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  • Subject area(s): Marketing
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  • Published on: 14th September 2019
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Throughout much of the Indian Ocean World, many items are being sent to and from various port cities across the whole system. For example, in Africa we see ivory, wood, and slaves being sent to Persia and India. The same type of system holds true in India, where we see cotton and other textiles being shipped to Africa and China. Also, let us not forget about the spice trade that was happening all across this world system stemming from the Spice Islands in Indonesia. Regardless, this World system was trading and spreading ideas and customs from one place to another. However, the interesting history behind the coffee trade sets itself apart from the rest of the commodities moving around.

To understand how coffee influenced the various peoples of the Indian Ocean World, we must first look at its beginning. According to oral tradition, coffee was discovered on accident by a herd of goats. The most popular legend imputes the discovery of the drink to an Arabian herdsman in upper Egypt, or Abyssinia, who complained to the abbot of a neighboring monastery that the goats confined to his care became unusually “frolicsome” after eating the berries of a certain shrub found near their feeding grounds. The abbot, having observed this for himself, was determined to try the “magical virtues” of the berries on himself. He, too, responded with a new exhilaration. Accordingly, he directed that some be boiled, and the concoction drunk by his monks, who thereafter found no difficulties in staying awake during the religious services of the night. However, this story holds true to the origin of the coffee plant. Careful research discloses that most authorities agree that the coffee plant is indigenous to Abyssinia, and probably Arabia, whence its cultivation spread throughout the tropics. However, there isn't a true way to determine the origin of the beans so much of this research seems to be based upon oral tradition. However, it is also agreed upon that the Abyssinians came out of Arabia into Ethiopia in the early ages, and it is possible that they may have brought the coffee tree with them; however, the Arabians are still given credit for discovering and promoting the use of the beverage, and also for promoting the propagation of the plant, even if they found it in Abyssinia and brought it to Yemen.

We now understand that coffee itself was discovered and first brought into society from Abyssinia. Upon further research into how coffee had spread from Abyssinia to the rest of the Indian Ocean World, we see that Sufi monks were credited with the transporting and cultivating of the beans. At first, coffee was apparently used by Sufi monks in Ethiopia and across the Red Sea in Yemen, where coffee trees were cultivated by the fifteenth century. The drink became a kind of communion wine for the Islamic Sufis, for whom alcoholic beverages were forbidden. It is also noted that the Sufis carried coffee beans throughout the Arab world, including Mecca. The beverage quickly spread beyond the monasteries and secular use. Records indicate that early use of the beans were first ground and mixed with animal fat for a quick-energy snack, while the leaves were brewed to make a weakly caffeinated brew. However, once the monks delivered their new discovery of the plant to Arabia, we see a new player take the field of ownership. The Arabians were thrilled with their new found and lucrative industry, and for a time successfully prevented its spread to other countries by not permitting any of the precious berries to leave the country unless they had first been steeped in boiling water or parched, as to destroy their powers of germination. This was successful because the only way to take the drink out of the country was to have it brewed, therefore preventing the ability to grow it elsewhere. It may be that many of the early failures to successfully introduce the cultivation of the coffee plant into other lands was also due to the fact, discovered later, that the seeds soon lose their germinating power; but I will talk about this later in the paper. Indeed, it was impossible for the Arabians to keep their eye out for anyone looking to kidnap their plants and grow the “magical beans” somewhere else. It was not possible to watch every avenue of transport, with thousands of pilgrims journeying to and from Mecca every year. Interesting as it may sound, it does appear that some of these Muslim pilgrims were able to successfully get their hands on the beans as they were originally used to help in the monasteries with keeping the monks awake, therefore it laid a perfect story for convincing the Arabians that they needed them for worship. However, by the end of the fifteenth century, Muslim pilgrims had introduced coffee throughout the Islamic world in Persia, Egypt, Turkey, and North Africa, making it a lucrative trade item. As the drink became popular during the sixteenth century, coffeehouses began sprouting up all over the place. Various rulers at the time thought that people were having too much fun with the caffeinated beverage and made it illegal and outlawed it from society in Mecca. Thus, in 1511, the coffeehouses in Mecca were forcibly closed. However, like any ban on society it didn't last long. The ban lasted only until the Cairo sultan, a habitual coffee drinker himself, heard about the new law and reversed it, allowing coffee back into Mecca.

