountryHistorians in the News
tags: capitalism, Latin America, Trade, Central America, El Salvador, coffee
One Man’s Dark Empire and the Making of Our Favorite Drug
By Augustine Sedgewick
In 1889, 18-year-old James Hill disembarked in El Salvador to sell textiles from Manchester, England, and wound up bringing the industrial mentality of his native city to coffee cultivation in his adopted country. A century later, in 1979, on the eve of full-scale revolution in El Salvador, his grandson Jaime Hill was kidnapped by rebels for a ransom they hoped would help finance a revolt against wealthy planters like the Hills, who had economically and politically dominated the country for decades. The intervening nine decades provide a canvas on which Augustine Sedgewick, who teaches at the City University of New York, paints a beautifully written, engaging and sprawling portrait of how coffee made modern El Salvador, while it also helped to remake consumer habits worldwide.
By following several generations of the Hill family, Sedgewick brings agency to the commodity-centric history that historians often pursue to convey the global dimensions of modern capitalism. They track how cotton, sugar, tea and other products leapfrogged across the map, transcending national boundaries. But focusing on global capital flows, supply chains, consumer markets and labor mobility can sometimes minimize what Sedgewick reveals so well: the actual choices made by the producers and importers and advertisers who merchandised the goods, the economic and political alliances they forged in the process and the often harsh local consequences of their actions.
At the heart of “Coffeeland” is a balance sheet demonstrating that the costs of an economy devoted to the monoculture of coffee decidedly outweighed the benefits. As the Hills and their fellow planters put more and more land under coffee cultivation, the Indigenous people who had fed themselves by foraging in forests and farming small plots found themselves increasingly forced to labor on plantations and in mills just to eat. Seasonal employment, low wages, food scarcity and the booms and busts of the international coffee market drove them ever deeper into poverty.
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