In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Coffee

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Journals
  • Early Accounts
  • Atlantic Antecedents
  • Caribbean
  • Brazil
  • Central and South America
  • Consumption and Coffeehouses
  • Contemporary Political Economy

Atlantic History Coffee
Michelle Craig McDonald
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 May 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 September 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0102


Coffee has been one of the top five most heavily traded commodities worldwide for almost a century, and its production and distribution patterns unite all corners of the world. Early production focused on Ethiopia, the Red Sea, and the Indian Ocean, but comparative advantage in coffee production shifted to the Atlantic during the 18th and 19th centuries. Much of this early regional significance has been overshadowed by scholars’ focus on another topical commodity, sugar, which has dominated discussions of Caribbean agriculture and, by extension, the region’s contributions to colonial British America and the early Atlantic economy. While undoubtedly central to West Indian development, this focus on sugar masks the historical reality of agricultural diversity, and the related experiences of slave owners, laborers, merchants, and consumers that lasted from the 17th century through today. Coffee, indigo, allspice, and ginger, as well as cotton, tobacco, and a range of woods, traveled as far and wide as sugar, molasses, and rum. But because of their historically subservient position to sugar, these goods have collectively come to be called the “secondary commodities.” Of all of them, coffee offers the best opportunity to move beyond sugar in reexamining Caribbean production and its position in the international Atlantic marketplace of the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries.

General Overviews

The following works explore coffee’s history from its African origins to its move across the Atlantic. Two are late-19th-century histories of coffee, Thurber 1883 and Laërne 1885, which were written when Brazil and Latin America’s coffee economies dominated the world market. Both include comparative analyses of coffee production in different regions around the world, as well as statistics about trade patterns for the late 18th and 19th centuries. Ukers 2007 (originally published in 1922 by the Tea and Coffee Trade Journal Company) is an early standard in the field, beautifully illustrated with sketches and paintings taken from earlier 17th- and 18th-century authors. Smith and Topik 2006 and de Graaff 1986 both explore coffee’s economy from a comparative perspective, though with different emphases. De Graaff 1986 work is highly statistical, providing extensive tables on production cycles, distribution patterns, and consumption rates. Smith and Topik 2006 are more interested in tying coffee to ideas about labor conditions, European imperialism, and political economy. This is an important collection of essays on Africa, the Indian Ocean, and Latin America; the one geographic region that could use more emphasis is the Caribbean. Weinberg and Bealer 2001 also follow coffee around the world, though their study ends by the early 20th century, and alternating chapters compare coffee and tea and focus more specifically on ideas about health and medicine. Finally, Pendergrast 2010 and Thurston, et al. 2013 offer accessible overviews of coffee’s popularity. Pendergrant briefly considers developments before 1900, but the majority of his work focuses on Latin American coffee cartels and increasing demand in the United States. Thurston, et al. 2013 is even more heavily focused on the twentieth and twenty-first century, with several chapters based extensively on oral history interviews with coffee harvesters and processors, and others focused on questions of political economy and environmentalism, such as the impact of fair trade and and organic coffee movements.

  • Smith, William Clarence, and Steven Topik, eds. The Global Coffee Economy in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, 1500–1989. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

    An important and wide-ranging collection of essays that divides the study of coffee into three parts: the origins of its global economy, the impact of production on race and gender, and the role of exports on politics and state formation.

  • de Graaff, J. The Economics of Coffee. Wageningen, The Netherlands: Pudoc, 1986.

    Part of a series developed by the Department of Development Economics at the University of Wageningen. The first section focuses on the science of coffee growing and processing, while the second offers a comparative analysis of coffee marketing strategies in eight countries of the Americas, Africa, and Asia. Highly quantitative and focused predominantly on the late 19th and 20th century.

  • Laërne, C. F. van Delden. Brazil and Java: Report on Coffee-Culture in America, Asia and Africa. London: W. H. Allen and Co., 1885.

    A report commissioned by royal decree and written by a Dutch emissary from Batavia to evaluate the impact of Brazilian coffee on Dutch East Indian coffee exports. Includes information and statistics about global exports as well as the effect of railroads on production in the late 19th century. Almost 700 pages in length, the full text is available for free on Google

  • Pendergrast, Mark. Uncommon Grounds: The History of Coffee and How It Transformed Our World. 2d ed. New York: Basic Books, 2010.

    A popular rather than academic history, this book spans coffee’s history from its early African origins and transplantation to European plantations in the East and West Indies, to its rise in Latin America and mass consumption in North American culture. Three-quarters of the volume focuses on the 20th century.

  • Thurber, Francis B. Coffee from Plantation to Cup. New York: American Grocer Publishing Association, 1883.

    One of the earliest comprehensive guides to coffee with sections on preparation techniques and cultivation practices—the latter divided by geographic region. Includes tables of trade trends and descriptions of early patents for coffee preparation and serving technology. Available online.

  • Thurston, Robert W., Jonathan Morris, and Shawn Steiman, eds. Coffee: A Comprehensive Guide to the Bean, the Beverage, and the Industry. Lanham, MD and Plymouth, UK: Rowman & Littlefield, 2013.

    A broad-reaching volume of essays that places coffee within its historical context, but then explores more contemporary questions including the impact of globalization; the many definitions of organic, direct trade, and fair trade; the health of female farmers; the relationships among shade, birds, and coffee; roasting as an art and a science; and where profits are made in the commodity chain. Written for both academic and general audiences.

  • Ukers, William. All About Coffee. 2d ed. Mansfield Center, CT: Martino, 2007.

    Originally published in 1922, this is the second and standard edition of this definitive work on the history of coffee. Includes overviews of the historical, technical, scientific, commercial, and artistic significance of coffee. A still-unsurpassed work on the subject. Lavishly illustrated, with color plates.

  • Weinberg, Bennett Alan, and Bonnie K. Bealer. The World of Caffeine: The Science and Culture of the World’s Most Popular Drug. New York: Routledge, 2001.

    While not limited to coffee or the Atlantic world (as much page space is devoted to tea and to the Middle East and Asia), this book nonetheless includes chapters on coffee’s early history and social acceptance in early modern Europe, as well as its role in imperial expansion and controversy among medical authorities.

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