It is important to reference the idea that coffee wasn't enjoyed by everyone. As with people today, coffee is limited to the people who have the acquired taste, unless they load it with sugar and cream. But back in the 16th century, a taste for coffee was not necessary to become a major exporter. In fact, coffee was a rather unusual commodity because it was produced for exchange rather than use. Normally, foods are consumed first by the producer and then the surplus is sold for a profit, but coffee was mainly an export commodity. Fortunately for the export trade, Muslims in the Middle East liked to make caffeine-rich drinks out of the relatively hard imperishable beans in the core of the plant, which also made them great for long distance travel. The people of Yemen preferred to brew a tea from the leaves, however, it is thought today that the Yemeni were never particularly fond of coffee. The idea behind being able to market basically the whole plant had many traders set. They were able to market some aspect of the plant to the north, others to the south, and spread the joy of a cup of coffee to everyone in between. Therefore, they were setting the precedent from the beginning of producers in the south and consumers in the north. When marketing the plant, however, it was important to determine what exactly they were dealing with. Although there are three different subspecies of Coffea Arabica in Yemen, these differences weren't reflected in the market. Ethiopian and Harar coffee were often sold as Yemeni “mocha.” However, prices in consuming countries varied greatly. Partly because of botanical reasons.  Arabica plants are prone to great variations in yield. Not only is this due to climate reasons or change in rainfall or sunshine exposure, but the tree itself takes breaks to “rest” on unscheduled and random intervals.

Ultimately, market relations made the buying and selling of coffee rather easy to access across much of the eastern part of the Indian Ocean World. From the small beginning settlements in the mountains of Ethiopia, to the banning of coffee in Mecca, to the production of plants in Yemen, we see how coffee has spread to the limits of being able to successfully trade and grow within the region. Although, it is surprising to note that the connection between the Yemeni cultivators to the Europeans wanting in on some of the action leads to unclear paths, it can be inferred that most of the coffee was spread by traders traveling the system moving with them not just porcelain, or wood, or cotton, but coffee as well. It is also important to note that growing coffee is rather difficult due to the meticulous growing conditions the plants favor. As we will see, many different groups of people attempt to grow coffee in climates that are more suitable for potatoes. Since coffee requires such a specific environment, only a few stakeholders would be able to control a region of coffee growing.

In 1614, enterprising Dutch traders began to explore the possibilities of coffee cultivation and coffee trading. In 1616, a coffee plant was successfully transported from Mocha to Holland. Accompanying the Dutch traders were other European game players that also wanted in on the action. In fact, once Europe heard of the new game of coffee, they wanted in on it as well, much like what we saw with the emergence of spices throughout the Indian Ocean World. Venetian traders introduced coffee into Europe in 1615. Europe's first knowledge of coffee was brought by travelers returning home from the Far East and the Levant. This of course, made many Europeans think that growing coffee was a rather easy task. Soon after they were able to get their hands on a coffee plant, and attempted to grow it on European soil in the north, they realized they needed more tropical environments. Since spices required similar specific requirements, the Europeans knew what they had to do. In 1658, the Dutch started the cultivation of coffee in Ceylon, although the Arabs are said to have brought the plant to the island prior to 1505. In 1670, an attempt was made to cultivate coffee on European soil at Dijon, France, but the result was a failure. Still, only having one primary source for coffee growing in Ceylon, the Europeans looked at again spreading their breadth and exploring more options. In 1699 Henricus Zwaardecroon imported some slips, or cuttings, of coffee trees from the Malabar coast into Java. These were more successful, and became the progenitors of all the coffees of the Dutch East Indies. The Dutch were then taking the lead in the propagation of the coffee plant. A few years after experimenting with the climate in Java, the Europeans learned that coffee grew best in this area. Even after planting trees in Java, they moved further north into Sumatra and found that similar climates there boasted successful crops of coffee. While the Dutch were extending the cultivation of the plant to Sumatra, the Celebs, Timor, Bali, and other islands of the Netherlands Indies, the French were seeking to introduce coffee cultivation into their colonies. Several attempts were made to transfer the plant from the Amsterdam botanical gardens to Paris; but all were failure. However, being so far from Europe, many Europeans urged that they try again to grow the plants back on European soil. So, they did just that. In 1706, the first samples of Java coffee and a coffee plant grown in Java, were received at the Amsterdam botanical gardens. Many plants were afterward propagated from the seeds produced in the Amsterdam gardens, and then these were distributed to some of the best-known botanical gardens and private conservatories in Europe. Furthermore, the Dutch were able to overtake the port of Mocha and those of the Mediterranean to transform Amsterdam into the world's leading coffee entrepot for over a century. By 1730, Amsterdam was trading coffee from three continents: Asia Java and Reunion, Middle Eastern Yemen, and the American Dutch Guiana. Although, Europe was still a small luxury market and its demands outstripped Mocha's possibilities. Whereas 90 percent of Amsterdam's imports in 1721 were from Mocha, and by 1926, 90 percent came from Java.

As far as the existence of coffee after this point, it is spread to the “new world” and spreads into the Americas as well. Of course, we don't have the climate to grow coffee here in the United States, however, we do drink a lot of it. As with the rest of the world, today's coffee comes from many places, but especially the places mentioned above. Today's coffee is best known for being grow in Ethiopia as well as Sumatra. Both places, might I add, really boast a fantastic brew of coffee and due to the specific growing regions and open land they have in these areas, make it perfect for a large-scale supply. As the world continues to drink coffee, they actually get to enjoy a little bit of history with each sip. Many blends of coffee come from plants that are not native to the area, yet somehow produces a specific taste that makes us thankful for the early traders and Dutch for spreading the seed and continuing to grow coffee out of Ethiopia and the Indian Ocean World system.

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